Do you find yourself in a repetitive cycle of reliving an exchange over and over? Reflecting on experiences gone badly is one way we learn. We think about what happened and look for insights that might promote a positive outcome in a similar situation next time.
But sometimes reflection can be unhealthy. If you find yourself in a memory loop continuously going over a negative experience, it may be more rumination than reflection. Instead of finding a way toward closure, it can be more like picking an emotional scab and not letting the wound heal.
Research suggests that a process of self-distancing can help us gather useful insights without getting stuck in a quagmire of replays. Try this:
- Describe the event in the third person. Imagine you are an observer of the situation. If you were someone watching the dynamic, what events occurred? Write the “story” from this perspective.
- Avoid the words “I” and “you.” Instead, use the names of the individuals involved. “Sarah told Bob she thought their dad was not taking all his medicines. Bob, who orders their father’s medicines through the pharmacy, got angry about her comments.”
- Answer the question “Why?” and list many possible answers. In your description, address why the people did what they did. Then ask yourself, “Do I know for sure that’s the reason?” Think of several alternate explanations. For instance, Bob might find himself exploring whether Sarah brought up the issue because she thinks he’s incompetent, or because she’s noticing something different about their dad’s memory.
Describe the event from the future. Project yourself a week or a month down the road. Maybe a year down the road. How are you likely to tell the story? This perspective can reduce the emotional punch of the event and help you distill it down to its salient features.