Don’t revisit bad experiences

It is always pleasant to read things that support the things you already do. One such article (that I came across via Machines Like Us) is where psychologist Walter Mischel suggests that it is better to distance oneself from bad experiences, like the breakup of a relationship, rather than revisit them.

“Common wisdom suggests that if we thoroughly revisit our negative experiences to try to understand why they happened, we’ll eventually be able to move on. However, new research is showing that some people only get worse by continuing to brood and ruminate,” Mischel said. “Each time they recount the experience to themselves, their friends or their therapist, they only become more depressed. Self-distancing, in contrast, allows them to get a more objective view, without reactivating their pain, and helps them get past the experience.”

In other words, it is better to just cut your losses and move on. This is, in fact, what I have always done. I tend to not want to talk about the unpleasant experiences in my life, a practice that used to be deplored as avoidance rather than coming to grips with the events. But according to Mishcel I just happened to hit on the bets strategy.

This does raise another problem, though. What if a friend of yours wants to talk through some crisis in their life with you? Should you listen to them empathetically (which seems the kind thing to do) or refer them this research and tell them to put a sock on it? Mischel says that the advice you should give your friend is “Take two aspirins and call me in the morning” though he admits that sounds very cold-hearted

Mischel was the person who did the famous marshmallow delayed gratification experiments with children in the 1960s. He appeared last week on The Colbert Report to talk about his book on the subject.

(This clip aired on September 25, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. Heidi Nemeth says

    Whoa! If you males want to get along with your friends of the opposite sex, you’d better listen up.

    Women and men are different. Oftentimes women “work” on their problems by discussing them with friends and spouses. (See the book, You Just Don’t Understand.) We don’t want to be told how to solve our problems; we want to mull them over, out loud, with friends. It can be an objective way of looking at our problems. Discussing our problems gives us comfort, in a way being told the solution (such as, take two aspirin and call me in the morning) does not. We need to come to our own solutions to our problems.

    That said, the Serenity Prayer makes an important point.

    God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
    The courage to change the things I can,
    And the wisdom to know the difference.

    If the negative experience she is discussing is something which can not be changed, such as the breakup of a relationship, taking two aspirin and calling in the morning may not be such a terrible idea. If there is any chance the upset person can change herself or her actions and thereby change the unfortunate situation, then telling her to ignore her problems (and ignoring her yourself) is terrible advice for both you and her. (Unless you just broke up with her.) Example: She has a disturbing nightmare about a movie you have never seen. OK, go ahead and tell her to ignore it. Second example: She has a nightmare about her relationship with you. You’d better listen — unless you want her to break up with you!
    Note, even Walter Mischel said that “…some people only get worse by continuing to brood and ruminate”.

  2. songbird says

    Talking to a friend about a problem also sometimes provides the emotional distance you are seeking. A good strategy is to reflect back what you hear them saying; frequently they want to hear what they are saying coming out of someone else’s mouth. This allows them to see the problem from a third party perspective, giving them some perspective / distance and helping them put their problem in a larger context. It also helps to validate which parts of their reaction are “normal” and should be held on to and/or acted upon, and which parts need to be left behind or ignored. Frequently when you’re in the middle of something you can’t tell the difference, and talking things over with someone can help clarify what you want and what you should do.

  3. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    psychologist Walter Mischel suggests that it is better to distance oneself from bad experiences, like the breakup of a relationship, rather than revisit them.

    …if it is possible to do so.
    Having worked with people with depression, I think depressives often revisit and stay with bad experiences. More than that, they often turn all experiences into bad experiences. An experience that wasn’t as good as it could be- as nearly every experience is- becomes a bad experience.
    Unlike the instances cited above, they don’t talk about or mull over experiences but rerun them again and again without ever mentioning them to anyone else. I think they probably also make them worse in their recollections over time.

  4. leni says

    There is also the matter of persistent, intrusive recollections of bad experiences. I have a few that are always rattling around there, in the back of my mind.

    Sometimes they are intrusive and other times I can just sort of take them out and examine them, like a favorite tchochke or book. On good days, I can have a look and set them down. On bad days it might get thrown at the wall or cried on. Talking about it almost always makes it worse though, that’s true for me anyway. It makes it more real and the pain feels fresher. I mostly avoid that, but sometimes I don’t, or can’t.

    Anyway, there is a series of books that I love by Robin Hobb. It’s a silly fantasy series, but the wolf character in the series is one of my favorite fictional characters ever. The main character, a human, has a telepathic connection with a sentient animal familiar, the aforementioned wolf. They can feel each other’s emotions, and as you might imagine this is more troublesome for the wolf than it is for the human. At one point the wolf gives the man this very sage advice:

    “You should leave off sniffing the carcass of your old life, my brother. You may enjoy unending pain. I do not. There is no shame in walking away from bones, Changer. Nor is there any special wisdom in injuring oneself over and over. What is your loyalty to that pain? To abandon it will not lessen you. “

    I like to read that when I know I’m being a stupid human.

  5. Ed says

    This may work for some people or maybe most people, but I find it helpful to understand and own every aspect of myself as much as possible. I have a very “narrative” oriented theory of self and feel like trying to ignore any part of my experience would diminish me and make my inner structure incoherent like cutting chapters out of a novel. When I try to repress something traumatic, it tends to refuse to be ignored anyway.

  6. rq says

    It’s good to talk things out (usually – people’s reactions to negative events vary), but there comes a point where, instead of talking about the negative incident, one must ask, “What am I to do about it?” Sometimes that answer is just nothing, except moving on. Sometimes it’s more complicated, but in the end, as mentioned above, talking things out can sometimes help to add that distance and perspective to come to a more practical solution.
    (NB: In cases of mental illness or traumatic memories that are repressed, the talking stage may require more work to acquire any distance, if any is possible at all. Some negative events are too personal to detach completely from one’s self.)

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