It can take a crisis to lead some people to self-reflection. For Vic Strecher, it was the death of his daughter. For Neeta Bhushan, it was the realization her life could be in danger in an abusive marriage.
A shot across the bow isn’t mandatory. Wayne Curtis simply came to appreciate the benefits of quiet thinking time on long walks, but for many, aversion to change and fear of the unknown keep us from being self-reflective. We might choose to keep busy and distracted until we’re shaken awake by life.
Reflection can help us find and live our purpose
Strecher, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, has had a long, successful career as a behavioral scientist but when his daughter, Julia, died in 2010, he realized he’d lost his purpose.
Julia received a heart transplant when she was a baby, then a second transplant when she was 9, and Strecher had committed himself to giving her a rich, full life. His work wasn’t the reason he got out of bed in the morning, his daughter was, and she was gone.
Once he began to emerge from the pit of grief, Strecher reflected on what mattered to him so he could identify a new purpose, which now includes teaching each of his students as though they were his own daughter. Strecher also merged his personal pain with his professional expertise to write two books about purpose, with his research providing structured reflection about his own purpose.
Strecher reflects on how well he’s accomplishing his goals on long walks with his Jack Russell terrier, and he resumed his long-dormant meditation practice. Life’s distractions are like junk clogging the sink drain and blocking our search for purpose, Strecher said, and meditation lets those bits float out.
Once you’ve found a purpose you believe in, ideally one that involves service to others, there’s a powerful motivator to check in regularly, Strecher said. “I have this purpose I need to be aligned to. I need to reflect on my purpose and how to live that way every day,” he said. “Having a direction in life is so motivating.”
Trusted friends can hold up a mirror to help us see ourselves more clearly
Bhushan was outwardly successful, with a thriving dental practice and a big house she shared with her picture-perfect husband.
As her marriage became abusive, she was in denial. If she’d self-reflected, she might have to admit she’d made a mistake and she wasn’t ready to leave that outward appearance of happiness behind yet.
“You only know what you know,” she said. Eventually her friends helped her re-evaluate the downside of staying in a violent relationship versus starting over at 30 and having time to live a whole new life. “We’re mirrors for each other,” she said, noting that because of her attachment to her material success, she needed people who loved her to say, “This is not you.”
A crisis can break through our fear of change because it recalculates the equation, Bhushan said. Compare the worst-case scenario in your status quo with the worst-case if you make a change. “Is the pain greater than your current condition?” she said.
That’s when she began to reflect on what she wanted in life, not what impressed other people. She sold her dental practice and became an emotional intelligence advocate, author, speaker and podcaster. Not only did she find benefit of honest self-reflection in her own life, “Now I have a process for it and I teach people how to do it.”
Unplugging from distractions gives us time to reflect
Curtis, a writer who splits his time between New Orleans and Maine, doesn’t think of himself as a naturally self-reflective guy, so he’s structured his life to allow time for unfettered thought.
Curtis wrote a book titled “The Last Great Walk” in which he addressed the effects on our bodies and minds as humans gave up walking in favor of cars. So not surprisingly, walking plays a key role in Curtis’s reflection routine.
“I try to get out almost every day for an hour,” Curtis said. “It helps press a reset button. It helps me erase all the stuff that’s filling my mind.”
Curtis said giving his mind a break can help him put together ideas he’s been pondering, or surface issues that hadn’t yet gotten on his radar. “Once I’ve forgotten the distractions, things will come up,” he said. “There’s a blankness that helps things reorganize.”
This post is part of Unstuck’s Self-Reflection Week. Check out this week’s Instant Insight as well as our ultimate guide to self-reflection. And please write us and let us know about your experiences. We may publish them next week.