A Rube-Goldberg Machine That Doesn't Know When to Stop

Remember this video? It came out 5 years ago, and like millions of others, I watched it over and over. I love me a good Rube-Goldberg machine. There is something so satisfying yet nerve-wracking about them.

If you’re not familiar with Rube-Goldberg machines, think Mousetrap Game. A whole lot of little mechanical maneuvers—each triggering the next—designed to accomplish a particular task. When all the bits and pieces work together as planned and the final task is achieved (e.g., turning on a lightbulb), the reaction is often out of proportion to what is actually accomplished. Let’s face it, the point of a good Rube-Goldberg machine is to see how complicated and intricate the process can be.

As I thought about this 5-year-old OK-Go video, I was reminded of how our minds can be like a Rube-Goldberg machine. We are capable of coming up with so many creative solutions to everyday problems. When trying to remember some lost bit of trivia (e.g., Who played Lumpy on “Leave It to Beaver”?), we’re able to recall data stored in our inner file folders, put these bits of information together, and often come up with the answer (Frank Bank!).

But sometimes the process isn’t so satisfying. The mind’s desire to solve a puzzle may turn into rumination. What starts out as an attempt to figure something out, quickly deteriorates into obsession. Planning a trip or tackling a to-do list might set off a series of “what-if’s” that can send the mind into overdrive.

Rumination occurs when an individual worries intensely about something, past or future. Have you ever churned conversations over and over in your head? Replaying it on a loop while a part of you hopes for a different outcome?

Excessive rumination can trigger intense, paralyzing anxiety for some. And, remember, the mind loves to solve problems, so this type of obsessive thinking is self-perpetuating. It can seem impossible to stop once the inner Rube-Goldberg machine is triggered.

And telling yourself to “just stop” doesn’t really work. Try it. Take a moment and think about something that was bothersome today. Nothing major—just something that got under your skin a bit. Got it? Now think about it a minute. Now stop. Don’t think about it. Don’t. Just stop. Not easy, right?

Remember when I explained the concept of R.A.I.N.? This mindfulness technique comes in handy for racing thoughts or obsessive worrying. So let’s see how this could work:

  • R—Recognize: “Hmmm. I’m noticing that I’m really ruminating. I keep playing that conversation over and over in my mind.”
  • A—Accept: “That must have really triggered something in me. I’m really having a hard time letting that conversation go.”
  • I—Investigate (with compassion): “I wonder what that’s about? Maybe I’m worried I offended him. I tend to do that with people I care about or want to impress. Maybe I’m afraid of rejection or something.”
  • N—Non-identify: “It’s OK that part of me worries about rejection; but that’s not all of me.”

Obviously, the process won’t be so tidy, but you get the picture. Noticing and accepting that rumination has occurred helps get to the root of the trigger.

Additionally, the continuous mulling over past or future events can be a defense mechanism. Perhaps an emotion is under the surface that you’re not ready to deal with. Ruminating keeps your mind busy, disconnects you from your body, and thus distracts from the emotional discomfort. The R.A.I.N. technique is an alternative to this defense tactic.

The mind is truly miraculous. It is creative, protective, and sometimes stubborn. So enjoy your own inner Rube-Goldberg machine.

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