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Imagine undergoing an incident of failure, say, proposing a person for initiating a romantic relationship. That person did not accept your proposal. What would be the first thoughts that pop your mind afterwards? ‘Am I not worthy?, Don’t I look smart?, Why he did that to me?, Which aspect of me he finds unsuitable?, Will I get another person better than him?’, and so on.
Immediately after experiencing failure in getting a partner of your choice, you focused on yourself. You bothered about aspects of yourself which you want to evaluate in order to understand this failure. This failure became a problem and you tended to solve it – by focusing on yourself.
You are focusing too much on yourself
Why you brought focus on yourself? Because you have a belief that, ‘Failure in acceptance of proposal means about me.’ Somehow you have set a ‘rule’ for yourself that, say, ‘Smart people never get rejections. Since I am not smart so I will face rejections.’ So when this ‘rule’ is experienced (which is nothing more than a combination of two irrational, factless statements), you find the rule justified (because you cannot deny what really just happened), and you bring the focus on yourself to evaluate yourself more. You actually began ‘ruminating’ about yourself.
This Ruminative Self-Focus (RSF), which can also be labeled in common parlance as ‘overthinking’ or ‘negative thinking’, traps you in a never ending cycle of repetitive negative thoughts about yourself. The more you think this way, the more this thinking pattern becomes automatic and rapid. The result is that you develop a strong belief about your incapability of finding a partner ever, and you keep facing feelings of rejection whenever you want to propose a person you like. In the long run, you may withdraw from forming a relationship altogether and may develop various fears too, for example, fear of intimacy, sexual insecurity, or other anxiety disorder.
External focus makes you rational
What went wrong with you? Did you experience anything which no one else does? Obviously not. Almost everyone faces rejection in relationships at least once or twice. So what you faced is quite normal. Do you really lack something in your personality to become a suitable partner? Obviously not. What evidence do we have that you are not capable of forming a relationship due to your qualities? Nothing. Then why did you become ruminative and anxious? You just focused on yourself, but you did not solve the problem. What could be the right way of solving this problem? Obviously your negative thoughts could be triggered by the failure.
Anyone in your place would think why this rejection happened. But instead of immediately jumping onto some conclusion about yourself (giving a justification to that ‘rule’ you set for yourself), you could have thought about some ‘external’ aspects of this situation. ‘Does he have some partner?, May be he has a different choice?, He told me that he doesn’t want to be in a relationship right now, Maybe he needs some more time to think and decide, He had a recent breakup and I think I have made a fool of myself, He was not expecting this from me so he is surprised and won’t accept my proposal immediately; Let me ask him what’s in his mind.’ And so on. What’s the difference here? The focus is on the other person. That means, focus is external, not internal. External focus takes on a rational basis when we try to evaluate the situation based on facts, rather than assumptions. Then we solve the problem.
Break old patterns and form newer ones
The more we think in a particular way, the more it becomes a habit and a fixed pattern. We must keep in mind that human mind adapts to patterns and associations, which are repeated. If negative assumptions about self are repeated, then they would become relatively permanent with almost inevitable consequences. These assumptions would enter the consciousness in the form of thoughts which would make us distressed and anxious. The person experiencing all this would certainly find himself in a trap. To break this cycle and chain of repetitive thoughts, one needs to create new associations among thoughts which are evidence based, rational, and involve external focus. External focus is of chief importance here, because it will help to look at the incident and other people involved in it, that will not trigger the negative self-evaluations already existent inside the mind due to past experiences.
Rumination doesn’t solve anything
During rumination you are not solving anything, you are not reaching any productive conclusion. You just overthink and over-reflect, counter-productively. You overwhelm yourself with so many negative emotions like depression, anxiety, anger, and fear, that it becomes difficult to escape this recursive trap. Brain responds to threats, and negative emotions signal threats. So brain shows more urgency in learning negative thoughts as they signal danger. So in an attempt to seek safety, brain memorises negative associations more eagerly and deeply. Whenever a new but similar situation arises, brain triggers all that it has stored in the form of associations. That’s why it is difficult to resolve negative thoughts in any disordered state. Brain gets locked up inside its trap of worries, because external world is now perceived as threatening. So to come out of this trap, you require courage and strength. You need to use this strength to practise focusing externally. You need courage to make your inner world more safe and secure.
What an irony here that you have to escape a self-created trap, in order to get out of your own mental blocks. You don’t have to travel anywhere in the outer world, but just have to leave that trap and move out from your self-created cycles of thoughts and emotions. The dangers are within. To create an inner safer world, to clear your consciousness of these negative images and thoughts, you need to move step-by-step by gathering courage and strength that would again come from within. A therapist may be an external window to show you that world of inner strengths. Therapist may act as a mirror upon whom you may reflect your inner world, but this reflective work would be just a beginning. The path has to be trodden by you. Therapist will provide you directions. Once you will discover those strengths and capabilities that are required to escape that mental trap, you will find yourself in a safer land of inner calmness. In gradual time you will be victorious of your inner battle. The choice is yours.
Tarun Verma is a PhD student at the Department of Applied Psychology, South Campus, University of Delhi.
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