Imagine undergoing an incident of failure, say, asking a person to initiate a romantic relationship. That person does not accept your proposal. What would be the first thoughts that pop into your mind afterwards? ‘Am I not worthy?’, ‘Don’t I look smart?’, ‘Why they did do that to me?’, ‘Which aspect of me do they find unsuitable?’, ‘Will I get another person better than them?’, and so on.
Immediately after experiencing failure in getting a partner of your choice, you focused on yourself. You were bothered about aspects of yourself that you wanted 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 did you put the focus on yourself? Because you have a belief: ‘Failure in the acceptance of a proposal means it’s about me.’ Somehow you have set a ‘rule’ for yourself: ‘Smart people never get rejections. Since I am not smart, 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 labelled 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 ever finding a partner, and you keep facing feelings of rejection whenever you want to propose to 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 some other anxiety disorder.
External focus makes you rational
What went wrong with you? Did you experience something that 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 about why this rejection happened. But instead of immediately jumping to some conclusion about yourself (giving justification to that ‘rule’ you set for yourself), you could have thought about some ‘external’ aspects of this situation.
‘Do they have a partner already?’, ‘Maybe they have a different preference’, ‘They told me that they don’t want to be in a relationship right now’, ‘Maybe they need some more time to think and decide’, ‘They had a recent breakup and I think I have made a fool of myself’, ‘They were not expecting this from me so they are surprised and won’t accept my proposal immediately’, ‘Let me ask them what’s on their mind’, and so on.
What’s the difference here? The focus is on the other person. That means the 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 the human mind adapts to patterns and associations, which are repeated. If negative assumptions about the self are repeated, then they will become relatively permanent with almost inevitable consequences. These assumptions will enter our consciousness in the form of thoughts that will make us distressed and anxious. The person experiencing all this would certainly find themselves in a trap. To break this cycle and chain of repetitive thoughts, one needs to create new associations among thoughts that 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, which will not trigger the negative self-evaluations already existing 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. The brain responds to threats and negative emotions signal threats. So, the brain shows more urgency in learning negative thoughts as they signal danger. Thus, in an attempt to seek safety, the brain memorises negative associations more eagerly and deeply. Whenever a new but similar situation arises, the 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. The brain gets locked up inside its trap of worries because the 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 the 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 safer inner 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. A 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. The therapist will provide you with 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. Gradually, over time, you will be victorious in your inner battle. The choice is yours.
Tarun Verma is a PhD student at the Department of Applied Psychology at the University of Delhi.