It may be common ground to propose that we all initially experience ourselves as neutral, objective and separate. This assumption is incorrect and once recognized reflection can occur. Reflection involves recognising we all have bias’ and we are influenced by our genetics, environment and culture. Within a conversation, why did you choose to ask the question you did and not enquire about another aspect? Within an interview why were your answers formulated with certain information? Following rejection, why did you react the way you did?
Particular to my (and my peers) experience of pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist we are challenged to reflect often and to be able to communicate this reflection. The Clearing House (2020) have reported from the 2019 Application Statistics that there are 614 available places within the United Kingdom for the Doctorate of Clinical Psychology. Within the same statistics there were 4054 applicants and a fifteen percent success rate. Competition of this kind may lead to fierce instinctual personal reflection on what makes you capable of becoming a clinical psychologist. Intentional reflection may occur as well from our guidance from clinical supervisors. How do we take care of our mental health and ensure reflection stays differentiated from stagnant dwelling, aka rumination? For those in and outside of a mental health profession, understanding the distinction and differentiation between reflection and rumination may be helpful.
What is Reflection and Rumination Anyway?
Newman and Nezlek, (2019) note that reflection and rumination are both processes that require individuals to examine, contemplate and evaluate their lives. Both processes also require cognitive resources. Rumination is associated with decreased well-being, and, when rumination is high and reflection is low, rumination may lead to less searching for meaning in life and a depressed state (Newman & Nezlek, 2019). Alternatively, if an individual is not ruminating, a negative focus is less likely to be included in reflections (Newman & Nezlek, 2019). The importance of distinguishing your thoughts as ruminative or reflective is now starting to become apparent! From Newman and Nezlek, (2019) we can note that reflection without rumination may increase our wellbeing and search for meaning, or at the very least, not lower it considerably.
Recent studies that have examined these self-processes (e.g. Adrian et al., 2014; Xavier et al., 2016; Macrynikola et al., 2017) have identified that there are two types of rumination – brooding and reflection. Brooding is found to be the maladaptive component of rumination and reflection, the adaptive. So, when we are distinguishing between rumination and reflection, we should really be differentiating between brooding and reflection instead. Brooding has been defined as a tendency to focus on the symptoms of distress and the causes/consequences repetitively without undertaking active problem solving (Adrian et al., 2014). Reflection, alternatively, is described as purposeful, evaluative contemplation of thoughts, feelings and behaviour with a focus on problem solving (Silvia & Phillips, 2011; Whitmer & Gotlib, 2011; Macrynikola et al., 2017).
Problem Solving is Key!
One distinguishing factor between brooding and reflection appears to be problem solving. Within reflective models there is indeed always an apparent problem-solving step. For Kolb’s Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984) problem-solving is found in the step of active experimentation – planning and trying out what you have learned. Within Gibbs’s Reflective Cycle (Gibbs, 1988) the conclusion (what else could you have done?) and action plan (if it arose again what would you do?) steps involve problem solving. These reflective cycles are provided below for further guidance on what complete reflection involves. Implementing problem solving should steer cognitive resources away from the restrictions of brooding.
Kolb’s Learning Cycle
Gibbs’s Reflective Cycle
Bring in ideas from outside of the experience;
were others’ experiences similar or different in important ways?
How Do I Start?
Going through these models can be done individually or with someone else. If you are on your own it is important to find time and a space that you (your mind) can be quiet. Everyone has their own way of finding this quiet stillness but some suggestions are: a walk, meditation, drawing, prayer, bath, or sitting on a park bench. Sometimes we can be more explorative in our reflections and move more easily towards problem solving if we discuss them with a friend or family member. Those we trust have a way of challenging our views and asking questions we may not have thought of ourselves. Engaging in this process ends the repetition of maladaptive ruminative brooding.
An alternative activity may be creating a reflection record of the event your contemplating. This reflection record would be composed of the headings, what, so what, and now what. Again, this structure supports a curious and evaluative cognitive process that results in progress. Below are some prompting questions that may help develop your journal entry:
Reflection is not a passive process. When we are intentional about our reflections we may slow down any ruminative brooding present; allowing us to understand what specific thoughts and behaviours are existent, why, and what we can learn and change moving forward. The change that can occur outside of brooding and in a reflective state is imperative. Reflection is important for:
Ethical reasons – being honest with yourself – if you are wrong it is not right to continue in the same way. Accountability and responsibility is necessary for your character in a personal and professional setting.
Relationships – a more thoughtful person is likely to have more consistent and fulfilling relationships that can be maintained.
Self-formulation – asking yourself who you want to be – what are your values? How do you want people to remember you? What work do you want to do? What differences in the community do you want to make? Overall, coming into your own.
Critical thinking – diversifying the way you see the world around you. Relating your lived experiences to wider contexts, new perspectives and theoretical frameworks.
Whenever an intrusive, repetitive thought and/or thought cycles begins try to think of the points above. Is the thought serving growth and would you be able to describe why it is important? If not, you may be ruminative brooding. Transition the brooding to a reflection through filling in the blanks to this statement: “this reflection is important for my ________(relationships/self-formulation/critical evaluation/ethical awareness) because of ________.” Taking time to establish quiet/stillness/focus to create this statement will slow down any racing thoughts or create an honest reality from low mood thoughts. The statement sets a foundation to then move into the problem solving we explored earlier – helping you to arrive at a constructive reflective process.
Since reflection is an active revealing process it may be energy depleting and uncomfortable at times. We also have days where our mood is lower than normal. In either case it is okay to rest from reflection – to enjoy hobbies and time with loved ones without our reflective hat on. Hopefully you are now able to notice when intrusive thoughts are ruminative brooding. If you do not have mental capacity in that moment to turn brooding into a constructive reflection, find quiet. Re-center, acknowledge the brooding is not helpful and take a break. Problem solve when you have capacity to be transparent with yourself. Reflection without ruminative brooding will be most beneficial when you practice self-care alongside.
The Critically Reflective Practitioner by Sue Thompson
Reflection in CBT by Beverly Haarhoff and Richard Thwaites
Adrian, M., Mccarty, C., King, K., Mccauley, E., & Stoep, A. (2014). The internalizing pathway
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Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further
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Whitmer, A., & Gotlib, I. (2011). Brooding and reflection reconsidered: A factor analytic
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Xavier, A., Cunha, M., & Pinto-Gouveia, J. (2016). Rumination in adolescence: The distinctive
impact of brooding and reflection on psychopathology. The Spanish Journal of
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Chelsea Robin is an aspiring clinical psychologist. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada she moved to the United Kingdom to complete her MSc in Clinical Psychology. Chelsea is interested in how emotional processing activates reflexive responses. Her dissertation focused on unconscious orientating of eye movements towards fearful and angry faces in anxious individuals. Currently, Chelsea is working within the NHS as a CAMHS Bed Manager alongside an Assistant Psychologist role in CAMHS Inpatient Services.