I often find that people are confused about the difference between ruminating on the past and processing the past. They think they are doing one when, in reality, they are often doing more of the other. I can see where the confusion exists – both ruminating and processing involve thinking about (and perhaps talking about) the past.
And that’s about where the similarities end.
So then what does separate ruminating from processing?
Rumination starts in the past and it stays in the past. It starts with thought and it stays with thought. It is time spent pondering the “what ifs” and playing choose-your-own-adventure with experiences now past. Rumination gets you nowhere. It has no goal and no purpose apart from endlessly exploring those well-tread mental paths. It can be a trap as its labyrinthine cords bind you to your past. Rumination thrives on recursive thought, one idea leading you to the next and to the next with no external input.
It’s easy to ruminate. Trigger a sad memory and this can easily be the default setting initiated. It’s the automatic pilot of the traumatized mind. It takes no energy to sustain and, in fact, requires energy to break out of its insidious cycle. Excessive rumination may be a sign of depression. If you find that you are having difficulty breaking out of the cycle, seek help. It’s out there.
Processing may initiate from the past, but it is then future-focused. It begins with thought and then continues in action. Unlike the unfocused meandering of rumination, processing is directed. There is an end goal in mind and steps are taken to reach that intention.
When you’re processing, you’re not just going over it.
You’re making sense of it.
It’s difficult to process. First, you have to summon the courage to face things you would rather bury and leave for dead. Then, you have to be willing to take responsibility not only for your part in whatever happened, but also for your well-being going forward. The past must be examined for patterns and connections. New input needs to be considered and assumptions dropped; the well-worn mental paths may indeed be missteps and it might be time to carve some new ones. Those memories can be combed through until sense is made and the endless loops are broken.
And then comes the hardest part. Processing requires action.
It’s not just your thoughts that need to change in order to release the past.