How to start a happy, healthy self-reflection practice
BY MORGAN GREENWOOD
LAST UPDATED AUGUST 2ND, 2021
A happy, healthy self-reflection practice helps us make clear, joyful meaning of ourselves and, ultimately, our lives. Without one, we risk a lifetime of:
If you’ve tried wearing someone else’s personal definition of 'success and happiness', then you probably already know, it’s not a one-size fit.
Knowing what fills you up - what genuinely brings you happiness and what genuinely does not – can make bright, buzzy neon signs out of the beliefs, habits, and decisions that will boost your happiness and which will not. In realer-time, you can correct your course away from behaviors that are unproductive, self-undermining, self-suppressive and self-destructive and re-chart your course towards behaviors that are self-loving.
This post focuses not just on the "Why", but also on the very-detailed “How” behind self-reflection. In it, we will look at both basic and advanced examples of self-reflection, we will explore why practicing self-reflection feels so unnatural, and what can be done to make it less so. Last, we will learn a foundational self-reflection exercise that can help you quickly start a self-reflection practice that feels good.
By all means, if you know exactly what you came for, feel free to use the table of contents below to jump to a specific section in the article.
Pop Quiz! How would you define 'self-reflection'?
Pause here a minute - look away from the screen -and try to come up with a short, sweet definition of 'self-reflection'.
Well, how did you do? Were you able to clearly, concisely define 'self-reflection'?
It’s a slippery one, isn’t it? Self-reflection is one of those concepts that we get the gist of, but often struggle to define with clarity and confidence. Without a clear understanding of what it means to self-reflect, it’s quite difficult to do it. So, let’s start by giving this amorphous concept some cleaner, clearer lines.
A 6-word definition of 'self-reflection'.
Self-reflection is the study of who you are.
That’s a nice enough, easy enough definition for a noun. But, what about the verb-form of self-reflection? What does it mean to self-reflect? In action, to self-reflect is to pay deliberate attention to the root of your personal storytelling.
What is personal storytelling? Personal storytelling includes the themes and thought patterns that you tell yourself about:
Your personal storytelling frames your core beliefs and values, your decisions, and your behavior. Some of your personal storytelling - those themes and thought patterns - have been handed down to you from your parents (and some of those they have received from your grandparents). Other themes you have crafted all on your own.
So, with this new understanding that, in action, self-reflection looks like paying purposeful attention to personal themes and thought patterns, let’s take a look at a few self-reflection examples. Two of these examples are pretty basic; one is more advanced and far less common. One of these is more effective in growing in self-awareness than the others. I’ll let you guess which one.
Examples of self-reflection: 2 basic, 1 advanced
Basic Example No. 1: A serious disagreement with a VIP in your life.
Let’s say that you get into a serious disagreement with a very important person in your life, someone whose character you admire and whose opinion you value. Let’s say that you typically see eye-to-eye with this person, but on this particular occasion, you are in full, passionate disagreement. And let’s say, this conflict results in a heated exchange of not-so-friendly sentiments.
A stormy exchange in a usually sunny relationship can cause confusion and emotional distress. In the hours and days following such an exchange, you might catch yourself reflecting back on:
- 1what you said
- 2what they said
- 3what could have been said or done differently
- 4where you might go from here
And, if you were to dig a bit deeper, you might consider the drivers behind the thoughts and behaviors of both parties.
Basic Example No. 2: Facing a life-changing decision.
Another instance in which you are more likely to self-reflect is when you are faced with making a big decision. Yes or No. Stay or Go. This or That. When you are grappling with a difficult decision, you might make a list of the pros and cons of each option. You might even go beyond that pros and cons list and ask yourself questions like:
- 1"Why, exactly, is this decision so tough to make?"
- 2"Do any of my options conflict with my current core values? If so, which option(s) and how?"
- 3"Do any of my options align with my current core values? If so, which option(s) and how?"
- 4"What scares me about each option?"
- 5"What excites me about each option?"
Advanced Example 1: "Run-of-the-mill" life moments.
While it’s natural to assess our thoughts and feelings during more intense life moments such as times of conflict and difficult decision-making, it’s rare for us to dig into our business-as-usual thought patterns. We are missing out here – and in a big way - because the ongoing day-to-day stories we tell ourselves tend to be quite juicy.
If we were to pay more attention to the daily, “run-of-the-mill” conversations that take place in our mind, we’d give ourselves open-access to a library of self-knowledge. We'd find all sorts of stories there - from snippets to sagas - each having major self-awareness value and even blueprint-like foundational detail about who we are. Listening in on this inner dialogue can help us make meaning of ourselves and, ultimately, our lives.
I use the word “making” here literally.
Your daily thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and decisions are building blocks. You have used them to build your life as it currently looks and feels. They are also your primary construction materials for building your life as you would like it to look and feel.
Self-reflection is listening in on the thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and decisions that you are currently building your life with. It's taking an inventory of these 'materials'. When you do this, you can determine whether you have been working with high quality materials that will help you build something resilient and beautiful...or not. It's this potential to help you sift through and choose new material that makes your self-reflection practice the foundation for something truly life-changing.
The most life-changing benefit of increased self-awareness
There is one longer-term, life-changing benefit that most don't expect when they begin a self-reflection practice - and we will get to that in a minute. But, even in the short term, a little 'self-eavesdropping' can lead to big increases in your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
By listening in on our personal themes and thought patterns, we can begin to understand the actual terms and conditions of our own personal fulfillment instead of blindly accepting the fulfillment terms and conditions of others as our own. And, if you choose to act on this new information about what personal fulfillment looks and feel to you, then you have some exciting things in store, including:
Put it all together and what have you really got? A brighter, clearer focus on what 'good' feels like to you. Author and positive psychology researcher, Courtney E. Ackerman puts it this way:
COURTNEY C. ACKERMAN
-POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCHER-
Enhancing our ability to understand ourselves and our motivations and to learn more about our own values helps us take the power away from the distractions of our modern, fast-paced lives and instead refocus on fulfillment.
Remember those bright, buzzy neon signs we talked about in the intro? When you pay purposeful attention to your inner dialogue, they will begin to flicker on. JOY HERE! NOT THERE! CALM THIS WAY! CHAOS OVER THERE!
A keen sense of self can help you make better decisions and take smarter risks. These decisions will help you correct your course away from self-undermining and self-destructive beliefs and behaviors and towards those beliefs and behaviors that are self-loving.
And there it is, the single most life-changing benefit of a self-reflection practice.
Self-reflection is the beginning of the self-love process. (Should you be interested, we have a few articles on that process as well.)
So, here’s an important question: If an increased sense of self-awareness has the potential to work wonders on our mental, physical and emotional health, why does the act of self-reflection feel so unnatural, uncomfortable even, for so many of us?
Why does self-reflection feel so unnatural? 3 common struggles - and what to do about them.
There are several reasons why it's easier for us to say "Yes!" to iced tea and hot gossip with a friend than it is to say "Yes!" to some quiet self-reflection time with...ourselves. Some of the most commons barriers that stand between you and a happy, healthy self-reflection practice include:
Self-reflection Practice Struggle No.1: The process is/feels murky.
The whole self-reflecting 'thing' can feel abstract, fluffy even. And, even though we can now clearly, concisely define self-reflection, there are still a few self-reflection concepts that remain cloudy. And there are still some basic questions we need answers to. Questions like:
- 1"What, exactly, am I doing?"
- 2"How will I know if I'm doing it right?"
- 3"How long will it take for me to feel a difference in my life?"
If we take a step back, though, we just might find that self-reflection has a lot in common with any other personal development effort that we might undertake. Take going to the gym, for example. How does starting a new workout program compare to starting a self-reflection practice? Let's compare answers for each of the three basic questions above.
1. What, exactly, am I doing?
I am going to the gym to do a variety of weight lifting exercises to build strength.
I am going to pay more attention to where my thoughts come from to build self-awareness.
2. How will I know if I am doing it right?
I might not notice much at first but, over time, I will being to notice that my biceps have firmed up.
I might not notice much at first but, over time, I will begin to notice recurring themes and thought patterns in my day-to-day thinking.
3. How long will it take for me to feel a difference in my life?
I will notice that my life is changing pretty immediately, because I will feel uncomfortable. And, at times, the exercises might be so uncomfortable that I will want to quit. Longer term, I will notice that I am more comfortable doing what was once challenging, because my strength has grown.
I will notice that my life is changing pretty immediately, because I will feel uncomfortable. And, at times, the exercises might be so uncomfortable that I will want to quit. Longer term, I will notice that I am more comfortable doing what was once challenging, because I will have a stronger sense of what is behind my thoughts, feeling, and decisions.
So, what's the solution to the murky self-reflection process?
Seeing a side-by-side comparison between self-reflection and other personal growth efforts can help take the mystery out of the self-reflection process. So, take a few moments to craft your own personal answers to the three questions above. Then, to give the process even more 'definition', make sure that you begin your personal self-reflection practice with small , well-defined exercises and projects. We’ve got the perfect exercise to start with and we'll share it with you in a minute.
Self-reflection Practice Struggle No.2: The process is/feels yucky.
Even when it’s clear and well-defined, the self-reflection process might not always feel great. This can be especially true if you aren’t accustomed to - or are generally uncomfortable with - any of the following:
A very quick, very important note about "inefficiency" before we go on...
At times, self-reflection can feel a bit like restorative yoga. If you’ve ever taken a restorative yoga class, then you know that it involves sitting in the same unsuspecting pose for three minutes or more at a time. Those three-plus minutes? They feel like a lifetime. And you will you spend every second of those minutes thinking, “Absolutely nothing is happening here”. And then, the very next day, you will spontaneously burst into tears in the International Foods aisle because those three minutes of “absolutely nothing” melted open an emotional knot many years in the making. Please be patient with your self-reflection practice. It is working.
So, what is the solution to the yucky self-reflection process?
Let's remind ourselves here - self-reflection is the foundation of self-love. This means, the stakes are simply too high to give up on the first lap. There are three strategies that you can integrate into your self-reflection practice to help ensure that you stick with it for the long-term. They are:
1. Don't overdo it.
Do not obsess about self-reflection. It is counterproductive and unhealthy to self-reflect all day. Instead, set aside 3-5 minutes each day – preferably at the same time every day – to take a quick inventory of what you thought about for the past few hours.
When first starting out, alternate taking this inventory either at lunchtime or bedtime to see if there is a certain time of day where this process flows better, i.e. comes more naturally to you. During those few minutes, see if you can tease out one or two trains of thought – themes, ideas, concerns, etc. with noticeable momentum – that occupied most of your headspace for the day. Then, ask yourself to consider where those trains might be coming from. That’s it. Three to five minutes each day. Then you are done.
2. Pair self-reflection time with an activity you like.
Again, a happy, healthy, long-term habit of self-study is your goal. The best way to make that happen is to keep your self-study efforts easy and enjoyable. The simple trick here is to always pair your self-reflection exercises with activities that naturally appeal to you. Yes, activities. As in movement. Occupation. Flow.
Contrary to popular belief, self-reflection does not have to look like seated meditation, unless, of course, you really enjoy seated meditation. Self-reflection can be as action-oriented as you like it to be so long as that action doesn’t interfere with your train-of-thought-spotting. Let’s take the recommended start-up self-reflection rhythm of 3-5 minutes per day and expand on how we can make that feel good here:
If you like to walk - take your self-reflection exercise outside and listen for trains of thought while moving your legs and getting some fresh air.
If you like to journal – pull out a notebook and write your thoughts down for 3-5 minutes each day. Look for patterns and themes in what you've written.
If you like wine – as you sip, casually listen for thought trains.
If you like to garden, sculpt, whittle, embroider, play the bongos, etc...do it! Again, so long as the activity doesn't interfere with your ability to listen for a train.
An important heads up here – there are two things that you might find enjoyable that do not play nicely with self-reflection. Those things are screens (i.e., electronics) and the company of other human beings.
This is self-study. It is all about you. During your self-reflection practice, you do not need or want input in the form of information, imagery, or opinions, from anyone else.
3. Keep it light-hearted.
Perhaps the biggest secret to happy, healthy self-reflection is to keep the process light-hearted. The way to keep self-reflection light-hearted is not to take the process personally.
WAIT. Did I just ask you not to take self-reflection personally?
Yes. I did. Let me explain. When I say don’t take self-reflection personally, I mean don’t judge yourself.
How to avoid judgmental thoughts and negative self-talk
The best way to avoid judgement during self-reflection is to approach your self-study with the same healthy objectivity that you would use if you were studying any other subject. Subjects like:
French Pastry Chef Jessica Prealpato.
Let’s pretend that you are doing your dissertation on one of these subjects. And, per part of your research, you have the opportunity to spend some one-on-one time with your subject. Can you imagine if, as your subject opened up to you and shared with you details about his or herself, you consistently and openly judged their 'truths' as good, bad or otherwise, like, to their faces?
To Pandas: "You have a sixth toe? Gah."
To Prince: "Wait, you’re only 5’2”? I guess I always thought you were, I dunno, taller?"
To French Pastry Chef Jessica Prealpato: "You use that much butter? Surely anything with THAT much butter must be decent to eat?"
Do you know what this is? It’s shit talking! And, make no mistake, this is exactly what you are doing to yourself when you judge your own self-truths - talking shit to yourself.
If you were to behave this way with your study subject, do you know what they would do? They’d tell you to fuck off. And, if you’re in the habit of passing judgement on your self-discoveries as bad, peculiar, unimpressive, unacceptable, etc., then you are going to tell yourself to fuck off, too, and, just like that, your self-reflection journey will end.
To avoid this, you’ve got to consider yourself a researcher, a curious, but harmless student simply looking for facts – small truths - on an innocent and interesting-in-their-own-right subject. (That’s you). If the self-reflection process starts to feel yucky, then you need to pause and ask yourself:
"Am I still a curious observer or have I become my own judge and jury?"
Self-reflection Practice Struggle No.3: The results might stir up uncomfortable vibes and realizations. At least at first.
Do I mean to tell you that the self-reflection process might feel yucky and the results might feel yucky, too?
Yes, that is 100% what I am telling you. Why? Because, I am honest. Again, we compare this type of self-reflection friction to restorative yoga friction. In the process of self-reflection, as with restorative yoga, some uncomfortable emotional energy can get stirred up. Here are a few uncomfortable things you might discover as a result of your self-study. (I know this, because I have discovered each of these things about myself.)
Some of these truths can be inconvenient. So, what if you aren’t immediately comfortable with what you self-discover?
So, what is the solution to inconvenient self-truths?
We share two in-depth solutions for working through “inconvenient” self-truths in other silos of our site. For the sake of focus, let’s flash forward to the can't-escape-it ending of the inconvenient self-truth story. Here it is:
There is no “solution” to a self-truth. When a self-truth is born, it’s born and, at that point, there is a simple decision to be made. Accept or deny. Whenever you discover a self-truth, you get to decide what to do with it. For what it’s worth, here’s why my vote is always to accept self-truth:
Remember that lifetime of making decisions based on what others think of us? The exhausting pursuit of becoming someone that everybody likes, except ourselves? Our wild - and most sincere - hopes and dreams? Should you deny your self-truths, there will always be a restlessness within you, a lack of fulfillment. Love your self-discoveries or not, you will struggle to find peace on your 100-or-so-years-on-Earth until you accept them.
Self-reflection practice struggles and solutions: a brief overview
That was a lot. Let's have a look at an overview of what we just covered.
Self-Reflection Struggle No.1: Process is/feels murky.
Start your personal self-reflection practice with small exercises and projects with step-wise instructions and clear-cut, incremental deliverables.
Self-Reflection Struggle No.2: Process is/feels yucky.
Don't overdo it.
Pair it with an enjoyable activity.
Keep it light-hearted.
Avoid self-judgment and negative self-talk.
Self-Reflection Struggle No.3: Inconvenient self-truths.
Love your self-discoveries or not, you will struggle to find peace until you accept them. Our self-confidence boosting posts can help with self-acceptance.
Be warned: your self-reflection practice might also feel really, really good
Now, discomfort is just one possible outcome of self-reflection. Self-reflection might also bring immediate joy, deep relief, or a sense of never-before-felt peace.
What follows is a written exercise that you can use as a foundational first step toward a happy, healthy self-reflection practice. It's called Ought Self, Actual Self, Ideal Self. It is brief. It comes with step-by-step instructions. It produces something that you can touch, see, and use as the basis of your self-reflection practice going forward. I've created a free, printable workbook to help you get started with it. You can get that workbook by entering your details below.
When you have completed the exercise (for the first time that is, as it can and should be repeated over and over), you will have created a visual that will help you begin to understand the personal stories that are shaping your life. This is the first step in identifying which of those stories are self-loving and which are not.
A foundational first exercise for a happy, healthy self-reflection practice
Printed copy of the Ought Self, Actual Self, Ideal Self workbook
OBJECTIVE + DEFINITIONS:
Who we 'are' is often an entanglement of three different people – our Ought Self, Actual Self, and Ideal Self (all defined below). In this exercise, we begin to tease out key differences between the three so that each becomes more clear. A few key definitions:
The Ought Self: this is the collection of attributes that ‘belong’ to the person you feel you should be based on obligations, responsibilities, and the beliefs of others.
The Actual Self: this is the collection of attributes that you currently possess. The Actual Self is evident in how you currently feel, how you currently behave, how you currently spend your time and the things you currently have.
The Ideal Self: this is the collection of attributes that ‘belong’ to the person you want to become one day. These attributes include how you would like to feel and behave, how you would like to spend your time, and the things you would like to have.
- 2In the designated column, make a short, bullet point-style list of your Ought Self attributes. Don’t dwell too long here, spend maybe 5-10 minutes total in the Ought column and limit your bullets to 2-3 words.
- 3Repeat for the Actual and Ideal Self columns.
- 4When all columns are completed, cover up the Ideal Self column so that only your Ought and Actual Self columns are visible to you. With the Ideal Self column covered, study your Ought and Actual Self columns. First, take note of – but don’t write down! – any attributes that these columns have in common. Second, take note of – again, don’t write down! – any attributes in these columns that are in conflict or at odds with each other.
- 5Next, cover up the Ought Self column, so that only the Actual and Ideal Self columns are visible. Repeat the exercise in Step 4, taking note of any attributes that these two columns have in common and any that are in conflict with one another.
- 6You are done. But, this exercise is worth repeating with consistency, especially if you plan to really dedicate yourself to self-discovery. The more you listen, the more you will learn about yourself, and this means your attribute lists will change. You might discover new attributes to add where others will fall off the worksheet entirely. And some attributes may jump from one column to another. It’s a living document and it’s all good.
Helpful tips for this exercise:
What is an attribute?
An attribute is a quality, feature or characteristic.
What if I can't think of any attributes?
If you sit down to complete this exercise and you find yourself stumped by which attributes to put down, there is a second worksheet in the printout that offers some additional guidance. This second worksheet features the Ought, Actual, and Ideal Self columns intersected by six rows that represent significant buckets of the human life experience. They are: Interpersonal Life/Relationships, Physical & Mental Health, Spirituality & Beliefs, Work & Career, Financial Health, Interests & Pastimes. These buckets are described in detail in the workbook and should get the juices flowing.
How many attributes should I list?
As many as you’d like, but keep in mind – too few will make it hard to complete Steps 4 and 5 and too many might drown out your most insightful attributes. I’d aim for somewhere between five and ten attributes per column.
What if I don't know my Ideal Self?
Ahhh. This is a true snafu. The Ought Self tends to be pretty evident, right? From early on in life, it’s made pretty clear to us what we ought to do and ought not to do. There are a lot of rules and social constructs that help us all ‘fall in line’. And the Actual Self? That’s relatively easy because, well, you are you, right now. The Ideal Self? It has a lot less help. There are no concrete rules delineating or social constructs enforcing your journey to ideal self.
But, there is good news! Your Ideal Self is with you all of the time. It is with you right now as you read. It is a tiny, electric pulse in your heart, mind, and soul and there is one all powerful tool that can give it just as much shape and definition as the Ought Self.
If you don’t know your Ideal Self, my primary recommend is that you spend some time strengthening your intuition. I have some really fun, interactive suggestions for doing that.
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Self-reflection practice recap: why - and how - to start
A happy, healthy self-reflection practice helps us make clear, joyful meaning of ourselves and, ultimately, our lives. It helps us free ourselves to self-define success, happiness and peace.
And, if you’re lucky, you just might fall in self-love.
In this post, we learned three reasons why self-reflecting feels so unnatural, but we also learned that working through the discomfort is possible – and worth it. We got our hands on a great tool specifically designed for beginning a new self-reflection practice. That tools ticks off the “not murky”, “not yucky” boxes and .
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Hello! I'm a recovered Type-A+ people-pleaser and praise-seeker. Through Neon Soul Supply Co., I share the same habits, exercises, projects and tools that I used to start self-defining success and happiness so that you can do the same.
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