Which ghost are you listening to?

Which ghost are you listening to?

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend thinking about the past or fantasizing about the future? It’s been suggested, that we spend only half our time focused on the present. And when we wander around in the past or in the future, we tend to be less happy than when we are living in the moment.

But, what goes on in our minds when we wander? Often we tend to ruminate, that is go over events repeatedly. This happens quite automatically and is a somewhat learned response to challenges. For example, if you immediately jump to conclusions like “They think I’m stupid because I asked a question” or “My text is bad because I got so much edits”, you are ruminating. Compared to healthy reflection of past or future events, rumination is not productive and does not increase understanding of an event, but is actually harmful to us.

According to a study by Sparr and Sonnentag (2008), feedback that is perceived fair and useful can help decrease these kinds of thought patterns. This, in turn decreases depression, anxiety and turnover intentions, and increases job satisfaction. This highlights the importance of good supervision and feedback for doctoral student wellbeing.

Not to worry, though, you can learn to become more aware of the present and to decrease rumination. As always, the first step is to become aware of your thought patterns. When you recognize a thought like the ones above, you have already made huge progress. The next step is to decide whether to listen to it and believe it, or to reframe your thoughts and let go of the rumination.

Naming is taming

It helps if you are able to name or identify what the thought is related to. Psychologist Martin Seligman proposed that there are three patterns of thought we humans tend to have after negative events:

  1. Personalization – the tendency to think that the event was our fault.
  2. Pervasiveness – the tendency to think that the event is going to ruin everything.
  3. Permanence – the tendency to think that this feeling will last forever.

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy named these The Ghost of Actions Past, The Ghost of Actions Present, and The Ghost of Actions Future.

So, which ghost are you listening to?


Reframe and refresh

In order to reframe your thoughts, try to take a more objective approach. Not everything is within your control. And if the event was withing your control, own up to your mistakes – mistakes are unavoidable and actually preferable for learning. Try also to stop your mind from associating the failure to unrelated things – the likelihood of everything being ruined is quite small after all, right? Finally, you will not feel like this forever. This too shall pass, like past events have passed before this.

A good way of making sure you are reframing your thoughts is to ask yourself: what would I say to a friend if they would share these kinds of thoughts with me?

Remember, your thoughts might feel true, but in the end they are not facts, they are just thoughts.



Fosslien, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2019). No hard feelings: Emotions at work and how they help us succeed. Penguin UK.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On depression, development, and death. San Francisco,
CA: W.H Freeman.

Sparr, J. L., & Sonnentag, S. (2008). Feedback environment and well-being at work: The mediating role of personal control and feelings of helplessness. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 17(3), 388-412.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *