Peace of Mind and the Zeigarnik Effect
A lot of what I do in psychotherapy involves helping people deal with unpleasant, disturbing, recurrent thoughts about events in the past that did not end well or that have unanswered questions. Relationship endings, job failures, bad choices, serious accidents, losses, etc. Most of the thoughts are about normal but unfortunate human events. When thoughts about the past impair functioning in the present, we call it rumination. It can ruin your life when it is too severe.
A particularly difficult situation arises when the mind gets fixated on asking questions that cannot, in reality, be effectively answered.
Most people initially want me to help them get rid of rumination. Sorry, the mind doesn’t work like that. What we can do is learn to be aware of rumination and loosen its grip on our choices. We can learn to live effectively, making wiser behavioral choices, while having rumination as an unpleasant background noise in our daily mental experience.
Here’s an example: I love listening to music. Years ago I was slowly transitioning from my vinyl records, most of which were damaged and scratched, to the newly-invented CD format, which had no scratches, pops, or hissing noises like my old record collection. I had acquired 3-4 dozen CDs of my most favorite recordings. I needed to move. Some drifters that were hired by a relative to help me move apparently stole a large portion of my recently-acquired CD collection- at least, I think they did. Therein lies the problem. What I know for sure is that I never was able to locate part of my CD collection after we moved. The drifters were nowhere to be found. It is possible that they stole my CDs. But, I could not know for sure that they stole it because I had no evidence and I could not talk to them because they were gone. Not knowing what happened bothered me.
For several years after the move, I would periodically go up into the attic and search through boxes that were not unpacked. I searched some boxes several times. No luck- I never found those CDs.
Loss is relative. Had I been a millionaire, I would have just shrugged and replaced the CDs. However, I had been a relatively poor graduate student for several years. Buying one CD was a really big financial decision during those years. I had slowly built a nice CD collection during graduate school. And now it was gone. I was devastated.
Notice this- when I was thinking of an example to write about for this post, I thought of those missing CDs from 30 -plus years ago. It still bothers me, but not much.
In the grand scheme of things, losing a CD collection is relatively trivial. CDs can be replaced, eventually. Other things cannot be undone.
Once a year I will have a bad dream about an error I made in an 11th grade football game that was excruciatingly disappointing for me, my teammates, and my school. My error prevented us from winning a very important game. A couple of times a year I dream about breaking up with a high school girlfriend- it is never a happy dream. In 2009 I lost a cat- I still sometimes replay the events that led to her death and wish I had made different decisions. These events cannot be changed. I grieve a little each time I revisit them. I will not get over them, ever, but I have moved on and I have a great life despite the disappointments I have experienced.
A young man was in my office recently. His sleep had recently degenerated and was beginning to affect his performance at work. He was waking up frequently during the night. His mind was rehashing the events and conversations of a major relationship breakup from over a year earlier. On top of revisiting his sadness and anger about the relationship ending, he was beating himself up for still thinking about it- after all, it had been over a year ago.
The revisiting of the past is uncontrollable- memories are triggered by contextual cues. We simply remember. We can’t help it. The self-criticism, however, is optional.
The Zeigarnik effect is the psychological term for why we remember important unfinished stuff better and more often than we remember other stuff. The Ziegarnik Effect, in simple terms, is the propensity of human beings to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks.
In the case of the young man mentioned above, his mind wanted to finish the business with his ex, to answer the unanswered questions about the breakup. However, he would not be wise to get together with his ex to process their relationship failure. There were some serious suicide attempts, police involvement, and physical violence involved in the ending of the relationship. Reconnecting with his ex to talk about what happened was too dangerous. Thus, he has to learn to live with unanswered questions about the breakup. When you cannot really finish the business you have with someone else, you can never truly, totally, get over it. You just accept it, move on, and learn to live well despite the unfinished business.
Don’t beat yourself up when your mind is acting the way it is designed to act. Accept the mind as it is and learn to live with it. The Zeigarnik effect is real and is always active. Fighting with how the mind works is futile and, more importantly, you cannot ever really make your mind act right in all situations. However, your life will be a little more peaceful when you can accept and understand how the mind works and stop fighting with it.
Here’s some more reading about how the Zeigarnik effect impacts trust between loved ones.