Rumination: Why Do People Obsess Over Things?

Do you find yourself unable to let go of certain thoughts? This might be why. Frank Lee/ Getty Images

Question: Why Do People Obsess Over Things?

I find myself unable to let certain things go. Sometimes something frustrating will happen with someone and it'll bug me for hours or days. I know I'm not the only person who does this. My question is, why do people obsess over things? And how can I learn to stop?

Answer: What you're describing can be frustrating indeed, and a significant source of stress.

This may represent rumination, and though it's your mind's attempt to make sense and move on, rumination can catch you in a circular, self-perpetuating loop of frustration and stress. When you're dealing with chronic conflicts in your relationships, you may experience chronic stress from too much rumination. It's important to find ways of catching rumination before you get caught up in it, and working on handling conflicts in a healthy way.

So why do people obsess over things? In my experience, different people obsess over things for different reasons, and some people are more prone to it than others. Some people want to make sense of a situation, but can't seem to understand or accept it, so they keep replaying. Other people want reassurance that they were right (especially if they feel on an unconscious level that they were wrong). Some people are trying to solve the problem or prevent similar things from happening in the future, but can't figure out how.

And others may just want to feel heard and validated, or want to feel justified in absolving themselves of responsibility by 'playing the victim,' and find themselves repeating their stories ad nauseum. Ultimately, it matters less why people obsess over things, and more how they can stop.

Here are a few ideas on how to catch yourself and refocus:

  • Time Limit
    It can be helpful to get support and validation from your friends, but too much discussion of wrongs perpetuated by others can lead to a dynamic in your relationships that's negative and gossipy, and leads more to reinforcing the frustration of the situation than to finding solutions and closure. If you're seeking support from friends, you can secretly set yourself a time limit on how many minutes you'll allow yourself to devote to talking about the problem and your feelings around it, before focusing on a solution. Then brainstorm solutions with your friend, or on your own in a journal.
  • Open Mind
    It's been suggested by more than a few therapists that what really tweaks us in others may be a mere reflection of what we don't accept in ourselves. When you think about what the other person did to make you angry, can you try and draw on a similar experience in yourself to help better appreciate their perspective and the reasons behind what they did? Even if you don't necessarily agree with them, can you empathize? The loving kindness meditation can be a wonderful tool here for forgiveness and letting go, and can be a great combat for rumination.
  • Set Boundaries
    I love the phrase "First time, shame on you; the second time, shame on me." It perfectly describes responsibility and the importance of setting boundaries, and if nothing else allows you to use each encounter to learn something about yourself and the other person so you can change the way things go in the future. Look at what happened with the eye of change -- not to blame the other person for hurting you, but to come up with solutions that will prevent the same situation from occurring twice. Where might you say no earlier, or protect yourself more in the future? Rather than remaining hurt or angry, come from a place of strength and understanding.

    It may take some practice, but you can change your habitual thought patterns, no longer obsess over things, and experience less emotional stress as a result.

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