How To Help A Ruminator

We all have one: the friend who complains and worries about everything. From dissecting past encounters to forecasting all the possible ways an upcoming event can (and will) go wrong, a ruminator drains your energy. Ruminators obsess and fantasize about minute, seemingly unimportant details until they’re amplified into a full-grown problem… making mountains out of molehills. Rumination is a broken record of a sad song stuck on repeat that grows louder each time it replays.

Rumination is a habit

As I started noticing rumination patterns (my own included), I realized rumination is much like a habit: Once your mind knows how to do it, it will learn how to do it quicker until it’s lodged in your subconscious. Like any other negative habit, there is a reward at the end. In the case of rumination, by picking apart every detail of what went wrong, we don’t actually have to take the uncomfortable steps to make things right. It’s much like smoking a cigarette or grabbing an unhealthy snack: We know it’s not good for us, but it relieves anxiety in the moment so we do it as an easy fix for our current mental state.

In my personal journey towards a life free of people-pleasing, it dawned on me much of my people-pleasing was geared towards those who ruminated frequently. If you’re lucky, you may have a say in how much time you spend with a ruminator. But in many cases, we’re posed with ruminators in places we can’t easily escape: Our families, our workplace, our inner circles.

To some degree, I didn’t feel I could easily retreat from my closest ruminators. So, I took to the internet:

“How do deal with a ruminator”

“How to stop ruminators”

“How to cope with complainers”

“How to handle someone who always assumes”

I searched and searched. Blog post after blog post listed step-by-step instructions on how to set boundaries and politely change the subject. Writer after writer told me to protect my energy and mirror back their negativity so they could see it themselves. While the advice helped me navigate challenging relationships, something still felt off.

All of these posts taught me how to manage, cope and deal with a ruminator. 

But none of them addressed how to help the ruminator.

Before we discuss how to help the ruminators in your life, I want to preface with two quotes:

“We attract what we are.”

“We teach others how to treat us.”

In order to fully understand how these quotes manifest in our daily life, we have to willingly become aware of our own shortcomings. If we ourselves are ruminators, we will attract people who enjoy ruminating. If we frequently ruminate or pacify those who do, we’re encouraging others around us to continue dwelling on the past. If we’re constantly annoyed by rumination and complaining, it’s most likely because we still have some work to do on ourselves.

Turns out misery loves company, after all.

As a society, we’re horrible at expressing emotions. More so, we’re even worse at identifying and processing our feelings. When it comes to past events, it’s easy to get caught up in the replay of what went wrong. One of our most basic needs is to simply feel understood. If we’re not very good at understanding our underlying emotions after something doesn’t go to plan, we’re stuck brooding on our narrative of what happened.

  1. Validate their feelings
    While you may have good intentions, saying things “aren’t so bad” or encouraging someone to “look on the bright side” may not strike the right chord. In order to work through an emotion, we have to actually go through it. We can’t skim by it and still expect a resolution.
    Listen, feelings are scary. That’s why we’re so bad at understanding them. Letting someone know they have the right to feel as they do reassures them there isn’t anything inherently “wrong” with them. If someone is being brave enough to show us how they feel, we need to honor their feelings. Telling them to feel different is like telling an upset toddler to stop crying — our emotions typically aren’t rational so it doesn’t serve anyone to try and make sense of it all.
    Repeat their feelings back to them and state the facts of what you heard. Sometimes simply hearing someone outline what we’ve said is enough to feel heard.
  2. Indicate your support
    Humans are tribal. We crave connection and belonging. None of us got to where we are by our own means — we’ve been supported by our family and friends.
    Someone who is venting is going through a difficult situation. No one wants to face challenges alone. More so, most of us struggle to ask for help when we truly need it. A simple “I am here for you” or “I am here to help” can deepen a bond — especially during a vulnerable time.
  3. Switch from past focus into future focus
    Ask, “what’s next?” or “what would you do differently?”
    Once you begin to hear aspects of the story repeated, it’s time to shift the focus of the conversation. By simply asking “what’s next?” we can direct the discussion from what already happened to what could happen. It releases you from feeling the need to solve the problem and puts the ball in their court to ponder solutions. Allow them the opportunity to witness their own lessons learned.
    By moving towards solutions, it also makes it easier to change subjects. A call for action is a great conclusion.

These three steps won’t work in every situation and you’ll need to be cautious as it pertains to giving advice. In some cases, you may need to set a boundary for how long you can lend a listening ear. In any case, be cautious not to join in on the complaining. Each relationship is its own journey and each relationship requires its own level of care.

Deep down, all a ruminator wants is for someone to recognize their pain.

The next time you feel resistance to someone who has a history of complaining, recognize this is an opportune moment to show up selflessly as a friend. When you feel tinges of annoyance, challenge yourself to call upon grace. It’s the perfect arena to learn how to actively listen. It’s the chance to redirect someone into a positive place without having to fix the problem for them. It’s a moment where we set our own agendas/opinions/advice aside and simply be fully present with another person.

Simply put, it’s the difference between multiplying or dividing: If you sit with a ruminator and join in on the gossip and venting, you multiply the pain. But if you acknowledge the pain and make an effort to redirect it, you divide it. When it comes to rumination, there isn’t anything to deal with, cope with or manage. When faced with a chronic ruminator, the only thing to do is choose how you want to show up.

Choose well.

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