Who am I? Whether out of exasperation, wonderment, sarcasm, or genuine curiosity, you’ve probably asked that question at one point or another. And you’re not alone. The world is obsessed with self-discovery.
There are therapists, clubs, groups, and techniques all dedicated to helping you find yourself. There’s so much information available to you, it might be hard to figure out where to start. But the first step on the road to self-discovery is introspection.
What is Introspection?
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as, “the process of observing the operations of one’s own mind with a view to discovering the laws that govern the mind.” It comes from a Latin term meaning, “to look within.” So introspection helps us see ourselves more clearly and understand ourselves better. How can this process help you?
Let’s say you’re on your way to a friend’s house and you get a little lost. If you call your friend to ask for directions, what’s the first thing he’ll ask you? Where are you? Why? Because it’s impossible to give you good direction without knowing where your current location.
The same is true in life. We all have goals we want to achieve, qualities we want to develop, and new things we want to learn. But we can’t reach those destinations if we have no idea who we are right now. Introspection is the door to knowing ourselves better, we just have to walk through it.
The Benefits of Introspection
How else do we benefit from introspection? We become better people. In what ways?
● Introspection can help you identify and get rid of harmful thinking.
● It can help you have a more positive view of yourself and others.
● It’ll boost your confidence in tackling difficult problems.
● It contributes to stronger relationships.
● It’ll help you reach your goals.
Why It’s Hard
So if introspection is so great and delivers so many benefits, then why do many people struggle to do it? We live in an extremely fast-paced world. And because we’re deeply entrenched in the busyness of day-to-day living, most of us feel like we don’t have time for introspection.
We’re often exhausted and running on auto-pilot. The time we do have is spent stressing about the next thing on our to-do list. So what can you do?
Stop. Take a deep breath. And create just a little bit of space for yourself in your day, even if it’s just five minutes. Find a quiet place where you can think clearly without judging yourself.
Try asking yourself one of the following questions:
● When I wake up in the morning, do I feel ready to take on the day?
● Am I reaching my personal goals?
● What concerns do I have about the future?
● Am I living the life I want?
● Do I have issues that interfere with my happiness?
● Do I need to put more effort into my relationships?
● Who am I?
● Am I stressing out about things that are beyond my control?
● Am I thinking about negative things before I fall asleep?
● Am I holding on to something I need to let go of?
● What’s most important to me?
But what if those questions feel too big and overwhelming? What’s the starting point for an introspection beginner?
Introspection Begins with Observing Your Behaviors
Psychiatrist Judith Orloff describes a technique we often use to understand other people better. More than just listening to what others have to say, we often find ourselves interpreting their non-verbal cues. We observe their behavior objectively and try and understand how they’re really feeling or what they’re really thinking. Why do we do that?
According to Orloff, what we say communicates only 7% of our meaning. 55% of communication is through body language and the rest comes through our tone of voice. Even if you didn’t know the stats, you likely have learned through personal experience that there’s usually a lot going on behind the words a person says. But how can this help you learn more about yourself?
Transform Inc suggests the following, three-tiered technique.
● How is your mind? What are you thinking about? Where is your attention focused right now? Notice and root out any self-judgment, negative comparisons, or assumptions.
● How is your heart? How are you really feeling right now? And how are your emotions affecting you?
● How is your body? Are you tired, tense, energized? What is your gut telling you?
It can be difficult to observe ourselves honestly, but it’s definitely worth the effort. The more we practice self-observation, the easier it will become.
Who am I? You might not feel like you can answer that question right now. But by making time for yourself and practicing self-observation, you’ll understand yourself better and experience all the benefits of introspection.
The word introspection means something simple but is something exceedingly difficult. If you look up introspection in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states that it is, “a means of learning about one’s own ongoing, or perhaps recently past, mental states or processes.”
Looking at yourself, from a mental and emotional standpoint, and your actions in a mirror and analyzing them can be difficult and scary. Because of issues like your own biases, along with the almost vague nature of the word, this can become a burdensome task. But well worth it, as without introspection we can never have personal growth. Introspection and self-reflection lead to self-awareness and self-understanding and those to lead to personal development, should you choose to work on yourself following self-discovery.
I believe that introspection is a process that leads to an intuitive understanding of ourselves or greater insight into your life or mental state. At the University of Sydney, a psychologist Anthony M. Grant discovered that people who displayed greater personal insight “enjoy stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose and greater well-being, self-acceptance, and happiness.”
Along with his findings, another study showed that “people high in insight feel more in control of their lives, show more dramatic personal growth, enjoy better relationships, and feel calmer and more content.”
The benefits sound great, so just how does the average person navigate introspection?
Avoid Confirmation Bias
Confirmation bias is your natural tendency to search for, interpret, and even favor information that confirms or supports your current beliefs without taking into consideration the big picture. This is almost default for most people because we want to be right. I believe it can stem from grandiosity, thinking it is your way or the highway.
Look for ways to challenge your conclusions. Seek information from a range of sources, not just ones that agree with you. This can create an echo chamber where all your biases will be reinforced. Try getting another’s opinion, discuss your thoughts with others. Ultimately, get the bigger picture before you decide.
Look At Your Part In Situations
It's helpful to make a list of your wrongdoing. Either where you were in the wrong or were hurt by someone else. Look at each interaction as subjectively as possible and write it out.
Separate it into parts. The who, the when, and the why. Then take a moment and look at your part in all of it. What could have been done better or differently, were you being spiteful or judgmental, or are you shifting blame?
Looking at yourself is never easy, even the Ph.D.’s admits that “introspection can sometimes cloud and confuse our self-perceptions, which can have a host of unintended consequences.”
Taking a hard look at yourself and your actions can bring up some heavy stuff. Take it slow and easy. The last thing you want is to get all revved up and do something you regret. Anger, disappointment, and feelings of loss may come up. You are taking a hard look at your past and that can be ugly.
I would recommend if you want to go all-in have a licensed therapist guide you through the rough times. If that is not an option, make sure you have people you can talk with who will be nonjudgmental.
The Practice of Introspection
Take A Daily Inventory
At the end of every day, look over your interactions. Anything you did good, keep doing that. Anything you feel you need to change, take steps in the direction to change it. Progress is all you’re looking for. If you chase perfection, you will never win.
There are different ways to practice introspection and self-reflection. The best way, however, is to ask yourself questions and record your responses in writing. So, find a comfortable, quiet spot, grab a drink, and sit down with a pen and paper. The questions you ask will depend on you and what you'd like to take from this process.
There are some basics you can start with, though. For example, think about five lessons life has taught you thus far and record each of them. Unless you enjoy writing and want to go deep, keep your response to a sentence or two. At least, as you get started. Once you have your five lessons recorded, it's time to dig in. For each lesson, ask how you learned the lesson, why you learned it, when you learned it, and exactly what you learned. Try to keep this to a paragraph.
This is simply a starting point. Where you take your reflection from here is up to you. However, to get you started I'd like you to think back on what you believe are some of the most defining moments of your life. Choose three to get started. Take each defining moment in turn and get to know more about each.
Think about your experience – what you did, what you were thinking, and how it felt at the time. What were you experiencing at that moment? What was going on inside you at that moment? Once you have done this you can reflect on what you have learned. What does the experience suggest to you and what can you learn from it? You can compare each experience to the values or principles you try to follow in life.
Finally, you have to take the lessons you have learned and apply them in practice. How can you deal with future situations? What has reliving this experience taught you about who you were and how has it shaped you as you are now? What would you do differently? What do you intend to do about this based on your period of reflection?