I have often heard people say that we learn from experience, but it is not the experience itself that teaches us but the thinking we do after an experience.
There are many ways we can think, we can think alone and berate ourselves for things we judge ourselves for having done wrong. This is called ruminating, and rarely does it help us move forward but instead keeps us stuck in the experience as we judged it. Often this becomes a spiral that sucks us downward towards feelings of anger at ourselves and sometimes depression or shame.
However, when we reflect on an experience and can take a step back, we still may judge ourselves or others, but we can look at how it may have played out differently or how we can be different in the future if faced with a similar experience. When we reflect, we play, play can be with thoughts, ideas or creative activities that help us find new ways to increase our understanding of our experience. This leads to new knowledge and allows other thoughts and feelings to enter our thinking. This kind of reflective thinking often brings about forgiveness for us and develops more choices about how we want to respond in future. The spiral moves up and out and often inspires us to feel good and confident.
In the past I have been a terrible ruminator, focussing in on my part of an experience and wishing I had behaved differently, whilst at the same time just re-playing the experience as it happened. This did not help me to do something different in future though. It kept me trapped in a single way of reacting to experiences.
Reflecting with others, sharing an experience and being open to others’ ways of dealing with it or seeing it, helped me to play with various scenarios that supported me to find ways to forgive myself and lead me to viewing an experience from a multitude of different perspectives. The next time I experience a challenge I have a bigger tool kit to choose from. I get to make a choice about the way I react or respond with full awareness of how that may impact others as well as my feelings about myself after I have chosen my course of action.
Rumination was a game I learned to play in my childhood, there were not many choices about the way I could react to experiences within my family. Feelings were forbidden, such as showing anger, expressing sadness or disappointment, and even expressing joy. This meant that although I felt different things, I rarely communicated those feelings either in action or words to others. I ruminated, thinking the same thing repeatedly, like a broken record that keeps skipping back to the same part of a song.
I first experienced reflective thinking in my training to be a counsellor. When I was trying to develop my listening skills and reflecting to clients what I could sense in the room, either through words or actions. It helped me to understand that sometimes I saw something as negative when the client experienced it as a good thing. For example, a child bashing a baby doll expressing anger at the fact that they have a new baby in the family and are feeling left out. I may have told them how I thought they should be with the baby, loving and caring but that would have been denying their feelings. Better to bash a plastic doll that isn’t a living thing than to bash a real baby, don’t you agree? Reflecting on the fact that I could see the child was angry at the baby acknowledged the feeling and prevented a real-life baby being bashed. Of course, this took me a while to understand and seeing the doll being bashed would still bring up feelings for me, these I got to take to supervision where I reflected on what feelings were triggered for me and how might I better help a child express their anger in a safe way through their play or through words. This was a big learning for me and helped me gain different ways I could support a child as well as myself.
As a counsellor I have regular supervision, supervision is a space where I can explore and express my feelings about the work I do with clients and because my supervisor is one step removed from the work, she is often able to help me to see different perspectives and consider how I can change my interventions or my way of viewing my work. We reflect together.
As a Supervisor I have worked in many groups and have experienced the power of more than two minds thinking and exploring an idea or an intervention. When properly facilitated these groups have been a source of learning and growth for all who participate in them. If we respect that everyone is different, even if they look the same, then different perspectives from life and from professional experiences can be shared around a particular event. In this way anxiety, fear and doubts can be alleviated as everyone gains new ‘emotional tools’ for their emotional toolboxes. Even those times when a member of a group has shared something others have not experienced, the act of thinking and playing with thoughts and ideas will often bring up many options for ways to work that are healthier and more informed. A reaction is often acted out unconsciously whereas a response is delivered after thinking has been involved, it is a conscious action, though through reflection we get to make a choice about how we act.