The mental equivalent of a taffy pulling machine

People can spend an inordinate amount time worrying about, analyzing, and trying to understand or clarify particular thoughts and themes.

They’ll engage in this exhausting a repetitive negative thought process that loops continuously in their mind without end or completion.

As if replaying a certain scenario enough times could somehow change its outcome.

Like the single woman who keeps reading the same text message over and over again, searching for some romantic nuance where none exists.

Hey does a peach emoji mean this guy isn’t into me? What’s the meaning of the time stamp on his last text before he left the party? And what about punctuation? This dude never uses commas, so does that mean he’ll be a generous lover, but an awful father? Maybe I should wait another two days before texting him back.

Ruminative loops like this give me hives. Especially when multiple people pile onto the anxiety mound.

When I see one person turning over some fragment of bullshit in their minds, and then the rest of the group chimes in to fuel the fire, I can’t help but protest. There’s a deep part of my soul that values sanity, surrender and simplicity, rather than clarity and correctness and certainty. And it always asks the same annoying but important question.

How are we still talking about this?

Because to me, it’s the mental equivalent of a taffy pulling machine. Have you ever watched those contraptions cranking away on a touristy boardwalk? Candy is stretched and folded over and over to incorporate air and develop its trademark light and chewy texture. As the taffy is pulled and aerated, that original rectangle of candy gets stretched more and more, its length growing exponentially by the same ratio each time.

This is what people do inside their heads. Except instead of producing a tasty confection that rots their teeth, they create a toxic rumination that rots their minds. This kind of brain candy is fun, but there’s zero nourishment. It’s pure white sugar. People’s continuous, exhausting cognitive effort never produces actual solutions. It just spins.

Do you spend too much time replaying your experiences? Do you fixate on problems and your feelings about them without taking any action?

Psychologists call this process mental rehearsal. It’s when someone selectively retrieves and repeats recent negative events that match the sense of loss and hopelessness, and notes similarities across them.

Which will naturally feel like shit, but the thing is, it also feels familiar. It’s a security blanket. Spending way too much time reviewing past events and memories is more attractive than dealing with our real feelings in the present.

That’s the answer to the question, how are we still talking about this?

It’s easier than moving on.

And it’s funny, anytime I try to derail people’s rumination by asking this question, people stare at me like I have two heads. It never works like I want it to. Rarely if ever does someone suddenly pop themselves out of the rabbit hole and say, you know what, I’m sorry, there is zero upside to pulling this chunk of taffy any longer. Let’s talk about something else.

Sadly, people typically ignore my plea for rationality and continue ruminating until they feel vindicated or pass out from a lack of oxygen to the brain. At which point I have to disengage from the conversation. I choose not to participate in other people’s indecision, rumination and anxiety.

To me, this is not only a profound failure of emotional regulation and frustration tolerance. There’s a larger societal issue that has reached its apex.

Our collective inability to move on. That’s the real problem people should fixate on. Our culture’s complete and total lack of willingness to let go and walk away. From anything. Small things like unproductive conversations with idiots and pointless quests to solve problems we can’t control. And larger things like professional grievances like job losses and personal relationship issues like weakening friendships. Moving on is a skill. It can and should be taught in schools from a very young age.

Not too young, as tweens don’t quite have the emotional maturity to put events in their proper perspective. But once we get into college level courses, it’s healthy to learn how to recognize we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns, let go, and redirect our attention in a more meaningful direction.

This is a complex and difficult skill in the resilience arsenal to master, but the sooner we start practicing it, the better.

Now, for some people, it comes easier. Depending on how high you index on personality traits like narcissism, you will be more likely to experience such feelings like anxiety, worry, envy and guilt. Rumination may not be a habit you get sucked into.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. All human beings have fear, and all human beings have the capacity to overcome many of those fears.

Wherever you exist on that psychological continuum, here’s my recommendation. Treat it no differently than learning a new skill like wake boarding, computer programming or sword fighting.

Get good at identifying when you’ve reached the point of diminishing return.

Practice letting go and redirecting your attention in a more meaningful direction.

And trust that the taffy has been pulled enough.

What issue is most likely to make you ruminate yourself into a tizzy?


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