Do you talk to yourself? Or have silent conversations in your head? Or make up hypotheticals about things that may never happen, people you may never meet, and conversations you may never have?
I do all of those — all the time. That’s the act of ruminating. We process our thoughts, re-process them, then re-re-process them, ad infinitum.
I recently wrote about ways I’m intentionally slowing my life down. Shortly after hitting the Publish button on that post, I listened to a Hidden Brain episode that discusses the conversations we have in our minds and how we can harness them to “make friends” with our inner voices. The act of ruminating was central to the episode and it gave me more insight into slowing things down.
Let’s start with the term rumination. That’s a great word! But it’s also fairly esoteric. Hearing ruminations described as “internal chattering” really resonates with me because it paints a perfect portrait of the annoyingly lovable aunt or uncle who never shuts up. You have a person like that in your life, right? It’s that person who tells you a rambling story, then tells variations of it again and again. We love that person, but we also can’t stand to be in the same room as them for more than 15 minutes.
That perfectly describes my relationship with my inner voice. I love the thing. It’s helped me process so many difficult times, experience incredible dreams, and make important decisions. It’s just been there for me when I need it — and when I don’t need it.
And that’s the thing: I don’t always need that voice. It reaches a point where the value I get from ruminations diminishes to an extent where it becomes a liability. When I feel “stuck”, chances are that my inner voice is chattering too much and I need to slow it down. Shut up, Aunt Gertie! 😂
Hidden Brain went on to talk about the purpose of having an inner voice. For one, it’s a term memory tool, not unlike a temporal mental sticky note we can use to help us remember to do something within a relatively short time. I like to think of it as those memory marbles from Inside Out that have a propensity to fade fast.
A mind will wander if you let it. At least, that’s my experience. I let my mind wander all the time because that’s sorta what I’ve always assumed is a healthy thing. Have a wild imagination and dream big, right?!
But I think I now understand that wild imaginations and big dreams are only effective when paired with intention. Let your mind go! But make intentional space to do that and recognize when the dreams become chattering ruminations. Use your mind as the reminder app it naturally is and recognize when it starts creating hypothetical tasks rather than real ones. Use it to gut-check your assumptions and then turn away when it starts imposing judgment on yourself and others.
My unquiet mind is undoubtedly a contributor to the depression many of you know I battle. I am my own worst critic. I already punish myself far more for making a mistake than anyone else can. I recall my past failures and see myself through them. There’s no end to the infinite space of the mind, and a majority of it contains garbage that needs to be taken out and dirty laundry that needs to be washed.
I want to harness that voice. I want to use it to observe. I want to use it to recall. I want to use it to be mindful of the things around me.
I don’t want to use it to fill empty space. There’s never enough to fill that gap.