We’ve all had an argument or experience that has stuck with us—often for a few days and sometimes for years—that we play over and over in our heads. We remember what was said and, when we think about what transpired, our emotions become just as raw and turbulent as the day the argument occurred.
We all seek clarity during times of trouble or emotional difficulty to move beyond these types of experiences. This quest is also known as introspection and it is the process by which we analyze our own patterns of thought and process complex emotional information. How can you use introspection to your benefit?
Introspection Results in Critical Thinking
Have you ever remembered something in vivid detail (that aforementioned argument, maybe?) only to later discover that your memory was wrong?
When we view the world, we are inherently limited by our own biases—the perceptions and preferences—we have developed as a direct result of our own life experiences. Practicing introspection allows us to confront those biases and address them head-on. Why do we feel that way? Is it correct? Should I adjust the way I react to this issue? This critical analysis not only promotes thought-provoking internal debate, but also allows us to react in a more intelligent way in the future.
Introspection Results in Responsibility
When we take the time to review our actions as objectively as we can (no one is free from personal bias) it forces us to take responsibility for the things we have done that have had positive or negative outcomes. In this way, life is not simply happening “to” us or “around” us, but we are instead very active participants in life with decision-making power. We are the responsible party when it comes to our own actions and how we respond to others.
Introspection Increases Empathy
Because we have now thought critically about our responses to others and taken responsibility for our own actions, we can also grow to understand others in a deeper way.
We know what makes us feel happy and what causes us pain. In some cases, something that makes us happy (like winning an argument) might result in pain for someone else. In these cases, we can use the knowledge of our own complex emotional response to inform the way we address others. We know what makes us feel badly so it’s easier for us to imagine the way someone else might be feeling. This ability to put yourself in the place of another person is the benchmark of true empathy, which allows us to relate to others in a more honest way.
Introspection Is Empowering
Knowing we have control over our response in a given situation is an incredibly powerful tool. Introspection can help us have the capacity to refine and adjust our behavior, choosing to think positively or negatively. It is empowering to know we can alter our response and positively change the dialogue.
How to Become More Introspective
There are many ways to promote the critical thinking necessary to analyze your emotional and behavioral patterns. The first is journaling and/or meditating to take the time to write down or quietly evaluate the events of your day that elicited an emotional response. Think deeply about why you reacted the way you did and work hard to put yourself in the place of the person or people you were reacting to. Was your reaction justified? How could you have reacted differently or in a more positive way? How does this discovery help you in future interactions?
Also, consider finding a human sounding board. This can either be an honest friend who would not be afraid to tell you when you may have made a misstep or a therapist. This person can help you address your thoughts, feelings and actions in an objective way and lead you to a better understanding of the world and your place in it.
Thinking critically about yourself is no easy task, but the benefits of introspection are many if you try.
Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
Kathryn Birnie, Michael Speca, Linda E. Carlson
Stress & Health, John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010
Taking Another Person's Perspective Increases Self-Referential Neural Processing
Daniel L Ames, Adrianna C. Jenkins, Mahzarin Banaji, Jason P Mitchell
Psychological Science, 2008