Insight: Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life - Tasha Eurich 2017
Thinking Isn’t Knowing: The Four Follies of Introspection
Part Two: Internal Self-Awareness—Myths and Truths
Why should we not calmly and patiently review our own thoughts, and thoroughly examine and see what these appearances in us really are?
It was a Tuesday evening around 11 p.m. Holed up in my dark office and lit only by the glare of my computer monitor, I sat staring at a set of freshly analyzed data. To say that I was perplexed would be an understatement. A few weeks earlier, my team and I had run a study looking at the relationship between self-reflection and outcomes like happiness, stress, and job satisfaction. I was confident that the results would yield few surprises. Naturally, people who spent time and energy examining themselves would have a clearer understanding of themselves.
But to my utter astonishment, our data told the exact opposite story. (In fact, when I first saw them, I thought we’d done the analyses wrong.) The results revealed that people who scored high on self-reflection were more stressed, depressed, and anxious, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed, and felt less in control of their lives—and to boot, these negative consequences increased the more they reflected! What on earth was going on!?
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’d just stumbled upon a shocking myth about self-awareness—one that researchers were only beginning to understand. A few years earlier, when University of Sydney coaching psychologist Anthony Grant was examining the same phenomenon, he discovered that people who possess greater insight—which he defines as an intuitive understanding of ourselves—enjoy stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose, and greater well-being, self-acceptance, and happiness. Other similar studies have shown that people high in insight feel more in control of their lives, show more dramatic personal growth, enjoy better relationships, and feel calmer and more content. So far so good, right?
But Grant also found that there was no relationship between introspection and insight. The act of thinking about ourselves wasn’t correlated with knowing ourselves. In fact, in a few cases, he found the opposite: the more time the participants spent in introspection, the less self-knowledge they had (yes, you read that right). In other words, we can spend endless amounts of time in self-reflection but emerge with no more self-insight than when we started.
This capacity for self-examination is uniquely human. Though chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and even pigeons can recognize their images in a mirror, human beings are the only species with the capacity for introspection—that is, the ability to consciously examine our thoughts, feelings, motives, and behaviors.*1 For thousands of years, introspection was seen as a beneficial, error-free activity. In the seventeenth century, for instance, philosopher Rene Descartes argued that the only knowledge of any value emerged from examining ourselves. In the early twentieth century, pioneering psychologist Wilhelm Wundt used introspection as a central component of his research on perception and consciousness. And in a more modern albeit less scientific example, a post-takeout-dinner fortune cookie recently advised me: “Turn your thoughts within. Find yourself.”
Fortune-cookie wisdom aside, introspection is arguably the most universally hailed path to self-awareness—or at least internal self-awareness, which is the focus of this chapter. After all, what better way is there to increase our self-knowledge than to look inward; to delve deeply into our experiences and emotions; to understand why we are the way we are? We might be trying to understand our feelings (Why am I so upset after that meeting?), questioning our beliefs (Do I really believe what I think I believe?), figuring out our future (What career would make me truly happy?), or trying to explain a negative outcome or pattern (Why do I beat myself up so much for minor mistakes?).
But my study results—along with Grant’s and others—clearly show that this kind of self-reflection doesn’t help us become more self-aware. And when I decided to dive head-first into the literature on introspection, I learned that what I’d uncovered was just the tip of the iceberg. One study, for example, examined the coping style and subsequent adjustment of men who had just lost a partner to AIDS. Those who engaged in introspection (such as reflecting on how they would deal with life without their partner) had higher morale in the month following their loss, but were more depressed one year later. Another study of more than 14,000 university students showed that introspection was associated with poorer well-being. Still other research suggests that self-analyzers tend to have more anxiety, less positive social experiences, and more negative attitudes about themselves.
To help understand why, let’s look at Karen, a 37-year-old real estate agent. Despite having a successful career, Karen has struggled in her personal life. When she was just 19, she fell in love with a musician whom she married just two weeks later. But one short year into their marriage, her husband abruptly left her. Eventually, Karen remarried, this time to another real estate professional whom she’d met through work. And though her second marriage lasted longer than her first, it also ended in divorce, leaving her wondering where she had gone wrong.
As she carefully examines her life, Karen keeps coming back to what she sees as the central trauma of her childhood: at just one week old, her birth parents put her up for adoption. Though she cherishes her adopted parents, Karen has never really gotten over these feelings of abandonment. Why, she asks herself over and over, did her birth parents give her up? After untold hours of reflection, Karen has come to believe that all of her current problems—in relationships and life—can be traced back to her birth parents’ rejection. With this nugget in hand, Karen concludes that her relationship issues are a product of her history and thus all but inevitable.
Just like Karen, most people believe that the answers to our inner mysteries lie deep within us, and that it’s our job to uncover them—either on our own or with the help of a therapist or loved one. Yet as my research revealed, the assumption that introspection begets self-awareness is a myth. In truth, it can cloud and confuse our self-perceptions, unleashing a whole host of unintended consequences. Unquestionably, Karen approached her introspective exercise with the earnest goal of better understanding herself. But without her realizing it, the process became what self-awareness researcher Timothy Wilson calls “disruptive.” Continually asking herself why her birth parents gave her up is the wrong question: not only is it distracting, it surfaces unproductive and upsetting emotions that won’t help Karen move forward in a healthy way.
Introspection can also lull us into a false sense of certainty that we have identified the real issue, as it did for Karen. But according to Buddhist scholar Tirthang Tulku, we can’t always trust what we see when we look inward. Our “belief in this image,” he notes, “draws us away from the true qualities of our nature…[and] prevents us from seeing ourselves clearly.” He uses an apt analogy: when we introspect, our response is similar to a hungry cat watching mice. In other words, we eagerly pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value. And even though they might feel helpful, on their own they’re unlikely to actually help us improve our internal self-awareness.
Now if you’re someone who values introspection—perhaps you have a therapist, or you enjoy taking long, reflective walks, or you simply take pride in being in touch with yourself—these findings might be concerning. But we need not despair. The problem with introspection, it turns out, isn’t that it’s categorically ineffective, but that many people are doing it completely wrong. In this chapter, I’ll overturn the four biggest myths, or follies, of this practice, exposing why each doesn’t work the way we think it does and how approaching introspection a bit differently can yield deeper insight about who we are.
Folly #1: The Myth of the Padlocked Basement (or Why We Can’t Excavate Our Unconscious)
Betty Draper enters her psychoanalyst’s office, removes her scarf and coat, and carefully collapses onto a black leather couch. Without a word, the psychoanalyst solemnly sinks into an armchair behind her, notepad in hand. Betty sighs deeply, pauses for a moment, and begins to reflect on her feelings about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and how stressful it is for her. Conveniently out of Betty’s sight, her therapist stares at his notepad without interjecting, save for a few utterances of “uh-huh” throughout her soliloquy.
“This has helped,” Betty confidently states at the conclusion of her session. But has it, really? This scene, set in 1961, is from Season 1 of the television show Mad Men. Betty has sought psychoanalysis to deal with her unrelenting feelings of anxiety. Yet months into her treatment, she fails to see any improvement and her husband, Don, begins to grow impatient about Betty’s progress. “It’s a process,” the analyst reassures him, “you’ve got to trust the process.”
The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, would have likely told Don Draper the same thing. Underpinning his famous theory, which he developed in 1896 and practiced for the remaining 40 years of his career, was the idea that there exists a hidden part of the human psyche lurking below our consciousness—one that cleverly represses important information about ourselves. It was the psychoanalyst’s job to excavate these sometimes painful insights through deep and focused analysis, which could often take many years. (In Betty Draper’s case, she may have been confined to her therapist’s couch for the next decade had she not learned that he was reporting their conversations back to her husband—an ethical no-no, even back then.) And as you’re about to see, whether or not you’re in therapy, Freud’s psychoanalytic approach created arguably the strongest, most persistent myth of internal self-awareness.
While Freud’s theories were mostly met with respect and reverence in the twentieth century, the twenty-first has not been so kind. Psychologist Todd Dufresne, for example, didn’t hedge his bets about Freud when he concluded that “no other notable figure in history was so fantastically wrong about nearly every important thing he had to say.” Freud has been appropriately criticized for failing to scientifically test his approach, with some even accusing him of unethical behavior, like falsifying patient files to fit more neatly into his theories. Many contend that his methods were ineffective at best, and that he may have actually worsened some of his patients’ mental health. Take the famous case of “The Wolfman,” Sergius Pankejeff, whom Freud supposedly cured of his crippling anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, Pankejeff didn’t share Freud’s sentiments, enduring psychoanalysis for another 60 years and calling the psychoanalyst’s impact on his life a “catastrophe.”
And while much of Freud’s work has been largely discredited, his enduring influence on our assumptions about introspection simply cannot be overstated. Most people still believe in the now-debunked promise that we can extract self-insight through deep psychological excavation—whether it’s through therapy or any other dedicated approach to self-examination.*2 Though Freud was correct in identifying the existence of the unconscious, he completely missed the boat on how it worked. Specifically, where Freud believed that our unconscious thoughts, motives, feelings, and behaviors could be accessed through psychoanalysis, research has unequivocally shown that we can’t uncover them, no matter how hard we try. It’s as though our unconscious were trapped in a basement behind a padlocked door, and Freud believed he’d found the key. But modern scientists have shown that there actually is no key (not unlike the spoon that wasn’t in The Matrix). Our subconscious, in other words, is less like a padlocked door and more like a hermetically sealed vault.
But if Freud’s techniques don’t produce insight, is this an indictment of all attempts to excavate our unconscious—most notably therapy—as a means to do it?*3 Certainly, therapy serves many empirically supported purposes, like helping spouses and families better understand one another and treating disorders like depression and anxiety. But some findings should give us pause in assuming that it universally improves self-insight. First, placebo effects may explain up to half of therapy’s efficacy—in other words, just thinking that it helps us is part of what makes it help us. What’s more, as counseling psychologist Jennifer Lyke points out, the most important predictor of success isn’t the technique the therapist uses, but the relationship she has with her client. However, the fact that some people—including 20 percent of our unicorns—have successfully used therapy as a path to insight means we shouldn’t dismiss it completely.
So the right question probably isn’t “Does therapy work?” but instead “How can we approach therapy to maximize insight?”*4 Because it can help—to a certain extent, under certain conditions, and particularly if we approach it intelligently and acknowledge its potential limitations.
The first imperative is to choose the right approach—one that focuses less on the process of introspection and more on the outcome of insight (i.e., each of the Seven Pillars, like our values, reactions, patterns, etc.). “The danger of too much introspection in therapy,” Dr. Lara Fielding, a Los Angeles—based clinical psychologist, says, “is that we spin a story that gets us stuck.” In other words, rather than getting wrapped up in how broken we are, we should be focusing on what we can learn and how to move forward. One such approach is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. Fielding, who specializes in CBT, explains that the goal is to use “skillful self-reflection” to unearth our unproductive thinking and behavior patterns so we can make better choices in the future. In the case of Karen, for example, this approach might help her recognize the residual trauma from her adoption and turn her focus to loosening her grip on it, changing the patterns of behavior that aren’t serving her, and moving forward with understanding and purpose.
Another tip is to adopt a flexible mindset, which is applicable both within and outside the confines of a therapist’s office. A flexible mindset means remaining open to several truths and explanations, rather than seeking, as Freud often did, one root cause to explain a broad range of feelings and behaviors. This involves letting go of a desire for something that Turkish psychologist Omer Simsek calls the need for absolute truth. Unquestionably, a common motivation for introspection (or even to buy a book like this one) is to finally figure ourselves out, once and for all.
Yet paradoxically, the search for this kind of rigid and unequivocal certainty about ourselves is the enemy of internal self-awareness. Why? It blinds us to the many nuances in how we think, feel, behave, and interact with the world around us. Simsek observes that it can “hinder the search for, or creation of, alternative viewpoints to the problems [we] experience [and therefore] can undermine the usefulness of…self-reflection.” Not only does a quest for absolute truth result in less insight, it can have unintended consequences such as depression, anxiety, and rumination (which we’ll return to shortly). And, counterintuitively, my research shows that when self-aware people let go of this need, the more self-aware they become, whether or not they seek therapy. (For a quick diagnostic of your need for absolute truth, see appendix J.)
So what, then, is the role of therapy in internal self-awareness? It is probably best to see it as a tool to seek a new perspective and help us explore our own. As one unicorn put it, a therapist’s value is in “holding a mirror to our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.” More broadly, introspection should be a process of open and curious exploration rather than a search for definitive answers. Kelsey, a middle school science teacher and unicorn we’ll meet later in the book, likens the quest for self-knowledge to space exploration: “There is so little we know, but that’s what makes it so exciting.” The bottom line is that it’s virtually impossible to find singular causes for anything in our complicated world, let alone our own messy thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, but letting go of this need helps set the stage for self-awareness.
Folly #2: Why Not Ask Why?
Think about your favorite movie, book, or TV show. If I asked you to describe why you like it, what would you say? At first, it might be difficult to articulate. I don’t know—The Great Gatsby is just a really good book. But after some thought, you’d probably come up with a few reasons. The characters are interesting. Fitzgerald’s prose is crisp and smart. And I’ve always really liked Long Island. If I asked how confident you were about those reasons, you’d likely say you were pretty sure. But you’d likely be as wrong as you were confident. Though most of us think we’re a credible authority on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, there is a stunning amount of evidence showing that we’re often remarkably mistaken.
In one study that’s equal parts hilarious and enlightening, a pair of Harvard Business School professors showed male college students different issues of a sports magazine. They varied the number of sports covered, the number of feature articles, and the theme of the issue, which was either a “top ten athletes” ranking or photos of women in swimsuits. For half the participants, the swimsuit issue covered more sports, and for the other half, it contained more feature articles. The researchers then asked their eager subjects which magazine they preferred and to rank the criteria used to make their choice (e.g., number of sports, feature articles, etc.). In the category of “findings that surprised absolutely no one,” the male students overwhelmingly preferred the swimsuit issue.
But when asked to explain why, something interesting happened: they inflated the importance of the magazine’s other attributes—regardless of what they were—to justify their (clearly hormonal) preference. If their swimsuit issue covered more sports, they listed that as the reason; the same thing happened for the issue with more feature articles. And lest we label this tendency to rationalize our preferences as hilarious but innocuous, similar findings have emerged in high-stakes situations, like the tendency to hire men over women for stereotypically male jobs.
Yet when it comes to preferring a swimsuit magazine or hiring a man over a woman, isn’t it possible that we know the real reason for our behavior but just don’t want to admit it to others? For the answer, let’s turn to one of the most famous studies in psychology. Even if you’ve read about it before, it’s instructive in showing just how clueless we are about why we behave the way we do. In the 1970s, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a creative study in the Capilano River Regional Park in Vancouver, Canada. Their subjects were tourists visiting the park who had just crossed one of two bridges. The first was sturdy and not particularly scary-looking. The second was a suspension bridge hovering 240 feet in the air. Imagine how you would feel walking across this:
Dutton and Aron hired an attractive woman to stand at the end of each bridge and invite male passersby to take a short survey, after which she would give them her phone number in case they “wanted to talk further.” In reality, they wanted to see how many men would call to ask her out after the study. The idea was that those crossing the suspension bridge would experience a rush of excitement and attribute it to the woman, making them more likely to call her. And that’s exactly what happened. Versus only 12 percent of the sturdy-bridge crossers, 50 percent of the men who crossed the suspension bridge picked up the phone.
But when Dutton and Aron asked the men why they called, do you think anyone said, “Walking across the rickety suspension bridge led to a state of autonomic arousal, but rather than attributing the cause of my increased heart rate, dry mouth, and sweaty palms to a fear of plunging to my death, I misattributed them to the woman I saw at the end of it”? Of course not. Their comments were more like, “I called her because she was pretty.” Obviously, the female confederate looked the same in both the conditions, so that can’t be the whole story. More likely, it was simply the most reasonable and logical explanation, so the men latched on to it without any further questioning. As Ben Franklin once said, “so convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
The bottom line is that when we ask why, that is, examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we are generally searching for the easiest and most plausible answer. Sadly, though, once we have found one, we generally stop looking—despite having no way of knowing whether our answer is right or wrong. Sometimes this is a result of something called “confirmation bias,” which can prompt us to invent reasons that confirm our existing beliefs—and since our answers reflect how we see ourselves, we accept them as true. If I see myself as literary, I’ll list Fitzgerald’s crisp prose as the reason why I love The Great Gatsby, or if I fancy myself an astute study of the human psyche, I might cite the complexity of his characters. This is just one example of how asking “why” can simultaneously muddy the waters while giving us an inflated sense of confidence in our newfound “insight.”
Asking why can also cause our often lazy brains to mislead us. Let’s say that I ask you to list all the reasons why your relationship is going the way it is. And let’s say that last night, your spouse stayed out at the office happy hour later than planned, leaving you alone to cook dinner for your visiting, and rather dull, in-laws. Because of something called the “recency effect,” this could be your most salient thought about your relationship—so when you’re asked why the relationship is going the way it is, your brain might misdirect you to the first available explanation—he doesn’t spend enough time at home and leaves me to deal with his parents—even though that behavior is actually rare and out of character. Likewise, if instead of leaving you alone with your in-laws, your otherwise unavailable spouse had surprised you with a weekend getaway, your brain might mislead you to think your relationship is in better shape than it really is.
Asking why can also reduce the quality of our decisions. In one study, researchers asked self-described basketball experts to predict the outcomes of national tournament basketball games. Half analyzed the reasons for their predictions prior to making them, and half were simply asked to make their predictions. Astonishingly, those who questioned their choices predicted far fewer winners than those who didn’t—once they started to overthink things, their expertise went out the window. Other investigations have shown that asking why reduces our satisfaction with the choices we make.
A final reason that makes asking why disruptive is the negative impact it has on our overall mental health. In one study, after British university students failed what they were told was an intelligence test, they were asked to write about why they felt the way they did. Compared to a control group, they were more depressed immediately afterward, and even 12 hours later. Here, asking why caused the participants to fixate on their problems and place blame instead of moving forward in a healthy and productive way.
So if asking why doesn’t help us better understand our true thoughts and emotions, what should we ask? A study by psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann provides a shockingly simple answer. After telling a group of undergraduates that two raters would be evaluating their personality based on a test of “sociability, likeability and interestingness” that they’d taken earlier in the semester, the researchers asked the students to judge the accuracy of their results (which were actually exactly the same for everyone: one rater gave a positive evaluation and the other gave a negative one). Before making their accuracy judgments, some participants were given time to think about why they were the kind of person they were and others were asked to think about what kind of person they were.
The “why” students, it turned out, were resistant to the negative evaluation: instead of accepting or even considering it, they spent their time “rationaliz[ing], justify[ing], and explain[ing] [it] away.” The “what” students, on the other hand, were more receptive to that same new data, and to the notion that it could help them better understand themselves. The lesson here is that asking “what” keeps us open to discovering new information about ourselves, even if that information is negative or in conflict with our existing beliefs. Asking “why” has an essentially opposite effect.
Given all of this, it makes sense that our unicorns reported asking “what” often and “why” rarely. In fact, when we analyzed the transcripts of our interviews, the word “why” appeared less than 150 times, but the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times! One unicorn, a 42-year-old mother who bravely walked away from a career as a lawyer when she finally realized that there was no joy for her in that path, explained it well:
If you ask why, you’re putting yourself into a victim mentality. People end up in therapy forever for that. When I feel anything other than peace, I say “What’s going on?” “What am I feeling?” “What is the dialogue inside my head?” “What’s another way to see this situation?” “What can I do to respond better?”
So when it comes to internal self-awareness, a simple tool that can have a rather dramatic impact is one I call What Not Why. Let’s look at an example of it in action. Recently, I was talking with my good friend Dan. Having run his own business for many years, Dan is living the good life: he makes tons of money, lives in a huge house, and works from home a few hours a week when he isn’t traveling to exotic destinations. Which is why I was stunned to hear him say, “I am so unhappy. I think I need to sell my company. But I don’t know what else I want to do.”
This situation presented an opportunity: with geeky glee, I asked Dan if I could practice my new tool on him. He agreed. When I first inquired “Why do you want to change what you’re doing?,” Dan let out a huge, hopeless sigh and started rattling off all of his personal shortcomings: “I’m bored too easily. I’ve gotten cynical. I don’t know if I’m making any difference in the world.” The “why” question had the effect I’d predicted: not only did it fail to produce useful insight, but Dan became, if anything, more confused when he tried to figure out why the spark had disappeared. So I quickly changed course: “What do you dislike about what you’re doing?” He thought for a moment. “I dislike sitting in front of my computer and remotely leading a company—and don’t even get me started on the time zones. I just feel burnt out and disconnected.”
“Okay, that’s helpful,” I replied. “What do you like?” Without hesitation, Dan replied, “Speaking. I really like speaking.” He told me that when he was in front of an audience, he could make an immediate impact. I knew the feeling, and could see the spark right away. This realization made Dan immediately more focused and clear-headed—he began to think about whether he could adapt his current role to spend more time sharing his message.
I could have asked Dan why questions for hours and he’d likely have ended the conversation with no more insight, and probably in a much worse mood. But less than five minutes of what questions had drawn out a high-value discovery and a potential solution to his problem. Dan’s experience is illustrative: Why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future.
Indeed, making the transition from why to what can be the difference between victimhood and growth. When Paul, the executive, unicorn, and neighborhood association activist we met earlier, moved back to the United States after a stint in Germany, he made the decision to purchase a small ceramics manufacturing company. Despite its aging equipment, his due diligence suggested that this was a little company that could: it had weathered the recession and boasted a stable of tenured employees. But right out of the gate, Paul’s employees resisted the improvements he began to make, creating delays that hurt the company’s already bleeding balance sheet. He quickly learned that he’d been too optimistic with both his budgets and his cash reserves.
At this point, Paul was tempted to go down the dangerous road of why. Why wasn’t he able to turn things around? Why didn’t he do a better job with his financial projections? Why wouldn’t his employees listen to him? But he knew that these questions weren’t productive. So instead, he asked himself, what now? Paul explored three equally unattractive options: he could burn through his savings, he could take out a massive loan, or he could close the business. He chose to close the business. And here he asked what again. What do I need to do to close up shop? What can I do to lessen the impact on my customers? What can I do to realize the maximum value of the business?
Armed with these insights, Paul created a plan and began to execute it. Because he stayed clear-headed, he was even able to find creative ways to do good for others while winding things down; for example, when he had more unfinished ceramics products than buyers, he offered the inventory to nearby paint-your-own ceramics shops, who were downright overjoyed at the windfall. He did the same thing with his equipment, donating much of it to schools and non-profits. Paul turned what could have been a shattering earthquake event into a chance to show what he was made of.
In addition to helping us gain insight to our problems, the What Not Why tool can also be used to help us better understand and manage our emotions. Seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict de Spinoza observed that “an emotion, which is a passion, ceases to be a passion as soon as we form a clear and distinct idea thereof. [The emotion] becomes more under our control, and the mind is less passive in respect to it.”
Let’s say you’re in a terrible mood after work one day. We already know that asking Why do I feel this way? should come with a warning label. It’s likely to elicit such unhelpful answers as because I hate Mondays! or because I’m just a negative person! What if you instead asked What am I feeling right now? Perhaps you’d realize that you’re overwhelmed at work, exhausted, and hungry. Rather than blindly reacting to these feelings, you take a step back, decide to fix yourself dinner, call a friend for some advice about how to manage your work stress, and commit to an early bedtime.
Asking what instead of why forces us to name our emotions, a process that a strong body of research has shown to be effective. Evidence shows that the simple act of translating our emotions into language—versus simply experiencing them—can stop our brains from activating our amygdala, the fight-or-flight command center, and this in turn helps us stay in control. If this sounds too simple to be true, try naming your feelings for a week and see what you notice.
All this being said, however, the notion of asking what instead of why may still be difficult for some people to digest, especially if you’ve been to business school and/or are trained in techniques like root-cause analysis. In his book How the Mighty Fall, business author Jim Collins even says that when companies get wrapped up in what they are and don’t understand why they got that way, they risk becoming extinct. This highlights an important exception to the rule: when navigating business challenges or solving problems in your team or your organization, asking why is critical. For example, if an employee drops the ball on an important client project, not exploring why it happened means you risk recurrences of the problem. Or if a new product fails, you need to know the reason to ensure that products are better in the future. A good rule of thumb, then, is that why questions are generally better to help us understand our environment and what questions are generally better to help us understand ourselves.
Folly #3: Keeping a Journal
Charley Kempthorne has been keeping a journal for more than 50 years. Every morning before the sun is in the sky, the professor-turned-painter carefully types out at least 1,000 words reflecting on his past, his beliefs, his family, even his shortcomings. (His long-held habit of longhand writing was put to bed in the 1980s when he impulse-purchased a Broth Word Processor during a trip to Sears.) The prolific fruits of his labor reside in an impressive storage facility in Manhattan, Kansas, where his estimated ten million words are printed, bound, and filed. This project, Kempthorne says, is an end in itself: “It helps me understand my life…or maybe,” he hedges, “it just makes me feel better and get [the day] started in a better mood.” But Kempthorne (along with any journaling junkie) might be disappointed to learn that his enduring exercise may not have actually improved his self-awareness.
At this point, you’re probably convinced that I’ve gone completely off the deep end. Everyone knows, you might be thinking, that journaling is one of the most effective ways to get in touch with our inner self! However, a growing body of research suggests that introspection via journaling has some surprising traps that can suck the insight right out of the experience. My own research, for example, has shown that people who keep journals generally have no more internal (or external) self-awareness than those who don’t, with one small but important exception that I’ll reveal in a moment. In another study, students who reported keeping diaries showed more self-reflection but less insight—and to boot, the journalers were more anxious.
And yet, 35 percent of our unicorns reported keeping a journal. How can we make sense of these peculiar and seemingly contradictory findings? The resolution lies not in questioning whether journaling is the right thing to do, but instead discovering how to do journaling right.
Psychologist James Pennebaker’s decades-long research program on something he calls expressive writing provides powerful direction in finding the answer. It involves writing, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, our “deepest thoughts and feelings about issues that have made a big impact on [our] lives.” In the 30-plus years during which Pennebaker has been guiding people through this exercise, he has found that it helps virtually everyone who’s experienced a significant challenge. Even though some people find writing about their struggles to be distressing in the short term, nearly all see longer-term improvements in their mood and well-being.
Pennebaker and his colleagues have shown that people who engage in expressive writing have better memories, higher grade point averages, less absenteeism from work, and quicker re-employment after job loss. Expressive writing has even been shown to help collegiate tennis players improve their games. And fascinatingly, the physical benefits can be as dramatic as the psychological ones. In one study, undergraduates who completed Pennebaker’s journaling exercise for just four days had stronger immune systems and fewer doctor’s visits than a control group almost two months later.
Intuitively, one might think that the more we study positive events in our journal entries, the more psychological benefits we’ll reap from the experience. But this too is a myth. In one study, participants wrote about one of their happiest times for eight minutes a day over the course of three days. Some were told to extensively analyze the event and others were instructed to simply relive it. The analyzers showed less personal growth, self-acceptance, and well-being than those who relived it. But why was this the case? As G. K. Chesterton perceptively observed, “Happiness is a mystery like religion, and should never be rationalized”—that is, by examining positive moments too closely, we suck the joy right out of them. Instead, if we simply focus on reliving our happy memories, it’s relatively easy to avoid this trap. Therefore, the first take-home in seeking insight from journaling is to explore the negative and not overthink the positive.
When we explore our negative events through expressive writing, we’ll generally get the most payoff when we see it as an opportunity for learning and growth. Pennebaker notes that journalers “who talk about things over and over in the same ways aren’t getting any better. There has to be growth, change, or closure in the way they view their experiences.” Mr. Kempthorne, for example, smartly evolved his approach. His self-described “pompous” early entries focused too intensely on introspection; now, he says, he writes “short narrative scenes,” which help him make better sense of his feelings and experiences. Those who benefit most from expressive writing tend to start with incoherent, disorganized perceptions of their problems and finish with a coherent, meaningful narrative (we’ll come back to this idea in the next chapter).*5 In that way, journaling is similar to therapy: if used as a means of exploration—of holding up a mirror—it can help us make sense of the past and the present and move forward more productively in the future.
Another trap journalers can fall prey to is using the activity solely as an outlet for discharging emotions. Interestingly, the myriad benefits of expressive writing only emerge when we write about both the factual and the emotional aspects of the events we’re describing—neither on its own is effective in producing insight. Logically, this makes sense: if we don’t explore our emotions, we’re not fully processing the experience, and if we don’t explore the facts, we risk getting sucked into an unproductive spiral. True insight only happens when we process both our thoughts and our feelings.
But we also need to guard against turning journaling into an exercise in self-absorption. Remember that our unicorns spent more time—on social media and in face-to-face interactions—focused on things other than themselves. The same can be said for the practice of journaling. Earlier, I mentioned that the journalers in our study were no more internally self-aware than non-journalers in every area but one: where many people see journaling as an opportunity to explore their inner workings, the truly self-aware know it can also help them understand their impact on others. Accordingly, our unicorns who journaled often reported exploring other people’s perspectives in their entries. One told us a story in which she and a friend had a difficult talk, which ended in her friend crying for reasons she didn’t understand. She waited a while, and when she was ready, she wrote about the conversation from her friend’s point of view. The exercise gave her immediate insight that helped her understand her friend’s reaction and gain a more objective perspective on her own.
The final thing to keep in mind about journaling should be welcome news to everyone but Mr. Kempthorne. To ensure maximum benefits, it’s probably best that you don’t write every day. It’s true: Pennebaker and his colleagues have shown that writing every few days is better than writing for many days in a row. “I’m not even convinced,” Pennebaker says, “that people should write about a horrible event for more than a couple of weeks. You risk getting into a sort of navel gazing or cycle of self-pity. But standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.” And indeed, few unicorns reported writing in their journals every day. Jeff, the architect-turned-entrepreneur we met a few chapters back, told us that he journals only when he’s trying to make a difficult decision. Like other unicorns, he uses the process to make sense of his life on a broader level rather than a daily means of psychological excavation.
Of course, if you’re a prolific journaler, the right approach may require some restraint. But with a little self-discipline, you can easily train yourself to write less and learn more. If you currently write daily, start by limiting yourself to every other day, then every third day, then try easing into just once a week. Mark the journal days in your calendar, and keep a few Post-it notes handy to jog your memory about what topics you want to tackle.
Folly #4: The Evil Twin of Introspection
If one of the worst things that ever happened to Marcia Donziger was being diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer when she was just 27, one of the best was the overwhelming love and kindness she received from her family and friends as she recovered from surgery and chemotherapy. And while Marcia couldn’t have been more grateful for that support, she learned that with such love and attention came a surprising downside. Marcia felt pressure to personally thank everyone for their kindness and obligated to keep them all updated. She was exhausted from making phone call after phone call, saying the same thing over and over, when all she really wanted to do was rest. Thankfully, Marcia made a full recovery. But she never forgot the unexpected burdens she faced in keeping her loved ones informed.
A few years later, when a close friend of Marcia’s was also diagnosed with cancer, her friend created a simple but effective website to communicate with friends and family. And it got Marcia thinking. What if every cancer patient had access to a free, customized service to post updates, receive messages, access resources, and organize their treatment—all in one place? Not only would such a service help patients’ friends and family rally around them, it would free up their time and energy to heal.
Marcia turned her idea into reality, founding the non-profit organization MyLifeLine.org, which today boasts hundreds of thousands of registered users. She quickly learned that making a non-profit financially viable takes a serious amount of fundraising, often in the form of speeches to potential donors. Luckily, Marcia had always been excellent at talking about this deeply personal cause. That is, until one hot spring afternoon, when she was slated to speak at MyLifeLine.org’s annual Kentucky Derby fundraiser. The year before, her speech had earned a thunderous standing ovation. But today, Marcia felt off her game for some reason, and her pounding migraine wasn’t helping. As she stood at the podium, looking out at her 400 expectant, mint-julep-sipping guests, her mouth was dry and her mind was empty.
And if you think this is the point in the story where I tell you it was all in her head, and that her speech was in fact a stunning success, think again. It was nothing short of a disaster—she spoke too fast, flubbed her words, and at one point completely forgot what she was saying. When it was finally over, the smattering of polite applause she received felt like boos and jeers. And when Marcia mingled among the guests after her speech, no one even mentioned it. (The year before, almost everyone had congratulated her.) She felt it in the pit of her stomach: she knew she’d let the organization down.
That night, Marcia was in tears as she told her family what had happened. And for weeks, she obsessed over her public humiliation. Every morning, she’d wake up feeling embarrassed, replaying her speech—and the audience’s uncomfortable reaction—over and over in her mind. Though her boyfriend kept assuring her that it hadn’t been that bad, Marcia continued her endless self-flagellation.
John Milton once said that the mind “can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.” At some point, I’m sure that you too have found yourself stuck in this kind of endless loop of self-scrutiny—almost everyone does. We might replay a certain conversation in our minds, beat ourselves up about something we did (or didn’t do), or twist ourselves into mental knots trying to figure out why we’re not the person we want to be. How could I have embarrassed myself in front of all those people? Why am I still in this horrible relationship? Why can’t I stop eating those damn cookies and finally lose this holiday weight? And as anyone who has gotten stuck in this cycle knows, we don’t ask ourselves these questions once or twice or even three times—but over and over, to the point that we can think of little else.
This single-minded fixation on our fears, shortcomings, and insecurities has a name: it’s called rumination, and it’s introspection’s evil twin.*6 As you may have guessed, in addition to simply being a mental hell, rumination is also a huge barrier to insight. And just as Marcia discovered, once we fall down the rabbit hole, it’s tough to claw our way out. Sometimes it even gets to the point of ruminating that we can’t stop ruminating!
I believe there is a nefarious character buried deep within each of us. The Ruminator is ready at a moment’s notice to second-guess our choices and remind us where we come up short. Sometimes, when this sly, stealthy creature kicks us down his evil spiral, we are fully aware that it’s happening, though we feel helpless to stop it. But other times, and far more dangerously, the Ruminator tricks us into believing that we’re engaging in productive self-reflection. After all, why else would we put ourselves through such mental self-flagellation if not to gain insight? In Marcia’s case, for instance, it would have been easy to believe that her rumination was serving a useful purpose. If she could understand what went wrong, she’d be able to do a better job next time, right? I sometimes even hear people use the word “ruminate” as a synonym for “reflect” (i.e., “that’s an interesting question; let me ruminate on it for a few days”). This is why rumination is the most insidious of all the follies: not only does it effectively prevent insight, it can masquerade as productive self-reflection.*7 And when it comes to self-awareness, if introspection is disruptive, rumination is disastrous.
At this point, you may be recognizing yourself more and more in the descriptions of such behavior. We all do it, though some more than others (and by the way, you can get a read on how often you ruminate by taking the assessment in appendix K). And although we can ruminate on just about anything, research has shown that we do it most when we feel we don’t measure up in an area that’s especially important to us. A chronic people-pleaser might ruminate about upsetting a close friend; a workaholic might ruminate about a poor performance rating; a devoted mother might ruminate after her surly teenager tells her she’s the worst mom ever.
But “normal” or not, rumination might be costing you more than you think. My own research has shown that frequent ruminators are less satisfied with their lives and relationships, feel less control over their destiny, and are generally less happy. Other research has shown that rumination is related to lower grades, impaired problem solving, worse moods, and poorer-quality sleep.
And when it comes to our mental health, rumination can be a sad, vicious cycle. For example, people who experience depression are more likely to get stuck in ruminative thought patterns, causing them to focus more on their depression and, as a result, feel even worse. Ruminators are also more stressed and anxious even in the absence of depression. In one of the largest studies on stress to date, a survey of more than 32,000 people from 172 countries found that while the number and severity of negative events in people’s lives were the biggest predictors of mental health problems, their rumination levels were also a significant factor in how much stress and anxiety they experienced.
Earlier we learned that introspection can be an obstacle to insight. If that’s the case, rumination might as well be a 50-foot-high blockade. When we’re ruminating, we’re spending so much energy looking at what’s wrong with us that we have no mental energy left to explore any of the pillars of insight. As one of our unicorns said, “If we spend too much time scrutinizing what’s in our rearview mirror, we’re certain to crash into a light post.” That’s why research shows that despite incessantly processing their feelings, ruminators are less accurate at identifying their emotions: their minds are so laser-focused on an incident, reaction, or personal weakness that they miss the larger picture.
Another reason rumination is an enemy of insight is that it’s effectively an avoidance strategy. This might seem odd, given that the process involves endlessly dwelling on our problems. But in reality, when we obsess over the causes and meaning behind negative events, we keep the emotions that come with them at arm’s length, which can often be even more painful for us than the act of ruminating. Indeed, there is a correlation between rumination and other avoidant coping strategies like drinking. In one study of people who had just completed a rehabilitation program for alcohol abuse, ruminators were 70 percent more likely than non-ruminators to relapse to their previous drinking levels. Ruminators have also been shown to avoid the people and situations causing them to ruminate instead of dealing with them directly.
For all these reasons, rumination clearly hurts our ability to accurately read our internal selves. But even though the process is largely an inwardly focused phenomenon, it can also hurt our external self-awareness. For one thing, ruminators are so busy beating themselves up that they neglect to think about how they might be showing up to others. They generally ignore or avoid feedback, lest it send them down the rabbit hole. They therefore tend not just to be poor perspective-takers, but also to be more narcissistic and self-absorbed than non-ruminators.
Now, it’s tempting to assume that self-awareness unicorns are blissfully unencumbered by the malevolent malady of rumination. After all, they are unicorns, right? But even though they ruminate much less often than the rest of us, they aren’t immune—only 7 percent reported never doing it. But we did find that they used two slightly different tactics.
First, unicorns were better at recognizing when the Ruminator was creeping up on them and subsequently better at stopping him in his tracks. In fact, roughly three-fourths employed specific rumination-busting strategies, which we’ll discuss in a moment. Second, they had a more self-accepting attitude about rumination in general. One unicorn, a former teacher and stay-at-home mom of four, explained that “the goal can’t be rumination zero. It is a part of life. My goal is to identify it as quickly as possible, work on a strategy to get out of it, and not be upset with myself about doing it.” Another unicorn (okay, it’s my sister Abby, whom we’ll meet in the next chapter) told us that “rumination is like a storm. It comes through, rains on everything, and then when it’s done, there is blue sky. Funnily, one way I deal with rumination is to not worry about it!”
Let’s circle back to Marcia’s public-speaking catastrophe. What I didn’t mention earlier is that Marcia is also a unicorn, and that this event was a pivotal milestone in her self-awareness journey. While Marcia was tunneling down the rumination rabbit hole, her team at MyLifeLine.org was busy tallying the amount they had raised at the event. When the number was finally in, the CEO gathered her staff in the conference room. She ominously announced, “Well, I’m going to come straight out with it.” Marcia felt sick. She braced herself for the moment an actual dollar amount would be put on her failure, and in front of her entire team no less.
But instead, she heard, “This was the single most successful fundraising event we’ve ever had.” In that moment, Marcia had an epiphany: while she had been obsessing about her speech, everyone else had long forgotten it—after all, they had far more important things to think about. And her less-than-awesome performance had in no way detracted from the success of the event.
Since this realization, Marcia has learned to ask herself the following question whenever she is about to fall down the rabbit hole: Does anyone else care about this as much as I do? When the answer is no, she tries to let it go. And in fact, reminding ourselves that people don’t generally care about our mistakes as much as we think they do was one of our unicorns’ most commonly cited rumination-busting strategies.
Another mindset that can help us combat rumination was originally discovered by child psychologists Carol Dweck and Carol Diener in the 1980s. When Dweck and Diener observed fifth-graders during a problem-solving exercise, they noticed that the children approached the task with one of two distinct mindsets. Some were more concerned with their performance (let’s call them the “do-well” kids), while others placed more importance on learning and improving (the “learn-well” kids). When the children were succeeding, both groups were engaged and happy—no huge surprise there.
When the children began to fail, however, a dramatic difference emerged. The do-well kids became upset and blamed their failings on personal shortcomings (i.e., the Ruminator was out in full force). They also had various “this is stupid, I’m taking my toys and going home” reactions, like bragging about their abilities in other areas or telling the researchers they were bored. And knowing what we now know about rumination, it’s not surprising that two-thirds showed a subsequent decline in their problem-solving abilities.
The learn-well children, on the other hand, reacted completely differently to their failure. In fact, they didn’t see it as a failure at all. One gleefully reported, “I love a challenge” while rubbing his hands together and smacking his lips (which might also be the cutest reaction imaginable). And where the do-well kids fell into a spiral of self-loathing, the learn-well kids’ self-confidence actually improved. Nearly all maintained their problem-solving abilities, with many increasing them substantially.
A learn-well mindset—that is, channeling our thinking to focus on learning over performance—is not only a great rumination-buster; it has also been shown to improve work performance in adults. In one study, for example, the mindset helped medical-supplies salespeople to persist in the face of challenges. Compared with those who had a do-well mindset, the learn-well reps had significantly stronger sales performance over a three-month period.
When things go wrong, are you a “learn-well” or a “do-well” kind of person? Do you fall down the rabbit hole, or do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and reattack the task? (If you’re curious, I’ve included an assessment in appendix L to help you find out.) If you’re more “do-well” than you’d prefer, there is good news: research has repeatedly shown that we have the power to change our mindset. One unicorn shared a wonderful story that illustrates how. Tim, a longtime pharmaceutical executive, had hired a high-level manager without enough due diligence. When the manager crashed and burned, Tim beat himself up about it for days. Luckily, he and his family—Tim’s high school sweetheart and their two grown sons—had booked a ten-day cruise the following week.
One picture-perfect morning, Tim woke up before everyone else and decided to take a walk on the deck. But even with the fresh ocean air swirling around him, he again found himself dwelling on his mistake. Just as the Ruminator was about to hijack his day, he looked out at the ocean and realized something: Even though I made this mistake, the world isn’t going to end, and it’s sure taught me not to do it again. Then, the perfect metaphor presented itself: I have to toss this overboard! So he did—as a result, he was able to enjoy the rest of the week with his family, and return to work a smarter, wiser leader.
Our third rumination-buster is actually a distraction technique. Although this move—which I call hitting pause—feels like the last thing we should do when something is truly vexing us, it’s one of the simplest rumination-busters at our disposal. Instead of replaying our self-doubt on repeat, we can walk away and do something that will take our mind off it. Research shows that the most effective distractions are those that have a fast and positive reward of some kind, like cleaning, seeing friends, or exercising. (I personally believe that few ruminative episodes can withstand a bike ride on a beautiful, sunny Colorado day.) And while I don’t condone permanently running away from the hard stuff, hitting pause helps us come back to our problems later, and with a more level head. Once we get some distance, we start to see them as less upsetting and more solvable—and sometimes they cease to look like problems at all.
The fourth tool is the oddly useful method of thought-stopping, which is similar to hitting pause but doesn’t involve actively stepping away; this pause instead takes place internally. In one study, psychiatric patients were asked to let their minds wander to whatever ruminative thought came into their mind (actual examples from the study: their teeth were decaying; they had touched vomit; they couldn’t stop thinking about women’s buttocks—just your average, run-of-the-mill worries). Then, their therapist yelled “Stop!” while making a sudden noise. As ridiculous as this sounds, it stopped the patients’ rumination right in its tracks. If you don’t have a therapist to follow you around and scream at you, it might help to picture a large stop sign, or to say to yourself I’m not getting anything out of this, and it’s time to stop these thoughts.
Thought-stopping can be especially helpful in combating something I call post-decision rumination (or PDR for short). Once we’ve made a difficult decision, the Ruminator loves to taunt us with questions like “Are you sure you made the right call?” and “Do you know how disastrous it will be if you’re wrong?” But by stirring up so much self-doubt, PDR can paralyze us just when we need to move forward and successfully execute our decision. As a result, it’s easy to see why PDR can be especially dangerous for big decisions like selling a business unit, changing careers, or ending a marriage. So when facing a difficult decision, by all means, deliberate over it as much as you need to—weigh the pros and cons, evaluate different scenarios, seek advice. But once you make it, you have to trust it and move forward. This doesn’t mean ignoring the consequences of our decisions. On the contrary, stopping PDR is what you need to do so you can manage them without the distraction of all that unproductive mental chatter.
Finally, allow me to introduce our last rumination-busting tool, reality checks, by way of an upsetting but instructive personal story. A while back, I was delivering a yearlong leadership development program for a client. Six months in, we sent out a survey to learn how people were feeling about the experience: what they liked and how we could make it better. The results were overwhelmingly positive. But thankfully, they didn’t hold back on how we could improve, and we heard many productive suggestions. I was feeling pretty good, until I read this:
My biggest learning from this program is how much money a consultant can make by presenting banal, trivial, feel-good, recycled and repackaged pop psychology and common sense concepts as innovative leadership training.
Ouch, right? My initial response was to laugh, even though I didn’t actually find it the least bit funny. Then I started to feel like someone had punched me in the stomach. Could he be right? I began to wonder. Has everyone else been thinking this but were too afraid to tell me? Then came the absolute panic. Have I been completely incompetent this whole time?! The Ruminator had come to roost, and he wouldn’t leave for weeks. I just couldn’t stop replaying the comment in my mind. Whenever I met with a client or gave a speech, there it was: Your ideas are trivial and banal. Get out of this line of work immediately. Stop embarrassing yourself.
After weeks of mental anguish, and probably a little too late, I finally decided to call a friend who is a much better consultant than I am. “I’m sorry you had to hear that,” she began after patiently listening to my story. “My first reaction is that I feel sorry for this guy. You’re a phenomenal consultant, and I’d guess that his comment was more about him than it was about you.” I had been so upset that this hadn’t even crossed my mind. “But,” she continued, “let’s assume there’s something productive in his feedback anyway. Do you have any objective evidence that your ideas aren’t original?” (By the way, this question is another superb rumination-buster.)
Her inquiry instantly changed my mindset from I am horrible at my job to Maybe there’s something I can learn from this. “Well,” I ventured, “There aren’t many new things under the sun when it comes to leadership, and I’m certainly not the most creative person in the world. But people tell me that one of my strengths is making fuzzy concepts accessible and actionable, not necessarily that I always tell them something about leadership they didn’t already know.” Then, a blinding flash of the obvious hit me. “Maybe I should just say that at the beginning of my programs.” And ever since then, I have.
The person who wrote that nasty comment almost certainly wasn’t trying to help me, but my friend’s reality check helped me learn from it anyway. Almost to a person, our unicorns reported that when in the grip of rumination, one of the best things we can do is get a reality check from someone we trust. And when we do, there is usually an opportunity for both hope and learning.
You now understand the four biggest follies of introspection: that there is no key to the padlocked basement, that asking ourselves why is as pointless as it is dangerous, that journaling doesn’t always increase self-knowledge, and that rumination masquerading as introspection can hurt us more than we realize. You’ve also learned how to carefully avoid the traps that can come along with them, as well as five rumination-busting strategies you can use right away: remembering that no one cares about our mistakes as much as we think, cultivating a learn-well mindset, hitting pause, thought-stopping, and reality checks. In the next chapter, you’ll learn three more powerful and battle-tested internal self-awareness tools.
*1 I use the word “introspection” synonymously with “self-reflection” or “self-examination.”
*2 To be fair, psychoanalysis has evolved, and many twenty-first-century approaches now work to give clients a more integrated view of themselves versus trying to open the padlocked basement door. This actually resembles the Life Story approach we’ll learn about in chapter 6.
*3 An important note here: when I refer to therapy, this does not include the practice of leadership and executive coaching, which is more related to the solutions-focused approach that we’ll talk about in chapter 6.
*4 This is also assuming that you’re seeking treatment for more everyday issues and general insight, as opposed to a more significant issue like abuse, depression, anxiety, etc.
*5 And when journalers use more causal and insight-related words like “infer,” “reason,” “understanding,” and “realize” to make sense of negative events, the benefits of journaling increase exponentially.
*6 By the way, most researchers believe that rumination is different from worry; whereas rumination typically focuses on past or present events, worry focuses on our fears about the future.
*7 When we engage in “normal” self-reflection, a part of our brain called the default mode is activated. But Stanford researcher J. Paul Hamilton recently discovered that when we ruminate, another area of our brain also turns on that, among other things, is involved in processing sadness—the subgenual prefrontal cortex. The fact that both of these regions are activated when we ruminate helps explain why rumination can often masquerade as introspection, and how it blocks our brains’ ability to gain insight. Though it’s rather clunky, if you’re ruminating, you might say, “There goes my subgenual prefrontal cortex bumming me out and preventing me from gaining insight again!”