How Women Rise – Ruminating is for cows (Habit #11)

We live above all in our world of thought, which holds us in its spell. Reality plays a subordinate role since our inner world influences how we perceive reality, so our thoughts are superpowers to tap into.

As a kid, my father used to tell me stories of a fictional German nobleman, which were created by a German author called Rudolf Erich Raspe and were loosely based on a real baron. The real-life Munchausen fought in the Russo-Turkish War (1735-1739) and upon retiring became known in German aristocracy for telling outrageous tall tales of his military career. The book was a social satire and intentionally comedic, by the braggart soldier who exaggerated boasts about his war adventures like riding on a cannonball and some might have suggested that the implausible stories are lies. In one of his stories, Baron von Munchausen sinks with his horse into a swamp hole while hunting rabbits. He would inevitably have sunk, had he not pulled himself and his horse out of the mire with his strong arm. Unless he had superpowers, this is not possible and yet exactly what we need to do when we are ruminating.

In her book ‘How Women Rise’ Sally Helgesen ends the habit description of ‘Ruminating’ with the words “Ruminating is for cows” and if you take a closer look at rumination, she is right. Cattle better digest their food by regurgitating and masticating it a second time and spend more time chewing during rumination than when they actually eat. What is the benefit of ruminating in our world of thought? Sally shares the story of a film producer called Liza, who manages small but highly profitable films due to keeping costs low and bringing the projects in on time. She grows close to CEO Joe and they develop a warm relationship, whereas she even acquaintances with his wife Ida. When Joe gets an influx of capital from a new investor it fires bigger ambitions in Joe, and he hires a young new producer, Mike, with major studio experience. Joe takes Mike under his wing who is a big talker with even bigger ideas gets the green lights for half-though-through projects that burned up cash. Liza’s projects at the same time still got funding but with the view, that they were low-budget cash cows that could sustain the company’s more high-profile brand. It drove Liza crazy going from being Joe’s favorite to being a nobody in the company who stopped accompanying Joe to film festivals as he started inviting Mike. She became consumed with her thoughts looking for faults in her behavior and questioning herself, to a point where she felt isolated, rejected, and alone. Only another pair of eyes and a new perspective on her situation stop her inner thoughts of rumination and if you want to hear how the story ends, take a look at chapter 15.

The main learning of rumination is that it is a choice taken. Both men and women derail themselves by focusing on the past but according to the authors’ Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith, they do so in different ways. “In Marshalls’ experience when men ruminate, they tend to blame others for situations that have gone wrong in their opinion and start making excuses for themselves. Men turning their regret outward, whilst women turn their regret inward blaming themselves and dissecting their own mistakes. Instead of pulling ourselves out of the swamp, we push ourselves deeper and deeper into it. Instead of letting bygones be bygones, our thoughts repeatedly circle back in retrospect around situations that neither were as we imagine, nor we could change retroactively. Cows get protein out of rumination, whilst there’s little protein extracted from well-chewed morsels of self-contempt according to Sally. Generally, women allow themselves more to sink into the mud and allow themselves to be consumed by the downward spiral of rumination. The change of thinking may be to act less like cattle and more like the Baron of Munchausen and pull oneself out of it with an unheard superpower.

Rumination needs to be replaced by daring to move forward even if stuck, even if it seems impossible and especially if there seems no way out. To differentiate rumination from reflection, it is crucial to highlight, that the skill of reflection is not at fault. A healthy analysis of what went well and what could be done better is necessary. It becomes rumination, when we can’t stop thinking about the situation and becomes unhealthy if it turns into a process of beating oneself up and missing the opportunity to appreciate the successes along the way.

This vicious circle, incessantly revolving around past events, is called ruminating. We analyze our behavior from our point of view and find apparent mistakes we have made. Often mistaken for being reflective to avoid future mistakes or believing that one deserves to feel terrible it starts an engagement into self-talk that diminishes the ability to be effective due to the energy women waste whilst ruminating. The more often a situation is ruminated and examined, the more supposed weaknesses come to mind:

  • Pointless actions
  • Clumsy wording
  • Inappropriate reactions
  • Fear of not pleasing everybody
  • Strong insecurity
  • Not perceiving decision-making authority
  • Incorrect solutions
  • Depressing dissatisfaction
  • Lack of perspectives and ways out
  • Negative thoughts


This list could go on and such negative thoughts regurgitated will only achieve amplifying the same bad feeling and ending up in the vicious circle, the so-called downward spiral, which inevitably pulls you into the emotional abyss.

When reading or hearing of the stories of Baron von Munchausen, immediately they are recognized as a pack of lies or exaggerations. A skill to unpack his tales as lies or the same ability that seems to be active when we brood over our behavior? Baron von Munchausen was claimed to be a boast and maybe he had developed the ability to see opportunities where everyone else would have given up? Instead of developing an objective view and checking off the facts, we develop views that may have an only marginal connection with the actual situation the more we ruminate. We look for our mistakes, develop exaggerated regret, and store the whole thing as a negative experience – which is always refreshed afterward and thus becomes more and more painful. This form of ruminating does not help the original event, because it is over, and it does not help us, because we weaken ourselves with it.

It is important to upgrade these inner dialogues, the negative conversations with oneself. How do you get out of this swamp? Can’t we pull ourselves out of this mess as Baron von Munchausen did? With the following points, you avoid ruminating and develop a new culture of conversation with yourself.

We can borrow some wisdom from the ancient Greeks who knew and appreciated the effectiveness of the inner dialogue – They believed thinking was the talking of the soul with itself (Plato). For your thinking to create a positive spiral allowing your soul to talk favorably, follow the following points:

  • DO NOT allow negative statements

i.e. no not, never, bad, stupid, but like this, from now on, good, smart.

  • DO NOT allow generalizations

i.e. no that is typical for me, I never manage it, I cannot do otherwise, but nip such thoughts in the bud

  • DO NOT Fake-News

i.e. be honest with yourself by creating a Pro-Contra-list

  • DO NOT subjectively analyze

i.e. go out of the situation and look and evaluate the events from a neutral position

  • DO NOT leave any open construction sites

i.e. after the situation has been examined, conclude and close – What will I do differently next time? Period.

This is exactly what Baron von Munchausen did: he pulled himself out of the mud. And we all can do it if we are aware of how we get triggered and how we end up in the trap of ruminating.

Ruminating is for cows.

Sally Helgesen

The article was written by Melissa L. Schlimm-Managing Partner, Executive Coach and People Developer at The Ameliorate Group. Content inspired by the book called “How Women Rise” by Sally Helgesen-12 habits that hold women back from being successful in their careers as well as my own experience as executive coach when coaching senior leaders in the workplace.

The Ameliorate Group, Learning Partner with Women@Work, is a leadership and corporate coaching consultancy offering a range of bite-sized learning solutions to long-term development programs incorporating executive coaching to achieve organizational goals. The Ameliorate Group aims to superpower your teams and individual capability beyond what you thought was possible.

The first ‘How Woman Rise” program is available across the globe through The Ameliorate Group powered by Sally Helgesen. Creating more inclusive workplaces of the future through raising awareness of the habits that hold women back from being more successful in their careers. Encouraging both genders to engage in dialogue and co-creation of solutions and strategies to help women rise at work and in business.

Women@Work Coach -
07 Apr 2021