Note: This is a guest post by Christopher R. Edgar of Purpose Power Coaching.
Many of us have a habit of repeatedly replaying arguments we've had with people in our minds.
Our memories of past disputes never seem to fade, and we can often rerun them from beginning to end with perfect accuracy.
Sometimes, we fantasize about saying different things in the argument, imagining how the other person might have responded and pondering whether different strategies might have helped us win.
Usually, while rerunning these mental movies, we're either feeling angry at the person we argued with, or guilty about the incident the conflict was about.
Whatever feelings we associate with the old arguments, they usually aren't particularly pleasant. Our bodies become tense and uncomfortable, responding to the mental movies as if they were present reality.
Worse still, our tendency to replay old conflicts in our minds can poison our current relationships. When we're unable to stop watching mental movies of past arguments, we end up behaving in our present relationships as if those past conflicts were still happening today, and treating the people we're relating with as if they were our old opponents.
This is common in intimate relationships, where we pick fights with our partners in the unconscious, irrational hope that it will help us win our old disputes against loved ones who hurt us in the past. As psychologists James M. Honeycutt and Michael E. Eidenmuller write in Attribution, Communication Behavior And Close Relationships, conflict is kept alive by reliving old arguments and imagining the next interaction such that the next encounter may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why We're Hooked On Mental Reruns
It seems we believe, consciously or otherwise, that mentally rehashing these old disputes somehow benefits us. Perhaps, if we reexperience our anger at our old antagonist frequently and intensely enough, or come up with the right arguments to make against them, we'll somehow make them admit we were right. Or, if we're punishing ourselves for what happened, maybe if we torment ourselves enough the other person will forgive us.
Of course, this makes no sense. No amount of replaying an old conflict in our heads will accomplish anything. However, that doesn't seem to stop us from doing it. In fact, although many of us realize that it doesn't help anyone to constantly relive our painful memories, we can't seem to switch the mental movies off. Some part of our minds seems dead set on winning that old argument, and convinced that running through it over and over will eventually bring it victory.
How do we overcome this habit of reliving old conflicts? I'll share three techniques here that have been helpful both to me and people I've worked with.
1. Bring Your Attention Into Your Body.
If you pay attention to your thoughts when you're rehashing an old argument, you'll likely notice that you aren't very conscious of how your body is feeling when the mental movie is playing. Sensations like inhaling and exhaling, the circulation of your blood and the pressure of your feet against the ground fade out of your awareness when your mind is fantasizing about past disputes.
The good news is that, if you focus your attention on how your body feels, you'll draw your attention away from your painful memories and into the present. As Drs. Aggie Casey and Herbert Benson put it in Mind Your Heart: A Mind/Body Approach To Stress Management, Exercise And Nutrition For Heart Health, your mind quiets and negative thoughts fade as you focus on your body, and if you quiet the body, you can calm the mind. €
I've found this works particularly well if you specifically concentrate on the feeling of your feet on the floor. While focusing your attention in this way, it may help you to visualize your thoughts about the past dispute flowing down your body, all the way from the top of your head into the ground. The thoughts then absorb into the floor and cease to trouble you. As with an electric charge, this helps you ground out the emotional energy of the old argument.
As you repeat this practice, you'll begin to find it becoming automatic. Each time you find yourself about to replay an old argument, you'll find your attention immediately shifting to the solid, empowering feeling of your feet on the ground, and you'll find the noxious energy of the painful memory quickly flowing out of your body.
2. Envision Victory.
It can also help you kick the habit of replaying mental movies for you to imagine what would happen if you actually won the argument you've been rehashing. Imagine you really had the opportunity to have your old antagonist in front of you again, and they admitted they were wrong and apologized for what they did or said. Or, if the incident you're rerunning is something you feel guilty about, suppose the other person completely forgave you.
Now consider this question: what would that really do for you? Would it make you a wiser or stronger person? Would it make you feel more loved or accepted? As psychologists Erik A. Fisher and Steven W. Sharp aptly put this question in The Art Of Managing Everyday Conflict: Understanding Emotions And Power Struggles, What does it really mean to win? Is it . . . making the most biting comments during an argument? What have we gained from this? Recognition? Power? Respect? Who judges or decides who the winners are?
If you give this question serious thought, you'll see that the other person wouldn't really do anything for you by conceding defeat. An admission of guilt by this person simply wouldn't make any lasting improvement in your life. When you recognize this, you'll likely find your mind's urge to seek victory fading away.
Another illuminating question you can ask yourself is whether your opponent would make you any safer, or remove some sort of danger from your life, by admitting defeat. In my experience, many people find themselves reliving old arguments because, on some level, the idea that someone else might dislike them or think they were wrong scares them. They believe, consciously or otherwise, that if someone else is angry at them they're in danger. They fantasize about winning the argument or being forgiven, because they believe doing either might dispel the other person's anger and make them safe again.
Rationally, of course, the mere fact that someone feels upset at us doesn't usually put us in danger, and thus even if they let go of their anger it wouldn't make us any safer. When we keep ourselves conscious of this, our efforts to protect ourselves by replaying our mental movies tend to subside.
3. Observe Yourself In The Scene.
In an earlier article, I discussed a strategy for taking the sting out of painful memories involving adjusting the camera angle, if you will, in the mental movies you find yourself rerunning. This technique works just as well for overcoming the habit of mentally replaying old disputes.
To do this exercise, start by noticing that, in the mental movie you keep watching, the camera is focused on a specific part of the scene. You may find that the camera is trained entirely on the person you were arguing with, and what they're doing, thinking and feeling. It's almost as if you aren't present in the scene at all.
When your attention isn't focused on what you were thinking and feeling during the dispute, you start forgetting that your own feelings, opinions and dignity matter, and thus you start accepting wholesale what the other person said to you. When you buy into every insult, sarcastic remark or jab the other person hurled your way, the mental movie can create great pain and discomfort.
You can help relieve this suffering by remembering, each time you find yourself replaying the argument, to focus the camera on you and what you're doing, thinking and feeling. Don't judge, defend or criticize yourself or anyone else who played a role in the event just give yourself your complete, compassionate attention.
Turning the camera toward yourself helps you keep in mind that, no matter what happened in the incident you keep recalling, you're a human being worthy of love and respect. This helps you put what the other person did or said in perspective, and makes the argument no longer seem so threatening to your safety and sense of self.
Christopher R. Edgar is a success coach certified in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming. He helps professionals transition to careers aligned with their true callings. He may be reached at Purpose Power Coaching.
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These are helpful techniques to help overcome useless arguments. I personally don’t see the point in arguing anything. If someone wants my honest opinion about something, I’ll offer it and leave it at that. I’m not interested in convincing anyone else to do anything — most of the time. Now, if I really want to persuade someone to do something, then the last thing I would do is argue with them. I would use one of the many highly effective methods of persuasive communication taught by Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” summarized at http://shanelyang.com/2007/10/09/how-to-win-friends-and-influence-people/
Thanks. Just thanks.
For me these old arguments always come up when I’m hanging the laundry. I have no idea why. I could be in a great mood and it’s not like I mind hanging the laundry, but the moment I start – BAM! – I’m going through old arguments (or creating new ones).
I then do the focusing in the body thing – really paying attention to the clothes. It helps in the moment, but I’m always back in the foul mood the next time.
At least I’m aware of it and can shake it off.
Great article. Very helpful and insightful.
I was guilty of replaying a negative experience recently when I was retelling it to a friend on my cell phone while I was driving down the freeway(of all the times to dredge up the negative.)
When I suddenly began to feel the same energy I had felt in the original situation, I experienced a wave of anxiety and upset. This was not a good thing, especially while I was driving.
I caught myself mid-story and told my friend I couldn’t continue it because it was having a real and negative physical affect.
I had to quickly shut off that mental movie, focus on my breathing and regain my composure.
You have given some powerful advice on how to cope with this and better yet, how to avoid it in the first place.
Hi Shanel — I agree, one way of dissolving the pain that comes with reliving old arguments is not to have arguments in the first place. As Eckhart Tolle said, “it is impossible to have an argument with an enlightened person.” I imagine that feels easier for some than for others.
Hi Alex — that’s interesting. Does hanging the laundry remind you of an old conflict you had? One other question I can think of that might bring some awareness to this is where in your body you experience the sensations that come up when the arguments get replayed. For instance, for me reliving old arguments has sometimes caused pain in my solar plexus.
Hi Maren and Kevin — thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you liked the article.
One thing I’ve found to work really well is to forgive the other person. I was constantly replaying a situation that happened in traffic, where I felt I had been right but was still wrongfully accused.
It was something really trivial so the pointlessness of replaying it in my head was becoming an even bigger nuisance than the event itself. I would probably never see the other person again in my entire life, but still I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Then at some point I realised I could forgive them. Simple, but not necessarily easy. But it worked! They were an imperfect human being, just like me.
The feeling of relief was really powerful, I immediately went to tell the story to a few friends.
In the end, it even became a positive experience. If that woman never got angry at me, I wouldn’t have learnt the power and effectiveness of forgiving.
Like a common Buddhist saying goes, everyone you meet is a spiritual teacher. I can see how that made sense here.
Hi Flora — thanks for your share. It’s amazing how precisely our minds can simulate the feelings we had during old arguments. I’m glad you were able to find some peace around these memories when they came up.
Hi Ewout — yes, I’ve noticed a similar thing — that my mind doesn’t care whether things others have said to me were “justified” in the situations it keeps replaying. It recycles old material based on how I felt in those situations, not whether I was “right” or “wrong” in them. This itself was an important realization for me, as I saw that the mental torment I would go through wasn’t my “conscience” righteously punishing me for my misdeeds. Instead, it was a discomfort with and resistance to conflict. “Forgiving,” as you put it — dropping my resistance to what happened — did much to dissolve the pain of those memories.
I had an argument with my boss today that I’m pretty upset by. I don’t normally argue with people. I hate to. I’m so upset by it and I keep replaying it that it is encroaching on my time with my kids. Reading this article and the responses has helped. I will try to let it go. Thanks for sharing your stories.
Hi Create — thanks for your comment and your share. I’m glad to hear you found the article helpful. — Best, Chris
Ugh, stuck my foot in my mouth again and even though I have apologized, I still feel awful. Thanks for some ideas to stop a pointless review of my “sins.”