The Greek philosopher Thales once said, “the most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.” (The easiest, he added, is giving others advice.)
It’s hard to argue with that. We spend more time with ourselves than anyone else. Yet, our impressions are often biased, embellished, or downright deluded. If we gain clarity with self-reflection, we’ll enjoy better relationships, self-esteem, and success. But reflecting on yourself is also associated with depression and negative thoughts. And many get stuck in reflecting without leading to any progress. What’s the right approach if your goal is both personal growth and happiness?
We’ve got the answers in this detailed guide. We'll discuss 12 tips to effectively reflect on yourself in a way that’s both healthy and insightful.
- What does it mean to reflect on yourself?
- What is the goal of reflecting on yourself?
- The benefits of reflecting on yourself
- Does reflecting on yourself make you happier?
- 12 science-backed ways to reflect on yourself effectively
- 1. Choose meaningful topics
- 2. Focus on problem-solving
- 3. Get feedback from others
- 4. Make it a regular practice (with time limits)
- 5. Don’t overthink your feelings
- 6. Watch out for dysfunctional attitudes
- 7. Ask “what” rather than “why” questions
- 8. Don’t place too much importance on your experience and power
- 9. Journal to explore new topics
- 10. Follow-up with self-management
- 11. Plan ahead
- 12. Avoid the trap of self-rumination
- Wrapping up
What does it mean to reflect on yourself?
Let’s start with the basics: what does it mean to reflect on yourself?
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, self-reflection is the examination, contemplation, and analysis of your thoughts, feelings, and actions.
So you reflect on yourself anytime you ponder questions like these:
- Where does this opinion come from?
- What are my emotions right now?
- What outcome do I want to achieve?
Essentially, it’s any question that makes you delve deeper into who you are and what makes you that way.
What is the goal of reflecting on yourself?
Reflecting on yourself is a process. But you don’t do it for its own sake. Eventually, this process should lead to self-awareness, self-knowledge, and self-insight.
For example, after reflecting on yourself you might realize “I’m not a morning person” or “I have trust issues with my family.”
It’s key to have this goal in mind because the benefits of reflecting on yourself don’t actually come from the process of self-reflection itself. Rather, they come from its results — the insights you gather.
These are so useful that a growing number of experts believe self-awareness is a key driver of improvement.
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Different types of self-awareness
There are countless things we can learn about ourselves. What kind of insight should you try to gain — that would benefit you the most?
There are actually two different kinds of self-awareness, each associated with great benefits:
- Internal self-awareness (how clearly you see yourself).
- External self-awareness (how well you understand how other people see you).
You might think that being good at one kind of self-awareness automatically makes you good at the other too. But research has found there is actually no relationship between them.
We end up with four different profiles, each with a different set of opportunities to improve:
Research shows that the greatest benefits come from having high levels of both types of self-awareness. So if you’re not in the upper-right corner of the chart, work on increasing the type you’re missing.
But even if you think you’re already “fully aware,” it’s still a good idea to reflect on yourself more. Eurich found that most leaders believe they are self-aware, but only about 10-15% of them really are.
The benefits of reflecting on yourself
At this point, you might be thinking, “Why should I reflect on myself? It all sounds awfully time-consuming.”
You’re right that it takes time — but actually, that seems to be the one main drawback to self-reflection! When you do it properly, all its other effects are wonderful benefits that can make your life a lot better.
Let’s have a look at the main benefits of reflecting on yourself.
1. Reflecting on yourself fosters personal growth
You may have already heard that people attribute their successes to internal factors like their effort and skills, and their failures to external circumstances out of their control.
This might be a good coping mechanism to maintain a positive self-image. But clearly, we also have success due to good luck and failure due to our inexperience or poor skills. Imagine how hard it will be to make progress in life if we continue to tell ourselves the opposite!
2. It boosts your self-esteem
When you get to know yourself through self-reflection, you’ll have an accurate picture of your strengths and shortcomings.
So when you do well, you can recognize how you contributed to your success and celebrate your hard work.
And when you do poorly, you can understand where you fell short and how you can improve for next time, making you more confident to try again.
3. It increases your motivation and performance
Are you trying to learn a foreign language, new instrument, or challenging skill? Incorporate self-reflection into your routine to boost your performance.
This means setting goals, tracking your progress, and reflecting on your efforts. Language students who self-reflected in this way showed better motivation, consistency, and progress.
For extra motivation, get regular feedback from your teacher or fellow learners. This increases external self-reflection. Study participants mentioned this as particularly helpful.
4. It helps you fit well into society
As you reflect on yourself, you also discover what makes you different from others. You thus get better at understanding and empathizing with other people’s perspectives.
At the same time, you improve your own behavior in the context of various social situations. Self-awareness uncovers our true motivations and so pushes us to act in more ethical ways.
For example, a study found that more self-aware people were less likely to lie, cheat, and steal.
Does reflecting on yourself make you happier?
If you’ve already done some research on how to reflect on yourself, you may have come across some mixed findings related to happiness.
Here at Tracking Happiness, we’re all about clarity, understanding, and a science-backed approach. This article wouldn’t be worth anything if we didn’t consider all sides of an argument.
So let’s break it down: does self-reflection increase happiness?
When reflecting on yourself increases happiness
In the context of the benefits described above, self-reflection certainly improves your life, success, and happiness.
Reflecting on yourself also leads to happiness directly. This seems to be the case, especially for moderately happy people when they reflect on meaningful events.
This might be because it helps them set meaningful goals, which are strongly linked to greater happiness.
So reflecting on yourself increases happiness:
- If you are moderately happy (and want to be happier).
- If you reflect on meaningful events that help you set meaningful goals.
When reflecting on yourself decreases happiness
It’s interesting to note that self-reflection can decrease happiness for extremely happy people. Researchers speculate this might be because the studies that found this asked participants to reflect on trivial things.
Another interesting finding is that self-reflection may make it hard to maintain happiness. For example, people who did an act of kindness felt it was more selfish after reflecting on it. Researchers compare this to finding a flaw in a beautiful painting after examining it closely.
But many of these negative effects arise because we self-reflect the wrong way. We get stuck in the reflection stage without moving towards insights. Or worse, we fall into the trap of self-rumination (more on this later).
So reflecting on yourself can decrease happiness:
- If you are already very happy (and your reflections make you fixate on trivial flaws).
- If you approach reflecting on yourself in the wrong way.
How to reflect on yourself to increase your happiness
So what’s the bottom line?
The benefits listed earlier make one thing clear. Self-reflection is an incredibly useful tool that we can and should leverage. But we need to strike a careful balance between two things:
- Gaining an accurate understanding of ourselves.
- Maintaining a positive self-image.
How do we do that? Let’s break it down into actionable steps.
12 science-backed ways to reflect on yourself effectively
Follow these tips on how to reflect on yourself to achieve both personal growth and happiness.
1. Choose meaningful topics
As mentioned above, reflecting on trivial matters can lead to negativity and depression.
So start by choosing carefully what you want to reflect on.
We all make mistakes on a daily basis. If we had to sit and analyze each one, we’d never get out of our chairs! Not every small blunder you make is worth analyzing.
Ask questions like these to filter out the meaningful topics:
- Does it have a lasting impact on my life, or does it relate to a lasting area of my life?
- Is it something that happens often, in the same way, or in similar ways?
- Does it relate to one of my core values or beliefs?
- Does it cause me or someone else significant discomfort or pain?
If you’re especially hard on yourself, it might feel like every mistake is a big deal. Then try considering it from a third-person perspective:
- If this happened to someone you know (or even a total stranger), would you think it was a big deal? Would you recommend they spend hours thinking about it?
2. Focus on problem-solving
Scientists suggest there are two ways to reflect on yourself:
- Problem-focused: reflecting on insights learned and how best to reach your goals.
- Self-focused: trying to understand, contain, or eliminate your negative emotions, thoughts, or reactions.
As you might guess, the self-focused method leads to negative feelings and self-rumination. On the other hand, the problem-focused approach leads to inspiration and future progress.
To get into the right mindset, consider why you want to reflect on yourself before you start. You probably have a specific reason: maybe you want to learn something, process a memory, or drop a bad habit.
Articulating this reason helps focus your thoughts in the right direction. Write it down on paper and create a mind map as you reflect to make sure your thoughts all connect back to it.
One important caveat: the approach was named “problem-focused,” but focus on solutions instead. This is an extra layer of protection to keep your thinking constructive and positive.
Frame questions in this way too. So instead of “What difficulty am I facing right now?”, ask:
- “What would I like this situation to look like a month from now?”
- “What is one possible solution to this problem?”
- “What is one way I could start to move toward creating this solution?
3. Get feedback from others
Researchers point out a seeming paradox:
The road to self-knowledge likely cannot be traveled alone but must be traveled with close others who can help shed light on our blind spots.
So as you reflect, ask for input from people close to you. Researchers found the best self-awareness comes from getting feedback from “loving critics.” These are people who have your best interests in mind and are willing to tell you the truth.
Also, be on the lookout for indirect feedback. It is everywhere around you. A performance review from your boss. A passing comment from a friend. Or even a look from a stranger on the bus. These are all forms of feedback on you and your behavior.
But don’t get too swept away by what others think of you. Nor should you jump to wild conclusions. Get a range of feedback, so you don’t overreact or overcorrect based on one person’s impressions.
4. Make it a regular practice (with time limits)
Few things produce noticeable results after one day.
If you want real benefits from reflecting on yourself, you’ll have to make it into a regular practice. Just like going to the gym or learning a new language.
Psychotherapist Haley Neidich suggests incorporating self-reflection into a daily mindfulness practice. It can be journaling or even a sitting meditation where you allow your mind to explore.
But it’s best to set a time limit for these sessions.
It keeps you from getting carried away or sucked into a cycle of repetitive thoughts.
It’s hard to realize that this is happening in the moment. But hearing a timer can snap you out of it. Resist the urge to keep going and move on to another activity.
5. Don’t overthink your feelings
Self-reflection is hardly a new concept. In fact, psychologist Wilhelm Wundt used it heavily in his research in the 19th century. He had a meticulous method to make participants describe their thoughts objectively and accurately.
The main criticism of this technique was that the very process of self-reflection can change what you’re reflecting on.
For example, when you try to describe your feelings, you have to stop and think about them. This interruption and attention can cause your feelings to shift. So your reflection will not be accurate anymore.
To mitigate this effect, don’t spend too much time analyzing your thoughts and feelings. If you’re journaling, write down the first thing that comes to mind. If it doesn’t feel right, just keep writing and searching until you find the words that click.
6. Watch out for dysfunctional attitudes
When we reflect on ourselves, we have to be honest. We cannot ignore our weaknesses and delude ourselves into thinking that we are perfect.
But focusing on the negative counteracts the benefits of self-reflection.
A study looked at the relationship between happiness, self-reflection, self-rumination, and self-insight. It found that self-insight is most related to happiness. Self-reflection can lead to self-insight (discovering new parts of yourself). However, dysfunctional attitudes seem to prevent this result.
Dysfunctional attitudes are beliefs that lead to negative thoughts about yourself, others, and the future. They often lead to depression.
They can be thoughts like:
- “If I fail at my work, then I am a failure as a person.”
- “People will think less of me if I make a mistake.”
This is part of the reason why some studies find self-reflection creates more anxiety. The more self-reflection you do, the easier it is for negative attitudes to creep in.
So keep an eye out for these negative thoughts and don’t let them take over your process. They can be easier to catch if you write your thoughts down.
Discard them, and self-reflection leads to more self-insight, which leads to better well-being.
7. Ask “what” rather than “why” questions
How often do you ask yourself “why”?
Why do I feel so angry at my boss? Why can’t I get through my whole to-do list? Why is sandwich meat round when bread is square?
On the surface, “why” can seem like a logical question. But in fact, it makes us miserable.
When we ask “why”, our brains point to an explanation that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. And usually, you make connections between things that are completely unrelated.
For example, let’s say you’re a new manager and you feel a little insecure in your new role. One stressful day, you snap at an employee. You might conclude that you’re not cut out for management. But in reality, it was just a case of low blood sugar.
The problem here isn’t just that we are wrong, it’s also that we are extremely confident that we are right. So it’s extremely hard to find the real answer. Meanwhile, we worsen our fears, shortcomings, and insecurities.
So what should you ask instead?
Researchers found that the most self-aware people tend to ask “what”. These questions keep you objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on your insights. They also help you accept difficult truths and become a better person.
Here are some examples:
- “Why do I feel so terrible?” → “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?”
- “Why did my coworker say this about me?” → “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?”
- “Why is my business failing?” → “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact on our customers and employees?”
8. Don’t place too much importance on your experience and power
Do you have a large amount of experience or power at work?
You might think this makes you especially good at self-awareness. But unfortunately, research shows this isn’t the case.
More experienced managers tend to be less accurate in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared to less experienced managers. Similarly, those with more power tend to overestimate their skills and abilities.
This pattern was true for nearly all competencies tested, including:
- Emotional self-awareness.
Your experience and power are great accomplishments. But it doesn’t mean much when it comes to knowing yourself.
9. Journal to explore new topics
Journals are excellent tools to reflect on yourself.
The act of writing things down helps you slow down so you can analyze your thoughts.
Seeing words on the page also helps you recognize negative thoughts, or when you’re veering off track.
But specially made self-reflection journals also help you discover new parts of yourself.
When we write or think freely, we often gravitate to the same questions or revisit stale problems. On the other hand, journals can provide us with a wide range of curated prompts to think about.
Here are two that I personally love:
Each page has a thought-provoking question and a beautiful design to inspire you.
10. Follow-up with self-management
How many times have you told yourself you will finally hit the gym, volunteer, or read more often?
We’re much better at thinking and planning than following through on those plans.
For example, you might realize you tend to talk too much in meetings. But you keep doing it again and again. You might believe you have too many important points to skip any. Or you’re so used to your usual pattern that it feels uncomfortable to do things differently.
But the whole point of reflecting on yourself is to move towards happiness and self-development. So if you discover key self-insight or get helpful feedback, follow through and self-manage.
This is the conscious choice to resist a preference or habit. Instead, you choose more productive behavior. Self-management has four steps:
- Be present. Pay attention to what is happening right now, not 15 minutes ago or your next meeting. In our example: “I’m focused on this conversation, really listening to everyone’s comments.”
- Be self-aware. What are you seeing, hearing, feeling, doing, saying, and thinking? For example: “I notice I’m excited and eager to share my ideas. I also recognize many people in the room are trying to speak. I know I have a tendency to speak too often in meetings, which can stop others from participating.”
- Identify a range of action choices. What do you want to do next? What are the possible consequences of each choice of action? What feedback have you gotten that might help you make a good choice? What are some alternative choices, even if they’re not what you usually do or want to do? For example: “I could explain my ideas, ask a helpful question, invite others to share their ideas, or listen silently.”
- Choose the most productive actions. What action will create the best outcome, even if it’s not the easiest action? For example: “I’m going to withhold my comments and instead listen to what others are saying. Even though I really want to share my ideas, I’ve been repeatedly told that I talk too much, and don’t give others a chance to contribute. If I listen now, I will finally be giving others that chance.”
11. Plan ahead
It can be tricky to turn self-reflection into tangible improvement in our lives. We’re creatures of habit, and bad habits can be hard to break.
Our best safeguard against inaction is to plan ahead.
First, identify where you want to self-manage. How do you typically operate, and where is your current approach not working as well as you’d like?
Next, consider what’s driving your lack of self-management. Is it because you lack awareness at the moment, you want to look good, or you’re insecure? Understanding why we make our choices is crucial to changing them.
Then come up with alternative choices in advance and your possible reactions to them.
For example, if you talk too much in meetings, another option is to wait until someone else speaks before giving your opinion. Your reaction to this idea might be fear that someone else will make your point and you won’t get “credit” for it. Or that other people won’t have good ideas and thus a bad decision will be made.
This will confirm why you struggle with self-management. It will also prepare you to work through these difficulties.
Finally, create a plan for concrete steps to take. For example, you can decide in advance how many times you will speak in a meeting and for how long. Or decide in which meetings you will only listen and not speak.
Now all that’s left to do is practice and repeat the process.
12. Avoid the trap of self-rumination
Self-rumination feels a lot like self-reflection because you are in fact reflecting on yourself. But it doesn’t lead to any helpful insights or positive changes. Instead, it creates discomfort in the short term and lowers psychological well-being in the long term.
Researchers define self-rumination as “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.”
In simpler terms, you’re self-ruminating if your thoughts:
- Are constant or repetitive, without leading to any insight.
- Relate to things that could hurt you, opportunities you’ve missed, or times you’ve been wronged.
- Make you feel bad.
They are often about inconsequential mistakes or painful memories from long ago. For example:
- That embarrassing slip-up during a presentation three years ago.
- That joke that came out wrong during the first date that never panned out.
- That time when you fell in the middle of the dance performance and the audience laughed.
If you realize you’re self-ruminating, turn your attention to something in your surroundings. It could be the color of someone’s shirt, the noise in the background, or the feeling of the chair you’re sitting on. This will ground you back in reality and pull you out of your negative thoughts. Take a break if you need to, then use the 11 tips above to get back on track.
If you struggle with self-rumination, consider practicing self-reflection with a licensed counselor who can guide you through it.
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Now you know the benefits of self-reflection and 11 science-backed ways to reflect on yourself effectively. I hope this gives you the tools needed to make positive changes. Remember that everything in life is a continuous process. As you practice self-reflection, you’ll get better at it with each new self-discovery you make.
What do you think? Do you find happiness and self-awareness after you reflect on yourself? What's your favorite tip from this article? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below!