Always Second-Guessing Yourself? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am a ruminator. I second-guess everything I do. My wife is tired of me spending hours every night going over and over the events of the day.

I work in finance and have a lot of technical expertise in my field. My organization counts on me for their reports, budgets, etc. I’m comfortable with generating the numbers, but when people want to talk about forecasting I get really anxious. I’m so afraid of making a mistake and causing some future disaster that I go over every interaction with a fine-tooth comb and think it into the ground.

This thing is getting worse, not better. I have to find a way to change because it’s getting harder and harder to be me. I have never met anyone who has this problem—where should I start?


Dear Ruminator,

It does indeed sound like it is very hard to be you. I’m so sorry. Self-awareness is always a big plus, so articulating your unpleasant work life is a great start. Now that you recognize just how uncomfortable you are, there is a chance you might do something about it.

Rumination is normal. We all do it. When it becomes a habit, though, it can be thought of as obsessive. It’s easy for thinking patterns to become habits because, as a neuroscientist might say, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more you use a certain mental pathway, the more it becomes a rut for your thoughts to get trapped in.

I want to avoid getting into the neuroscience weeds, but research shows that when a person gets regularly trapped in constant negative rumination, it can be a sign of depression. I highly encourage you to take advantage of your Employee Assistance Program to get some therapy and explore if you think that might be the case with you.

In the meantime, here are two things you can do that will make an immediate difference.

  • Exercise. It’s proven that exercise can alleviate anxiety and interrupt undesirable thinking patterns. You don’t need to join a gym, hire a trainer, or anything fancy or expensive. Just get outside for a walk in the middle of the workday or after work. The closer to nature you can get, the better—so if you can drive to a park, do it.
  • Choose what happens in your head. When you’re not thinking about anything in particular, choose to be mindful instead of letting your mind wander in what is known as the “default network.” Mindfulness is defined as “(1) Self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment; (2) Adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment—an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.”

By practicing mindfulness, you can choose to pay attention to sensory information coming in. What you pay attention to is what you are conscious of. Again, you don’t need to take a class (although that may help). Just pay attention to what you’re paying attention to, and consciously change it if it isn’t useful. A ton of websites are available that can teach you more about this and offer tips. This one might be a good place to start.

There is plenty of credible research about how both exercise and mindfulness can help you re-wire your brain and stop your downward spiral. You really have nothing to lose by trying both of them.

Finally, I offer what I have found to be a very interesting perspective. For years, I was often struck by how habitual time orientation affected the mental well-being of my clients. In 2008 (an oldie but goodie) Philip Zimbardo* wrote a book called The Time Paradox, which specifically reflected what I had observed. In the book, Zimbardo makes the case for how our personal time orientation influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions for better and for worse. I think you might benefit from understanding and shifting your own time orientation. The Time Paradox website has a quick self-assessment you can use to get started. Fun, interesting—and again, you really have nothing to lose except how hard it is to be you right now.

And your wife will be so happy!

Love, Madeleine

*Psychology wonks will recognize the name—Zimbardo conducted the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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