self-criticism and rumination


I don't know why I picked this particular painting for this post. Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.
I don’t know why I picked this particular painting for this post. There is a cow, and cows ruminate, right? Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’―and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again―in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This mind set that Dostoyevsky describes so accurately is indeed torturous. It’s self torture. I’ve been there, as have most people. Over-analysis of your faults, comparing yourself to others, social anxiety, self doubt, and self criticism are all symptoms of a personal identity crisis and/or feelings of low self worth. An identity crisis can come along at any point in your life and at any age. It’s when you doubt who you are, what you stand for, and where you fit in. Any life event that shakes up your status quo can trigger an identity crisis. If you are experiencing an identity crisis it means that you are growing out of your previous identity and it’s time to redefine and recreate who you are. It’s time for an upgrade! No matter what brought on the identity crisis, it’s an excellent opportunity for personal growth.

However, though ultimately a good thing, an identity crisis may initially bring on the sort of negative thought patters that Dostoyevsky so keenly describes in the above quote. Before you can proceed with the deeply rewarding work of redefining yourself and finding just where it is you fit in, you need to get off that wheel! Here’s how.

1. Eliminate or severely limit self-help books and anything else that has you focusing on your weaknesses. Avoid like the plague those articles entitled the likes of, “56 Toxic Things About You that are RUINING Your Life FOREVER.” Maybe in casting about for some way, any way, of digging yourself out of this identity crisis pit, you landed upon the idea that if you can only fix yourself you will fit in, people will like you, and everything will be ok again. But no, that’s not going to work and here’s why: This is not a good time to take on massive self-improvement projects because right now you are feeling so vulnerable, all of your weaknesses are going to seem magnified way out of proportion to what they really are.

2. Stop self-criticism and start self compassion NOW. Constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state. Practicing self compassion has the opposite effect, lowering cortisol and releasing oxytocin and opiates. Self-compassion is accepting and loving yourself as the imperfect person you are. It’s treating yourself just as you would treat a good friend. You might find these guided meditations and self-compassion exercises helpful.

3. Stop ruminating. Rumination is obsessive analyzing and thinking about negative past events or current situations that you can’t change. For example, if you have just ended a relationship, it’s constantly replaying the events that led up to the break up and obsessing about what you might have done differently to save the relationship. Or fixating on what a terrible person your ex is and planning how to get revenge. The best revenge is a life beautifully lived, but you’re not going to get there with these kinds of thoughts.

What I personally found most helpful in halting rumination was learning to let go of the things I don’t control. I realized how fruitless it was to worry and stress about the past, people’s opinions of me, my health, and any myriad of things that could go wrong. I created mantras that I repeated to myself throughout the day any time I felt tempted to think about those things. In less than two weeks I saw a remarkable difference in my thought patters and after a month, I found that I didn’t need to repeat my mantras as often anymore because I was starting to believe in a deep down way that I have absolutely no business worrying about what I do not control

Other effective ways to stop rumination are:

  • Scheduling a set time to worry every day, maybe 20-30 minutes. That way every time you get a negative, worrying thought you can think to yourself, “Ok, I’ll save that to think about during my worry time.” Then it doesn’t become a permanent mind set, and yet you aren’t trying to suppress negative thoughts or feelings, which can cause other problems.
  • Write about it. I found that writing provided a more constructive and positive way to deal with my issues than keeping it all in my head. Writing helped me make more sense of everything that was happening to me. In many cases, I found that once I wrote about a problem I was experiencing, I no longer felt the need to keep thinking about it. I was ready to move on.
  • Focus on the here and now. Let me ask you something. If you had the option to either go about in the world freely or lock yourself in dank, smelly basement, which would you choose? When you are ruminating, you are not living in the moment. You are living in the equivalent of a dank, smelly basement. Get out of there! Practice mindfulness by giving your full attention to the lovely, simple pleasures of daily existence.

4. Surround yourself with the right friends. Avoid people who are constantly critical. Even if they are not directing the criticism at you, they could be infecting you with their negativity and even provoking rumination and self-criticism. If in social situations you start to feel like the above Dostoyevsky quote is describing you, here is a sure-fire quick fix. Stop talking, stop trying to impress people, and start listening. It will require a lot of attention and it won’t be easy at first, but it’s worth it. Listen to people. Repeat back to them what you think they are trying to say to make sure you understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand. Forget about yourself for a while and listen. You may be surprised at the results. I know I was.

12 thoughts on “self-criticism and rumination

  1. I think self improving (I prefer talking about self acceptance) comes just after we do an exercise of deep analysis and -constructive- criticism. You are assuming that criticism is always a bad thing… this is a very simplistic point of view, self-criticism if constructive is key for mental health and aceptance of our weaknesses. Completely agree about ruminations and obsessive thinking but I don’t agree about avoiding self help books, actually all therapy is self-help no matter if you go to a psycologist, read a book or talk with a spiritual guide… just need to be aware about the pros and cons of every approach and about your personal preferences, a mix in my opinion is the best. Anyway, those are just guides specially helpful for crisis moments or for initial steps, at the end of the path you must do the walk alone… without a net.

    I think is normal that overthinking process after a big identity crisis… the key is learning to handle those negative feelings, vs learning to avoid them… this is repression and in the long term it can be even worse because you become complacent and develop a low umbral of tolerance to frustration or criticism.

    Nice to read your post again, it always make me think.


    1. I am not assuming that self-criticism is always a bad thing, nor that analysis of our problems is always bad. In this post I’m not talking about standing back once in a while and attempting to take an objective look at how we can improve. Of course that is a good and in fact necessary thing. Like I said in a previous post, I believe all humans have the need to feel like they are making some kind of spiritual progress. I thought it was clear from the excerpt from Crime and Punishment that I am talking in this post about EXTREME and constant self-criticism, self-analysis, and rumination. No one believes that is a good thing, the problem is that when you are in that mind set, it can be daunting to get out of it. Before you can deal with negative feelings you need to stop beating yourself up and indulging in constant negative thoughts. That’s not repression!

      Practicing self-compassion is not being complacent. It’s merely treating yourself with the same love and respect you deserve from anyone.

      1. But in this post you are talking about an identity crisis, there is always a negative mindset and it’s EXTREME by definition. You can do little or nothing to speed up such a painful changing process, if you can change the negative mind set so easily you should ask yourself if it is a real crisis or if there were a real change…

        Consider the opposite approach, staying in the wheel until the end, until you can’t fight anymore. That breaking moment when you reach the bottom, you give up, realize how fruitless is fighting, you become humbler and wiser a change comes naturally and permanently.

        Eliminating self-help books is not good in all cases, stopping self-criticism is not good in all cases (actually it can coexist with self-compassion). Again, there is no “right” or “wrong” friends, just loving or unloving persons and has nothing to do with criticism… actually a good friend will confront you -in a loving way.

        I agree on the general message of your post I just don’t like this simplistic version of spiritual growth. It sounds like one of those sugared philosophies you were critizicing a few days ago…

        1. Sergio, I simply do not agree that it’s necessary to let yourself wallow in a negative mindset while going through an identity crisis. I do not think the kind of over-thinking and obsession with self image as portrayed in the Dostoyevsky quote is healthy for anyone at any time in their life. You can absolutely get through an identity crisis without constant pain and yet still make real and lasting change. Reinvention can be a joyful process. Stoicism taught me to manage my negative emotions and these stoic practices have been working for the philosophical set for millennia. It’s not something I invented myself! Life is too short and too precious to not enjoy every single day.

  2. I’m sitting here in the early hours of the morning. Having just finished a run of night shifts, my body clock is out of sync and this has not been helped in thinking that listening to a podcast about Montaigne (by the Partially Examined life) will help me nod off…it did the opposite. Then I figured I may as well spend an hour writing some notes on a couple of books I recently finished reading, but of course when you turn on the computer, you have to check in to see if any of the blogging folk I follow have written anything of note, which brings me here.

    I had no idea ‘rumination’ had such a negative meaning. I always thought it was just a deep thinking over of things, but from a psychology perspective it is something potentially toxic. Maybe ‘pessimistic dwelling/rumination’ would be a better term? Playing off another other definition, I picture a remuniant creature chewing cud, over and over, a repetitive cycle – there is no nutritional value left, but it keeps on chewing regardless, even though fresh grass is all around.

    Making the metaphor about the dank basement a bit more real, it does good to actually get outside, go for a walk. Even if its just ten minutes. Fresh air, movement, tends to lift most people. Also, there may be activities that you always feel better for having done but need to find the resolve to get up and do them (e.g. for me, it’s going to the gym). It’s even harder to find resolve if you are in a funk, but a workaround is just to get on with the activity without thinking about it too much, or start the activity even as you are thinking about doing/not doing it. It’s a kind of mind trick helps you get started, and that’s often the hardest bit.

    Anyways, another good post. I’m off to read a book about cloud appreciation…if that doesn’t help me drift off nothing will.

    PS – One of the blog entries I’m working on is a summary of my diary of 20 years ago…I think I may have to lift the quote about going “round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.”

    1. I love this comment, Riz! Thanks! I absolutely agree that when you are in a funk it helps enormously to get outside. I learned about myself from a very young age that I need to get outside nearly every day to enjoy the beauty of the natural world. If not, life is drab.

      1. Every post, you articulate what I feel, think, and know. While the details of our lives necessarily differ and we all have unique reactions and reasoning–I am pleased to read another’s description of a journey so similar to mine. I am so grateful you share your musings, reflections, and feelings–you tale–you! :-)

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