When self-reflection is counter productive
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Veronica Grigore, BABCP (Accred), Member of BPS, division of Clinical Psychology
26th November, 20140 Comments
We are a proud species that is able to reflect upon ourselves. Self-reflection is the process through which we focus on our feelings, thoughts, and experiences in order to gain insight, to learn from our mistakes and develop a better self.
If however self-reflection is triggered at the point of distress, there is a high likelihood of engagement with an unproductive self-focus whereas stimuli (internal, bodily symptoms and external, events) are appraised as strongly related to own person. Rumination appears to have a unique relationship with depression, but self-focus is also a major component in anxiety related problems.
Self-reflection has two components: analytical (abstract evaluation of self) and experiential (awareness of immediate experience).
The analytical self-reflection is excessive thinking: analysing, comparing, judging, criticising, where the person is primarily engaged in the thinking mode, completely fused with own thoughts. One way of exiting this point would be through increasing awareness of thoughts and beliefs as impressions; views of the world rather than facts. ‘We are not a thought’ is in line with the same concept of awareness, becoming the observer of one’s thoughts rather than the believer.
Self-reflection comprises of attentional bias towards self to the deficit of external stimuli, a purposeful turning inward to engage in cognitive problem solving to alleviate one’s symptoms, a cognitive style that reflects passive comparison of one’s current situation with unachieved standards. The focus is primarily on losses, failures and others’ failure to meet one’s expectations. An exit from her would be placing the focus of attention on relatively neutral stimuli. Distraction is a useful form of responses in that behaviours and thoughts that are interfering with the mood will help divert one’s direction of attention. For example: going for a bike ride, seeing a movie, calling someone, concentrating on a project at work or pursuing an interest. However fleeting from one activity to another does not have the intended outcome. Engaging with an activity means engaging with something that is engrossing and uplifting, such as a playing tennis vigorously. Just making a cup of tea as distraction might not do the trick.
Commitment to one’s passions, desires, likes, interests and engaging with activities that would bring us closer to where we want to be is another helpful exit. Rumination tends to take motivation and initiative away, draining the energy and exhausting the individual. Engaging with one’s passions and desires will increase the energy levels.
Rumination unfortunately does not lead to problem solving. We invite our reader to think of a problem they are currently going through and consider the following options: if only things were different, why … Now consider the same problem under the focus on how am I going to solve this? What do I need to do? Rumination exacerbates the levels of distress through the mode itself that is negative, interferes with active problem solving and leads to loss of social support (as non-intended consequence).
The gloom and doom perspective over forthcoming events creates the territory for withdrawal and unwillingness to try out things. People who ruminate appear to behave in the ways that are counter-productive to their relationships with family and friends. It could be that their need to talk about losses, failures of others meeting own expectations is perceived less favourably by others. Others may not accept that all is futile and hopeless and might place more demands on the person who ruminates (to care for the children, to solve problems, to lift low mood)
Rumination is also associated with the tendency to assume responsibility for and longing to be with others and at the same time, desire to seek revenge after an interpersonal conflict. Therefore this type of self-reflection has a relationship focus (with self and others). The literature suggests unconscious motives for people who have a tendency to ruminate: to avoid aversive situations that surrounds them and the responsibility to take action by preoccupying attention and time. It serves the person to build a case that he/she is facing a hopeless and uncontrollable environment and he/she is not able to take action to overcome the situation/to effect change in his/her environment. When people ruminate they built a mountain of evidence that everything is fruitless and hopeless and they might all just give up. Not being able to control situations in an aversive environment may be of particular importance to people who had experienced uncontrollability before in their childhood experiences. The response is the non-engagement with the adverse environment. It makes sense that low mood and depression sends out messages to others to offer support rather than demand support; it also has the function of conserving resources when any action is futile or dangerous.
The moral/ key message is that that rumination as form as self-reflection is counter-productive in that it brings about a certain mode that is negative, is selective in terms of processing the information and not only that impairs problem solving but also has negative consequences in terms of the relationships with others. Full engagement with meaningful activities, passions and one’s desire, commitment to getting closer to the goals in life, increasing awareness of thoughts, impressions (as obstacles and barriers) and moving towards more helpful responses (opposite to withdrawal and avoidance) are incompatible with rumination.
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