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When You Find Yourself Ruminating

I kicked off the Annual Conference of the Financial Therapy Association on Monday morning with some mindfulness. They are a wonderful, inter-disciplinary group of financial services professionals who use research-based interventions to help clients achieve financial wellness.

Mindfulness comes at our personal narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—from a different perspective than most types of therapy (with the exception of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and other cognitive therapies). We acknowledge that we all have our stories, however we don't spend too much time deconstructing said stories. In mindfulness, all stories are essentially the same—they're narratives you're using that function to keep you in a pattern or help you create a new one. I'm frequently asked what we do instead of dig into our stories. That conversation inspired this post.

When You Can't Stop Thinking About The Thing

There you are, attempting to focus on your anchor point for five minutes, and you find yourself ruminating. Or better yet, there you are, "working," and you realize you're not working at all, but you've got a scene from the show you're bingeing on Netflix on a continuous loop in your head.

Working with Intrusive Mental Activity

First of all, go YOU for realizing that you're ruminating. That's mindfulness! You know where your attention is! We define mental activity as the thoughts, words, and images that show up in our heads, generated from some mysterious place that can vaguely be described as behind your face. Mental activity is all of that stuff that comes and goes all day from what is called the default mode network in your brain. When I say "intrusive," what I mean is that it's getting in the way of what you want to/should be doing, and it's a big stronger than the average thought, or at least that's how it seems.

What to do . . .

The go-to for thoughts can be as simple as saying to yourself, "that's a thought," and allowing it to pass. This is known as decentering. It might sound silly, but after you've been practicing mindfulness for a while, you experience your thoughts as objects in your field of awareness that come and go and aren't actually "real." They're phenomenon that spring from your head. If, however, you engage with them, you can amplify them until they inevitably create sensations in your body (or latch onto existing ones). Before you know it, you experience inner turmoil, you're all kinds of upset, and you aren't even aware that the cause of your upset was a thought that isn't even real. But now it seems all-too-real because you're experiencing it in your body. This, friends, is the human condition.

If that fails . . .

If you're unable to believe that you're thoughts are ephemeral (because you won't let them be; you're hanging onto them), you can try self-distancing (Kross). In self-distancing, you describe yourself and what you're experiencing as if you're a fly on the wall. Refrain from speaking about yourself in the first person. Use your name/the third person, instead. For instance . . .

Mary is thinking about last night's conversation. She keeps replaying it in her head. It's not helping the situation and there's nothing she can do about what she said or what she heard. She can, however, consider if saying or doing anything at this point would be skillful.

This is adaptive self-reflection, where I'm observing myself and how my choices are affecting me. It distances me from the charge of what's occurring—from the emotional grip—and from the sensations that accompany the story I'm telling myself (continuously). It allows me to be flexible and objective; I'm not immersed in my misery (that I caused). I can see more clearly and dispassionately.

We practice this and much more during mindfulness class. If you're thinking about learning mindfulness and you have questions, contact me at And if you're ready to join me after the new year, I welcome all who are dedicated to completing the 8-week courses.

May you be at ease.


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