The Secret Sauce of Self-improvement and Personal GrowthApr 03, 2023
Yesterday, I recorded some video content for a project I'm working on. I did dozens of takes of various segments to give myself lots of footage to choose from. After a couple hours, I called it a wrap and headed home. I started reviewing clips only to realize that my hair was sticking up crazy in several of them, rendering them useless, and (please don't judge), I mixed up the start and stop recording button on several more so ended up with random shots of the wall and floor as I positioned the camera. While I'm hoping to still find some usable bits, there's a decent chance my efforts were wasted...all because I failed to stop and reflect.
A quick little peak at my reflection in the mirror would've solved the hair situation, and a periodic pause to watch, or at least spot check, my recordings would've prevented the second snafu. Instead, I had barreled through my plan without some much needed and valuable awareness.
Now extend my day yesterday into a metaphor for life. What happens when you barrel through it without pausing to take stock? How can you grow or improve in some way if you don't take the time to establish a good baseline and regularly monitor how you're doing? How can exercise choice when I'm moving through life on autopilot? We all need a strong sense of self-awareness, which hinges on being able to self-reflect.
The Importance of Self-reflection
Can you imagine moving through a single day without at least checking your reflection in the mirror? Probably not. Most of us feel more comfortable with at least a cursory glance to make sure we're presentable, especially if we're going to be out and about in the world.
Self-reflection is like holding up a mirror to your emotions and behaviors so that you can take a good, hard look at them and determine if they're ok or need some work.
Without intentional self-reflection, it's hard to really recognize patterns or habits, leaving us doomed to repeat them. Even if we realize that we have some problematic patterns, say in relationships or reacting to triggers, we are not able to truly change them without the self-awareness that arises from self-reflection.
So What, Exactly, Is Self-Reflection?
Self-reflection is the act of pausing, stepping back, and thinking about your reactions - what you did and how you felt - and the factors that led to or contributed to them. It's the process of uncovering your underlying motivations and the inner workings of your mind that drive your reactions.
Self-reflection is a skill, and one that many people either don't have or don't use (and if you're sitting here thinking, "This doesn't apply to me. I self-reflect. All. The. Time." Good for you, but hang with me. There's some stuff coming up that might apply to you).
How to Self-reflect
There are a lot of ways to practice self-reflection. As long as you are trying to objectively analyze how and why you reacted the way you did or do the things you do, you're self-reflecting. This may be a quiet, introspective process for you, one in which you simply think through your reactions. You may also find that one of these methods is helpful for structuring your self-reflection especially if this is new to you.
Self-monitoring is a tool that psychologists use all the time to help increase awareness of problematic patterns, habits and behaviors, or internal experiences (like thoughts, feelings, and urges). One way to do this is to make note of the ABCs of your behavior or reaction any time it happens.
A stands for antecedents and captures anything leading up to your reaction. B is the behavior itself. C is the consequence or the outcome. Think of it like a chain of events, and the more detailed the better. Read more about conducting a chain analysis here.
Often, people miss the internal experiences - the inner workings of their mind - that are really important to understand. I prefer some version of an exercise called Dissecting the Problem (Getting to Know Your Mind for those of you who have done our Ascend program). To do this, after the fact, take a few minutes to note the situation/trigger/context. Then try to identify your internal experiences: thoughts, emotions, physical sensations inside your body, and urges for action. Finally, reflect on the outcome. The goal is to fill in the gap between what happened and how you behaved. I've included a bonus download for you of our Dissecting the Problem worksheet to use as a guide.
Journaling is another way that some people self-reflect. Allowing yourself to write out what you're thinking or feeling, then reading back through it, may shed some light on your inner workings or motivations.
Talking with a therapist or a trusted confidant who can ask probing questions without you feeling defensive or avoidant can also promote self-reflection.
Finally, mindfulness is another powerful way to develop moment-to-moment self-awareness as you become better able to watch internal experiences unfold, rather than being ruled by them like when we're moving through life on autopilot.
When Self-reflection Goes Awry
There can be a fine line between self-reflection and self-criticism or ruminating, so let's distinguish them for the record. Some of the key differences between effective self-reflection and unhelpful self-focused thinking have to do with attitude, goal, and utility.
Approach self-reflection with an attitude of curiosity. Hmmm, what was it that made me feel that way, I wonder? I wonder what made me do that. I wonder what old script my mind was running. Contrast that to self-criticism, which operates from a judgmental attitude. Why did I do that? Asked with an undertone of judgement and the strong message that you shouldn't have or that you did something wrong.
Self-reflection has the goal of helping to increase our self-awareness and our understanding of how we tick, with the ultimate goals of growth/improvement or self-acceptance. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has the goal of making us feel so bad we won't do it again...except that we will because we didn't get useful information we can use in the future!
The utility is different between the two as well. Self-reflection can be painful at times but it provides a path forward. It is constructive and yields useful information. Self-criticism, on the other hand, leads to guilt, shame, anxiety. It might provide some (at least initial) motivation to change, but it doesn't shed light on how to actually do that, other than vague demands to do better or be better.
Self-reflection v. Rumination
Rumination is chewing on negative thoughts, looping or spiraling. Think of self-reflection as more of a discrete exercise. Go through the process - check your reflection in the mirror - then move on. Rumination is like looking in the mirror...then leaning in close and honing in on all the things you don't like about what you see, fixating on how bad or ugly they are. You can lose hours like and be far worse off for it.
The take away here is to reflect in a helpful way, use that information to cultivate self-awareness, and build on that awareness in the moment to make helpful changes or break old patterns that no longer serve you.
Me? I'll be taking the time to do a little more reflection along the way. While it may take a few extra minutes that I don't want to spend or feel kind of cringy in the moment, it's far better than causing unintended consequences or problems, like my unusable footage.
"Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful."
- Margaret J. Wheatley
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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