Thinking About The Past
People tend to be quite different in the things they think about. Some people are always thinking about the future, and the good and bad things that might happen to them. Other people have their mind mainly in the present without much thought for the past or future. Other people have an orientation more towards the past, but there are two quite different ways of thinking about the past.
These two ways of thinking about the past are termed introspection and rumination. There are some key differences between these two types of thinking about the past.
Introspection – curiosity and self-exploration
Firstly, introspection means thinking about the things that happen to you with an attitude of curiosity and self-exploration. To display introspection means to be interested in your past and to try to draw some conclusions about yourself or other people, or, to simply spend time thinking about the pleasurable things in your past. Introspection can add real colour and depth to your current experiences and also includes notions such as nostalgia and sentimentality. Introspection has a light and inquisitive tone to it.
Rumination – regret and ‘wheel spinning'
On the other hand, when we think about the past in terms of regrets we are ruminating. At those times, where we think about the past and we wonder what we might have done differently, or we wonder about the actions of others, we are essentially spinning our wheels. In doing this, we don't draw anything from the past but continue to sink our present moment into the regrets of the past. There is little pleasure or insight to be gained from rumination; on the contrary, it's more associated with anxiety and depression. Rumination has a heavy and automatic tone to it.
Telling the difference
So how can you tell if you're being introspective or ruminative? I think it comes down to what you are gaining from thinking about the past. If you feel that you are drawing lessons from the past, or enjoying the past then it's more likely that you're being introspective. On the other hand, if your thoughts about the past are full of regrets and bitterness, or your thoughts have a repetitive automatic quality, it's likely that you are ruminating.
Rumination – wasted time
We are free to think anything we like, and many people find enjoyment from thinking about the things that happened in the past. However, at any given point there are lots of things that we can be thinking about. To spend our time in rumination takes us away from the other things that we could be thinking about such as the pleasant past, the present, or the future.
Transforming rumination into introspection
So how can you turn rumination into introspection? The first step would be to notice yourself thinking about the past. Secondly, ask yourself what you are getting about these thoughts about the past. If you find that you aren't drawing anything from the thoughts of the past that you might be able to use in your present or in your future, ask yourself questions like ‘what lessons can I draw from this experience?' or ‘what action can I take now to prevent this from happening again?'
Psychotherapy and counselling can be useful when we constantly ruminate about the past. It can offer a process to break out of the repetitive nature of thinking about the past, to extend our thinking into the present moment, and into the future. Psychotherapy and counselling have a strong emphasis towards growth and development of people and consequently a strong emphasis towards introspection over rumination.
I'd be interested in what you thought about this – please let me know in the comments below. If you found this interesting, I have written a similar blog post about A Focus on The Future.
Source: Gabbard, G. O. Long-term psychodynamic psychotherapy – a basic text, 2nd edition, American Psychiatric Publishing Inc, New York
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Gabbard, G. O. (2010) Long term psychodynamic psychotherapy: a basic text, 2nd edition, American Psychiatric Publishing Inc, New York