I wake up at 2:30 a.m. with a thought.
It’s not about all I have to do when my alarm goes off just three hours later (though I do think about that often)…
It’s not about whether I left the stove on or the garage door open (though I sometimes obsess about that too)…
It’s not even about the tabby cat lying on my stomach and kneading my bladder with her paws and whether I should get up before I accidentally pee in my bed (thankful to say that hasn’t actually happened… yet)…
No, it’s about something that happened some years ago. A contribution I made during a business breakfast meeting.
The fact that it was a breakfast meeting plays into the story because there were platters of pastries on the table. I remember because I really wanted a croissant but didn’t want to be the only one to reach for one and was thinking I’d just grab it on my way out the door when the meeting was done.
Anyway, I digress (pastries have that effect on me)…
It’s 2:30 in the morning and I’m suddenly awake and thinking about what happened when I started speaking at this breakfast meeting.
All was going well until, along with my persuasive and impactful words, a tiny bit of spittle escaped from my mouth. I could see it fly through the air – minuscule though it was – and watched it land smack dab in the middle of the tray of pastries.
Next to the croissant, I was eyeing. Just to the left of the cranberry scone. On top of what I’m sure was until that moment a coveted chocolate donut.
And I froze for a second, unsure of proper protocol.
Had anyone else seen it? It was tiny. Please tell me no one else just saw that.
Should I apologize for unintentionally spitting on the tray of pastries? Should I pretend it didn’t happen? Should I remove the now offensive item with a napkin?
Mortified, I continued, hoping no one would notice I just emitted bodily fluid or the fact that my cheeks were reddening in total embarrassment.
What I had to say was important and effective. And I had ruined it by speaking so quickly and with such passion that I had somehow become unable to control my saliva and had accidentally Spit. On. A. Donut.
And here I am, at 2:30 in the morning, not the next day but some three and a half years later, revisiting that moment in all its horrifying detail.
To what purpose?
Now I’m wide awake and embarrassed as if it has just happened, breaking into a sweat under the covers and feeling that shame and anger at myself all over again.
It’s like a party in my head, with uninvited guests that ruin a good night’s sleep.
Why do memories, particularly unpleasant or unhelpful ones, continue to occupy our thoughts, particularly in the middle of the night? And how do we stop them?
I’m a ruminator. Always have been. I have an internal narrator that likes to run an endless loop of gaffes and wrong moves and mistakes and “constructive feedback” running on a tape through my head, often at the most inopportune times.
Like when I should be sleeping.
Or when I should be just moving on in my story rather than re-reading a past and unpleasant chapter.
It’s like I can’t get past it.
For those unfamiliar, rumination is the “focused attention on the symptoms of distress and unpleasantness and on the consequences of negative actions or memories.”
It’s repetitively going over a thought or a problem without completion or without a solution.
An alternate definition of rumination has to do with cows.
Like chewing the cud. Chewing again what has been chewed slightly and swallowed. It keeps coming back up and stays in your mouth (or brain) far longer than it should, a pasty, mealy meal.
So, why do we do it? (Can I say “we” here? It can’t be just me who does this, right? Let me ruminate on that).
Here are 5 Tips to Reduce Rampant Rumination:
- Be Objective. What are the actual facts of the rumination outside of those feelings you can’t let go of?
- Be Your Own Best Friend. What would you say to a friend who made a similar gaffe? Why are we so often our own harshest critic?
- Rewrite the Story. If you’re going to revisit an uncomfortable situation, reframe it in a new light, such as lessons learned or improvements made since. (I’m happy to note I have not yet spit on another donut since this awful event).
- Practice compassion. For others and for yourself!
- Laugh About It. It might have been awful to go through but in hindsight, it’s probably a humorous and relatable story!
My favorite writer, Nora Ephron, once said this about storytelling:
“When you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh.”
I didn’t slip on a banana peel.
I spit on a donut.
It had the unintended effect of getting me off my pastry habit.
And when you think about it, it’s kind of funny.
Maybe if I replace the meaning of that event, I can remember it with less embarrassment and with more amusement.
Waking up at 2:30 am in fits of laughter would be a lot more fun.
Valerie Gordon is a long-time storyteller, award-winning television producer, and the author of “Fire Your Narrator! A Storyteller’s Guide to Getting Out of Your Head and Into Your Life.” Through The Storytelling Strategist, the career and communication firm she founded in 2017, Valerie offers keynote presentations and group workshops, helping clients find power in their own stories to create successful and meaningful next chapters