Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

And while this dictum is certainly true, self-reflection is not necessarily an easy thing to practice. We live in an incredibly fast-paced world. Our mobile phones are constantly buzzing, social media is infinitely calling, and Netflix always has something new to binge on.

Taking the time for reflection is a bit of a lost art. Most of us, unfortunately, are living unexamined lives.

This shouldn’t be the case. Few things are more valuable than self-reflection.

But what exactly is self-reflection? And what are some simple ways to practice it?

In this article, we’re going to break down the what, why, and how of self-reflection.

Ready? Let’s get started...


Contents:


What Is Self-Reflection? A Self-Reflection Definition

Simply put, self-reflection (also known as “personal reflection”) is taking the time to think about, meditate on, evaluate, and give serious thought to your behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, motivations, and desires. It’s the process of diving deep into your thoughts and emotions and motivations and determining the great, “Why?” behind them.

Personal reflection allows you to analyze your life from both a macro and micro level. At a macro level, you can evaluate the overall trajectory of your life. You can see where you’re headed, determine whether you’re happy with the direction, and make adjustments as necessary.

At a micro level, you can evaluate your responses to particular circumstances and events. Geil Browning, Ph.D., talks about personal reflection like this:

"Reflection is a deeper form of learning that allows us to retain every aspect of any experience, be it personal or professional — why something took place, what the impact was, whether it should happen again — as opposed to just remembering that it happened. It's about tapping into every aspect of the experience, clarifying our thinking, and honing in on what really matters to us."

Practicing self-reflection takes discipline and intentionality. It requires pressing pause on the chaos of life and simply taking the time to think and ponder about your life, which is not an easy thing for many people to do. But it’s an incredibly valuable practice.

This short video captures the importance of self-reflection and introspection beautifully:

The Importance of Self-Reflection

Without self-reflection, we simply go through life without thinking, moving from one thing to the next without making time to evaluate whether things are actually going well. We don’t pause to think. To analyze. To determine what is going well and what isn’t working. The unfortunate result is that we often get stuck.

For example, a lack of personal reflection may lead us to stay in a job we don’t like or a relationship that isn’t going well.

A lack of reflection causes us to simply keep running, trying to keep up with things even if things aren’t going well. We feel like we’re simply trying to keep our heads above water. We end up doing the same things over and over again, even if those things aren’t producing the results we had hoped for.

The Benefits Of Self-Reflection

Yes, taking time for self-reflection can be difficult. It can be challenging to take the necessary time to step back and reflect on what truly matters. Nevertheless, there are numerous wonderful benefits of self-reflection and we should all make time for it.

It Allows You To Gain Perspective

Emotions can cloud your judgment and you can lose sight of what truly matters. Some things seem bigger and worse than they truly are.

Self-reflection allows you to take a step back and gain perspective on what matters and what can be ignored. It allows you to process events and achieve clarity on them.

It Helps You Respond More Effectively

Most of the time, we simply react to whatever circumstances come our way. This can lead to us saying and doing things we regret. When we’re in a reactive mode, we don’t take the necessary time to consider our actions and words.

Personal reflection allows you to consider the consequences of your words and actions. It also enables you to consider the best, most effective, most helpful way to act in a given situation.

It Promotes Learning and Understanding

When we go through life without pausing to think and reflect, we don’t learn or gain a deeper understanding of life. We simply move from one thing to the next, never pausing to consider what valuable lessons we might learn.

Self-reflection, on the other hand, enables us to evaluate and process what we’ve experienced. It allows us to think deeply and ponder the meaning of our circumstances, emotions, and motivations. It enables us to live holistic, integrated, and healthy lives.

Self-Assessment Sample

So how exactly do you perform self-reflection? How do you appropriately and helpfully reflect on yourself and your life?

One easy way to perform this self-reflection exercise is to use a journal (an online journal or print journal). Simply write out these questions and then take your time to thoughtfully answer them. Make sure that you don’t rush. Pause and ponder. Think deeply about what truly matters to you.

First, determine the period of time you plan to look back on. Do you want to look back on the last week? Last month? Last year? Last 5 years?

Then, begin by taking stock of what actually happened during this period. If you already keep a journal, this step will be easier for you, and perhaps a solid reminder of the value of keeping a journal.

Take a look through your planner, journal, and photos, and list out the highlights and lowlights.

Stuck? Here are a few tips:

  • Did you travel anywhere this year?
  • Experience any personal or family milestones?
  • What changed in your relationships, work, or passion projects?

Look back at your new list of highlights and lowlights try and see if there are any patterns.

Do your highlights generally involve certain people in your life? Or any specific activities?

It can be difficult to revisit lowlights, but it is also a great way to find peace and growth.

For each lowlight, ask yourself: Was this within my control?

  • If yes, ask yourself what you may do differently next time.
  • If no, ask yourself how you may find peace with it.

Write down both the highlights and lowlights in your journal, then take time to reflect. What things do you want to accomplish over the next month, year, and five years? What do you want to change about your life? What things can you improve on?

Taking the time to walk through this exercise will help bring clarity and perspective to your life.

A Guided Self-Assessment

Looking back at your chosen time period, rate yourself on a scale of -5 to +5 on each of the following six areas of your life.

After selecting a number, write what made you feel that way. Expressing the emotions and feelings that you have, is a great way to have a deeper and more meaningful reflection.

  • Mind - Do you feel clear-headed, engaged, and intellectually challenged?
  • Body - Does your body feel healthy, nourished, and strong?
  • Soul - Do you feel at peace and connected to the world around you?
  • Work - Do you feel interested in and fulfilled by your work?
  • Play - Do you feel joyful? Are you engaging in activities that bring you joy?
  • Love - Do you feel positive about the relationships in your life?

Don’t rush through this self-assessment. Take the necessary time to reflect on each area of your life. If you rush, you’ll miss out on the value of self-reflection.

When Should You Practice Self-Reflection?

There are a number of times when self-reflection is particularly helpful. First, it can be useful to do it for a few minutes each week. You don’t have to go through all of the questions or take hours to do it. Focus on what has been on your mind that particular week.

It can also be helpful to practice self-reflection as an end of month personal review and end of year personal review.

In other words, at the end of each month and year, do an in-depth personal review of your life. Look back over the previous days and months and analyze your life. This practice will provide you with a helpful perspective and ensure that you are living life to the fullest.

Don’t Live The Unexamined Life

When we fail to reflect on our lives, we lose perspective, get caught up in things that don’t matter, and often lose sight of the things that are most important. Socrates was right when he said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living.

Don’t live an unexamined life. Practice self-reflection today.


Interested in developing your reflection practice? We built Reflection.app, a free online journal that helps you capture your highlights and lowlights as they happen, and shares back your entries to your for guided reflection at the end of each month and year. 

We also use a similar framework for our annual Guided Reflection Journal.

Looking for reflection questions you can use in a group or take with you? Check out our deck of Reflection Cards.


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This article is part of our series on the theme of Reflection.

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Distilled from our Manifesto, positive psychology, the science of mindfulness, and ancient philosophic studies we have identified twelve themes core to living both fully and mindfully. We mapped these twelve themes to each of the twelve months in a year. Together with our community we explore one each month.

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