The power of introspection

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom,” once said Aristotle. Introspection is the act of looking inwards to examine one’s own conscious thoughts and feelings. Our busy lives often prevent us from making time for introspection, which means we miss out on the many personal and professional benefits this form of self-reflection offers. However, there are many simple ways to inject healthy introspection into our daily lives.

The history of introspection

The practice of introspection is as ancient as human thinking. In Eastern Christianity, nepsis, Greek for “sober introspection”, encourages people to observe conflicts between the heart and the mind. Pratikraman, Sanskrit for introspection, is practised by Jains to learn from their mistakes, and Hindus are encouraged to reflect on their true nature as part of sāvdhyāya (“contemplation of the self”).

Around 700 BC, The Temple of Apollo was built at one of the oldest religious sites in ancient Greece. The aphorism, “Know thyself”, was carved into the entrance. This practical wisdom was derived from the high priestess, Delphi, who was the most authoritative oracle in classical Greece.

More recently, during the Enlightenment, philosopher Immanuel Kant rekindled our interest in introspection, a process he described as the liberation and emergence of humans in developing the ability to “think for oneself”. Kant also argued that it is because of our self-consciousness and capacity for rational thought that humans are different from animals.

In modern psychological sciences, introspection is known as “experimental self-observation”. Researchers have found that individuals who reflect to understand past events are able to enhance and add meaning to their lives. Furthermore, the process has been shown to have numerous benefits for problem-solving, mental health, and future planning.

The many benefits of introspection

Early research into introspection suggested that the practice could promote error or misperception. However, a study in the 1990s later disputed this when it was discovered that thinking about the self could foster self-insight that did align with others’ views.

A study by Keith Morrison in 1996 found that students who engaged in reflective activities were more self-aware, had greater confidence in themselves, and felt empowered to “recreate their own self-concept”.

Research conducted by Cynthia Roberts in 2008 also suggested that reflection can broaden one’s horizons, leading to a “more holistic understanding of complex or ambiguous situations.” In understanding all aspects of the self, including personal, public, and professional personas, one can develop a clear picture of their whole person.

In practising introspection, you may benefit from:

  • Improved problem-solving. Researchers uncovered that “introspection improves problem solving performance, sometimes dramatically. Several studies suggest that self-observation, self-monitoring, and self-reflection play a key role in developing problem solving strategies.” Introspection can be used to break down the challenges we face so that we can better understand them. Reflecting on past experiences may help us to recall similar situations in which we either solved an issue or found our attempts fell short.
  • Better mental health. By taking the time to reflect on your sources of stress, or the common causes of anxiety, you will be better placed to recognise when your mental health may be under pressure. When stress arises, feeling confident in practising introspection will allow you to remain focused and avoid succumbing to a negative thought cycle. Taking a solution-based approach, self-reflection can help avoid ruminating on a difficult situation, and instead use reflective practice to strive towards insight into how to overcome an issue or reach a goal.
  • More self-compassion. Improving familiarity and knowledge of oneself will give you a better understanding of your thoughts, feelings and values. Ask “what” questions, such as “what is in my control?”, rather than “why” questions including “why do I feel so stressed?”. The “what” approach supports self-growth and the search for information, rather than increasing any sense of limitations you might have.
  • Greater ability to confront fears. If you are fearful of making a decision or embarking on a solution, your personal and professional growth may be stunted. Reflecting on and understanding where your fears come from can help you to allay or confront them. Some fears may even come from childhood, and recognising and confronting the source may help you to leave a deep-seated fear behind.
  • Enhanced future planning. By practising introspection, you can review your personal and professional performance to plan future development. If something went well, aim to do more of it. Conversely, in areas that have not been successful, consider adjustments that will ensure you avoid making the same mistake twice.

When thinking about leadership roles in the workplace, an individual who practices introspection will demonstrate enhanced professional skills. Incorporating such self-reflection into leadership training could help professionals to listen more effectively, manage change, and better clarify arguments. But you don’t need any formal training to start benefiting from introspection.

How to practise productive introspection

Examining your mental or emotional processes can either lead to rumination, which will negatively impact your mental health, or productive introspection, which will support your decision-making, self-compassion, and future planning.

As with most forms of self-reflection, your efforts will be most fruitful if you find a quiet space in which to explore your feelings privately and without distraction. For those with families, this might mean getting up before everyone else wakes to have uninterrupted time for yourself, or finding creative ways to acquire space such as going for a walk alone.

By journaling, you can increase your awareness of how you feel, privately articulate your feelings or needs, and feel more confident in expressing who you are or what you dream of. Documenting a stream of consciousness can feel liberating. At first, your thoughts may seem tightly controlled, but as you write more, you may be surprised at the subconscious thoughts that come to the surface. 

It is also helpful to document and update your goals by writing your intentions in your journal. Answering questions about who you are, who you want to be, what you want in life, and which values you are aligned to can broaden your sense of self.

Finally, journaling is a great way to reflect not only on your present inner self, but your past self too. Looking back at entries from a year ago can boost your self-confidence and self-esteem, and help you notice patterns that you way want to explore further.

If you don’t enjoy writing at length, setting aside time for meditation offers an excellent opportunity to spend time with yourself while looking more deeply into your thoughts. By meditating, you may become more aware of your values and who you are, be able to reflect on past successes, and recognize bad habits that you could attempt to quash. 

Taking a walk in nature is proven to be beneficial for those experiencing stress or anxiety. Although you can practice introspection when walking in a city, getting into the countryside or at least a park is a great way to clear your mind of internal noise. Put your phone on silent, and focus on the natural sounds, smells and vistas around you while practising self-reflection.

Whichever method you choose, to make the most of the benefits of introspection it is important to reflect not only on your emotions, but on your behaviour too. Consider which behaviours are a burden, and take steps to abandon them. Conversely, take action to initiate new, beneficial behaviours. 

As we have seen, introspection is an ancient practice that can benefit our modern lives. By knowing oneself, it is possible to better understand our feelings, behaviours, and how we can best cope with life’s challenges. In regularly practising this form of self-reflection, it is possible to boost self-compassion, manage stress more effectively, and contemplate how we can shape our lives to become the best version of ourselves.

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