Healthy Mind

Can’t Stop Dwelling on Proverbial Spilled Milk? 3 Psychologists Offer Their Top Tip for Moving On

Mary Grace Garis

Photo: Getty Images/brothers91
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Let's say you set a New Years goal or intention, have since basically abandoned it, and currently find yourself in a guilt spiral about it. While it's natural to feel off as a result of your well-being goals getting derailed, before you really get down on yourself about proverbial spilt milk, contemplate what good doing so will yield for you. After all, by learning how to stop dwelling on things that are already done, you'll be better able to incorporate learnings for future successes.

Goals and self-improvement programs of all kind (including Well+Good's ReNew Year package), aren't about being perfect. Rather, they're about growth and figuring out what works. So the next time you slip up on your goals on plans, resist the urge to dwell and instead embrace the experience as an opportunity to grow.

Below, three psychologists offer their top tip to help you reframe common goal obstacles, plus a mantra to get you back on track if you stumble. Because learning how to stop dwelling on things that are a done deal and instead focusing on resetting and moving forward will set you up for success.

Keep reading for 3 tips to stop dwelling on things and finally move on, according to professionals.

1. Give yourself a break before you burn out on your goals

Rigidly sticking to our "best" behavior or whatever's required to make good on a given goal can come into conflict with other needs—like comfort, or celebration, or bonding, says clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. In other words, prioritizing productivity has diminishing returns if you don't make room for other emotional needs.

For a hypothetical example of what this looks like in effect, let's say you're a writer with a goal to write a book. You commit 30 minutes a night to writing, hitting the "do not disturb" button on your phone during the timeframe, turning down social engagements, and essentially becoming a cute little hermit. After a month of this, you're so burnt out that you skip a whole week to lie on your couch and binge Bridgerton and do not much else.

"Sometimes a more important emotional need takes first place, and that’s okay." —Aimee Daramus, PsyD

In this case, neglecting all social ties, not allowing room for rest into your schedule, and basically restricting yourself from having a full life ultimately works against you. So, instead of dwelling on what went wrong, consider what, specifically, you're neglecting and cater to it: Take regular nights off to do nothing, call a friend, or whatever else you want. "Sometimes a more important emotional need takes first place, and that’s okay," says Dr. Daramus.

Say to yourself: "In the future, I will prioritize and nourish my emotional needs in the moment."

2. Focus on ongoing repair versus an endgame of perfection

My dear friend once told me that perfection is failure anxiety, and aiming for it is an impossible goal. It's true. You will never, ever be perfect, because you're a human being, not a bowl of mac and cheese. It's why psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD, says to focus on continuous repair instead of perfection in all of your pursuits, and adopting this mindset will help save you from dwelling on what might have gone wrong in your goals.

Here's another hypothetical: Someone has a difficult relationship with their mother and has a lofty goal to finally get along. It's going well; they're trying to avoid conflict in phone conversations. But one day, a backhanded compliment sets off a screaming match.

"True success is repair and coming back—not being perfect." —Helene Brenner, PhD

After veering off course from a relationship-focused goal, it's easy to slip into a dwelling mindset of  "We'll never have a great relationship, so it's not even worth attempting." But when you focus on long-term repair, you'll be better equipped to focus on having a better, not perfect relationship. "Rather than go off on a spiral, get back on your train," says Dr. Brenner. "True success is repair and coming back—not being perfect."

Say to yourself: "I'm already making progress—this was just a pitstop in my journey. Tomorrow I get back on track."

3. Continuously update your guidelines

A lot of self-improvement is done when you work with a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset allows you to think that "this is just the way things are," and doesn't help you flourish. A growth mindset, meanwhile, is more agile and malleable, allowing you to shift your plans with your current needs. That, flexibility, in turn, can help you from dwelling on things that are already done.

For an example from my own life: I've resolved to cut back on sugary snacking in 2021, largely to benefit my oral hygiene. I set up a "no sweets after 8 p.m." rule for myself—but, also, sometimes I just want ice cream. And that's okay! I'm allowed to make exceptions in my own rulebook. "This more flexible attitude allows us to enjoy the long-term benefits of healthy eating while also allowing ourselves to find delight in our normally off-limit treats," says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD.

Say to yourself: "I'm the one who sets the rules, and I can alter them however I want."

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