Ruminating — dwelling on troubled thoughts and feelings — impairs good decision-making and can make us more aggressive. It’s a seductive habit and I really want everyone to develop alternatives that serve us better. Maybe one of these three alternatives to rumination will be a good replacement habit for you.
We dwell on our hurt and anger after an argument because it feels counterintuitively good and because we’re trying to understand our experience. Unfortunately, metaphorically licking our wounds in this self-immersive way has been shown to heighten hurt and anger further, increase aggression, amplify our grievances, impair decision-making, and even contribute to depression.
I consider rumination to be among the top bad habits to replace if we want to disagree better at work and home.
The following alternatives to rumination work for several reasons:
- They distract our minds from the endless churning of rumination by giving us something productive to do with our thoughts and feelings.
- They help us gain psychological distance, headroom we can use for better self-regulation and problem solving.
- They encourage cognitive reappraisal, which is a method for changing the emotional response to something by reinterpreting the meaning of what happened through a more neutral or positive lens.
- With just a little practice, they can help us break the rumination habit for good by having a straightforward substitute ready and waiting when we need it most.
If you’re not already familiar with illeism, it’s going to sound downright odd. But its power to help us sort out conflict more effectively is undeniable.
Illeism is the act of talking about yourself in the third person. The idea is to describe what happened as though you are narrating a story about someone else, but that someone else is you: “Tammy felt a quick sharp pang of anger when…”
Researchers have found that when people describe their problems in the third person they self-regulate better, think more clearly, make better decisions, and are more willing to consider other perspectives. In a 2019 study now in press in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that the regular practice of illeism improves perspective-taking and capacity to find a compromise. After just four weeks participants who regularly journaled in the third-person demonstrated greater emotional regulation and stability.
2. Rubber duck debugging
Apparently some programmers who need to debug code find it useful to explain the code, line by line, out loud to a rubber duck. Useful enough, in fact, that there’s a term for it: Rubber duck debugging.
Explaining something to an inanimate object like a rubber duck can help us see a solution we’d missed when we were trying to solve the problem only inside our head. The duck, after all, won’t interrupt and talk back. And there’s something about getting out of our own heads that helps us see a problem differently.
If you find illeism too weird for your taste (although I do really urge you to try it for a month), rubber duck debugging may feel less odd. You’ll probably want to be alone in the room when you start talking to the rubber duck, though.
3. The 7-minute review
This one is especially beneficial after a difficult conversation with your partner or spouse, though I routinely recommend it for workplace partnerships and teammates and my clients report very good results.
After a conversation has been particularly difficult, find a quiet spot to write for about 7 minutes. Ideally, this should happen within the hour. Write about what just happened from the perspective of an impartial observer who wants the best for both (all) of you.
The benefit seems to come from the act of writing itself, not from the written product. Researchers report astoundingly positive results with this simple activity. Find out more here: A remarkable tool for neutralizing the ravages of marital conflict.
There you have it, three alternatives to rumination after an argument: Write about your experience in the third person. Explain it to a rubber duck. Or write about what happened as though you’re an impartial observer who witnessed it.