At the end of the work day when you walk out of the office or log off of your computer, you want to leave your worries, stress, and problems behind so that you can enjoy your personal life. However, this is far easier said than done.
The truth is that leaders struggle to make this a reality, from first-time supervisors to middle managers to executives. They leave work only for the mistakes of the day, the difficult conversations, the bad judgments, the complex problems, and the ongoing interpersonal conflicts to follow them home and plague their thoughts. In other words, they can’t find the “off button.”
This is called ruminating and left unchecked, it can compromise not only your effectiveness as a leader but your wellbeing and health. If this sounds familiar, read on to learn more about what it means to ruminate, the potential consequences of doing so, and learn a few practical tips that will help you begin to stop ruminating.
What Does Ruminating Mean?
First off, let’s begin with a definition of rumination. Generally speaking, ruminating is defined as “excessive and intrusive thoughts about negative experiences and feelings.” More specifically, “Work-related rumination is defined as a thought or thoughts directed to issues relating to work, that is/are repetitive in nature, and difficult to control.”
You may ruminate about something that has happened in the past, such as a mistake you made, or something that will happen in the future, such as an impending difficult conversation. You may also hear it referred to as overthinking, obsessing, brooding, overanalyzing, or dwelling. Regardless of what you may call it though, the characteristics remain the same: obsessive, negative, intrusive, and repetitive thoughts. This is what differentiates ruminating from normal, healthy problem-solving, reflection, and emotional processing.
What Causes Leaders to Ruminate?
Many things may cause a leader to ruminate about work-related matters, though it has been found that some common triggers include:
- Low self-esteem
- An upcoming stressful event
- A fear or phobia
- Ongoing stressors that can’t be controlled
Keep in mind that according to Psych Central, “Rumination is a behavior and not a mental health condition. It’s a common symptom of anxiety and mood disorders, but it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can learn to manage it.”
The Potential Consequences of Ruminating
Now you might be wondering what the consequences of ruminating are if you don’t learn to manage it? First off, it has been found that ruminating affects your health and wellbeing in the following ways: overeating, drinking too much alcohol, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. Secondly, research indicates that it can lead to “negative thinking, poor problem solving, inhibition of instrumental behavior, biased information processing, and impaired interpersonal functioning.” All of which can compromise your ability to lead others effectively.
Examples of Ruminating
Every leader will ruminate in different ways and to different extents. For some, it may only happen occasionally in response to certain things, while other leaders may struggle with it frequently. To give you an idea of what this might look like, the following are examples of ruminating that are commonly experienced by leaders at all levels.
- Replaying a difficult conversation
- Reliving a moment you deem as embarrassing
- Worrying about the same things over and over
- Dwelling on a mistake
- Obsessively thinking about your weaknesses, shortcomings, and flaws
How to Stop Ruminating: 5 Tips for Leaders
1. Get to Know Your Triggers
The first step in stopping ruminating thoughts is to determine what the causes and triggers may be. For example, do they occur when you’re having problems with a specific person? Do they occur when you get notifications about work after hours? Bear in mind that this isn’t something you’re likely to figure out overnight. Instead, pay attention to it over the coming weeks or months and keep notes about your ruminations to eventually identify commonalities that you can then work to address.
2. Surround Yourself with the Right People
If your goal is to stop ruminating, it's essential to look at those you surround yourself with. Do they exacerbate the obsessive and negative thoughts or perpetuate them? If so, you might need to distance yourself from those people and instead rely more heavily on the company or support of those who distract you from your negative thoughts or encourage you to think more practically and positively.
3. Find Distractions That Work For You
One way to stop ruminating is to distract yourself in order to break the cycle of negative, obsessive, and intrusive thoughts. Distractions can include things like physical activity (ex. walking, running, biking, yoga), watching a show, journaling, or getting outside in nature. Regardless of the distraction, the key is to find something that works for you and shifts your mind from negative thoughts to “pleasant or neutral ones”.
4. Think Practically
When you’re ruminating, you might dwell on theoretical questions like, “What if…” and “Why?” Instead, try focusing on questions that encourage you to think practically. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist, says to ask productive and tactical questions that encourage true problem-solving, like:
- Who can help me?
- Where can I get more information?
- What can I do as a first step?
- What can I learn from this and do differently next time?
5. Turn to Someone You Trust
While there are several ways to stop yourself from ruminating, the fact is that you may need the support of another person. One person, in particular, who you might turn to is a leadership coach. Their personal and professional experience and being removed from your day-to-day life as a leader makes them a great source of support and insight. Plus, they have the added benefit of the experience of helping other leaders in similar situations.
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