BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 2018 (edited April 14, 2022)
We often encounter unpleasant and angering events. The emotion is normal; but, then we brood over the triggering event, fueling the anger.
Brooding over perceived wrongs fuels the fire, keeping the wrath alive, preventing recovery. Our thoughts expand, contract and mitigate original feeling reactions to experience—either for our benefit or detriment. We are emotional creatures. We occasionally experience the unpleasantness of anger. Sometimes this rascal emotion motivates appropriate swift action, protecting our rights or the rights of others. Other times, however, we act stupidity, lashing out and destroying bonds that took years to build, hurting tender hearts that trust us with their safety. When we brood over an episode, we magnify the event, keeping it alive, rotting our souls with unsettled business.
Life Occasionally Upsets
Inevitably our egos get bruised as we bump into and negotiate with others. It’s the nature of life. Billions of people scurrying around this little planet with different goals, expectations, and purposes. There will be plenty of interactions where we cry, “foul.” Hurt calls us to action; we respond with force to defend—often with destructive ends not intended. But with caution (and time), the emotional demand for immediate action fades. The event triggering the emotion may still need addressing; but can be mindfully addressed constructively, with wisdom (wise mind), behaving in ways that promote future goals.
Emotion and Conscious Meaning
Our sensitivity to hurt marks painful lessons for recall; our memories protect against repeated wrongs, making special note of dangers. By mulling over slights, we create meaning, giving the event and emotion a graspable story we can use for guiding future protective action. "John is mean; I'm going to steer clear of him."
We label actions with our subjective interpretation of the actors intent. What may have been an unintended overlook, becomes a purposeful attack. These self-created meanings fuel the fire, stoking destructive flames instead of self-disciplined dousing thoughts that cool the hot embers.
"Take everything easy and quit dreaming and brooding and you will be well guarded from a thousand evils."
Brooding Over Subjective Interpretations
Actions of others occasionally hurt; but when we believe the action is purposeful, our anger swells and pushes for retaliation. Our minds are always active. We brood over an event, filling in unknowns, creating dilemmas, and supporting our subjective theories. We get dragged into thoughts of conspiracy without evidence. The car that cuts carelessly in front of us, the stern reprimand from a spouse, the missed compliment in a staff meeting carry on, rolling down the embankment of our minds, gathering mass and momentum. We ruminate, brooding over our perceived slight.
Many of these disparagements are not planned attacks, just small slips of social etiquette. They are the inevitable bumps and bruises humans must occasionally process when living in a world populated by others.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, "a burst of emotion, forcing its way into consciousness, demands articulation with words—and as we begin to ruminate on the words, making the small big and the big small, we assign cause and affix blame. A fatal and most interesting cycle—emotions spark thoughts and thoughts further agitate emotions" (2016).
Brooding Over Wrongs Keeps Them Alive
Anne Marie Stout murdered her husband two years after he confessed to an affair while attending an out of state wedding. He realized the wrong, broke off contact with the woman and vowed to rebuild the marriage.
Now, certainly, it's difficult to have compassion for the cheater. Anne Marie had every right to be angry and leave her husband. However, over the next two years, Anne Marie began a series of unsettling behaviors to punish her husband Bill. She pretended to be her husband's mistress, sending threatening emails, vandalizing his car, and even burglarizing the family home. Bill believed he was being harassed by the woman from his infidelity. The harassing crimes culminated with his murder, shot in the head by his own gun, supposedly, taken in the burglary of his house.
Bill's affair continued in Anne Marie's mind. She brooded over the insult. The wrong lived in the present, stirring hurt and magnifying anger. Her brooding over the wrong gave continual life to hurt, motivating deadly revenge. She had to make Bill pay. Her brooding over the affair, festered and diseased her soul. Her entire life centered around the wrong.
While Anne Marie's case is an anomaly, we all brood and suffer from the heavy weight of diseased thought. We carry home slights from the office, ruminating over an interaction, assigning meaning, and contemplating how we can slyly "make them pay." We think to ourselves, "who do they think they are, treating me that way!"
We replay the event over and over. Around and around our mind goes, reliving the incident, fueling the emotions, and brooding over the slander.
See Why Should I Forgive? for more on this topic
Some events need a response. Certainly, infidelity can't be ignored. We have a right to set boundaries and properly respond to violations.
However, often the events intruding on our thoughts, giving power to unsettling brooding, will vanish on their own or, at most, a quick and compassionate rebuke.
Margarita Tartakovsky warns that "ruminating conjures up more negative thoughts. It becomes a cycle" (2011). We need to let the thoughts die so the event doesn't continue to rot our minds.
"The devil lies brooding in the miser's chest."
Ways to Slow the Brooding
There are positive ways to slow the ruminations:
Often our subjective meaning is giving more life to the event than it deserves. Many people find relief in purposely considering alternate explanations for the event. "I bet they had a rough day," or "they probably have something going on at home."
We can be creative with alternate explanations, relieving emotion from the more sinister meanings we originally attributed to an event.
Sometimes the incident rolling round our brains needs addressing. Instead of brooding over the event, we can address it. Maybe it's a talk with the person, perhaps, a protective plan, or just a personal adjustment.
Effective problem solving often relieves the need to continually rehearse the event.
"Wasting brain power ruminating about things you can't control drains mental energy quickly. The more you think about problems you can't solve, the less energy you'll have leftover for more productive endeavors."
Thoughts and emotions are intricately intertwined, each giving life to the other. Emotions stimulate thoughts and thoughts ignite emotions.
Sometimes breaking the cycle requires addressing the emotion first. Emotion based regulation strategies often prove effective in diminishing the power of disrupting thoughts.
Once we regulate the emotion, we can better deal with the problem.
See Thoughts and Emotions for more on this topic
We Can Move Forward
Whatever method you take, you will quickly learn what works and what doesn't. Experiment. Usually, the catastrophe is no more than a passing event with little meaning. We have space for errors. If we view hurtful behaviors in a more constructive way, entertaining alternate explanations, solving the problems, or simply soothing our emotions, we can calm intensity of our anger, creating space away from the nonsensical brooding and constructively move forward.
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Murphy, T. Franklin (2016) Thoughts and Emotion. Flourishing Life Society. Published 7-2016. Accessed 4-14-2022.
Tartakovsky, M. (2011). Why Ruminating is Unhealthy and How to Stop. Psych Central. Published 1-20-2011. Retrieved 3-15-2021.