Self-reflection is about asking yourself thought-provoking questions so that you can develop a deeper level of understanding yourself. The biggest value added of self-reflection is that you can change how you see yourself and how you feel about certain situations and, in the end, how you act. New thoughts lead to new emotions and consequently to new actions.
Nevertheless, performing self-reflection regularly isn’t easy, especially in the beginning. We are so busy that we often lose touch with ourselves, and all the different distractions and responsibilities prevent us from really listening to our true self. We most often only hear our inner voice when it comes out as a critique of ourselves or others. All that leads to negative thinking and emotional repression.
Starting with self-reflection activities is similar to starting with meditation. It feels uncomfortable in the beginning and you aren’t even sure what to do. Much like it’s hard to quiet down your thoughts and focus, so it is hard to listen to your thoughts and analyse them. Below are some techniques that can help you perform self-reflection. These techniques will help you the most when you first start thinking about yourself and start getting to know yourself. Different techniques simply mean looking at yourself from different directions and observing what works best for you.
Your ideal and ought self
There are three basic versions of yourself. The first is your actual self, which is your representation of the attributes you believe you actually possess. It’s also about the attributes you think other people believe you possess. The second is your ideal self. Your ideal self is all about the attributes you would like to possess or other people want you possess. Your ideal self is what motivates you to change, improve and achieve goals. The third is your ought self and it’s not about who you’d like to be, but about who you and others believe you should be.
Your first step should be to make a persona (clear character representation) about your actual self, ideal self and ought self. In the second step, you should thoroughly analyse who you are, who you want to become and what the social expectations connected to your feelings and behaviours are like in different situations. Ask yourself questions like:
- Why do I want to become [enter your characteristic]? Who in my life was/is like that?
- Who would I make proud if I were [enter your characteristic]? Why?
- How are my feelings in certain situations connected with my actual, ideal and ought self?
- Am I pushing myself to be something I’m actually not?
- Am I doing something I’m not just because others are expecting me to?
The second tool that can help you with self-reflection and engaging all your main senses is an empathy map. The main value added of this tool is that it helps you identify your needs and the disconnections between what you say and what you do. Identifying such a disconnection should present an insight about yourself.
It’s called an empathy map, because the tool helps you practice intellectual identification of feelings, thoughts or attitudes, in our case of yourself, and helps you try to analyse those feelings, thoughts or attitudes. In business, you use an empathy map to put yourself in the shoes of your customer. In self-reflection, we can use an empathy map to empathically analyse ourselves from a third-person perspective.
You simply draw four quadrants. Every quadrant represents a different angle. You think about a situation that awakens specific emotions in you (for example, a fight with your spouse) and analyse yourself from four different angles:
- SAY: What are some of the quotes and defining words you said in the situation?
- DO: What actions did you do and which behaviours did you notice in yourself? What is the behavioural pattern you can identify?
- THINK: What were you thinking in that situation? What does this tell you about your beliefs?
- FEEL: What emotions were you feeling? Why? Which past situation do they most remind you of?
You should also have a fifth quadrant, where you put all your insights and ideas. Here are some additional questions that will help you with self-reflection when you’re drawing up an empathy map:
- How is the situation connected to your fears and hopes? What are your fears? What are your hopes? Which of your needs are met or not met in that situation?
- What was the environment in which you encountered the situation? What do you remember from the environment? How did you find yourself in that environment and why? What was your sight focused on?
- What hurts you most in the situation or makes you feel good about the situation?
- Is this a typical or atypical situation for you? Do you often find yourself in similar situations where you say, do, think and feel the same things?
- What was the feedback you gathered from your environment – other people?
- What are all the positives about the situation? What can you learn about yourself, others and the world by experiencing that kind of a situation?
When answering these questions, be very careful to avoid cognitive distortions and to not reinforce negative feelings. Try to go deep and identify why you feel like you do and pull yourself out of being a victim. Just observe, don’t judge.
Asking yourself “why” encourages analytical flow and helps you get to the root of the problem. First describe the situation (I was fired/hired etc.) or a certain feeling (I’m in a bad/good mood etc.). After describing your situation, start asking yourself why. Do it at least five times, ten times if necessary. It will lead you to new insights about yourself.
The second thing you can do is not to go after the cause of the situation analytically by asking yourself why, but asking yourself why to look at the situation from many different angles. You simply brainstorm every why question you can think of and you find your answer. Then you continue by asking yourself “why” five times before brainstorming a new question. You can start with the following questions:
- Why do I feel the way I feel? … Why? … Why? … Why? … Why? … Why?
- Why do I feel so small or so important?
- Why did I find myself in this situation? Why do I see the situation as so positive/negative?
- Why are my beliefs and actions so different from other people’s?
- Why don’t I look for positive elements of the situation? Why do I see the situation as black or white?
- Why am I labelling myself or others? Why do other people see me like they do?
- Why don’t I do the opposite? … Why? … Why? … Why? … Why? … Why?
Happiness index and happiness chart
The funny thing is that in your daily life, you are often so busy that you aren’t even aware of how you’re really feeling. If you aren’t supper happy, angry, depressed or feeling some other extreme emotion, you just go through the day like you’re used to. Some people smile because they’re used to it, some people are grumpy all day because they’re used to it, and so on. You wear a social mask out of habit.
One way to identify your feelings better is to keep track of them. This is called emotional accounting. You have a simple chart with different indicators showing how happy you are. Every day, when you wake up, go to sleep or while working, you put an indicator on the chart, indicating how you’re feeling. Then you can continue with “why”. You also have many apps for entering your daily emotional states.
You can use the happiness chart for many other things. For your personal relationships, for example. Every partner simply marks how satisfied he or she is with the relationship every day. When the mark of one partner goes below a certain level, it’s time to talk and communicate more intensively.
Life satisfaction chart
One good way to start with self-reflection is to make a life satisfaction chart. You draw a scale from 1 to 10 horizontally and list all ten areas of life vertically:
You assess every area of life from 1 to 10. In the second step, you take another look at all areas you assessed with 4, 5, 6 or 7. These are the areas where you’re averagely satisfied. It’s much easier to start reflecting if you have a more shaped and clearer view of whether you’re satisfied with a specific area of life or not. So assess life areas again, but now by using only the numbers 1, 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10. Highlight every 1, 2 and 3 with red, and every 8, 9 and 10 with green. Now start asking yourself “why” for all ten areas of life.
De Bono thinking hats
Edward de Bono is a worldwide known physician, author, inventor and consultant. He invented the term “lateral thinking” and wrote the book The Six Thinking Hats. The Six thinking hats method is often used in schools as a learning tool, as well as in creative teams, because it’s a simple, effective parallel thinking process that helps people be more productive, focused, and mindfully involved. The main idea is that by mentally wearing and switching “hats”, you can easily focus or redirect thoughts, a conversation, or a meeting.
Changing hats and looking at a situation and ourselves from different perspectives can also help us when we’re doing self-reflection. A new angle on yourself or the situation can give you a new perspective and a new insight. Moreover, using different hats is quite fun.
You have six different hats and every hat represents a very narrow, focused and specific angle:
- Blue hat: Describing and identifying the situation and managing the process
- White hat: Facts and information
- Yellow hat: Positives, benefits, advantages
- Black hat: Difficulties, dangers, what is wrong (don’t overuse)
- Red hat: Feeling, hunches, intuitions
- Green hat: Possibilities, alternatives and new ideas
A very important part is that after you write down your perspectives of all five different angles, you start asking yourself “why” and discovering your deeper thoughts, beliefs and subconscious reactions and behaviours.
Force field analysis
Force field analysis is a framework for looking at factors – different outside forces that influence your situation. You analyse forces that are either helping you towards your goal or need, or blocking your desired movement. On the one hand, you have driving forces that are positive forces for change, and on the other, you have restraining forces that are obstacles to change.
Much like you have outside forces that are blocking your way towards your goals and needs, and that are causing frustrations, so you also have internal blockers that are causing internal conflicts. You have internal drivers and blockers as well as outside factors that are helping you or blocking you. If opposite drivers (pluses and minuses) are too strong and equalize, you may be trapped in the same place, feeling frustrated and in internal conflict, instead of moving forward. It’s like having one leg on the gas pedal and the other on the brake.
Don’t forget that your external environment is often connected to your inner state. Optimal thinking always includes staying flexible, agile, lean and positive. It’s about finding an innovative way out. If you can’t do that, you’re attached to a certain situation and to your inner state, and your job is to find out why.
Describe your situation in life and then analyse the following:
- Identify outer drivers. How are they connected to your thoughts and beliefs?
- Identify outer blockers. How are they connected to your thoughts and beliefs?
- Identify internal drivers. Where do they come from? What is driving you? Why?
- Identify internal blockers. Where do they come from? Why are you blocking yourself?
It’s a very simple exercise to help you start self-reflecting. Describe your situation, quiet your mind for a moment, and listen to your gut feeling, intuition and hunches about what you should do and how you should decide. After that, start asking yourself why.
One way to have a better connection with yourself is meditation. It’s a great tool for disciplining your mind. It also helps you observe your thoughts, especially in the beginning when you probably have trouble focusing and letting go. You should always carefully analyse things that come up during meditation. After finishing your meditation, you should start asking yourself questions, like why you were thinking specific thoughts, why they came up and how they made you feel, and so on.
Free associations is a technique used in psychoanalysis. In the free association process, you’re expected to put all your thoughts into words without any filters, even if those thoughts are incoherent, inappropriate, rude, or seemingly irrelevant. Psychoanalysts encourage you to say anything that comes to mind.
It’s an advanced technique you can use for self-reflection. You simply go to a quiet place, take a pen and a piece of paper (or your journal), and start writing down whatever comes to your mind. No filters at all. After that, you try to analyse your thoughts. In the process, never forget that the series of free associations you produced is somehow related to your present circumstances. You try to find out how and why.
You can do the same with your dreams. They can be a good starting point. You can ask yourself how you felt in your dreams, what they remind you of the most and then start with free association. You just let out whatever comes into your mind.
Transference and people you like or hate
Transference is simply a process by which the feelings that you had for someone important in your life, such as a parent or a sibling when you were a child, get directed at someone else, with whom you have or are building a close relationship.
Transference even happens in our everyday lives very often. For example, your boss at work reminds you of your father, so you act accordingly to your inner prototype of a relationship. The problem, of course, is that rather than connecting with the person for who their really are, you’re relating to a template from your childhood. Transference reactions most often point to some deeper issue or unfinished business from your past.
Now think of your behaviour in your closest relationships. Try to analyse how you’re transferring your internal prototype, together with feelings and reactions, onto a close person in your life, using them as a “reincarnation” of some important figure of your childhood or past. Ask yourself questions like:
- Who do you want others to be?
- How are you interacting with people accordingly?
It’s quite hard to identify transference, so there’s also an easier version of this exercise. Start by listing people you like and dislike in your life, and people you hate and love. Start asking yourself why that is, what causes positive and negative feelings and how people’s behaviour reminds you of your past figures, situations and encounters.
One way to start reflecting and analysing yourself is with your obsessions. There are many causes that lead to obsessions and you can start figuring them out. For example, scarcity usually leads to an obsession. If you were exposed to constant injustice in life, you may become obsessed with justice. You can start analysing all the injustices that happened in your life, how contemporary situations are reminding you of that and how your obsession is holding you back.
And remember, you should be excited and enjoy analysing yourself.