Why and How to Self-Reflect (Part One)

self reflection values Mar 30, 2021

Harken back with me if you will to your college days (or to anytime you were a student)—remember writing reflection papers? Like, dozens of them, every semester? Not only have I written hundreds of them in my lifetime, I have also assigned them to my students, with great regularity, contributing to what must be an ocean of two-page, double-spaced papers, that mostly just “padded” the point total. If someone had questioned the pedagogical value of the reflection papers I was assigning, I probably would have said something along the lines of “reflection helps students cement their learning.” I still believe that. But as a life and leadership coach, I now understand so much more about the value of self-reflection and would have structured the ubiquitous reflection paper much differently.

For our purposes here, let’s define self-reflection as any process by which you review the activity of your inner and/or outer life, and look for patterns from which you can construe meaning and deepen understanding. When you bring your thoughts and actions into your consciousness, you can then make connections between what you think and do and the results you tend to get from those thoughts and actions. A very common framework in the coaching world is that beliefs and thoughts creating feelings, which create behaviors, which create results, which usually reinforce the thoughts and feelings, and the cycle starts over again. Self-reflection enables you to identifying the various elements in the equation, and activates a sense of agency, so that you can either make changes to the variables, or be at choice with your results. In other words, self-reflection generates self-awareness which enables self-regulation. (The fancy term for this is “emotional intelligence”, and a quick Google search will yield lots of great resources on this topic).

Let’s take an example from my own life. I recently noticed that I often leave meetings or conversations feeling generally positive about the interaction, but within an hour or two, I have a nasty “vulnerability hangover” (thank you Brene Brown for this fantastic phrase, as it perfectly captures for me the combination of shame, fear, regret, and self-loathing that can occur after even a little bit more vulnerability than I had planned to partake in). Using the model above, the vulnerability hangover was the result that I kept getting. The behavior that was causing it was over-sharing, or talking more than I was listening, or not keeping confidences that I had promised to keep. And when I asked myself why I was repeating those behaviors, I discovered that they stem from insecurities about being “smart enough”, a need to be right and to be acknowledged for being right, and wanting to be respected and liked. So if I want to stop experiencing the vulnerability hangover, the solution isn’t “talk less”. The solution is some compassionate self-care around my insecurities, fears, and attachments. Trying to change the behavior without addressing the underlying thoughts and beliefs, would feel like self-censorship and silencing, which does not align with my values at all, and which would likely just make the cycle worse. But lovingly examining and re-writing my beliefs and narratives around my worth is empowering and accelerates my growth. And that is so totally aligned with my values that I feel energized at the mere prospect of it. Like, I’m scrambling for my journal, my worksheets, and my highlighters, kind of excited.  Like, I'm thriving.  Like, I'm getting more fulfillment with less effort.  

So, in an effort to inspire your own self-reflection and to make it even easier for you to do so, at the end of every quarter, I’ll share some ideas about self-reflection, some reflection questions, and some of the things I am noticing in my own practice.

This quarter, I want to focus on how I reflect on my own growth and learning. Here are a set of questions that I use (you’ll notice that I start with questions that track my progress and allow me to feel really proud of myself…that is intentional):

  • What content, skills, and lessons did I master this quarter, and what enabled that mastery? (I love seeing the results of the learning activities I engage in, and making a little list of these things is an intrinsic reward for the mindsets and behaviors that enabled that learning.)
  • What “chilling challenges” are on the horizon and how can I used what I’ve learned to approach those challenges? (If you are a regular reader of this blog, you’ll recognize my alliteration addition in the phrase “chilling challenges”, but more importantly, the adjective “chilling” activates my embodied sense of dread, fear, and anxiety, which helps me zero right in on the things I’m going to need the most self-care around if I am going to do them skillfully).
  • What was my problem two problems ago? (I LOVE this question, which again, helps me identify the results of the self-work I do and reinforce the new beliefs I am adopting)
  • What am I avoiding? (If the first three questions are about celebration and positive reinforcement, this one is one of those magnifying mirrors that enlarge the size of your pores to a horrifying degree. I find the answer is usually ejected from my subconscious and slams into the ceiling of my consciousness in a way that is pretty jarring. But there it is. And now I can deal with it).
  • What were the three most painful or unsettling experiences of the last three months, and what do they have in common? (Reverse engineer your way to any underlying beliefs.)

Give it a try, and let me know what you discover. And, as always, if I can be helpful to you in any way as you seek to build a practice of self-reflection, identify limiting beliefs and narratives, and accelerate your growth, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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