Why the Art of Self-Reflection is Making a Comeback (And How to Jump on the Bandwagon)
You don’t need me to give a run down on the importance of self-care. We’ve talked about it before, and everyone else is talking about it too. Today, we’re focusing on a specific aspect of self-care: the act of taking time to reflect. When was the last time you did that? Around New Years? After a break-up? In the middle of a crisis? We tend to do this during challenging periods, and at ending points and beginnings. But the truth is, we need to do it a lot more. Why?
Because as human beings we tend to slide into functioning on autopilot. Take this marvelous quote from Adam Wood’s article The Lost Art of Introspection: Why You Must Master Yourself:
Today we’re so wrapped up in a culture of doing that we’re rarely ever given downtime to sit and reflect. This constant cycle of doing even plagues us in our sleep. The moment you open your eyes in the morning your mind starts racing and the cycle begins again. Never a free moment from your thoughts and the distractions of the modern world. Even when you try to sit still you can’t help but fidget. It’s either your body or your mind pulling you in a new direction.
We have over 50,000 thoughts a day, over half are negative and over 90% are just repeating from the day before. That doesn’t leave much room for growth and change does it? In Buddhist thought your mind is likened to a drunk monkey. If you don’t take the time to tame this drunk monkey your life might as well be run on autopilot. Never actually acting for yourself, simply doing them out of a conditioned response.
This conditioned response means we are usually just ‘reacting’. We are repeating old responses in our work, our relationships, our goals. Everything. And that makes different outcomes in our lives much more difficult. It becomes an impediment to growing and evolving as a person. So what is the way out of this conditioned response? You guessed it; self-reflection (or as Wood calls it: introspection). So what is self-reflection exactly, and how does it create such profound impact in our lives?
You’re probably thinking self-reflection is pretty self-explanatory right? Right. Let’s get into it anyway. The official Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of self-reflection is ‘self-examination’. Synonymous with introspection, as illustrated by Adam Wood. Also synonymous with self-contemplation, self-observation, self-questioning, self-scrutiny, self-searching, soul-searching….you get the gist. But what does that mean exactly. What does it mean practically: as a practice? ‘Self’ and ‘reflection’ are pretty broad, vague, obscure, even existential as concepts. Am I complicating things? Maybe. So let’s go simple again.
Self-reflection is a process through which you bring attention and awareness to what’s happening in your internal and external world—your life—in a mindful (curious, non-judgemental) way. But it’s not just about ‘observing’. It can and should be more active than that. According to the article Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection Even If You Hate Doing It, from the Harvard Business Review:
The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. For leaders, this “meaning making” is crucial to their ongoing growth and development.
Great. So self-reflection helps you connect with yourself, find meaning, make sense of things, uncover and shift patterns, track and ignite progress, stimulate unexpected growth, shape your habits and build emotional awareness. It would seem then, that it’s a pretty fundamental part of allowing you to live consciously. And it would also seem that human beings have an innate need to seek it.
Throughout human history, prayer, meditation, and then Socratic/Platonian inquiry are all ways we have done that. Know Thyself right? But what are the best ways to go about getting to know yourself? Do you sit down and conduct a thorough inquisition, discover the results, and call it a day? Unfortunately (or delightfully!), you’re a magical being that transforms often. Which means self-reflection has to be ongoing. It should be a daily practice. It also has to be honest. And let’s be real, being honest with yourself can sometimes be pretty hard. Here are some ways to overcome that inner resistance.
Matters of Application
Okay, let’s take the plunge (see what I did there?). When it comes to self-reflection, it’s all about creating space for yourself. Unstructured or structured thinking time, if you will. And like anything else, the capacity for self-reflection is a skill. Which means you might suck at it initially. It’s a ‘practice’ because it takes practice to learn. But don’t be disheartened, the learning path is a simple one: check in with your thoughts, enter into particular meditations, and, the big winner on the docket: journaling.
We’ve discussed the benefits and different approaches to keeping a journal before right here.
Simply doing any of these practices is a marvelous way to stay connected to yourself. They also have enough range that you can fit some reflection in even if you only have 5 minutes available in the day. But if you want to bring more focus and specificity to your self-reflective process now and again, there are many deep, open-ended questions that can stimulate you.
Hey, why don’t you try doing a different question every day this week? Or the same question every day this week! That could be interesting. Again, what’s important is finding what works for you. But before you dive in, here is a word of caution, succinctly expressed by Connie Habash in an article for Thrive Works:
…If self-reflection becomes obsessive, it can turn into self-judgment. Use your self-reflection to observe if you are witnessing neutrally what you are experiencing, or if it’s just a sneaky way for your inner critic to rear its head. Self-reflection that becomes critical can turn into comparing yourself to others, believing that you’re falling short, and reinforcing false ideas about yourself (like ‘I’m not good enough’). The intent of self-reflection is to assist you in positive change, not to bring you down! Let self-reflection instead lead you to better ways to support yourself, practice self-compassion, and listen to your inner knowing.
Self-reflection is not a way to entrench yourself in criticism. It’s also not a way to observe yourself SO neutrally that you never find impetus for transformation. It’s simply being able to see yourself, understand who you are and what you need, and potentially, to discover what you might need to change for your ultimate happiness and fulfillment. You have flaws and seeing them clearly is not the same as beating yourself up for having them!
Well that’s all folks. As always, share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We love hearing from you!
“Although you may not stumble across a Martian in the garden, you might stumble across yourself. The day that happens, you’ll probably also scream a little. And that’ll be perfectly all right, because it’s not every day you realize you’re a living planet dweller on a little island in the universe.”
― Jostein Gaarder, The Solitaire Mystery