Be a Goldfish


My family is eagerly anticipating the 3rd season of “Ted Lasso,” the Apple TV+ original series about an American football coach hired by an English football (soccer) team. The owner of the team is bitter due to her recent divorce and her strategy is to ruin the one thing her ex-husband loved … the team. Spoiler Alert! Ted changes things and makes the team better!

One footballer in an earlier season, Sam, is struggling with some personal and professional issues, and Coach Lasso steps in. He asks Sam if he knows that creature has the shortest memory; somewhat bewildered, Sam shakes his head. Coach Lasso says, “A goldfish. A goldfish has the shortest memory of any living creature. Be a goldfish, Sam.”

Humans, as we know, have extraordinarily long memories. And while our memory is fallible (trust me; as I pass the half-century mark in age, my memory is proving to be less and less reliable every day!), it doesn’t stop us from ruminating on our perceptions of past events … creating a direct effect on the current and future state of things.

In the Harvard Business Review article “How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Mistakes,” psychologist Alice Boyes explains why we ruminate, how it impacts our daily lives, and how we can control it. She says:

“While we worry about what might occur in the future, we ruminate about events that have already happened. A ruminative reaction to an event often triggers memories of similar situations from the past and an unproductive focus on the gap between the real and ideal self.”

In other words, we think we didn’t do as well as we think we potentially could have done, so we replay the scenario over and over. What I most appreciate about Boyes’ article is her distinction between rumination and problem solving. When we replay the past scenario, we often tell ourselves that we are working to understand what didn’t go well so we can do better next time – even though that’s not often the case. Boyes says:

“Occasionally you might have a useful insight while ruminating, but mostly it’s avoidance coping. Generally, the more people ruminate, the less effective they are at problem solving. Either they don’t think of solutions or don’t pursue them quickly or effectively.”

Personally, I spend little to no time ruminating about the past. I am a worrier, which means my focus is more future facing and which is also a coping avoidance mechanism by creating the potential failure as an imagined state of being so I can then worry about it rather than cope with the possible failure (if) when it may happen.

What if we could remain present instead? What if we had the ability to plan but not worry and reflect without ruminating?

While I love Ted Lasso, I think that it’s fortunate that we’re not goldfish. We have memories that are cherished, beautiful experiences we want to keep forever. Of course, we also have memories that would be nice to forget, to ban to the netherworld of our psyche; however, it is not the memories’ fault as much as what we choose to do with them. And even the bad memories are a part of who we are.

What if you could replace worry and rumination with better planning and meaningful reflection? We all have the ability to shift our energy more mindfully, though it’s not always easy. Here are a few experiments to run toward that goal:

  1. Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Reconnect with a loved one, an old school chum or a neighbor from your past. You’ll likely find that your conversation will naturally move to reminiscing, which replaces rumination in our mind’s activity.
  2. Take a clue from the scouting motto: Be prepared. Most “preppers” are not conspiracy theory “crazies” as you might think. They are everyday people who know that having more than two weeks of dry goods and six months of financial resources on hand is being prepared, not wishing for the end. Think of where you are most worried, and put in place some solid plans and resources for that potential.
  3. Watch what you watch. Gruesome shows and movies may be conditioning you to think the worst thoughts. Even the news may be too much at times for some of us. I’m not suggesting we remain ignorant and uninformed, but rather be mindful of what our minds, hearts and souls are consuming considering the media we ingest.

And if you find yourself ruminating and simply can’t break free, then maybe take Coach Lasso’s advice … and be a goldfish.

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