Time spent alone in thought can be positive — a rich environment for personal growth and creativity. Yet, getting “in our heads,” can also be dangerous when we negatively turn against ourselves. There is an important difference between introspection and rumination. Introspection can be a process of healthy self-reflective examination and exploration, all of which are good for our well-being and our brain. Rumination, on the other hand, can lead us to spiral into a vicious cycle of negative thinking that holds us back and hurts us in our lives.
Psychiatrist and mindfulness expert, Dr. Daniel Siegel describes positive time reflecting on yourself as “time in,” a period in which people check in with themselves to see where they’re at emotionally. Dr. Siegel recommends “time in” as one of seven suggested activities on his “Healthy Mind Platter.” This process of self-reflection is important to staying tuned in to our own mind. It helps us to know ourselves, to understand our emotions and to choose how we behave.
The problem, however, is that our mind is not always a safe place. Every person is divided between a healthy attitude toward themselves that is goal-directed and life-affirming and a destructive side of themselves that can be self-critical, self-denying, paranoid and suspicious. This inner critic, also referred to as the “anti-self” or the “critical inner voice” can take over our thinking and lead to rumination. Rumination occurs when we become trapped in a negative cycle of circular thinking. This type of thinking has a strong link to depression and suicide.
When we are in the realistic point of view of our “real self,” we can have positive self-reflection. When we are in the point of view of our anti-self, experiencing thoughts that focus on us as “bad,” we should make a conscious effort to avoid ruminating. There are seven other activities on the Healthy Mind Platter that are far more favorable when in this state, including play time, physical time and connecting time.
Mindfulness meditation is another healthy practice we can adopt that has been proven, not only to improve the quality of our lives, but to possibly extend the length of our lives. It can also reduce ruminative thinking. When we learn to meditate, we learn to choose our thoughts. We are better able to consciously steer away from the directives of our critical inner voice.
At first, this can be quite a challenge, as our critical inner voice has a way of slipping into our thoughts without us even realizing it. We may, for example, be sitting in meditation and start having thoughts toward ourselves like, “You don’t have time for this. You never get anything done. You are so useless. How can you be so lazy? Why can’t you do anything right?” Our critical inner voice might even attack our efforts to meditate or control our thinking. “You’re terrible at this. You can’t even sit still for one minute. You will never be able to relax. You’re such a mess!”
When we learn mindfulness, we gain the power of familiarizing ourselves with our thoughts and our patterns. We can get to know our critical inner voices, and we can start to recognize when these cruel thoughts start to surface. We can then choose to steer our minds away from these thoughts. We can see the thoughts as clouds passing in the sky, yet like a mountain, we can stand solid and allow them to float by without letting them overpower us or influence our behavior.
When we do take time to be mindful and introspective, we must adopt an attitude Dr. Siegel describes as curious, open, accepting and loving (COAL). We can then think about what we want to challenge in ourselves and how we want to differentiate from negative past influences. In this way, we give our lives meaning and direction without falling victim to the inner critic that holds us back and keeps us from achieving our goals.