Go to Top

How to Stop Obsessing Over Things You Can’t Control

Obsessing creates a feedback loopWe’ve all heard how bad it is to ruminate — that is, to chew on something troubling, turning it over and over in your mind.

Doing this makes you feel worse instead of better, so according to traditional wisdom, you’re supposed to watch your thoughts.

You’re supposed to just STOP if you find yourself ruminating.

But no one tells you how.

Feels So Bad It’s Good

The reason no one tells you how you’re supposed to stop ruminating is because it’s not clear how to do it besides simply using willpower.

As Bob Newhart advised a client in the famous therapist sketch, “Just stop it.” Obviously, it’s not that easy.

In order to make it stop, you have to understand why you’re ruminating in the first place.

We already know you’re not an idiot who wants to make yourself suffer for some unknown reason (only intelligent, thoughtful people read this blog after all).

If you had a choice, you wouldn’t choose to ruminate on things that trouble you.

Many people believe they’ll feel better if they can just stop ruminating. But the reality is — are you ready for this? —  It’s the bad feelings that cause the rumination, not the other way around.

Ruminating is unnecessary when we feel good about ourselves and our lives. When things go south, we use rumination to feel in control again, to feel better.

That’s why it’s so hard to stop. Do you really want to yank a massage therapist off your back when you have sore muscles? Ruminating is like trying to massage away the bad feelings by thinking about them.

What Is Rumination?

When you ruminate (popularly known as “obsessing”), your mind is trying to figure out why you feel the way you do and how you can feel better. “What exactly is bothering me, and how can I get a handle on it?”

Your thoughts are running around looking for answers to the puzzle, trying to soothe emotion with intellect.

The key to stopping rumination is to focus on where the answers lie: in your feelings.

Not too long ago, I found myself obsessing about a situation that was beyond my control. I won’t bore you with the details, mainly because I can’t remember them (thank you, perimenopause).

At a certain point I asked myself, “What am I feeling?” And once I was able to answer that question, I calmed right down.  I was feeling scared, and that’s why my mind was running fast and going nowhere like a perimenopausal hamster in a wheel.

I said to myself, “I’m scared and worried about this.” And acknowledging my feelings calmed me down.

Notice the situation didn’t change, but I was able to let go of ruminating when I simply focused on my feelings.

My rumination was a smokescreen. The emotions were running the whole show from behind the scenes.

When you find yourself obsessing about something, ask yourself this:

I know what I’m thinking, but what am I feeling?

This list of feeling words can help. Of the many lists you can find on the Web, this is one that’s not too overwhelming or confusing.

I’m always amazed at how calming it is just to feel what I’m feeling, and give it a name. My mind can relax when it can see what it’s running from.

That’s how I stop rumination in its tracks. Check out my book, Constructive Wallowing, if you want more details about how to do this.

What about you? Do you have something that works for you?

Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
, , ,

20 Responses to "How to Stop Obsessing Over Things You Can’t Control"

  • timethief
    November 10, 2012 - 9:30 am Reply

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom in this article. I too have learned to stop and listen to what’s within, name it, be with it and learn from it. Doing that eliminates the angst, as it brings all things into perspective and makes it easy to let go.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 10, 2012 - 11:31 am Reply

      I’m glad you’ve had the same experience and can vouch for the technique. If I hadn’t tried it myself I’d be skeptical, but as you and I know, it really does work. Thanks very much for the comment.

  • multnoma
    November 10, 2012 - 1:02 pm Reply

    I would stop ruminating if I cud.

  • DeeDee
    November 11, 2012 - 11:36 am Reply

    It can take quite a lot of practice to really assess and name emotions properly, identify their causes, and figure out an appropriate response to break the cycle. I’m learning to do it through DBT, but ruminating is one of my worse habits. My anxiety makes me more anxious, etc. I’ll try this technique next time I catch myself ruminating!

    • Tina Gilbertson
      November 11, 2012 - 12:07 pm Reply

      Yes, it definitely takes practice! It’s especially hard sometimes to identify the cause of a feeling. This makes many people doubt themselves. But even if you can’t specifically identify a cause, your feeling is still legitimate. The cause may have happened a long time ago.

      If a feeling seems out of proportion to the trigger, it’s often because past hurts are piggy-backing on the present situation. In any case, the same rule applies: You’ve got to feel it to heal it.

      Thanks for your input, DeeDee!

  • Marty
    December 15, 2012 - 9:32 am Reply

    You’re right that ruminating, at least in my case, is an attempt to figure out what’s wrong and what to do about it. So let’s say I go to the feelings behind this, and they happen to be “fearful”, “alienated”, and “grieved.” And then I say, yes, I feel afraid, I don’t feel like my life works for me, and I have pain about the past. Then what? Those aren’t feelings I want to stay in. I talk with my therapist about this already, and I try to make life changes, but apparently this is not enough.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      December 16, 2012 - 2:46 pm Reply

      Marty, your comment contains such an excellent question that I’m going to devote a whole post to answering it. Watch for it in the next couple of weeks.
      In the meantime, the short answer is this: If you truly experience (rather than just naming) the fear and alienation and grief, and be kind to yourself while you do it, you won’t need to do anything else to move forward.

  • cherylpeddie
    January 3, 2013 - 1:19 pm Reply

    Your quote:
    “Many people believe they’ll feel better if they can just stop ruminating. But the reality is — are you ready for this? – It’s the bad feelings that cause the rumination, not the other way around.”

    Amen. Somebody finally said it. I’m so tired of reading how I should stop ruminating by distracting myself, or just thinking about something else. Nothing happens except I find myself ruminating again after 5 mins! I appreciate CBT for helping me understand how unconscious thoughts create my feelings. But this is a clear situation that shows that feelings can also create my thoughts. Thanks for your post. Looking forward to reading more.

  • max
    August 8, 2013 - 5:52 am Reply

    really great post and has helped me get a step closer to cracking the rumination habit, It makes so much sense as its a similar thing that happened to me that made me ill. A situation that I had no control over which made me feel bad then the rumination starts and so does the cycle, as you say need to feel it to heal it, I can already feel the rumination slowing down.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      August 8, 2013 - 12:46 pm Reply

      Yay, Max! As they say in 12 Step meetings: “It works if you work it.” Sounds like you’re workin’ it. Thanks for taking the time to leave a note; I appreciate hearing from you and wish you continued success in your rumination ruination.

  • Tim
    December 13, 2013 - 12:58 am Reply

    It has been 8 years since finding out I had been lied to for 15 years, before and during my marriage. We’ve been separated since January after 19 years of marriage and yet I still have dreams about finding out that something I was told was another lie. I still find myself going through the stories trying to find the truth.
    I only found out about ruminating this past week. I do it with conversations also, things I should have included, said differently, trying to figure out how to get people to understand what I’ve gone through. My family, children, etc. see the separation as only my fault, none of hers. I constantly think about how to go about convincing them that it was both mine and her fault. I can’t stop. My biggest fear is that I can never stop ruminating about the entire situation. I haven’t been able to stop in 8 years, I don’t feel any hope that it will happen in the next 8….or 20. Thanks for your blog.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      December 13, 2013 - 4:08 pm Reply

      Tim, thank you for taking the time to share your story. It sounds like you’ve got a lot to process — so much that you’ve lost confidence in your ability to find resolution. Your intellect is trying to soothe your emotions, but since emotions can’t be soothed by being intellectualized, it’s not working.

      I urge you to seek a local counselor or other mental health provider (clinical social worker, marriage & family therapist, clinical psychologist, etc.) to help you sort through your feelings and process them effectively. Sometimes it’s too much to deal with on your own, but that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. It just means you could maybe use a little support.

      If you don’t have any recommendations from friends or acquaintances, I suggest visiting http://www.GoodTherapy.org, a website where you can search for a therapist by zip or postal code. I wish you peace, Tim. Thanks again for writing.

  • L
    April 15, 2014 - 12:04 pm Reply

    Hi Tina, I found this really useful – thank you. I’m sure I also read a short follow-up article where you gave more specific advice on how to ‘feel your feelings’… but now I can’t find it, despite trawling through your website. Could you point me in the right direction? Thanks, L

Leave a Reply