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Self-Reflection: A Must-Have Skill

(Disclaimer:- If this post sounds like believe self reflection is the cure for misery, please bear with me, I just love this one)

When I first came into psychology from a very different background, I had no idea how I would do with this transition. Going into a subject you have no clue about can be pretty daunting. But one of the first things that caught my attention was that almost all the teachers encourged us to try to understand the concepts we are studying by recalling our own personal stories. In simpler words: try to "reflect and relate".

Reflection can, in deceptively simple words, be described as looking back at our experiences or actions and attempting to examine them along with examining our own beliefs, values and worldviews that lead to those experiences. In other words when you reflect you try to understand your way of looking at the world as well as your own experiences to understand your self better.

But is it needed?

When we go through the world, we make a number of decisions. We interact with the world and its people in a variety of ways. Most of these are not thoroughly thought out, rather, they are based on a map of the world that we develop in our childhood [1]. Reflection involves going back to our daily experiences and examining our maps, how they influence our life, and how they were formed, to better understand our own selves and in that process our own life.

It is the highway to self awareness.

In my course we eventually learnt the uses and benefits of this skill called reflection. The more I learnt about it, the more I believed, that this is one skill we must cultivate in our lives, no matter who we are or what we do!

What is so must have about it, you ask?

Self-Reflection is something that can help you personally, professionally, and possibly spiritually.

Professionally, reflective practice can help improve other "in-demand" skills in the market right now. Leadership, cognitive flexibility, interpersonal relationships, communication, personal management (ex: time management, setting tasks for self) can all benefit when you reflect upon your own actions, your way of relating to others and trying to figure out, why you do what you do. And for those who are in the middle of their journey in psychology, absence of such an understanding can actually have detrimental effects on your practice, or on you when you practice [2].

Personally as well, reflective practice has the potential to improve your relationships, increase control of your self and your actions, bring forth your personal values and goals as well as improve the overall quality of life. Finally, spiritually, when one is more aware (or mindful) and reflective, there are more chances of finding meaning in life.

Some key reasons why it is so effective is that it increases your engagement with your own life, it helps you helps cultivate an awareness of your own actions and helps you figure out the direction you need to travel in, in order to improve. It basically helps deepen your understanding of your own actions.

Unfortunately, we have not given this skill the place it deserves in our country. Looking around, the lack of self-reflection and both, acceptance of the most common viewpoint without checking it or critically thinking about it first and stubbornly sticking to our older ways of thinking (even when they might be dangerous for others/self) is quite common [3].

Coming back to more personal use, basically, life attempts to teach us a number of things and we get access to those lessons through reflection. Now, the question is what is the cost? and how to apply for this course?

How to practice Self Reflection (and an example of it)

If you go through google pages on how to reflect, you will find a range of practices, some complex, some simple and some so general that you feel like you relate, but in a much more real sense of the way you have no idea what to do. My practice is pretty simple: Asking questions.

It all begins with being curious about why you do what you do. For instance, I have this tendency to take up 10k tasks together at a time and then get into a mad rush to complete them all. Eventually, it becomes tiring and impossible to do all of that and I become dejected and burnt out so leave everything. But the story does not stop here, when I take a break/rest, an uneasy feeling comes across and before I know it I get into this cycle again! Now, I used to be pretty judgemental about this cycle of mine when one of my mentors asked me to try curiosity for a change.

So I did that, I noticed my tendencies and tried curiosity. Asking questions such as, what makes me want to take on so much? When I rest, what do I feel? What do I notice? Why can I not finish one task? and so on. Eventually, after asking a number of what and why questions, and being as objective as possible, I could come up with various reasons such as, how most of the people in my childhood asked me to "be productive". Further, I developed the habit of comparing myself to other people and their best work (not all of their work) and lastly, the general message (thanks to our capitalist world) today seems to be, "do it fast, or you will lose".

Now, just the awareness of these reasons, help me regulate my actions and prevent the exhausting cycle that used to happen.

This can be applied to a number of things you do. For example, if you are not able to explain your side to your partner (what am I missing? What do I want to convey?); or feel anxious before a presentation (what am I feeling? Why do I feel this way?). You may find answers which explain everything, but you may also find answers which are uncomfortable. Often, reflection is uncomfortable, but there is always an option to reach out to your close ones and talk about it. Better out than in, right?

While this is an amazing skill, it is often easy to forget that it is in fact, a skill! And requires at least some practice before you get the hang of it and are able to not only reflect after the experience but do so during a situation and manage your actions (Ex: initially you might come home after a fight and try to reflect what triggered you, with more practice, you might be in the moment and notice that your temper is rising and catch exactly what made that happen). I often use a journal to do this practice and speaking for myself, it has made a huge impact on the manner in which I relate to the world now.

With this, I hope that you at least give it a try and find something useful in this skill. Feel free to leave questions and your own experiences in the comments below.


[1] M. Scott Peck in his book The Road Less Travelled talks about us having "maps" to view the reality. The closer these maps are to the reality the lesser problems we have. But making them requires effort and exploration. Most people stop putting in this effort to view and reform their views of the world for the process of sophisticated maps at the end of adolescence. So often while our situations and reality keep changing, we cling on to our maps and colour the reality in a way to fit our purpose.

[2] There are a number of studies that have been conducted on the importance of reflection in counselling (e.g. Fisher et al 2015; Carmichael, Rushworth & Fisher, 2020). There is also a related term, "reflexivity", which is used in qualitative research in psychology (e.g. Probst, 2015; Berger, 2015)

[3] As an experiment try to think about the news/media/songs/movies that we consume and accept in our daily lives, reflecting on what they are trying to say and why they are doing that. The results might just reveal why the "state of affairs" does not improve in many of the issues we talk about.


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