Reflection or rumination?

Learn to recognize the differences between reflection and rumination in yourself, and learn some tips for engaging in healthy reflection.

You’ve probably heard of self-reflection, where you intentionally take time to ask yourself questions about your life, experiences and goals. Engaging in self-reflection can help us practice thinking about our expectations and experiences, and determine if one matched the other. Self-reflection is really valuable, especially when our expectations don’t match our experiences. Thinking critically about this disconnect can help us identify the process that created our experience, discern which parts of that process we had control over and which we did not, and what we might do differently in the future to help our experiences better match our expectations. Self-reflection is a tool that helps us approach life with a growth mindset. Practicing self-reflection and exercising a growth mindset are qualities leaders often exhibit as they engage in a continuous journey of self-development.

There is a counterpart to self-reflection that often comes more naturally to us as human beings, but proves to be much less beneficial, and that is rumination. Where self-reflection is purposefully processing (thinking about) our experiences with the intent of learning something, rumination is when we think over and over about something in the past or future with negative emotions directly linked. Rumination often manifests itself as “what ifs”. When we constantly think actively or passively about these “what ifs”—the causes or consequences of problems—and not the actions we can take to solve the problem, our metaphorical wheels are turning, but we’re not going anywhere.

Getting stuck in rumination is a challenge everyone faces, but working to move past it is also possible and will help you move toward being a better leader. Where rumination breeds stress, which has a lot of negative consequences on things like our health and interpersonal relationships, reflection can help us reframe that stress as pressures to move past.

One of the keys to making this shift is just recognizing when you’re in a state of rumination. Consciously recognizing you are toiling over a problem (or even a potential problem) can help you move forward into thinking about possible solutions, and you’ve reframed that stress into a pressure to address.

Nick Petrie, senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership’s, offers four steps to help individuals be less stressed (ruminative) and more resilient in his white paper, “Wake up! The surprising truth about what drives stress and how leaders build resilience.”

  1. Wake up—and stay awake. Petrie encourages individuals to be present in the present. Don’t focus on the past or the future, and instead consciously direct your attention to the here and now.
  2. Control your attention. Practice putting your attention where you want it and keeping it there. We very easily get distracted, so when that happens, recognize it and refocus.
  3. Detach. Allow yourself distance from a situation. Be conscious of yelling “fire!” when someone lights a match, and stay aware of what you can and cannot control.
  4. Let go. Petrie states, “The leaders who are best at letting go are those who ask themselves a simple question: Will continuing to focus on this help me, my people or my organization? If the answer is no, they let it go.”

For more information and prompts for self-reflection, check out “Self-reflection: Leading by taking time to know ourselves” by Michigan State University Extension.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan State University Extension 4-H youth leadership, civic engagement, citizenship and global/cultural programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H positively impacted individuals and communities in 2015 can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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