From personality type to attachment style, most people like to think that they know themselves pretty well. Yet, when I try to guide my clients or students towards some self-reflection, they aren’t too excited about it. In fact, I would say that some actively avoid it. But why?
While making simple descriptions of ourselves is fun, real and honest self-reflection is often a little bit uncomfortable. It involves analyzing our mistakes and successes, as well as being honest about our failures, and it’s understandable that not everyone is keen on that. However, self-reflection has many benefits that outweigh the initial discomfort, including increases in general well-being and academic performance to name a few.
In this article, I will take a look at some of the benefits of self-reflection, as well as some tips on how you can practice it.
What is self-reflection?
As the name implies, self-reflection is a little like looking in a mirror. But instead of inspecting our physical appearance in a physical mirror, we turn an introspective gaze on our goals, progress, behavior and personality. Self-reflection involves both self-awareness and self-honesty.
Most of us have done some self-reflection at some point in our lives. For example, you might reflect on your performance during a performance review at work, or think about what went wrong in a past relationship, and both of these activities involve self-reflection.
The benefits of self-reflection
Self-reflection is beneficial for you because it helps you understand yourself better, make better choices and live a happier life. And science backs it up, too!
The science of self-reflection
There is a lot of science in the field of self-reflection, especially the benefits that come from it.
For example, a 2011 study found that self-reflection is a significant predictor of personal growth, which is a dimension of psychological well-being. The study also found that insight, which is a form of self-awareness, is a strong predictor of psychological well-being.
Another study from the same year suggests that meaningful self-reflection can boost happiness levels.
Self-reflection can be a learning tool, too. According to a 2013 study on nursing students, self-reflection helped to increase the students’ self-awareness and ease their anxiety, which promotes learning.
According to Singaporean researchers Magdeleine D. N. Lew and Henk G. Schmidt, self-reflection on both how and what students have learned leads to improvements in academic performance.
A 2017 study found that students who were taught to strategize about which academic resources they would use for studying, why each resource would be useful, and how they would use their resources before each exam, reported being more self-reflective about their learning. Additionally, they used their resources more effectively and outperformed other students.
Self-reflection doesn’t only boost your academic performance. In fact, according to a 2016 study on competitive tennis players, self-reflection and insight are correlated with resilience, which can improve athletic performance.
Self-reflection vs self-rumination
It’s clear that self-reflection is a good thing, but it can have a dark side.
Earlier this year, I was reading Russ Harris’ wonderful book The Confidence Gap for work. Like all self-help books, it contains exercises that involve quite a lot of self-reflection and introspection. And even when I’m reading something for work and not for actually helping myself, I'm essentially checking out whether it’s a resource I can recommend to others, and so I try to go along with the exercises.
However, I always find introspective exercises difficult, because thinking too deeply about myself is scary. Many of my students and clients admit that they don’t like doing the exercises I give them, because introspection is scary for them, too. And that’s completely okay!
The dark side of self-reflection
This is where self-rumination comes into play. Self-rumination is self-reflection’s evil twin. Japanese researchers Keisuke Takano and Yoshihiko Tanno write in their 2009 article that ‘‘self-rumination is a form of negative, chronic, and persistent self-focus that is motivated by perceived threats, losses, or injustices to the self and is associated with neuroticism and depression.”
Basically, when we self-ruminate, we get stuck in every little mistake we’ve made or all the things that can go wrong. Do you ever find yourself thinking of something embarrassing, but ultimately inconsequential that happened years ago? That’s self-rumination.
When we are hesitant to self-reflect, we are actually afraid of self-rumination. More specifically, the strong negative emotions we associate with self-rumination.
For example, while reading The Confidence Gap, I didn’t want to answer some of the questions posed in the book because I knew the answers would relate to some hurtful life experiences. As a psychologist, I’m completely aware that this is classic avoidance behavior, but as a human, I’m going to avoid negative emotions until something forces me to deal with them.
In addition to causing emotional discomfort in the short term, self-rumination can also have negative long-term consequences, like depression and lower psychological well-being.
However, when done carefully and thoughtfully, the benefits of self-reflection far outweigh the possible negatives. You just need to know about the potential pitfalls, which is why it's important to know about the difference between self-reflection and self-rumination.
Tips for healthy self-reflection
Don’t let the threat of self-rumination stop you from practicing self-reflection. There are a few simple tips to keep your reflections healthy, positive and beneficial.
1. Write it down
Let’s start at the basics: although we think in words and sentences, the thoughts in our heads are often quite messy. By writing our thoughts down, they become a little bit clearer and our self-reflection session becomes more beneficial.
An additional bonus of written reflections is that you can always go back and read them over when you want to. This adds another layer to your self-reflection, as it allows you to learn from your thoughts and reflect on them at a later time.
2. Use prompts or dedicated journals
The easiest way to avoid self-rumination is to create some structure for your self-reflection session. So instead of just sitting down and letting your thoughts take over, try to answer a prompt or a question.
Psychologist Courtney Ackerman has compiled over 80 questions and prompts you can use for self-reflection, ranging from “Which is worse: failing or never trying?” to “My favorite way to spend the day is…”
If you don’t want to choose your own prompts, there are numerous self-reflection and introspection journals available. For example, if you love making lists (who doesn’t?), The 52 Lists Project might be the one for you. If you like your introspection with a side of meaningful and inspiring quotes, you may like the Start Where You Are journal.
3. Be consistent
Consistency is the key to success in most areas of life, and self-reflection is not an exception.
While you can benefit from a single session of self-reflection on a certain topic, consistent and regular self-reflection on all areas of life is what will give you the best and most lasting results.
Self-reflection should not be thought of as a one-time activity or an intervention you only do when things are going wrong. Rather, it should be a regular part of your mental self-care routine as a preventative measure.
Set a goal to answer one self-reflection prompt a day or write about a larger topic once a week, and try to stay as consistent as you can.
4. Find the why and be honest
If you’re considering self-reflection, you probably have a specific reason for it. Articulating the reason and knowing the purpose helps you stay consistent and make the most of your reflection sessions. Find the why between your motivation to self-reflect, and write it down as per step 1!
Be 100% honest while answering the prompts. This is your personal space and your personal time, and you deserve to be honest with yourself. There is little value in dishonest see;f-reflection, because it’s not helping you learn about your true self.
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Self-reflection can be scary and in some cases, it can lead to self-rumination, which can have negative effects on your well-being. However, when done thoughtfully, honestly and consistently, it can have plenty of positive benefits for your happiness, including increased psychological well-being and academic or athletic performance. Most importantly, you will learn to know yourself better through the process of self-reflection, which is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
What are your thoughts on self-reflection? Have you ever experienced the great benefits of self-reflection? Did I miss a method that you think deserves to be in the article? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below!