Self reflection is having a moment. From tech leaders and educators to creatives and community organizers, people are buzzing about the idea of a dedicated self reflection practice.
The American Psychological Association defines self reflection as “the examination, contemplation, and analysis of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions,”and psychologists describe “self-reflective awareness” as one of the most crucial life skills a person can have.
But doesn’t self reflection happen automatically, like thinking? Research shows that many of us don’t tend to reflect on our lives in ways that are productive or healthy. Enter the idea of rewiring your thought patterns with an intentional self reflection practice.
People like executive wellness coach Naz Beheshti—who just wrote a new book, Pause. Breathe. Choose.: Become the CEO of Your Well-Being—are popularizing this idea. According to Beheshti, creating a daily self reflection practice is an essential part of leadership, one that strengthens your self awareness and empowers you to make better choices.
Of course, self reflection is nothing new: People were obsessed with self reflection over a thousand years ago, too. The Tibetan Book of The Dead, for example—which dates back to the 8th century—encourages people to live their lives in pursuit of self-awareness, promising "liberation through understanding."
Whether your own self-reflection practice takes a more scientific or spiritual bent—or some mashup—there are a wealth of self reflection tools to work with. Find strategies that work for you.
So how exactly can you bring more self reflection into your life? Below, we’ll go over the benefits of self reflection, with a brief guide on how you can introduce it into your life and a list of questions to get you started.
Self reflection is supposed to help you create a more authentic life, prompting you to align your behavioral patterns with your higher values. Adrienne Maree Brown, a Detroit-based women’s rights activist, Black feminist and the author of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, uses a fractal metaphor to draw parallels between the ways in which small patterns repeat themselves in large, macro ways in both nature and our lives.
“How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale,” Brown writes. Self reflection can help you identify your own inconsistencies, prompting you to make small but significant changes that trigger profound shifts in your life and help you build positive momentum.
Self reflection has many other purported benefits, from boosting productivity to helping you develop your sense of identity. Practicing self reflection makes you more self-aware, which research links to higher levels of loads of things we all want, ranging from creativity to confidence.
These individual benefits of self reflection can also trickle down to your personal and professional relationships, improving the quality of your life.
Despite all the potential benefits of self-reflection, thinking about yourself too much can take a negative turn—for example, towards rumination.
“Where self reflection is purposefully processing (thinking about) our experiences with the intent of learning something, rumination is when we think over and over about something in the past or future with negative emotions directly linked,” explains Makena Schultz, a Michigan State University Extension educator.
When you ruminate, you obsess over problems in an unhealthy way. This is maladaptive and linked to greater levels of depression.
People also tend to mistake their thoughts for facts, which can cause them to spiral into painful emotional states and draw conclusions divorced from reality. Elisha Goldstein, a psychologist, author and co-founder of West Los Angeles’ Center for Mindful Living encourages you to interrogate your beliefs by asking yourself whether or not they’re true, reflecting on how your beliefs make you feel (i.e., are you jealous or hurt?) and asking yourself how you’d feel if you didn’t hold that belief.
Given how stressful self reflection can be, it’s not surprising that people often avoid it, preferring instead to chase one impulse or reward to the next. According to executive coach Jennifer Porter, a managing partner of the leadership and team development firm The Boda Group, the most difficult people she has to coach are “those who won’t reflect—particularly leaders who won’t reflect on themselves.”
Porter explains, in The Harvard Business Review, that many leaders don’t bother engaging in self reflection because they don’t like how slowing down, taking personal responsibility or reflecting on their weaknesses feels.
Other times, they just don’t understand the payoffs or feel like it isn’t action-oriented enough. One executive she worked with, Ken, explained his lack of self reflection by saying: “I guess I don’t really know what you want me to do."
Below, we go over exactly what you’re supposed to do.
Here are some tips for ensuring that you can practice self reflection without falling into negative patterns.
Beheshti suggests blocking off a specific set of time each day to practice self reflection each day. She recommends that it be the first thing you do in the morning, before other thoughts start crowding in.
But if mornings are too busy, self reflection can be a good way to end a day, thinking back on the day you just had.
Getting into the habit of time blocking can be a good way to ensure that you make time for self reflection, especially when you feel like you’re too busy to sit around thinking. Porter suggests putting your self reflection sessions in your calendar app. Even just 10 minutes of self reflection a day can trigger positive benefits, she says.
Some might like to reflect in a bubble bath surrounded by candles and soothing music. Others might prefer taking a walk in the woods, doing a self reflection meditation or writing in a journal.
Maybe you put away all your devices and do a mini digital detox to help remove distractions. Maybe you need your devices because you want to use a journaling app. Just make sure you’re alone with minimal distractions, as solitude is key—it’s about the self, after all.
Research shows that when stressed-out people make decisions, they tend to be guided more by their habits and less by their broader goals. Decide what feels most comfortable for your body, whether it’s walking or sitting cross-legged or laying down, when you practice self reflection.
Take a moment to ground yourself by taking some deep breaths or doing a quick body scan meditation. Try to rid your external environment of things that trigger stress responses too, if possible (i.e., choose the room in your apartment you feel most calm in and shut the door).
Self reflection is important for cultivating self awareness, but that doesn’t mean being overly critical or negative. Tara Mohr, the author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message suggests silencing your inner critic by asking yourself whether the negative voice in your head is serving you or your goals. Is there actually any evidence to support the negative stories you tell yourself?
Dr. Kristin Neff, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, suggests being mindful of the way you speak to yourself and asking yourself if you’d speak that way to a close friend or someone you respect. If you wouldn’t, then you really shouldn’t talk to yourself that way either.
Being kind to yourself doesn’t equate with being delusional, indulging in megalomaniacal fantasies about your superiority over others. You should reflect on both your negative emotions and fears as well as your strengths. Many people don’t do this because it makes them feel vulnerable.
Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, dedicates her time to correcting the fallacy that vulnerability and weakness are the same. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage,” she writes in the book. “Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness.”
If you struggle to be alone with your own thoughts, consider seeking out a coach, therapist, counsellor or meditation instructor to help you shift your thought patterns. Self reflection can be a powerful tool for self knowledge, but if you need help, seek it out.
As with meetings, self reflection sessions can occasionally benefit from a meeting agenda. Try choosing a topic you’d like to explore. Shine, an app offering an inclusive self care toolkit, has a list of helpful journal prompts that you can use for self reflection.
Try reflecting on some of the following questions to get started, especially if you’re new to self reflection and are unsure about how to begin. You can use the questions below as journal prompts or mindfully observe your thoughts and reactions as you reflect on them.
As you reflect on these questions, remember that thoughts are powerful things that directly impact your happiness and stress levels. The impact of self reflection may be difficult to measure, but that doesn’t mean there is no impact.
It doesn’t matter how successful or high-earning you are. Learning to control which thoughts you give your emotional energy and attention to is a life-long activity for everyone.
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