Co-Rumination: When Gossiping With Friends Gets Bad For Your Mental Health

We've all heard the saying, "No one likes a gossip." After a hard day at work and a few glasses of wine, however, you and your best friends may become thoroughly convinced of the opposite. Besides the risk of becoming a little too mean-spirited, is there really any harm in airing your grievances among close companions? 

Yes and no. It turns out that while gossip isn't as universally evil as you may have been taught as a child, it can also have its downsides. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar touched on the nuances and surprising benefits of gossiping for The New York Times. "Positive gossip is one of the ways we bond communities. Negative gossip can be useful because it allows the community to police itself," he shared. However, there's a line that we need to be careful not to cross: "If it becomes malicious, it can actually cause communities to break up into smaller subsets that don't interact." 

In non-anthropology terms, that can look like the never-ending creation of group chats that slowly include less and less of the besties. But even if you and your friends are all on the same page about your ire, dwelling on negative topics too frequently can lead to decreased mental health. If your friends' favorite place to hang out is in a cloud of negativity, you may be headed toward feelings of anxiety. Enter: the corrupting influence of co-rumination. 

When gossip goes too far

When dealing with problems in a relationship, at work, or with a friend, there's nothing more affirming than having your best friend nod and snap her fingers along to your rant. Being able to vent and feel validated in your feelings is a wonderful thing ... to a certain point. 

If you find yourself talking in circles on one topic, however, it may be time to change the channel. After all, dwelling in negativity for too long could lead to co-rumination — a psychological term defined by researchers in a 2018 study published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management as "extensive and frequent discussion, speculation, and focus on negative feelings related to personal problems." 

While talking problems through with a friend can be reassuring and help keep things in perspective, the American Psychological Association warns of the unsavory consequences. Spending large amounts of time in these negative thought spaces can lead to increased feelings of anxiety and depression and even more negative feelings to talk about. Plus, if friendships are built on a foundation of gossipy conversations, you may start to feel obligated to exist in an aura of negativity in order to maintain your sense of belonging. 

How to move conversations away from gossip

By its very nature, co-rumination can be difficult to escape from. You never want to abandon a friend in their time of need or make your friend group feel shamed for wanting to discuss their grievances. Fortunately, there are a few subtle tactics to redirect friend group conversation away from gossip and into more positive conversations. 

A simple subject change to a related funny story or memory could set your gossip circle on a new path. You could also disrupt the rumination by introducing a new, more optimistic perspective while being careful not to dismiss your friend's feelings through a "too nice," toxic positivity mindset. If more drastic measures are necessary, be honest about your headspace and personal needs. "I'm so sorry that you are dealing with this," you might say. "I've also been having a hard time lately, and I don't think I'm in a space to help you work through this problem. I appreciate your willingness to share it with me though, and will be thinking of you!"  

Throughout this process of boundary-setting, you may discover some friendships were more built on gossip than you had realized. While it may be difficult, protecting your own mental health can be even more crucial than preserving unhealthy friendships.