Self-reflection may feel like the latest new thing, but the concept is nearly as old as time itself. Way back in Ancient Greece, Socrates told his executioners that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” While that statement may be a bit extreme—life is life, after all, and always worth living—examining your beliefs, your attitudes and your actions, is a vital part of personal change and growth. What exactly is self-reflection and how does it help you achieve your goals for personal growth?
Let’s look at why self-reflection is one of the most important of all personal development skills.
Those Who Forget the Past...
You know the rest of that saying, right? Remembering the past—and more importantly, analyzing it for patterns—is the way that we learn. When a football coach sits his players down to watch last week’s game, he’s not doing it for entertainment. He uses it as an opportunity to point out how each player’s actions and patterns contributed to a win or a loss, and to recommend changes to strategy so that the players improve their performance in the next game.
The post-mortem isn’t confined to sports, of course. In a poetry slam, for example, performers often watch videos of their own performances to see places where their delivery could be better or to take note of where the audience reacted in an unexpected way to their words or gestures. There’s even an actual tool to help athletes and other performers make the most of their self-reflection. Reflecting on your actions and attitudes is one of the most effective ways to identify areas where you need to change, recognize places where you’ve grown and keep you moving forward to achieve your personal growth goals.
How to Look Back: Personal Growth with Compassion
Let’s start with this understanding: the purpose of self-reflection is not to beat yourself up for being a bad person. The point is to examine how well you’re meeting your goals, recognize where you are in comparison to where you were, and mark your progress toward where you want to be. Keep that in mind as you consider these tips and techniques for using self-reflection as a tool for personal growth.
Five Questions to Ask Yourself—A Self-Reflection Primer
Here’s the first exercise in self-reflection to get you started on your way to a more examined life. These questions will help you set a baseline, recognizing where you are and what you need to be happy, successful and fulfilled.
Before you start answering them, though, think about the ways you learn best. I personally like writing out things in longhand in my journal which helps me really focus and think about the answers before I write them down. Your mileage may vary—maybe you do your best thinking out loud. In that case, use a voice recorder app on your phone. Whatever works best for you is right for you.
- What are my strengths? Make note of the things you do well, the things that make you proud of yourself.
- What are my weaknesses? Note your personality traits or personal habits that you think make you less effective.
- What makes me happy? Write down the things in your life, big or small, that bring you joy.
- What are the things that dim my joy? Write down the things that bring you stress, anxiety or otherwise make you less happy.
- What changes would I like to make in my life?
Make Self-Reflection Part of Your Practice
Of course, this exercise is just a starting point. It’s a good way to help you pinpoint your personal growth goals and start making plans to achieve them. The real magic happens when you make self-reflection part of your personal practice. You can do a short self-reflection at the end of every day—just a quick check-in about what you accomplished today, what made you grateful today and what you wish you’d done differently.
What’s more important, though, is to make time about once a month to go back over the past few weeks and think about what you’ve done. See how far you’ve come and pinpoint ways to improve going forward. These longer periods give you a chance to celebrate your progress, evaluate where you fell short of your ambition and readjust your plans and strategies to make next month even better.
Pro Tip: Passion Planner’s Monthly Reflection Pages, a free download you can use if you don’t already own a Passion Planner, is a ready-made template to help you look back over your month and reflect on what you learned, what you need to learn and where you want to go next.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer living and working on Massachusetts. She writes frequently about health, wellness and lifestyle topics.