We all have morals and values that guide our priorities and actions. But, have you ever stopped to think about why you believe in those morals and values? And if your actions and priorities actually align with your life goals? Most of us don’t. That’s because self-reflection is hard.
What is self-reflection and why it’s important?
Self-reflection is defined as careful thought about your own behavior and beliefs.
But don’t let this simple, one-sentence definition fool you. True self-reflection takes a lot of time, dedication, and hard work because it requires conscious consideration and analysis of your entire being. And what you learn about yourself during the process might surprise or upset you…it might even make you feel ashamed of your actions.
We know; it’s a tough sell when we put it that way. But as Theodore Roosevelt once said: Nothing worth having comes easy. When done effectively, self-reflection is a powerful tool for internal growth and improvement. And those who practice it lead more fulfilled and happier lives. And that’s according to several psychology studies.1
Those who self-reflect are more self-aware. That self-awareness creates space to develop insights—about yourself, the situations you’re in, and how to handle them. People who are more self-aware are better equipped to manage emotions in real-time and even to alleviate feelings of depression.
Really, effective self-reflection requires you to slow down. That way, it’s easier to see the bigger picture. Even better, self-reflection allows you to learn from your mistakes. That means you’re more likely to reach your goals because you’re able to make adjustments where you didn’t the last time around.
But here’s the greatest, most powerful result of self-reflection: The more you do it, the more control you have over your emotions, rather than letting your emotions control your actions.
How self-reflection cured my road rage
I used to have a huge issue with road rage, especially after a long day at work. I’d look for any excuse to yell at drivers on the road. If someone cut me off, I’d high-beam them. If someone almost hit my car, I’d hold down the horn for a long period of time (probably too long).
Every time a similar instance would happen, I could physically feel my heart race and my face get hot. By the time I got home, I felt angry and annoyed. I’d proceed to rant about all the terrible drivers on the road to whoever was home and would listen. And after everything was said and done, I’d often feel more tired than when I left work.
Why was I exerting so much of my energy being angry at strangers I’d likely never see again?
Somewhere along the way, I learned about self-reflection and incorporated it into my daily routine (I’ll save the long-winded version for another time). But one of the things I learned from it was that I didn’t want to spend so much of my time and energy angry.
So, how did I prevent myself from getting angry on such a regular basis? First, I figured out that my heart racing and face getting hot were indicators that I was about to head into the red zone—that’s what I call my rage. But recognizing those indicators meant I could use it as a cue to take a breath and ask myself this question: Is it worth it? More often than not, the answer was, “No, it’s not worth it.” That’s what I call self-awareness.
Stopping to ask myself that question as a cue to take a brief moment to reflect changed my life. You see, I was raised in an angry home. Therefore, my natural reaction to most situations is to get angry. I spent so much of my life on the road and off it in the red zone. But for what? Because I was raised in an angry home? That’s not a good enough answer. My time and energy are 100 times more valuable than that. And so is yours.
That kind of realization—one that comes from thinking about your emotions, your reactions, and your experiences—that’s self-reflection.
Slow and steady wins the race
Still feel iffy about it? That’s okay. I did, too, at first. Here’s how I started:
Remember those self-reflection practices I mentioned earlier? After friends pushed me to try one of these habitual routines, I finally decided to give it a go. The first one I tried was a gratefulness practice. It seemed like the easiest one to accomplish.
Here’s how it works:
- Set aside 10 – 15 minutes at the end of the night
- Think about all of your wins that day
- Write them down
- Include one to two sentences about why you’re grateful for those wins
- Read them to yourself before bed
Doing this practice every night helped me focus on everything that was good about my day. Whether my win was landing a joke at the office or holding my tongue after another Prius cut me off on the road, I got to end my day with happy thoughts.
And you know what? I still do this gratefulness practice every night. Only now, I say my wins aloud to my dog, Copper. His wins are usually the same—the fact that he gets shelter and food for free just for being a cute and cuddly furball. But I digress…
”Gratitude is about taking a more mindful approach to life, even as many thoughts and distractions vie for our attention. Beauty is scattered far and wide. If we cultivate a spirit of gratitude, we notice what we often overlook.”
- Ryan Dixon, Teacher, Crosstown High
I’ll leave you with these final thoughts…
It’s for these same reasons, we empower schools to incorporate self-reflection into their culture—we encourage students, teachers, families, and the school itself to take part. In fact, if you take a close look, you’ll see it’s embedded into XQ Learner Goals and Learner Outcome Areas in a variety of ways.
That’s because if you don’t take a second to reflect about what’s working and what’s not, you’ll never see the change you want to.
*If you’re interested in learning more about these research studies, see (for example):
- Myriam Mongrain et al. (2016) Happiness vs. mindfulness exercises for individuals vulnerable to depression, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 11:4, 366-377, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1092569
- Jennifer Lyke (2009) Insight but not self-reflection is related to subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 46:1, 66-70, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2008.09.010
- Rick Harrington & Donald A. Loffredo (2010) Insight, Rumination, and Self-Reflection as Predictors of Well-Being, The Journal of Psychology, 145:1, 39-57, DOI: 10.1080/00223980.2010.528072
- Or check out the resources available from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center.