Rescue from Rumination

I’ve been getting angry about how much rumination sucks the life out of people. It goes something like this; a thought or question pops into your mind: “Does my boss think I’m worthless?”, “Am I a good father?”, “Have I done anything with my life?” You start weighing the evidence, remembering comments and reviewing the cues. You aren’t sure if you remember correctly, so you go over it again….and again and again. Much of this process may be semi-conscious. Rumination easily becomes the depressing, anxiety-inducing subtext that pulls your mood into a dark and gloomy place.

Rumination can be tricky because we can get duped into thinking that we are engaging in a critically important thought process that will help us in some way. But with rumination, nothing could be farther from the truth. Rumination is not helpful evaluation. Evaluation is a process that has a beginning, middle, and end. Rumination repeats and spins without concluding anything. Evaluation leads to a conclusion, greater wisdom, or discovery of a need or deficit. Rumination never lands, so there isn’t the same constructive quality to it. Normally, rumination does absolutely nothing helpful. In fact, the only thing that rumination does is impact your mood.

Evaluation, on the other hand, may begin exactly the same, but goes in a much different direction.  The thought or question pops into your mind: “Does my boss think I’m worthless?”, “Am I a good father?”, or “Have I done anything with my life?” You review the interaction that prompted the question and realize that you have an unsettled feeling. You decide to take some time at the end of the day to think about it and resolve to pull your attention away from weighing the evidence whenever it comes up throughout the day. One the drive home, you consider your hunch and realize that you have made some mistakes and you resolve to email your boss, apologize to your kids, or pursue a spiritual director to press into the question of your life in a deeper way.

I often tell my clients that at the heart of whatever they are ruminating about, there is sometimes an important question that does merit your time and attention. But it merits your focused, creative, full attention for perhaps about an hour or for many hours, but in a structured way. What that question does not merit is 10 hours of subconscious swirling that tortures you. It takes a willingness to apply some boundaries to one’s thought processes to resist ruminative spins. But please, do whatever it takes to learn those skills. Rumination is crushing the souls of far, far too many dear people under the guise of evaluation and they are not the same! One leads to depression and spiritual hopelessness, the other to maturity, efficacy, and spiritual/emotional health.

Growing Up ‘Not Smart’: the Power of the Story

I remember the first time I really considered that I might be smart.  I was sitting in a small discussion section of my literature class, my senior year in college. Another student that I considered to be very intelligent was responding to something I had said as if it were a very thoughtful and interesting comment. “Wow”, I thought, “maybe I’m smart.”

Somewhere in life I had put myself outside the category of “smart”. There were a lot of things that shaped my thinking about my intellect growing up. First and most formatively, my sister was and is very, very smart…PhD in cell and molecular pharmacology smart. I knew enough to see the difference between us, and ideas about myself started to take shape. Add that to the searing memory of being tested for the gifted and talented program in my grade school. I was asked to define the word ‘compare’. I stumbled and tried and knew I was not doing well. It was horrible. The fact that I was not placed in the GT program just confirmed what the testing experience felt like. I wasn’t smart enough. Later, in High School, I moved from Alabama to Northern Virginia and had academic whiplash that left me humiliated and stunned. I was behind in every subject. When I went to one of my teachers to ask how to improve a grade on a paper he looked at me and said, not unkindly, “Janice, beauty is its own reward”, and dismissed me. My senior year, after being unable to answer even one question on a scholarship exam, a dear friend (who wound up getting the scholarship) breezed through the exam. The comparison confirmed the message I held inside–I’m not smart—and I vowed not to try for any more academic scholarships.

This is the story that I learned to tell myself—I’m not smart.  I’ll never know the full range of implications this story has had in my life.  I took myself out of AP English after my junior year to quiet the screaming inferiority that I felt daily in that class. In college, I never even remember considering careers that required graduate school. Both are sad evidence of a story that I told myself that was stronger than my ability to refute it. I am both amazed and grateful that the belief eventually loosened. What allows that loosening to happen?

Some of it has to do with overall resiliency, spiritual resources, or with the experiences that life offers. But what part of the shift can we intentionally impact? As simple as it sounds, I cannot say strongly enough how critical recognizing the story in your mind is to the loosening process. If we recognize the story, we can begin the difficult process of discrimination. What should I do with this story I tell myself? Should I live according to it? Should I challenge it? Should I let it be and live according to something else? These simple questions require deep and tenacious work. But the work has to begin somewhere. Recognizing the story allows any of us to move from unconscious bending to the story and towards leaning into the possibility of a new story and new identity.

The loosening of my ‘not smart’ story has awakened a whole new set of ideas about myself. I have realized that I absolutely love learning; my classmates in grad school called me “the quintessential student”! I still feel the pull of the old story—I remember referring to an astronomer as an astrologist and wanting to crawl in a hole afterwards. But the difference now is that I hang on through the shame attack, pray, ride it out, and wait for equilibrium to return. I don’t want to live by the old story.

How about you? How do you loosen the grip of the old stories in your life?


Things You’ll Regret When You’re Old

Did anyone else see this list of regrets on BuzzFeed? I liked it. It made me think about myself and my work. I’m not sure what the percentage is, but some substantial amount of the work I do is helping people choose some of the things on this list or processing with them their regret that they didn’t. There are so many reasons we wind up with regrets like these. For me, it is almost always about values; the values I had in my twenties are different than the ones I had later. But I’m so, so grateful for the influences in my life that helped me see and choose a value before my age and perspective were really there.

I took a liberty to categorize some the regrets. I’m curious which regrets speak to you; either to your past actions or your current struggles. The gift of a list like this is that it helps us clarify that it is really never too late for us to do most things listed here. What is one regret mentioned below that you carry? Is there a way that you could address it today? If so, what is stopping you from making the first move?

The regrets that come up a lot in therapy (as regrets or current problems)

  • Staying in a bad relationship
  • Spending your youth self-absorbed
  • Caring too much about what other people think
  • Supporting others’ dreams over your own
  • Not moving on fast enough
  • Holding grudges, especially with those you love
  • Not standing up for yourself
  • Worrying too much
  • Getting caught up in needless drama
  • Being scared to do things
  • Not stopping enough to appreciate the moment
  • Not being grateful sooner

The regrets that made me ache for friends and loved ones

  • Not quitting a terrible job
  • Not realizing how beautiful you were
  • Letting yourself be defined by cultural expectations
  • Refusing to let friendships run their course

The regrets that made me grateful I’d been so well influenced

  • Not traveling when you had the chance
  • Letting yourself be defined by gender roles
  • Not trying harder in school
  • Not learning how to cook one awesome meal
  • Being afraid to say “I love you”
  • Not listening to your parents’ advice
  • Failing to make physical fitness a priority
  • Neglecting your teeth

The regrets that made me think

  • Not taking the time to develop contacts and network
  • Not spending enough time with loved ones
  • Never performing in front of others
  • Failing to finish what you start
  • Never mastering one awesome party trick

For the complete list, click here

Stone Soup in the Modern Age

            I have a group of friends who meet together every other week to engage in spiritual learning and to listen deeply to each other’s life challenges. This week we celebrated finishing a big study together by having a stone soup party. The idea of stone soup comes from an old folk story of strangers who come into a village with nothing but a pot and find themselves by the end of the story with their pot full of soup made from ingredients provided by the whole community.  I was too chicken to have the group show up with ingredients with no ability to conceive of how to put it together. So, I collected everyone’s ingredient choices ahead of time, did a little research, and wound up with a delicious Thai-inspired crab soup.

While we enjoyed the soup, our conversation meandered around like you would expect.  But most special was the time the group took to ask about the last hours my husband spent with his mother before her death, just the previous week. I reflected on what a gift it was, talking like this…having his story heard by people who care for him.  His grief needed the ears of the community to breathe and to be given validity.  I was overcome with gratitude for these people, for the space we have created to have these gatherings, and for the gift of community.

I don’t know how people do without it. I remember all of the problems trying to find a rhythm of gatherings; what to do about childcare, how frequently to meet, whom to meet with, how to keep people coming… our Stone Soup party, it was clear to me that it was worth it. One friend said that night after finishing his soup, “you know I noticed every ingredient that each person contributed and every ingredient mattered.” This reflection helped me see how we can care for each other for that very reason; every person matters. Every grief needs to be heard. Every joy needs sharing. Whether you make soup or not, community is our Stone Soup. Every person matters and what they bring makes a difference.

Do you have a Stone Soup Community? What would it take to have one? What Stone Soup stories do you have to add?


Want the recipe?

Thai Style Stone Soup

Here are the ingredients the individuals from the group provided: Lentils, broccoli, onion, potatoes, corn, hominy, mushrooms, cilantro, and crab.

Here are the ingredients I used after borrowing from 2-3 different recipes for inspiration for the base: 8 cups broth, 2 cans of coconut milk, paprika, coriander, garlic, lemon grass, and lime juice.

Garnish: lime wedges and cilantro


I grew up in Alabama and moved to a DC suburb in Northern Virginia the summer before my sophomore year. I got ready for school the first day like I always did in Alabama. After a month-long process of weighing current fashion trends, I put on my pleated jeans, a pink plaid shirt, pink tennis shoes and—forget a real belt—I tied a pink bow around my waist. I rolled my hair (remember hot rollers?) and loaded on my eye-make-up like always. I looked awesome in the way that any 15-year-old trying to look like a sorority girl does.

I was the only one on my route doomed to actually need bus transportation, so when we pulled up to my school I was a little nervous about exiting the bus solo. As the driver slowed in the circular drive my nervousness shifted to shock.  I saw kids with ripped tank tops, spiked collars around their necks, cut-off jeans with frayed edges, and people spinning on skateboards and trick bikes. No one was in long pants or a shirt with a collar, both of which were standard issue, if not dress code, at my public school in the south. Somehow, these kids hadn’t gotten the same fashion memo I had. It dawned on me that I was going to step off the bus and look like a fool.

There was nothing else to look at but me. And in this context, I looked…ridiculous, as if I were trying for the cover of Teen Magazine (which I had been) at grunge punk concert.  And so, all activity stopped. All the conversations, the bouncing bikes, the spinning skate boards, everything but the music.  I was relieved when the principle walked out to greet me (also wearing shorts) until I became painfully aware that everyone’s attention was riveted on my phrases punctuated with “sir” and flourished by my southern accent that trumped Daisy Duke’s by about 20 times.

Besides my teachers, no one spoke to me that day and I didn’t speak to anyone. But I noticed everything. I noticed mostly myself, feeling acutely displaced. My clothing and make-up, which had seemed my greatest asset, were my biggest barrier. My southern accent, which I never noticed in Alabama, was a bullhorn that blurred any content I might speak. At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the arbitrariness of image management or see that all of those other students might have been just as invested in their “look” as I was. All I could see was that I had moved somewhere as different as the moon and the rules were all different.

I can see now that I’ve managed to displace myself more than a few times since then. I’ve migrated coast to coast twice, joining already established ministry teams both times. I got my theology degree at Howard University, a historically black university. What prepared me for these things? Might have had something to do with one pinked teenager walking off a school bus one day? You never know what uncomfortable experiences will empower you to do later. I will posit that those of us in the majority culture actually need experiences of displacement to help us understand that our perceived norms can be out and out arbitrary. I’m grateful now that I had this and other displacement experiences to show me that the world was bigger and much more diverse than I’d been led to believe by Teen Magazine.

How has displacement helped you grow? Or tempted you to shrink?

This blog is reposted from 2/16/12

New Year, Same You

There’s always talk of resolutions and self-improvement this time of year. I’ve got my own list in the making. But I made the mistake of looking at the list I made last year and the 50% accomplishment rate I achieved was partially a fluke (I purged every room of my house but only because we had our floors redone). Do we get kind of unrealistic at the start of a new year? Do we forget that we have to bring our same ‘ole selves into 2014? The same old resistances, habits, fears, and inner voices will be with us in 2014 even if we intend to make big changes in our lives.

In a couple of weeks I will be speaking to a group who invited me to speak on the topic, “A Fresh Start”. It has made me wonder what a fresh start really looks like when we bring our old selves into the fresh start. You can write down a weight loss goal, but you will still be as addicted to Doritos tomorrow as you are today. You can write down that you’re going to improve your relationship with your spouse, but tomorrow you will be as selfish and defensive as you are today. We often have no idea how to get to our goals because we have no patience for the day-to-day process required for any change to ever happen in our lives.

With that in mind, I think it makes sense to think in terms of intentions along with our traditional resolutions to lose weight and exercise more. Merriam-Webster defines intention as “a determination to act in a certain way”.   I like that the word, “determination” is in there. After all, what change has really ever taken place in your life without determination? It also allows for the reality that whatever we intend to do will need to be something we are choosing over and over and over again. It isn’t a one-and-done-type of thing. To live according to an intention requires that we return to that intention with determination whenever we drift astray. And we will drift! Our habits and patterns are the same old self that we bring to the picture. A healthy dose of both realism and self-compassion will be necessary for the long-term outcome you seek.

What could be empowering intentions for you in 2014? Some examples:

  • I intend to take risks.
  • I intend to be prayerful.
  • I intend to be mindful.
  • I intend to be playful.
  • I intend to be a learner.
  • I intend to be less passive and more assertive.
  • I intend to be less guarded and more authentic.
  • I intend to be less defensive and more open.
  • I intend to choose health above instant gratification.

Holding an intention can help us keep focus, make tough decisions, or even redirect us when we get off track. Why not choose an intention for the year and let it help you bring your old self into a new place?

Negative Self-Talk

All of us have some type of inner chatter that we’ve learned to listen to and usually we take it very seriously. A fortunate few of us have an inner cheerleader, who tells us all sorts of lovely and encouraging things about ourselves. But most of us have a stream of dialogue going on in our minds that is continually evaluating our behaviors, reactions, and interactions. Often, this inner evaluation comes up short of an unspoken standard and the results can impact our moods horribly.  Dr. Edmund Bourne categorizes negative self-talk into four categories and explains what can result from such talk.

  • The Worrier promotes anxiety

“What if…”

  • The Critic promotes low self-esteem

“That was stupid! How could you….”

  • The Victim promotes depression

“I could never do that. How could this happen?”

  • The Perfectionist promotes chronic stress and burnout

“I should. I ought to….” (pp. 164-66)


How does negative self-talk impact you? What does it promote in you? We can make the mistake of thinking that we are stuck swimming in these thought streams forever. But this isn’t the case. Interestingly, “negative self-talk is a series of bad habits. You aren’t born with a predisposition to fearful  (or negative) self-talk; you learn to think that way.” (p.164) The reasons we have negative self-talk are complicated. Family messages, traumatic events and personal hurts can all contribute. Over time, the habit of these thought processes becomes so ingrained that they take on a life of their own. In other words, our brains become used to taking these trains of thought very seriously and we live more and more of our lives in the resulting states that Bourne describes; anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, chronic stress, and burnout. In other words, our brains teach us to live in misery.

The power of recognizing our own negative self talk is that when we understand the process of our thinking and its impact, we can decide whether to offer our inner worrier, critic, victim, or perfectionist our attention or whether we would benefit from shifting our attention away from their negative thought streams. Learning to do this takes intentional effort and consistent practice, just like undoing any other deeply engrained habit. Creating a new neural pathway in the brain is no small task!  Learning to notice the negative self-talk is the first step in living a transformed life.


Quotes from The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, 4th Edition by Edmund J. Bourne, PhD.               Photo credit, click here


Acceptance vs. Resignation

        “It is what it is”.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this  recently. It seems to be our society’s new phrase that we currently use to acknowledge that sometimes we’re better off to give up fighting against our circumstances. And I often appreciate the “it is what it is” mentality—it keeps us sane!  And yet, sometimes, I feel like there is something sinister and unhelpful lurking behind the phrase.

What is motivating us when we decide to stop fighting against our circumstances? Is it acceptance or is it resignation? I’ve become convinced that the two are very different and that we wind up in vastly different places depending on which is behind our “it is what it is” mentality.

ACCEPTANCE is often sad or weighty, but not helpless. Acceptance has a quality of sobriety, groundedness and self-efficacy. While there may be grief associated with acceptance, there is hope for something new.

RESIGNATION is also often sad and weighty, but there is helplessness connected to it. Resignation has a quality of lying down, of sinking, and of powerlessness. Rather than grief, there can be a simmering resentment associated with resignation. I rarely detect hope in the face of resignation.

In the counseling room, I feel like real work can be done if my client is in the place of acceptance. There is a clear mind and ready spirit for whatever may be required for the next phase. Resignation, on the other hand, is reflected in muddied and ruminative spirals. It is very hard to move anywhere when a client is in the place of resignation because the spirit of helplessness is so strong. Acceptance leads to resolve, change, and even determination while resignation leads to paralysis, bitterness, and sometimes depression.

How have you successfully made the shift form resignation to acceptance?  What do you think the key is to staying in the place of empowered acceptance of unchangeable circumstances in your life?


Many conversations about acceptance versus resignation happened in response to my recent blog “Milk in a Hardware Store” (click here to read it). At it’s best, the shift I’m talking about there is one towards acceptance, not resignation.

The Pursuit of Happiness

I’m always skeptical about people who tout happiness as the ultimate human experience. If anything, I believe our society overemphasizes happiness and that direct pursuit of happiness is actually a fairly ineffective way to find it. So, I have to be honest that I was surprised how much I liked this list from a Huntington Post article. It is a list of habits practiced by joyful, happy folks. And so, I pass it on to you for your thought and reflection. Many of these habits can be implemented immediately and are great food for thought. Supremely happy people:

  • Surround themselves with other happy people.
  • The smile when they mean it.
  • They cultivate resilience.
  • They try to be happy
  • They are mindful of the good.
  • They appreciate simple pleasures.
  • They devote some of their time to giving.
  • They let themselves lose track of time.
  • They nix the small talk for deeper conversation.
  • They spend money on other people.
  • They make a point to listen.
  • They uphold in-person conversations.
  • They look on the bright side.
  • They value a good mix tape.
  • They unplug.
  • They get spiritual.
  • They make exercise a priority.
  • They go outside.
  • They spend time on the pillow.
  • They LOL.
  • They walk the walk.

Which of these habits helps your mood? And which will you intentionally try to implement?

For much more detail on each habit, check out the full article HERE.

Cutting the Fuse: Help for Ruminators

In response to my blog last week, I had a few questions about how one goes about avoiding getting swept up into unhelpful thoughts. This is a very important question and one that many counseling theories do not address at all. As I review my own time in therapy as a client, I do not remember one instance of discussing the process of my thinking. We spend our time on the content of my thoughts, which is what most people expect to do in therapy. My biggest, life-altering, break-through came when I understood the brokenness of my thought habits themselves. As my mentor, Carl, puts it, you might come to understand why you started smoking (or sleeping around, or criticizing yourself, or eating too much, etc…) but no matter how much insight you have about that, you are still addicted to nicotine (or artificial intimacy, or self-incrimination, or food, etc…). I was what we call, a ruminator. And I thought that by ruminating, that I was doing something that would get me better, when actually, it was quite the opposite. Rumination is, “a train of thought, unproductive and prolonged, on a particular topic or theme.” (Osborn, p.44) Rumination can be about anything, but essentially it is a brooding, churning mental activity. And for me and for so many of my clients, it is clearly mood-impacting. Rumination research (yes, there is such a thing) shows that those who ruminate have likely suffered from depression (Kumar, p. 14). This psychological reality is affirmed by the development of contemplative and wordless spiritual practices that teach disciples to notice their thoughts and let them be, while returning attention to an icon, prayer word, or image.

One of the skills that ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) teaches is thought defusion. The term “defusion” counters our propensity to fuse with certain thoughts. Let’s say the thought “I’m a loser” occurs to you. If you fuse with this thought then you may start to consider all the ways you can identify your loserness and begin considering your life’s probable disastrous outcome since you are such a loser. After a few minutes of this, you are understandably bummed out and anxious. To defuse the thought simply means to use techniques that help you identify and let go of that thought rather than diving into the content of it. You might say to yourself, “oh, I’m having the thought that I’m a loser. Thanks for that, mind.” And then you shift your attention back to whatever it is that you are doing. Whether this strikes you as momentously difficult or overly simple, the results can be profound.

Defusion techniques from The Reality Slap by Russ Harris:

  • Identifying your thought as a thought. “I’m having the thought that I’m a loser.”
  • Thanking your mind for the thought. “Thank you mind, for the loser story.”
  • Singing the thought to a silly tune. My colleague uses the song from the old cartoon, “The Flintstones”. “You are….such a loser. You’re the Stonage loser family…..”
  • Writing your thoughts on a paper, putting a thought bubble around them and drawing silly characters saying them.
  • Typing your thoughts on a document and then minimizing the screen—or imagining doing that.

And there are many, many more ways to defuse. The point of all this is to be able to live your day-to-day life more grounded and present rather than being caught up in toxic thought processes.

References: The Mindful Path through Worry and Rumination by Sameet Kumar and Tormenting Thoughts and Secret Rituals, Ian Osborn, The Reality Slap by Russ Harris.

I will be recharging my batteries for the rest of July. I will resume blogging in August.

photo credit: <a href=””>kioan</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a> <a href=””>cc</a>

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