Whatever the form – a daily journal, a gratitude list, or something more involved like a retreat – experts agree self-reflection is the foundation for success and happiness. It’s how we identify what we want from our lives and evaluate our progress toward those goals.
It’s not easy though. Self-reflection can tip into self-criticism for our bad choices or we can get paralyzed considering daunting changes, leaving the lure of 24/7 distractions to tempt us away.
If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there
Self-reflection is like life’s GPS. Without it, you can find yourself speeding down the wrong road. “In the short term, you can achieve a goal by determination, being strategic and assertive, having a strong work ethic, and being willing to make sacrifices,” said Melanie Greenberg, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “But in the long term, a lack of self-reflection will trip you up. You may get resentful, alienate other people or burn out.”
Maybe that’s because you’ve achieved a goal, but it’s not the right goal for you.
“It is possible to experience some type of success without self-reflection – however, if that success is meaningful to the person is a different story. Many times purpose is the best driving force to help people experience success, but without being in touch with yourself and reflecting on that, we default to what society deems as success,” said Craig Foust, a counselor and therapist.
You’re still productive when you aren’t taking action
Even for Amanda Enayati, who makes her living writing and consulting on lowering stress, it takes vigilance not to get swept downstream in the river of busyness.
Enayati notes that our culture prizes constant motion and activity, so opting out requires discipline. “Self-reflection is a positive space. It is an imperceptible forward movement,” she said. “In order to move forward, you have to be in a space where it looks like nothing is happening.”
Enayati finds literal forward movement helpful: “Walking is so conducive to self-reflection,” she said, but she suggests any way of stepping out of the tactical day-to-day demands can be useful in reconnecting to what motivates you.
“I think it’s interesting how the definition of self-reflection and meditation overlap for so many people,” she said. “Anytime I have stillness, my inclination is to fill it up, so I’m retraining my brain to be comfortable with long periods of stillness.”
Reflection comes in many forms
There are as many ways to self-reflect as there are reasons we avoid it.
You can do journaling, such as the morning pages daily timed writing exercise made popular by Julia Cameron’s book “The Artist’s Way” or a gratitude journal, as advocated by gratitude researcher Robert Emmons at University of California, Davis.
Or try structured reflection on your challenges.
“I encourage people to think of three,” said Jennifer Hancock, instructor at Humanist Learning Systems. “One of the ways we get stuck is in false dichotomies. We can’t see our way clear because we feel like we have two options, both of which suck. So think of a third. Once you can do that, you can think of a fourth or a fifth.”
Or add a self-check during an existing daily routine, like brushing your teeth or leaving work. “Reflect on how you are feeling and ask yourself why you are feeling that way,” suggests Brett Cowell, coach and author of “The Good Life Book.”
It’s not a coincidence many of us get struck with inspiration in the shower or as we’re falling asleep. When our brains finally get a break from input, we can connect the dots of all that input. Many experts suggest doing an intentional nothing as a path to self-reflection. “Being in a relaxed body helps calm your brain down. This is why self-reflection occurs during meditation,” Foust said.
You don’t have to go it alone
The “self” in self-reflection doesn’t require going solo. A friend or a therapist can hold up a mirror to help us see more accurately the way our actions are leading to our outcomes.
“Accurate self-reflection is difficult because it is often subject to the same blind spots as our behavior is,” warned Jaime Malone, counselor at Insight Counseling and Consulting. “People can misinterpret the feedback they think they are getting from others when they do this on their own.”
“If we cannot see the problems, how can they be repaired?” asked Andrew Segovia Kulik, forensic psychiatrist. “Even professional athletes get help from personal trainers, or nutritionists. Why do we think we can work on emotional and mental well-being without help?”
How self-reflection pays off
If we feel safe seeing the truth, avoiding self-criticism, and getting comfortable with change, self-reflection can provide emotional and physical benefits.
“You’ll start to notice that your experiences, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors will begin to integrate. Patterns and themes for your life will start to emerge that will lead to personal insights. Once in your awareness, it’ll be easier for you to make changes to get unstuck,” said Erika Martinez, clinical psychologist with Envision Wellness.
“People don’t learn from experiences, they learn from the reflection on their experiences,” explained Rosie Guagliardo, life and career coach with InnerBrilliance Coaching. “Self-awareness helps define what makes you happy and then you can take action toward making that happen.”
Vic Strecher, a professor at University of Michigan School of Public Health who studies life purpose, points to studies showing people with a strong purpose live longer and are less likely to develop heart disease, stroke or depression.
“Reflecting on your core values — the things you care most about — is the first step to creating purpose,” Strecher said. “Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. Reflective examination of what matters most in your life is the first step.”