Learning About Self
Every time I sit down and try to reflect about myself, I get stuck. I want to become more self-aware, but I don’t know how. Any suggestions?
Signed: Learning About Self
Dear Learning About Self:
The practice of self-reflection is a wonderfully healthy habit to develop. And it’s something therapists recommend people do often. The more we spend time getting to know/understand ourselves, the better the connection within our self can develop. And the stronger that our connection to self becomes, the more we can trust ourselves to survive challenging times (without needing to know exactly how it will work out); the more our self esteem and confidence can genuinely grow; and the more at peace we can be with the world around us (because we no longer feel such a strong need to control other people/things, when we feel well-anchored to our own self instead). Life gets so much easier and so much less stressful.
There are generally 4 things that can derail the process of self-reflection, in the moments during which we are trying to turn inward and be contemplative. Some of what we are thinking about might begin to generate doubt, embarrassment or other uncomfortable feelings (for some, feelings of pride and success can be just as unnerving). Our brains naturally respond to these distressing feelings/realizations by creating thought patterns that are designed to protect us. And when we fall into these patterns, we get caught in distorted thinking loops (usually fueled by emotional reactions in our amygdala, but carried over into our cognitive processes as well). The 4 most common protective patterns that our brain uses to distract us and keep us from embracing self awareness are:
- Judgement (of self or of others) – the critical voice in our heads that encourages us to look for fault or deficits, rather than strengths and resiliencies;
- Justification – the narrative we create to convince ourselves something is right or reasonable so we don’t feel as bad;
- Blame – the assignment of fault or responsibility (of self or of others) to a negative outcome;
- Defensiveness – the feeling of anxiousness or attack-back when we perceive criticism or judgement from others.
These protective patterns stop us from being able to honestly reflect upon and genuinely assess our life experiences. When we notice that these protective patterns are happening, we want to try to slow things down a bit. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you are emotionally safe (the situation is over). Ground yourself and try to recognize the uncomfortable feeling that might have triggered the reactionary and distracting response. Redirect your thoughts to a more objective and effective analysis of the experience you are thinking about by asking these questions:
1) What were the details of the experience itself (every last, little one) – try to look at the situation from multiple perspectives (what would others have seen/heard/believed was happening?). Notice past behaviours that you have had which have had similar patterns (what was happening then?). And once you have been able to recall the details of what happened, try to determine what you might have been thinking, feeling and believing during the experience.
2) What does this experience perhaps say about who you are (as you know yourself)? What does it say about the reputation you have (as others know you)? Remember that no one situation defines who we are. We decide if our choices in the situation were a reflection of who we want to be, as our ideal self. The gap between who we were in the experience and who we want to be allows us the opportunity to change and grow (or to acknowledge the comfort we feel with who we already are).
3) How can you use this knowledge about yourself, moving forward? Give thought to how you plan to continue to be, and how you might want to be different. Consider sharing these insights with others (or through journaling activities) to help communicate your intentions and to help you hold yourself accountable. Don’t forget to also share the success and the accomplishment of how close you already are to your ideal self. We have to spend as much time recognizing and embracing our positives as we do noticing our shortcomings and planning for changes. This allows the experience of self-reflection to be a healthy and positive one. If it’s not healthy and positive, our brains will resist repeating the process.
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