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Around the months of December and January people, organizations, even whole populations tend to reflect on the year that has passed. We may ask ourselves “How did I get here? Have I met my goals? Have I made a difference in the world? Have I progressed? Am I happy? What’s happening next?” To be self-aware at the individual level, in a relationship or within an organization it is necessary to ask deep questions of ourselves, looking back on what has happened and also forward towards what we want to do. To pause, reflect and contemplate is part of leading an intentional life. Those who are goal- and purpose-oriented do this at regular intervals in order to measure where they are at, whether they are doing the things that complement their purpose and dreams and to take stock of their emotional, psychological and physical well-being. The key benefits of self-reflection as a long-tern practice are that it helps you to become resilient, prepares you to be innovative where opportunities arise and augments your leadership skills.
Why is reflection an important part of life
If you seek to live a life of purpose, introspection is an important habit to practice at regular intervals. Often it is easy to identify the areas in life that we want to change, where we feel unsatisfied or frustrated, but it is also important to be mindful of where we find our happiness and feel we are achieving. When you recognize and celebrate your successes and achievements, know what brings you happiness, joy and a sense of fulfilment and can align your activities, practices, work and relationships to your purpose you are far more well equipped to be a grounded, balanced and an empathetic person. Remember though that it is a life-long journey that needs a long-term commitment and ongoing work.
As a life-long practice self-reflection helps you to develop the inner tools to pursue your personal goals and recognize when opportunities arise that fit in with your long-term plans or may lead to growth you had not previously anticipated. It helps you to know yourself, what you have and where you are at, your purpose in life and what things are meaningful to you. Over time, you will have a deeper knowledge of your talents, what you have to offer the world and what gives you meaningful joy. These are the building blocks for sustaining your motivation to do the things you need and want to do.
The past two years have been a time where we really do need to reflect. We continue to live through the tumult of a global pandemic and it has been widely reported that people have increasingly experienced dissatisfaction, depression, anxiety and a sense of hopelessness. It is a moment in history that will be remembered for centuries. During this period, we have experienced and observed rapid and large-scale shifts in how we do things that have been challenging, scary, sad and filled with uncertainty. This era of heightened change, uncertainty and precarity requires us to do reflection for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is important to carve out the physical and mental space to pause, take a breath and think deeply about the situation you are in and what it means to your life in the bigger sense especially during periods of prolonged chaos or uncertainty. Having that time to think gives you the space to be creative in contemplating what your next steps could be to help improve your emotional processing, decision-making, situational observation and communication skills. Secondly, reflection allows you to step out of the immediate intensity of your situation and context and seek to find understanding and meaning in the broader setting. As you become more skilled at the art or reflection, you can apply a critical observational view to the things you are reflecting on. Looking not only at how they have meaning to a particular moment, incident or period but what the long-term implications are and how you can carve out opportunities for personal growth and new ways to survive, find happiness and connection, and pursue the goals you have set for yourself.
Self-reflection is important because it allows you to get to know yourself as you are changing in a transforming world; it can help you to conscientiously remember the positive experiences you’ve had and actions you have taken as well as processing the challenges, difficulties and traumas you are living through; it can be a tool for mindfulness and making sense of your experiences. It is a useful foundation before you do goal-setting as it helps you to recognize what your priorities are and what unresolved issues you may need to give attention to. By practicing self-reflection, we strengthen our capacity for self-awareness – the ability to see and understand ourselves beyond the superficial and instinctive, how we fit into the world (with our friends, family, partners, communities) and what makes our lives feel meaningful.
What does reflection entail
In practice self-reflection can be done in different ways: as an individual, within a group (such as your closest family or circle of friends) or with the help of a coach or therapist. In whatever format you decide on, it requires 5 essential resources: time, mindfulness, observation, openness and objectivity. When one first starts doing self-reflection it can initially seem daunting or intimidating but as with all new skills your capacity will improve with practice. For a practical ‘how to’ framework, let us use the example of an individual starting to work on self-reflection. You will need to set aside times that you can dedicate to thinking about what has happened in your live during the period of time you want to reflect on. The time commitment may be over several sessions. You may set a slot for brainstorming what period you want to reflect on (e.g., the past 24 months), then you may want a different day to work on documenting the most significant things you want to work through (such as work experiences, your health, your academic performance, a certain relationship), you may need a separate time to document your thoughts and feelings on each area of reflection. It will be useful to identify places where you can work peacefully, with no interruptions and what tools you will require to document your observations. Writing down your thoughts, reflections and understandings may work well, or you might prefer drawing or recording audio/visual clips. Documenting your content should be in the form that works best for you and that you can come back to later if you need to. As you create your story you will need to intentionally reflect on and remember the things you note as important to you, the things you think have had the most impact. It is important to recognize the positive and negative impacts. During the documentation process you will probably already start experiencing emotions that relate to those experiences and situations, this process of recording/remembering and feeling are the early stages of self-reflection. Once you have captured all the experiences and memories you want to work with, you can then interrogate what meaning they have had for you, why you felt the way you did, what you want to do with those feelings, lessons and experiences you have learnt for moving forward and what you need to do if you want to make changes over the coming months and year. Document your thoughts, feelings and resolutions as you work through understanding the areas of reflection and identifying what actions you want to take for the future. At this point it is helpful to create a set of goals or preliminary action plan which you can come back to at a later stage and develop further.
There are some exceptional circumstances where self-reflection may lead to negative results. While it is valuable to practice self-reflection at regular intervals, be wary of it becoming an obsessive habit. It is a tool for assessing how you are doing and one means of remaining focused on your priorities and goals. However, if done in excess, it may cause you to become overly critical and judgmental of yourself and hinder your confidence in your own abilities to perform or take decisions. When done in a healthy way, self-reflection can be useful for remaining focused, building happiness and recognizing your own growth and achievements. Another area of concern to be mindful of is if you are dealing with unresolved or ongoing trauma, self-reflection can be a very intensive – even disturbing – exercise. You may need to work with someone who is therapeutically qualified to support you in navigating that trauma and can help with identifying how you can heal, look forward to the future and understand what internal shifts are happening.
In short self-reflection is the repeated act of thinking about your life in an intentional way to examine and make sense of your experiences and future plans. It is an intentional look at your inner-self –thoughts, emotions, ambitions – activities, relationships, endeavors, history and imagined future. It is a process to examine how you are doing. A chance to take the time to think about what you like, what works in your life, what you would like to cultivate to build your resilience, happiness and sense of satisfaction. It is also a time to take an honest account of what you are not satisfied with, what has not been working for you and ask yourself whether there are areas of development that you want to work on so that you are aligning your inner-self, choices and activities with the long-term plans you have for your life. Self-reflection is conscientious, considered and deeply introspective. It is building a relationship with yourself, knowing your own story and putting your life in perspective so that you have the inner tools to pursue a life that you find meaningful.