Self-reflection can help you live a life aligned with your goals and values, but it can also leave you stuck in self-blame and obsessing about failures.
Like learning a new exercise, you might need to adjust your technique so you build strength instead of injuring yourself.
Hazard: Self-criticism and judgment
Alternatives: Take the perspective of a neutral observer to ask what’s behind your actions, forgive yourself
“If it is done poorly, without awareness, we will go into self-judgment,” said Gary van Warmerdam of PathwayToHappiness.com. “This is in fact what a lot of people think self-reflection is. They look at what they did that day or how they procrastinated and they judge themselves as lazy, unfocused, or wasteful. This kind of beating oneself up emotionally is not self-reflection.”
“Real self-reflection avoids the self-judgment about what we find. This requires a mindfulness state of a neutral observer,” Warmerdam said. “In that state of awareness we can look below the layers of procrastination to the emotions, thoughts, and even beliefs behind the pattern of procrastination. We might find fears of failing, of what others think of us. Or we might find a pressure to get it ‘perfect’ to avoid the fear of failure that there isn’t room to try something.”
Hazard: Ruminating or obsessing
Alternatives: Look for a different perspective or decide to make one small change
“Reflecting is very different than dwelling on something, which can cause greater stress, anxiety, and fear. This is another reason people may avoid reflecting because they don’t know the difference,” said Kim Standeven, life coach, author and speaker. “Reflection is about discovering something new, not replaying a situation.”
“The more you try to solve things, it’s like swimming in quicksand,” said Vic Strecher, a professor and author of two books about life purpose. Strecher suggests that instead of obsessing about things you have no control over or endlessly searching for answers to big, complex problems, identify one action you can take and get out of your head.
Hazard: Using self-reflection as a substitute for action
Alternative: Stop procrastinating and make even one small step forward
Ruminating and self-blaming aren’t just emotionally painful, they can get us stuck in that mode of looking at all that’s wrong rather than moving forward.
“If, for example, you decide that your health is really bad, and you think about all the ways this is so — you get winded quickly, have high blood pressure, overweight, and so on and so forth — and you just stay with these thoughts and don’t move on to how you might fix things, you’ll worry yourself into an even worse state of health,” said Varda Meyers Epstein, a writer and parenting blogger. “If you look at your health situation and commit to taking a brisk, after-dinner walk every day, your self-reflection will have led you to getting unstuck in your thoughts and on to positive actions and better health.”
This post is part of Unstuck’s Self-Reflection Week. Check out this week’s Instant Insight, our ultimate guide to self-reflection, our collection of three touching stories on how reflection led to personal transformation, and our cheat sheet on how to jumpstart your self-reflection practice. We encourage you to write us and let us know about your experiences.