They say ignorance is bliss, and maybe to a certain extent, they are right.
But here’s the thing:
It also keeps you stuck exactly where you are.
After all, if you can’t see problems, how on earth can you begin to fix them?
The key to growth is the ability to look inside yourself, to analyze and understand what makes you tick.
That’s why developing introspection is so crucial. It encourages us to examine and observe our own mental and emotional processes.
This article will offer plenty of practical ways to do just that.
So let’s dive in.
1) Know the importance of introspection
As I’ve said, ignorance can be bliss. Bliss when on the surface everything in life seems and feels fine.
But what about when it doesn’t?
Because the truth is that very few of us will go through life feeling like everything is hunky-dory all the time.
In fact, according to the world happiness report negative feelings are rising around the world.
Meanwhile, research suggests that American adults have become less happy since 2000.
If that sounds like a gloomy outlook, we should take comfort in the fact that our interest in happiness and well-being has risen sharply.
For example, the self-help book category is one of the fastest-growing nonfiction categories. It was estimated to become a $13.2 billion industry by 2022.
Studies show that people who have an intuitive understanding of themselves enjoy better well-being, self-acceptance levels, and happiness.
They also have stronger relationships and a clearer sense of purpose.
To make ourselves happier, we need to know ourselves better. And it seems more of us are understanding that.
The bottom line is that introspection can be a tool that helps us with our mental health.
Self-reflection and self-awareness allow us to figure out how we feel and what could be causing it —so we can take positive action to make changes.
2) Recognize introspection is a skill that can be learned
Some people seem to be naturally quite inward looking. In fact, they may easily get lost in internal thoughts.
Meanwhile, others will have spent very little time contemplating their own thoughts and feelings.
But can you gain introspection?
Even though certain people are naturally introspective, the good news is that introspection is a skill that we all can learn.
Just like any skill we are developing, it can take time and patience.
The more we practice, the better we become.
But if too much introspection starts to create stress and anxiety, it’s important to take a break.
You don’t want it to lead to rumination and overthinking.
Because as we’ll explore next, the unfortunate truth is that not all introspection is going to be useful.
3) Don’t get tripped up: Thinking about ourselves doesn’t equal knowing ourselves
Before embarking on your introspective journey it’s important to be armed with all the facts.
Because researchers have suggested that introspection doesn’t automatically mean greater insight.
After conducting research on introspection, Tasha Eurich Ph.D. found something unexpected.
She had thought that greater introspection would always create greater self-awareness.
When in reality her research contradicted this assumption:
“In truth, introspection can cloud our self-perceptions and unleash a host of unintended consequences. Sometimes it may surface unproductive and upsetting emotions that can swamp us and impede positive action. Introspection might also lull us into a false sense of certainty that we’ve identified the real issue.
“The problem with introspection isn’t that it’s categorically ineffective, but that we don’t always do it right.”
With this in mind, let’s look at what to avoid, before discussing how to use introspection in the most effective way.
4) Avoid asking “why” and instead ask yourself “what”
When we go searching for ‘why’s’, we cannot always trust the answers to be true.
That’s the crux of the issue identified by researcher Dr. Tasha Eurich in her book ‘Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life’.
Let me explain:
Various studies came to the same conclusion. That asking ourselves ‘why’ can lead to problems like:
- Us jumping to the wrong conclusion from our insights, thanks to our tendency for confirmation bias.
- Us feeling worse, impacting our mental health in a negative way. Apparently, contemplating ‘why’ can make us fixate on problems or assign blame, rather than move on.
So asking yourself ‘why’ when you practice introspection isn’t a good idea.
But what are the methods of introspection that do work?
It turns out, ‘why’s’ equally enquiring cousin, ‘what’ is a far better question to ask.
One study discovered that participants who asked what instead of why remained more open to discovering new information about themselves.
In contrast, asking why can close us off, especially if the answers we come up with conflict with our existing ideas and beliefs about ourselves.
When identifying people who excelled at self-awareness Dr. Tasha Eurich found they had a habit of asking what and not why.
One of the examples of this was a 42-year-old mom who had left her job as a lawyer when she realized it was not making her happy.
Here’s how she explained the benefits of what over why:
“If you ask why, [I think] you’re putting yourself into a victim mentality …. When I feel anything other than peace, I say ‘What’s going on?’; ‘What am I feeling?’; ‘What is the dialogue inside my head?’; ‘What’s another way to see this situation?’ or ‘What can I do to respond better?’”
So, to summarize this point:
Asking “why” questions is problematic because it can create negative emotions, cause us to get stuck in the past, and focus on our limitations.
Asking “what” questions is better as it encourages us to remain curious, focus on our potential and create a better future.
5) Name your feelings and emotions
We want to make sure our introspection leads to insights, and not self-judgment that only holds you back.
An effective way to get to grips with your feelings in a “what” rather than a “why” way, can be by simply naming them.
Asking yourself what you are feeling.
Research shows that just by naming our emotions we help to remove ourselves from fight or flight mode.
This is why it can be really effective in helping you to keep your cool in challenging situations —because it stops your brain from activating your amygdala.
It also allows you to notice patterns and create greater awareness of the sorts of feelings that your experience, and the situations in which they arise.
As pointed out in an article in the New York Times which examined the importance of naming your emotions:
“Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them. Emotions are just a form of energy, forever seeking expression. Paradoxically, sharing what we’re feeling in simple terms helps us to better contain and manage even the most difficult emotions.”
“By naming them out loud, we are effectively taking responsibility for them, making it less likely that they will spill out at the expense of others over the course of a day.”
6) Focus on solutions rather than problems
We’ve already seen how vital asking the right questions can be on your journey of self-discovery.
And this continues with our next point.
Because solution-focused questions are going to be way more useful for you.
Research has concluded that solution-focused questions “produced a significantly greater increase in self-efficacy, goal approach, and action steps than problem-focused questions, and a significantly greater decrease in negative affect.”
We don’t want introspection to cause us to dwell and get stuck in feeling sorry for ourselves. Instead, we want it to leave us feeling in greater control of our lives and our destiny.
So what does that look like in practical terms?
Well, a problem-faced question might be: Why is my relationship with my mom so bad?
Whereas solution-faced questions would look more like: How do I want my relationship with my mom to look and feel? What could I do to help improve it?
7) Use journaling to gain insights
Journaling has been shown to be a great tool for introspection.
Research has highlighted its benefits during difficult times in our lives.
A 2006 study noted that people who journaled just a couple of times a week had a reduction in mental health problems like depression, anxiety, and hostility.
It all comes back once again to the expression of our emotions. We simply feel better when we give a voice to things we experience.
But it also helps us to lay out and organize our thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
And when it comes to greater introspection this allows us to do something important:
We can step back.
We put some distance around ourselves and our experiences which encourages more insight.
By getting it all down in black and white you are better able to see yourself from an outside perspective.
In the words of Joshua Smyth, professor of biobehavioral health and medicine at Penn State University:
“Journaling is a tool to put our experiences, thoughts, beliefs, and desires into language, and in doing so it helps us understand and grow and make sense of them,”.
Final thoughts: It’s actually better to aim for greater mindfulness over greater self-understanding
As we’ve seen, trying to get more self-awareness and understanding can trip us up.
We can come up with false insights due to our cognitive bias, or find ourselves ruminating and feeling worse.
Gaining greater introspection can seem challenging. After all, us human beings are often a mystery.
But the ultimate aim of introspection isn’t to get all the answers about yourself.
Instead, it’s simply about bringing more mindfulness and non-judgemental awareness to your thoughts and feelings.
Quietly observe how you feel and what you think.
This alone is enough to improve your understanding of yourself over time.