Contemplation vs Rumination – Overview

This is a short video on two different types of thinking: Contemplation and Rumination. I describe each and give some suggestions on how to shift from rumination to contemplation. I will be using this for the classes I am teaching this week.

I am also uploading the audio if you want to download it.

Here is the transcript:

Very often we find ourselves thinking the same thoughts over and over. Its like our mind is stuck in a loop that is not helpful and even destructive. I call this “Rumination.”

On the other hand, sometimes we find ourselves thinking in a way that gives us more helpful thoughts and ideas. We seem to be going more deeply into the object of our attention. I call this “Contemplation”.

When we look at rumination in more detail we notice four types of thinking. One of these processes produces thoughts about the future. We can call this thinking process “fortune-telling.” Worrying and wishful thinking are prominent forms of fortune-telling.

Another type of thinking process that produces rumination is ignoring. Ignoring tends to keep our mind in the loop by restricting what we are aware of. Ignoring causes us to pay attention only to what confirms our current point of view. We find ourselves using words like “always” or “never”, discounting the positive (or negative), exaggerating,  and minimizing. Ignoring reinforces fortune-telling by closing down our access to data that does not fit the fortune-telling thoughts.

Another rumination process is assuming. When assuming we are filling in the blanks with our assumptions rather than blatantly ignoring the information. We think we know, therefore we know. We often use assuming in relationships when we “know” what someone else is thinking without checking our conclusions. We assume that our guess or intuition is correct.

The fourth destructive thinking process is judging. A judgment is an emotionally charged label that contains little to no precise information, but that feels right. “Close-minded”. “Open-minded”, “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “Nice”, “Mean” are all judgments. Judging leads us to experience things as “Good” or “Bad” or “Right” or “Wrong” based on our likes or dislikes, or on our prejudices. Judgments  communicate emotions, but little other information. The judgmental labels can even distort reality completely.

Note that “Should” statements are implied judgments. They imply that one is “bad” if one does not do what “should” do or one is “bad” if one does what one “shouldn’t”.

When we believe our judgments then we are naturally going to fall into ignoring and assuming. We will ignore facts that disagree with our judgments, and we will not ask people to explain themselves since we have already labeled them with our judgments. Thus judging reinforces ignoring and assuming which reinforce fortune-telling.

Since these four destructive processes reinforce each other then no matter which process we start with it will lead to the others and we will be stuck in rumination. Fortunately each of these destructive processes has an antidote and those antidotes lead to contemplation.

Judging is the most pervasive and most destructive of the ruminating processes and its antidote is the most important. I want to emphasize that avoiding judgement does NOT mean acceptance. It means avoiding the use of words that are imprecise, inaccurate, invalid or incomplete.

The antidote to judging is describing. To shift from judging to describing we need to notice the labels that do not contain much information and push ourselves to replace those with words that are more precise, more accurate, more valid, and more complete. Describing takes a lot more work than judging. Descriptions tend to be much longer than judgments. They also tend to have a lot less emotional charge.

As we start forcing ourselves to create descriptions that are accurate, valid, and complete we often realize that we are lacking important information. That forces us to start exploring and asking. Exploring and asking are the antidotes to ignoring and assuming. We push ourselves to look for exceptions to the generalizations we have been making. We also ask other people what is on their mind.

The processes of describing, exploring, and asking lead to planning. Unlike fortune-telling, planning gives us specific actions to take to deal with the issues. It also helps us know how to evaluate our actions to make sure we are getting the desired results. We create contingency plans in case we get results that are unexpected. Planning, exploring, asking and describing all reinforce each other. That is contemplation.

There are a couple of points about contemplation that people often ask about. The first is how we are to decide what is “right” if we are not using judgement. The answer is that when we use the contemplative thinking processes then we are able to discern what outcomes are likely to arise from our actions and choose those that are in accord with our values. That is far more likely to lead to moral actions than simply acting on our feeling of being “right”.

Once I was doing a clinical interview with a man who described how he was in an argument with his teenage step-daughter and she told him to “F— off!!” He said he slapped her across the face. Her mother sided with her daughter and the family was in crisis. He insisted that he was “right” in slapping her because “she deserved it.” I asked him “What kind of relationship do you want to have with your step-daughter?” He responded that he wanted a close and mutually respectful relationship. I asked “Did slapping her get you closer to your stated goal?” That brought him up short and he admitted it had had the opposite effect. We discussed how he might do things to help build mutual respect. I found out later that this shift from judgement, “I’m right,” to “What can I do to build a mutually respectful relationship,” had a significant, positive effect on the family.

The second problem people often have is that they have a hard time thinking contemplatively when they are upset. That is because the more our fight/flight system is activated the more difficult it is to use the contemplative thinking processes. So we often need to calm our body before we can think contemplatively. However, if we just calm our body and do not change our thinking, then we will simply go back to ruminating. So if we find ourselves ruminating, then we first calm our body and then change our thinking to contemplating.

You might try the following exercise:

  • Recall something you tend to ruminate about. Then write the ruminating thoughts down and look for thoughts that fit into the categories of fortune-telling, ignoring, assuming, and judging. For each of these thoughts apply the appropriate antidote and write out those new thoughts. Change judgments to descriptions. Explore and ask to fill in gaps caused by ignoring and assuming. Think of concrete plans rather than vague fortune telling. If you find yourself feeling tense then use a calming technique for a minute or so and then go back to working with the antidotes.

3 thoughts on “Contemplation vs Rumination – Overview”

  1. Judgement is something we have to do all the time whether we want to or not. Perhaps you are using judgement in place of incorrect conclusion. A judgement is an assessment of all the facts then reaching a decision. We do this every minute of the day such as judging whether to buy the cheap version of an item or the expensive version. We judge the intentions of fellow motorists when we drive. Driving is full of judgements. If I see a driver moving about in their lane for no reason, I make the judgement that they are impaired somehow. I will then back off or pass them quickly because impaired drivers are dangerous.
    I am going into this because too many people have made the word judgement mean incorrect conclusion, or biased conclusion.

    Judgments are not descriptions. Descriptions carry no final decision in them. As above, the motorist who is weaving about in their lane. That is the description of what I see. I judge that they are impaired. That may be incorrect but a decision must be made about how I am going to drive. I can not go into that vehicle and interview that driver to find out if they are drunk, sleepy, drugged, or distracted on their iphone. I must make the best decision I can with the information I have at the time. This is judgement. Judgement does not mean making the correct interpretation of the situation, rather the best assessment of all the facts.

    Thank you for the essay on how to better manage decision making. Many good ideas here.

    1. Thanks for sharing your ideas. I think I addressed your concerns in a follow-up post where I defined “discernment” as the process of making the best assessment based on our values.

      One of the problems we have when discussing mental processes is that the terms are quite difficult to define precisely. “Judgment” means many different things to different people. I tried to define the term the way I was using it as “A judgment is an emotionally charged label that contains little to no precise information, but that feels right.” I am defining a process that is very different from your use of the term which is “making a decision based on the best assessment of all the facts”.

      Both definitions are in common use. But the two definitions refer to very different mental processes. And many people confuse the two. For example, I will hear someone describe a co-worker as “lazy” without taking into account all the observations that suggest the co-worker is overworked rather than lazy. Or a spouse as “uncaring” when in fact that spouse is struggling with depression and medical problems. These people think they are making an assessment based on the facts. However, they do not realize they are ignoring facts and even actively avoiding seeking out facts that disagree with their judgment.

      Based on these definitions I don’t make any judgments when I drive. Every decision is based on observations, not my emotionally charged labels. People who drive based on emotionally charged labels can get into trouble. For example, I have had patients who have gotten into trouble for “road rage”. They were quite sure that they were responding to the “asshole driver” in an appropriate manner. It was hard for them the change their emotionally charged label, “that asshole driver” which justified their aggressive response, to the description, “that driver who cut in front of me and then was going slower than I wanted to drive”, which in no way justified the aggressive response.

      In subsequent presentations of this I have used the term “Labelling” instead of “Judging” which seems to avoid this confusion. Thanks for taking the time to point out the issue of the various uses of the term.

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