Reflection without rumination: How to learn from a negative experience

This edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Anna Luerssen and originally published on Psych Your Mind on July 6th.

After we go through a painful experience – a conflict with a friend, a break-up, a loss – we face a conundrum. On one hand, reflecting on the experience is essential. It allows us to gain insight; to understand the experience in new and important ways; to get over it. Yet what begins as healthy reflection can often turn into rumination – a toxic preoccupation with the experience that fosters negative emotion. In fact, rumination is believed to contribute to depressive episodes (e.g. Nolen-Hoeksema, 1991). The question is, how can we reflect on negative memories from the past, without ruminating about them?

My (awesome) advisor at UC Berkeley, Ozlem Ayduk, tackled this question with Ethan Kross, her collaborator at the University of Michigan. In their research, Ayduk and Kross contrast thinking about painful memories from either a first- or a third-person perspective. When we think about the event from a first-person perspective, we tend to relive the event as if it was happening to us all over again. Ayduk and Kross hypothesized that this “self-immersed” perspective increases negative emotion and the likelihood of ruminating. Alternatively, when we think about an event from a third-person perspective, we see everything unfold from afar as if we are a fly on the wall or a distant observer of what’s happening. Ayduk and Kross hypothesized that this “self-distanced” perspective allows an individual to gain insight or meaning without reliving the negative emotions they experienced when the event first occurred. Thinking about the meaning of the event, rather than rehashing the details of what they experienced or felt at the time, allows for reflection without rumination.

Ayduk and Kross have a published a series of articles that support these hypotheses. In their experimental studies, participants are asked to recall a negative experience from the past, such as a time when they felt overwhelming anger and hostility, and then to write about their stream of thoughts as they reflected on the experience. Participants in the self-immersed condition are directed to “go back to the place and time of the experience and relive the situation as if it were happening all over again,” while participants in the self-distanced condition are directed to “take a few steps back and move away from the experience…to watch the conflict unfold as it were happening all over again to the distant you.” They found that, when thinking about their negative memory, participants who self-distance:

  • Experience less anger and less negative emotion overall than participants who self-immerse (Kross, Ayduk, Mischel, 2005).
  • Describe the event in more abstract terms (e.g. gain insight, experience a sense of closure) while participant who self-immerse describe the event in more concrete terms (e.g. describe the chain of events, blame the other person) (Kross, Ayduk, & Mischel, 2005).
  • Show smaller increases in blood pressure reactivity (which is associated with cardiovascular disease) than participants who self-immerse (Ayduk & Kross, 2008).

Ayduk and Kross have also looked at the tendency for individuals to spontaneously take a self-distanced or immersed perspective when they think about a painful past experience – that is, the perspective people take naturally (Ayduk & Kross, 2010). When thinking about their negative memory, participants who spontaneously self-distance:

  • Show similar benefits to those who are inclined to self-distance – they experience less negative affect and less physiological reactivity.
  • Resolve the conflict more quickly over time.
  • Evidence more healthy conflict resolution behaviors with their romantic partners and reciprocate less of their partner’s negative conflict resolution behaviors.

These studies collectively suggest that taking a self-distanced perspective when thinking about a painful past experience, seeing the events unfold from afar rather than putting yourself right back in your own shoes, allows for the benefits of reflection (insight, resolution) without the perils of rumination (negative affect, physiological reactivity).

Take a moment to think about a negative experience from the past, such as a breakup or conflict with a loved one. What perspective do you spontaneously take? Do you see the event from your own eyes or are you a fly on the wall? Try assuming a self-distanced perspective. Do you feel differently or see the event in a new way?

Kross E, Ayduk O, & Mischel W (2005). When asking “why” does not hurt. Distinguishing rumination from reflective processing of negative emotions. Psychological science, 16 (9), 709-15 PMID: 16137257

Ayduk O, & Kross E (2008). Enhancing the pace of recovery: self-distanced analysis of negative experiences reduces blood pressure reactivity. Psychological science, 19 (3), 229-31 PMID: 18315794

Ayduk O, & Kross E (2010). From a distance: implications of spontaneous self-distancing for adaptive self-reflection. Journal of personality and social psychology, 98 (5), 809-29 PMID: 20438226