I recently read some research on happiness, in which the author stated that self-reflection may actually be bad for us in the context of fostering happiness. My immediate reaction was, “WHAT?!” But as I read on and I realized that she was not differentiating between self-reflection in the meditative sense, and what psychologists call rumination.
However, reading this research did highlight some important things we must keep in mind when we engage in self-reflective processes.
Self-Reflection v. Rumination
Rumination is a near obsession with a specific event or events. Typically, rumination occurs after a stressful even where somebody does not get satisfaction and where frustration remains. When we ruminate we are not really trying to understand or learn from our experience. We are just reliving the experience over and over again in frustration, often focusing on our own failures. Rumination hurts our ability to solve problems and may result in anxiety or depression over the event. Excessive rumination may even result in clinical conditions.
Self-reflection is looking inward in an attempt to find clarity and improve our map of reality. When we self-reflect we are engaged in constructive assessments of ourselves and possibly of events that are troubling to us as well. A fundamental part of self-reflection is accepting past events and our personal involvement without judgment, but with an attitude of learning from them. This approach is healthy in that we can learn from our experiences, and use them as a means of continued personal evolution.
Some Self-Reflective Practices
There are many ways to engage in self-reflection. Two popular and effective methods are meditative practices and journaling logs. Meditation is covered in many other posts on this blog, and will not be covered in depth in this post. However, the essence of meditative practice in the context of self-reflection is calming the mind and freeing it from distraction so that one may gain focus and clarity.
Journaling may take many forms. Two forms of journaling that I have found useful for self-reflection are learning logs and journaling about specific aspects of relevant to personal awareness such as values, principles, beliefs, relationships, etc.
Learning logs are great ways to reflect on events that may be important or troubling. In a learning log it is helpful to describe the event as it happened, from your own point of view. Do so in as much detail as you can remember. After the event is documented, then it is helpful to review the details of the event, and the outcomes. It is often helpful to reflect on how the outcomes and interactions compare to your ideal scenario, and then identify how the dynamics of the event could be different to yield better results.
Often times it is useful to also recall any specific thoughts and emotions you may have been feeling and identify unreasonable or distorted thoughts that may have affected the events, then think about how different emotions and thoughts may have changed the dynamics and outcomes.
It is easy to see how meditation and journaling may also be combined in this kind of exercise. Remember that the most important aspect self-reflection practices are objective, non-judgmental assessment with the aim of learning and increased awareness. When done in this fashion, we can learn a great deal about ourselves and others, and improve our interactions in the world and within ourselves.