Who do you turn to when you’re going through a challenge or difficult time? What do your conversations sound like? Do you know what you actually find helpful? And can you spot the difference between helping and hindering?
Research has shown time and time again just how important it is for us to feel socially connected to and supported by the people around us. In fact, what matters more than the number of friends we have, or even how realistic their advice may be, is that we feel as though we are supported. That is, that we are satisfied with our perception of the input or encouragement we receive. Yet not all forms of support are created equal. And sometimes, the line between helping and hindering can be blurred, especially when conversations veer towards venting.
As comforting as it may be to have someone to turn to when we need to vent or debrief, it can be a slippery slope towards co-rumination. It’s possible you’ve never come across the idea of co-rumination, but chances are you’re familiar with rumination. When going through a difficult time, it’s not uncommon to repeatedly mull over events that took place (as well as those that have yet to happen) and the things that were said (or not said). Sometimes this process can be helpful—it’s a way of thinking things through, weighing our options, and figuring out new, creative solutions. But it can also make us feel stuck and be less inclined to actually do anything constructive about the situation and our associated distress. The deeper we are in a cycle of rumination, the harder it can be to recognize it’s happening and dig our way out.
This process can be even more difficult to spot when it happens in the context of our closest relationships. Co-rumination involves repeatedly discussing and rehashing our problems and difficult feelings with someone else without coming up with a solution or resolution. The issue is, talking with a friend, partner, or family member about our problems can feel really good. It can make us feel supported, bring us closer together, and even trick us into believing we are doing something productive about our situation. In the long run, however, it can hold us back from moving forward and actually lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
How can you spot co-rumination?
1. Know the signs
A good place to start is to recognize the difference between sharing and ruminating. Disclosing your thoughts, feelings, and experiences is an important way to build closeness and trust in any relationship. But if you find yourself talking about the same experiences over and over again, particularly those that involve difficult emotions like anger, sadness, or envy, it can help to ask yourself the following questions to see if you’re caught in a cycle of co-rumination:
- Is this a new problem?
- Have I/we spoken about this before?
- Am I speculating about things that have yet to happen?
- Do I have any new information that I haven’t shared or discussed?
2. Learn your patterns
With time, it helps to become mindful about your own patterns as well as those that tend to develop within friendships. We each have our own sensitivities, vulnerabilities, and strengths. Certain topics are likely to get us going and specific people may just be easier to open up to. Take a closer look at your behavior and learn your own triggers—this can help you spot co-rumination if or when it starts to unfold.
- Are there certain topics you tend to ruminate about (e.g., work, romantic relationships, family problems, financial worries, health concerns)?
- Are you more likely to co-ruminate in certain settings (e.g., when chatting at home or on the phone, after a long day at work, after you’ve had a drink or two)?
- Are there certain people or friends you tend to co-ruminate with?
3. Recruit close others
Even when we know the signs to look out for, it can still be difficult to catch ourselves in the act. That’s why it helps to recruit the people closest to us, especially those with whom we have a tendency to co-ruminate. Remind your friend or partner that you will always be there to listen to and support them, and that you appreciate all they have done for you. Let them know that you’ve noticed your tendency to co-ruminate together and ask them to gently point it out when they feel you’re veering towards rumination. These kinds of discussions also give you the chance to have a bigger conversation about the kinds of support you might find helpful and how you can be a better or more supportive friend or partner in return.
How can you move from co-rumination to collaboration?
1. Catch yourself co-ruminating and be compassionate
Often, simply becoming more aware of our behaviors and patterns can be enough to help us move from co-rumination to actual solution. The more you focus on recognizing co-rumination as it happens, the easier it’ll be to shift towards a problem-solving approach. Just make sure to be compassionate, both towards yourself and your friend or partner, when you do catch yourself in the act. Instead of judging yourself or being overly self-critical, treat it like a game and give yourself a pat on the back for getting so good at recognizing the difference between venting or ruminating and problem solving.
2. Weigh the short and long-term consequences
There’s usually a good reason why we do the things we do, even if our behaviors might seem illogical or even destructive from the outside looking in. That’s why it helps to validate why you may be tempted to co-ruminate, whether it’s to process difficult emotions or to feel that sense of closeness in your relationship. These benefits, however, do not take away from the reality that in the long run, co-rumination isn’t actually all that helpful for our sense of well-being or even the problem itself. Longer term, co-rumination can lead to anxiety and depression or exacerbate symptoms if we're already struggling. It also has the potential to drive certain people away, especially when a relationship is unbalanced and conversations tend to be overly focused on one person’s difficulties or life. Having a clear understanding of the reasons why you are working towards change is an important step in actually being able to do so.
3. Switch to active problem-solving
Ask yourself if there is something you can do to change or improve the situation right now. Can you actually do something to resolve the problem in some small way? Perhaps it involves having a frank discussion with a colleague to clear up a misunderstanding. Or maybe it’s apologizing for something you wished you hadn’t said to a partner in the heat of an argument. Often, taking a step towards actually doing something about the problem you’re facing can be much more helpful than venting, not to mention empowering. Of course, there are times when there will be little you can do to change your current situation or circumstances. In these cases, it can be helpful to reflect on what you would like to do differently in the future to prevent similar situations from happening or to cope with them when they do arise.
4. Strengthen your other coping strategies
Trying to minimize your tendency to co-ruminate without coming up with other more constructive ways of coping will likely leave you feeling overwhelmed and even lonely. That’s why it’s equally important to find new ways to cope with whatever problem you are facing. Develop a sustainable self-care routine, work through the pros and cons of possible solutions, and turn to healthy distractions when all else fails. And don’t lose sight of how important it is to find new ways to feel connected in your relationships. Focus on having meaningful discussions, try a new activity together, share your dreams or team up to tackle a shared goal. Above all, work together to establish new ways to better support each other through the ups and downs that life inevitably throws your way.
5. Strike a balance
With all that said, there will still be times when all you really need is just the space to open up to a friend and let off some steam. Venting isn’t always counterproductive. It becomes an issue when it happens repeatedly, especially at the expense of other more constructive approaches. If you need to vent or support a friend who is doing so, go ahead! Just make sure you’re aware of how much space this is taking up in your conversations and relationship. If need be, work together to set limits so that your interactions aren’t entirely dominated by co-rumination. Finding a healthy balance will make your conversations that much more helpful and supportive, both in the immediate and longer term.
Miriam Kirmayer is a PhD Candidate in the Clinical Psychology program at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and a therapist at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
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Waller, E. M., & Rose, A. J. (2010). Adjustment trade-offs of co-rumination in mother–adolescent relationships. Journal of Adolescence, 33(3), 487-497.