Stop ruminating!

Kathryn Crawford Saxer Career Management

A beloved coaching client didn’t get the job she had worked so hard for.

“I’m a failure,” she emailed me. “I am lost.”

I checked in with her a week later and heard the same notes of sorrow and anguish and anger. “I’ll get over it soon, I promise,” she told me. “It’s just so unfair.”

I’ve known that feeling. You probably have, too.

Years ago, I had a job I loved and a boss I adored. And I can still feel the physical pain in my heart when she said, “I’m disappointed in you, Kathryn.” And that wonderful job fell off a cliff.

I remember crying into my pillow. I remember reliving the events, rehashing the unfairness and the meanness. My thoughts churned down a well-worn rut, fantasizing about a different outcome.

Eventually, I realized I had to stop thinking about it. I was ruminating. I was wasting time and energy, and jeopardizing my mental health.

I now coach my clients on three techniques I practiced to get out of that mental rut:

Give yourself a deadline. You’ve been through something difficult, something that hurts — you have lots of anger, sadness, disappointment, outrage, to name a few possibilities. Decide how long you’re going to bathe in that heavy stew of emotion. A week? Two weeks? A month? Six months? How long do you want to be in that mental space? There’s no right answer here, but there is a choice.

Tell your brain to stop. Once you reach your self-imposed deadline, and your thoughts start chewing on that well-worn story, force yourself to think about something else.

After I lost that job I loved, I used a visual of the word STOP. Big bold letters. In red font. Every time my thoughts would drift back to those events, I would shout “STOP!” inside my head. Like a sudden jerk on a leash, the STOP helped me be aware in the moment that I was about to fall down that old rabbit hole.

Give your brain something else to think about. Write a list of things you’re really grateful for in your life. Distract your brain by repeating the list over and over (and over!) like a mantra — gratitude and appreciation can serve as a lifeline as you scramble out of the rabbit hole.

“You can’t just ‘get over it,’” I told my client. “That will come with time. But you can practice.”

First published in The Seattle Times. Read my archive of Seattle Times Explore columns.