Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
And while this dictum is certainly true, self-reflection is not necessarily an easy thing to practice. We live in an incredibly fast-paced world. Our mobile phones are constantly buzzing, social media is infinitely calling, and Netflix always has something new to binge on.
Taking the time for reflection is a bit of a lost art. Most of us, unfortunately, are living unexamined lives.
This shouldn’t be the case. Few things are more valuable than self-reflection.
But what exactly is self-reflection? And what are some simple ways to practice it?
In this article, we’re going to break down the what, why, and how of self-reflection.
Ready? Let’s get started...
Simply put, self-reflection (also known as “personal reflection”) is taking the time to think about, meditate on, evaluate, and give serious thought to your behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, motivations, and desires. It’s the process of diving deep into your thoughts and emotions and motivations and determining the great, “Why?” behind them.
Personal reflection allows you to analyze your life from both a macro and micro level. At a macro level, you can evaluate the overall trajectory of your life. You can see where you’re headed, determine whether you’re happy with the direction, and make adjustments as necessary.
At a micro level, you can evaluate your responses to particular circumstances and events. Geil Browning, Ph.D., talks about personal reflection like this:
"Reflection is a deeper form of learning that allows us to retain every aspect of any experience, be it personal or professional — why something took place, what the impact was, whether it should happen again — as opposed to just remembering that it happened. It's about tapping into every aspect of the experience, clarifying our thinking, and honing in on what really matters to us."
Practicing self-reflection takes discipline and intentionality. It requires pressing pause on the chaos of life and simply taking the time to think and ponder about your life, which is not an easy thing for many people to do. But it’s an incredibly valuable practice.
This short video captures the importance of self-reflection and introspection beautifully:
Without self-reflection, we simply go through life without thinking, moving from one thing to the next without making time to evaluate whether things are actually going well. We don’t pause to think. To analyze. To determine what is going well and what isn’t working. The unfortunate result is that we often get stuck.
For example, a lack of personal reflection may lead us to stay in a job we don’t like or a relationship that isn’t going well.
A lack of reflection causes us to simply keep running, trying to keep up with things even if things aren’t going well. We feel like we’re simply trying to keep our heads above water. We end up doing the same things over and over again, even if those things aren’t producing the results we had hoped for.
Yes, taking time for self-reflection can be difficult. It can be challenging to take the necessary time to step back and reflect on what truly matters. Nevertheless, there are numerous wonderful benefits of self-reflection and we should all make time for it.
Emotions can cloud your judgment and you can lose sight of what truly matters. Some things seem bigger and worse than they truly are.
Self-reflection allows you to take a step back and gain perspective on what matters and what can be ignored. It allows you to process events and achieve clarity on them.
Most of the time, we simply react to whatever circumstances come our way. This can lead to us saying and doing things we regret. When we’re in a reactive mode, we don’t take the necessary time to consider our actions and words.
Personal reflection allows you to consider the consequences of your words and actions. It also enables you to consider the best, most effective, most helpful way to act in a given situation.
When we go through life without pausing to think and reflect, we don’t learn or gain a deeper understanding of life. We simply move from one thing to the next, never pausing to consider what valuable lessons we might learn.
Self-reflection, on the other hand, enables us to evaluate and process what we’ve experienced. It allows us to think deeply and ponder the meaning of our circumstances, emotions, and motivations. It enables us to live holistic, integrated, and healthy lives.
So how exactly do you perform self-reflection? How do you appropriately and helpfully reflect on yourself and your life?
One easy way to perform this self-reflection exercise is to use a journal (an online journal or print journal). Simply write out these questions and then take your time to thoughtfully answer them. Make sure that you don’t rush. Pause and ponder. Think deeply about what truly matters to you.
First, determine the period of time you plan to look back on. Do you want to look back on the last week? Last month? Last year? Last 5 years?
Then, begin by taking stock of what actually happened during this period. If you already keep a journal, this step will be easier for you, and perhaps a solid reminder of the value of keeping a journal.
Take a look through your planner, journal, and photos, and list out the highlights and lowlights.
Stuck? Here are a few tips:
Look back at your new list of highlights and lowlights try and see if there are any patterns.
Do your highlights generally involve certain people in your life? Or any specific activities?
It can be difficult to revisit lowlights, but it is also a great way to find peace and growth.
For each lowlight, ask yourself: Was this within my control?
Write down both the highlights and lowlights in your journal, then take time to reflect. What things do you want to accomplish over the next month, year, and five years? What do you want to change about your life? What things can you improve on?
Taking the time to walk through this exercise will help bring clarity and perspective to your life.
Looking back at your chosen time period, rate yourself on a scale of -5 to +5 on each of the following six areas of your life.
After selecting a number, write what made you feel that way. Expressing the emotions and feelings that you have, is a great way to have a deeper and more meaningful reflection.
Don’t rush through this self-assessment. Take the necessary time to reflect on each area of your life. If you rush, you’ll miss out on the value of self-reflection.
Self-reflection questions are powerful tools you can wield to inspire and empower you to discover your own inner truth.
Still, it’s often hard to know where to start.
Be gentle with yourself.
Question-asking is a skill to develop like anything else, and that takes time and practice.
But the more questions you ask, the easier it will get.
Here are some questions for self-reflection pulled from our Holstee Reflection Cards deck to get you started:
If you could change anything about your childhood, what would it be?
What is something creative you did when you were younger that you no longer do? Why don’t you do it anymore?
What’s your superpower?
What types of things have you collected in the past?
Use these questions as a starting point to come up with your own.
You know yourself best, and your best self-reflection questions are just under the surface, waiting for you to ask them.
There are a number of times when self-reflection is particularly helpful. First, it can be useful to do it for a few minutes each week. You don’t have to go through all of the questions or take hours to do it. Focus on what has been on your mind that particular week.
It can also be helpful to practice self-reflection as an end of month personal review and end of year personal review.
In other words, at the end of each month and year, do an in-depth personal review of your life. Look back over the previous days and months and analyze your life. This practice will provide you with a helpful perspective and ensure that you are living life to the fullest.
When we fail to reflect on our lives, we lose perspective, get caught up in things that don’t matter, and often lose sight of the things that are most important. Socrates was right when he said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living.
Don’t live an unexamined life. Practice self-reflection today.
Interested in developing your reflection practice? We built Reflection.app, a free online journal that helps you capture your highlights and lowlights as they happen, and shares back your entries to your for guided reflection at the end of each month and year.
The team at Holstee also uses a similar framework for their annual Guided Reflection Journal.
Looking for self-reflection questions you can use in a group or take with you? Check out Holstee's deck of Reflection Cards.
Are you a practitioner looking to support your clients with reflection exercises? Check out Quenza and send out stunning digital activities to clients.