Self-reflection: What it is + 8 ways to do it properly

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Self-reflection is the gateway to freedom. – Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche

You probably look in a mirror most days and are as familiar with your appearance as almost any other sight.

But how often do you look inward to become more familiar with your inner self?

That is the crux of self-reflection: to know your inner workings as well as you know your outer form.

Self-reflection is a process by which you grow your understanding of who you are, what your values are, and why you think and act the way you do.

It is a form of personal analysis that allows you to bring your life into alignment with what you wish it to be.

Let’s explore this important tool further, starting with why you should do it.

The Importance Of Self-Reflection

The journey into self-love and self-acceptance must begin with self-examination. Until you take the journey of self-reflection, it is almost impossible to grow or learn in life. – Iyanla Vanzant

Self-reflection – also called introspection – is a means to observe and analyze oneself in order to grow as a person.

That growth is the reason why it is so important to spend time in personal reflection.

By understanding who you are now and who you’d like to become, you help identify the steps you need to take on that journey.

Reflecting upon how you behave and what thoughts enter your mind in response to events in the world around you allows you to see what you need to work on.

Perhaps you were a little short and irritable with a work colleague.

By looking back on that, you might realize that this is not how you would wish to be treated and, thus, not how you wish to treat others.

You can then seek to address that behavior in future and perhaps apologize to your colleague if you were particularly rude or unkind.

This might lead to an improved working relationship with this person and a more enjoyable work day overall.

To highlight the importance or self-reflection, you only need to consider the alternative.

If you can’t identify where you might have acted in a regrettable manner, you will most likely act that way again.

In our example, this only prolongs the ill-feeling you might experience as a result of workplace tensions and the potential negative ramifications of that in the long run.

Time spent in personal reflection is also an opportunity to measure your progress in a positive way.

You can identify moments where you have responded to a situation with healthier thoughts and behaviors.

It can provide you with a sense of achievement and keep you motivated in your quest to better yourself – however that looks to you.

Essentially, then, self-reflection is a way to make lots of small course corrections away from less desirable thoughts and behaviors toward those that promote greater well-being.

The Benefits Of Self-Reflection

Now that we’ve seen why it is so important to reflect upon your thoughts and actions, what are the potential practical benefits of doing so?

Improved Relationships

As in our workplace example above, by reflecting on how you treat others and the thoughts you may have about them, you can make changes that lead to more harmonious relationships.

If there are difficulties in a relationship – be that romantic or platonic – you can assess the situation, ask what role you are playing in those difficulties, and find ways to overcome them.

Self-reflection gives you the chance to see how you truly feel about the other person and consider the value that the relationship brings.

This can make you more appreciative of that person which then influences how you interact with them.

Greater Clarity Of Thought

Introspection provides an opportunity to think about something in isolation from the thing itself.

Instead of your mind being clouded by the emotions you experience when interacting with the thing in question, you can view it in a more rational sense.

You can see it with more clarity and think about it from a rounded perspective with pros, cons, and other important details that help you make a reasoned conclusion about how you wish to change with regards to it (or if you actually don’t want to change at all).

Perhaps, for example, that thing is a choice such as the job you take. If you dislike the long commute in your current position, you might not be able to see the benefits it brings during the commute itself.

But by stepping back and thinking about it on a day off, you might realize that despite not being all that enjoyable, the pros of a job you are passionate about or the wages you receive from it make the commute worthwhile on balance.

It may even change how you feel about your commute or how you choose to spend that time.

Knowing Your True Values

You will find it hard to really know yourself until you have spent time thinking about what really matters to you.

When you reflect upon yourself, you might see things that you do or think that go against who you really wish to be.

You can consider the important issues that we face in life and form a solid position on them.

Sometimes, until you really sit and think about something, you cannot decide where you stand on it.

This can cover all sorts of moral issues such as the right to end one’s own life or the protection of the environment.

Or it can simply help you figure out the guiding principles that you would ideally like to live by.

Self-reflection is the means by which your moral compass can be formed and refined so that you are able to act true to it in all that you do.

It can help you feel less lost in life and more empowered to create a future that reflects your core beliefs

Improved Decision-Making

We make hundreds of choices every day, but most are insignificant and can be left to our unconscious mind.

But when it comes to the more important decisions in life, a little personal reflection is invaluable.

It comes back to having clarity of thought and awareness of your true values.

With these two things, you can make decisions that put you on the most optimal path to greater well-being.

This means fewer regrets or missed opportunities and more peace of mind knowing that you have made the right choice.

Better Sleep

When you spend a little time each day looking back upon events and how you responded to them, it can bring closure to any unresolved feelings.

This can help you to not only fall asleep quicker, but have a more restful nights’ sleep in general.

The only caveat to this is that you have to avoid allowing reflection to turn into rumination.

Think about your day, but then turn the page and allow your mind to start afresh the next day. Don’t get stuck on a thought for too long.

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Less Stress And Anxiety

One of the key outcomes of self-reflection and knowing yourself more intimately is that you become more confident in yourself and your actions.

You find more certainty in this uncertain world because you are grounded in your sense of self.

With greater certainty comes less stress and anxiety.

You worry less about the ‘what ifs’ and focus more on the things you can do to best align your actions with those guiding principles we spoke of above.

And you worry less about what other people might think about you and your choices because you know that you are doing what’s right for you.

8 Ways To Practice Self-Reflection

Now that you know why it’s important to practice self-reflection and what benefits it might bring, let’s explore how you can actually go about it.

1. Find Quiet Solitude

To be able to think clearly, you should preferably be in a quiet and peaceful environment.

This means solitude, though not necessarily being totally alone in a physical sense, but rather a place where you won’t be disturbed by the people and things around you.

A comfortable place in the house such as a snug, a warm bath, or just lying on your bed is ideal, but you might also wish to sit in the garden or in a park if this helps inspire your thoughts.

2. Ask ‘Why?’

‘Why’ is the first thing to think about.

Why do you act the way you act?

Why do you think the way you think?

This could be in relation to a specific event that day, or it could be a more general search for the reasons behind certain thoughts or behaviors that you have spotted as being a common occurrence.

Some ‘whys’ are easy to answer. You may have shouted at your child because you and your partner had argued shortly before.

Some ‘whys’ are harder to answer. Pinpointing the reasons why you feel so strongly for or against more stringent gun laws is not always straightforward.

3. Ask ‘What?’ ‘Where?’ And ‘Who?’

The next questions you will want to ask and answer after your initial ‘why’ are those that inform you of the way you would like to think or act going forward.

They revolve around these 3 core questions:

What would I have done differently?

Where do I want to get to?

Who do I want to be?

These are the foundation of the wider, more precise questions you will want to ask depending on what aspect of yourself you are reflecting upon.

Here are some examples:

– What should I have done when my boss criticized me in front of my peers?

– Where do I want to be in terms of my relationship in the next few years?

– Who do I look up to?

– What should my response be to a person who is treating me poorly because of my race?

– How many hours do I want to work? (this is a ‘where’ question even though it begins with ‘how.’)

– Does my current diet reflect my views on animal cruelty? (this is a ‘who’ question)

4. Ask ‘How?’

Once you have identified something that you’d like to change, you’ve thought about why you currently do it, and you’ve considered an ideal end point, you have to ask how you’re going to get there.

What things do you either need to start doing or stop doing to reach the stage where your thoughts or behavior have changed in the way you would like?

In other words, what is the roadmap to get you from A (where you are now) to B (where you’d like to be)?

5. Give Yourself Time, But Know When To Stop

As mentioned above, the process of self-reflection can risk the less than healthy state of rumination or overthinking.

When we allow a thought to cycle through our minds again and again with no apparent way to resolve it, we lose all the benefits of inward reflection and can end up harming our mental well-being.

So it is key to set a limit on how long you sit in quiet contemplation.

You may wish to make this a particular amount of time, or you may simply say that it is time to stop when you get stuck on a train of thought.

And when the time has come to stop, the best thing to do is move somewhere else entirely.

That’s why it is not typically a good idea to self-reflect in bed before sleep.

By all means lie on a bed, but do it well before the end of your day or at any other time where sleep is not on the horizon.

To break away from inward reflection, try to immerse yourself and your focus on something other than the things you were reflecting on.

Anything that can distract your mind away from what you were thinking about.

6. Consider Writing Your Thoughts Down

Some people might find it useful to make notes of their thoughts as they are reflecting on themselves.

Writing in a journal is a popular way to do this as it keeps everything in one place and allows you to look back on what you’ve thought previously to keep you on the right path.

This can also be helpful if you find it difficult to get off a particular thought. Once it is written down and safely stored, you might find that the mind can let go of it more easily without the threat of forgetting it.

7. Speak To A Therapist

Whilst most people probably don’t need to take this step, others might find that talking things out with a therapist is the most effective means of organizing their thoughts and feelings.

As a qualified professional, a therapist can help guide your thought process toward the most important elements of your life and the issues you may be facing.

They can also help you to think about the steps you might need to take to make the positive changes you wish to make.

You may find that talking to somebody else rather than going it alone takes a weight off your mind and helps you to be consistent in your self-reflection efforts.

8. What If I Don’t Enjoy It?

A healthy level of self-reflection typically empowers and energizes an individual as they see ways to improve upon themselves.

But this won’t be the case for everyone.

If you are really struggling to get to grips with the process or find that it is raising some difficult issues from the past, your best bet is probably to speak to a therapist.

You have not failed if you have to ask for help. You have succeeded in realizing that you needed to.

A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful we find others spending it for us.

It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, “Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?”

If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time – the stuff of life.– Carl Sandburg

About The Author

Steve Phillips-Waller is the founder and editor of A Conscious Rethink. He has written extensively on the topics of life, relationships, and mental health for more than 8 years.