Ruminative Self Focus
The secret to being miserable is to have
the leisure to bother about whether you are happy or not.
— George Bernard Shaw
We are self-focused. Thoughts related to the self — how I feel, why I feel that way, what other people think of me — are compelling. When this tendency is combined with the recursive structure of consciousness, Ruminative Self-Focus [RSF]emerges. RSF is the pathogen responsible for clinical depression, generalized anxiety, and chronic anger. There are many paths into RSF.
A Tragic Irony
The awareness of past or future failure inspires a search for a solution. One tends to abstract from the specific event to achieve an understanding of the problem so it can be solved or prevented. For example, "The fact that I am alone on Saturday night means X about me," or "What if I look nervous during my speech and they think Y about me." Sadly, what starts out as adaptive problem-solving tends to degenerate into Ruminative Self-Focus [RSF].
RSF looks like problem-solving, but is in fact a pathogenic thinking strategy. Instead of leading to a solution, the rumination cycles through the same sequence of thoughts and reactions to those thoughts again and again without achieving closure or initiating effective action. RSF is not only effortful and unpleasant, it uses up the dear cognitive resources that are needed to solve real-world problems. The critical self-talk decreases the likelihood of success, and thus promotes outcomes that confirm self-critical beliefs.
The unintended consequences of self-focus
In most cases problem solving is a dispassionate, rational process. So when the problem involves say a piece of equipment, focusing attention on a search for the cause of the problem is obviously the right thing to do. However, when you notice a problem within yourself, the search for its cause elicits RSF. RSF may look and feel like conventional problem solving but it is an imposter. Once RSF begins there is very little likelihood that effective problem solving will actually take place.
- Julius Kuhl’s research on conditioned helplessness shows that when people believe they have failed, their focus shifts from figuring out how to be successful (problem solving) to perseverative thoughts about themselves, "why I failed, what it means about me that I failed, etc." This turns out to be a self-sabotaging strategy because the rumination consumes cognitive resources that are then unavailable for problem solving. Kuhl found that conditioned helplessness appears to be maintained by the reciprocal relationship between failure and ruminative self-focus: Failure leads to ruminative self-focus and ruminative self-focus impairs performance, which increases the likelihood of failure.
- Recent research on depression and the quality of social performance shows that negative mood leads to self-focused rumination, and self-focused rumination leads to negative mood. Moreover, the RSF, and the depressed emotional state it evokes, is found to impair subjects’ social problem-solving abilities and to decrease their self-efficacy regarding their social skills, both of which impair social performance. Poor social performance, in turn, may result in loneliness and other negative consequences, which set up higher level recursive structures.
- Research on clinical depression shows that both pain and failure automatically elicit Ruminative Self-Focus [RSF]. The shift from the associative perspective of direct experience to the dissociative perspective of ruminating on the abstract meaning and causes of the pain produces the recursive sequence of internal states and external events that maintains and often exacerbates the disorder.
Some individuals are burdened with a harsh critic. While it is important to learn from pain and failure, harsh criticism can weaken the creature, and hence be counterproductive. You would not beat a puppy mercilessly for a paper-training accident, because it would obviously do more harm than good. Likewise, overly harsh, negative, insulting, or abusive perspectives toward yourself are pathogenic and no more valid than the perspective of a patient teacher, who wants you to succeed, and has unconditional positive regard for you.
Happiness as Escape from RSF
When I ask clients what they want out of life, or what they hope would happen if they could become free of their Mood Disorder, they often tell me they "want to be happy." There has been a lot of research on happiness and paths to achieve it. Perhaps the most sophisticated view of this topic suggests that happiness is freedom from RSF.
For individuals who become emotionally attached to outcomes, or who are judgmental toward themselves, any attempt to improve the self comes with the tendency to evaluate and criticize the self thereby initiating a recursive trap.
But self-focus does not have to promote self-sabotage. In fact, later in this course we will focus on doing personal research into the cause-and-effect principles that determine your reactions to the things that happen. Performing this kind of research without falling into RSF requires that you maintain the perspective of the dispassionate observer seeking to understand the cause-and-effect relationships that determine your reactions to the things that happen.
The Karma of Self-Focus
You don't pay for your sins in the next life, you pay for them during this one. The consequence of focusing on yourself is that the more you do it the easier it gets. Eventually, the self-focus becomes the default. Sloppy thinking is a consequence of practicing sloppy thinking. Likewise, defecting from the path of greatest advantage becomes easier the more you do it.