Self-reflection is a bit like looking in the mirror and writing down exactly what you see. The difference is that this mirror reflects back at you what’s going on inside your head, as well as what might be seen on the outside.


Your physical self and your mental self

If you were to just self-reflect on your physical appearance, you might note down your hair colour, choice of clothing or facial expression. Perhaps you’d go a little further and note down that you’re wearing a uniform, which says something about your career choice, beliefs and perceived status in the world. There’s nothing wrong with reflecting on your physical self – indeed as we all know, your self-esteem is often affected by what we think we see on the outside.

woman looking in the mirror at her real self

When you start to get into a deeper level of personal self-reflection you start noting down what’s going on inside your head. This requires thoughtful introspection – the ability to look inward, listen to the voice in your head, and analyse thoughts, feelings and emotions that arise.

You can do it without going too deep – for example, you might ask yourself the question “how am I feeling today?”. And this might elicit a straight-forward answer – “I’m feeling low because I missed out on that important promotion”. However, when you move up a gear and ask yourself “why am I really feeling that way” you might answer the issue of missing out on the promotion by recognising that you feel underappreciated, overlooked for the third time in a row, and now unable to risk investing in that new car. In this instance, you really begin to label the emotions you are feeling and, in your head, the perceived negative outcomes of what you’ve just missed out on.


Why self-reflect?

The truth is we all self-reflect all of the time – we can’t help doing it. It’s a fundamental part of being human and having a consciousness that demands to be listened to. This all happens out in the open so to speak, in the sense that sometimes you can’t quieten the voice in your head. It demands to be heard – even if you don’t speak the words out loud! And this is before we even consider unconscious processing – when our brain automatically spends time processing experience, working out what information is worthy of keeping and what information can be dismissed.

Self-reflection is therefore first and foremost an automatic response. You can’t help it, so don’t feel you need to apologise for doing it or think that somehow, you’re a bit weird because you catch yourself always in conversation – with yourself! It’s perfectly normal.

seagull looking at its own reflection

Reflecting deeply, analysing what’s happened, considering alternatives, and thinking about your responses, might be key to how you function. You might be someone who needs to spend conscious time in reflection? Perhaps you’re someone who claims to be a poor self-reflector (although remember you can’t help but do it, even if you don’t want to!).

Spending quality time in self-reflection might feel a bit alien to you. It might even feel uncomfortable or difficult. If you’ve quietened that voice in your head over the long-term, then self-reflection – answering searching questions about yourself, might be more difficult. You might even find it physically painful if it stirs up lots of negative emotions. That doesn’t mean you can’t get better at self-reflection – it just may take some time, encouragement and support.

Although it’s a generalisation, if you’re an introvert you might find self-reflection easier, because it allows your energy to be focused inwards (as opposed to outwards towards others). That said, if you’re an extrovert you can be just as reflective, finding ways of sharing your reflection by having conversations with other people.


The benefits of self-reflection

Self-reflection allows you to:

  • Consider your experience, going over what happened in any given moment
  • Process that experience, by replaying things in more detail, looking for signs or indicators of things missed from the original moment
  • Think about your role in a situation, and how your behaviour may or may not have contributed to an outcome
  • Go over thoughts and feelings, assessing whether those thoughts and feelings are positive or negative
  • Play out scenarios and reactions to things in your head, before you commit to doing them
  • Take the views and opinions of others into consideration
  • Put yourself in other people’s shoes
  • Make different choices than the ones you have made previously

All in all, self-reflection plays a vital role in our mental health and wellbeing. Given you can’t stop self-reflection – why not make sure you are good at it!

illustration of self reflection


What questions might you ask of yourself when self-reflecting?

There’s really no limit to the kinds of questions you can ask when self-reflecting. In fact, you are only limited by your imagination. A good place to start is to think about the situation you find yourself in and consider what questions might help you understand your situation better. So, for example:

If you were reflecting on the type of person you are, and what this says about how others perceive you, you might ask yourself some of the following questions:

  1. What do I like doing?
  2. Which things motivate me?
  3. What do I dislike?
  4. Which things take my energy away or demotivate me?
  5. How do people see me? When they look at me what do they think?
  6. Does my image reflect who I want to be?
  7. What am I good at doing? What skills, knowledge and experience do I have?
  8. What do I value most?
  9. Which words describe me best?
  10. How would other people describe me? Would the words be the same?

These are all searching questions that ask you to think deeply about the nature of who you are.

If, however, you were reflecting on an experience – say an argument you had with a close work colleague, you might reflect on the experience itself and ask a different set of self-reflection questions. For example, you might ask yourself:

  1. What exactly happened to trigger the argument?
  2. Was something going on for me before the argument even started?
  3. Did I miss any clues that something else was going on for the other person?
  4. What was actually said during the argument?
  5. How did the other person react to me? What physically changed in them?
  6. Did the environment around us contribute to what happened?
  7. What other factors might have contributed to the fall-out?
  8. What role did I play in the discussion?
  9. Could I have done something different, and prevented this from happening?
  10. How did the other person make me feel?

In this instance, the self-reflection questions are less generic. They are focused on exploring something that happened, trying to make sense of it.

woman reflecting at her laptop

In any scenario, what you do with your self-reflection is a matter of choice. You may decide to simply reflect on something and keep that conversation in your head. You may choose to share your considerations with someone else you know. You may decide to engage with the person associated with your experience. It’s very much down to you.


Using a journal when self-reflecting

Given we self-reflect all of the time it would simply be impossible to ‘hold’ all of your self-reflection in your short-term memory. The chances of committing everything to long-term memory is just as remote. These conversations are like nebulous gases – they float around inside your head, sometimes escaping into the atmosphere, sometimes evaporating, sometimes becoming liquid, occasionally bedding-in.

If you want to get the most from self-reflection, it’s a good idea to get stuff out of your head and onto paper (be that digital paper or the real stuff). You might also make a voice or video note if this is your preference. This way you can capture thoughts, feelings and emotions in one place. You can summarise conversations – you can even write a stream of consciousness. If you want to, you can ask other people to contribute to your messaging.

There are many benefits to doing this:

  • You keep a record that you can replay by re-reading what you wrote
  • You don’t rely on what is often an unreliable memory. Most people think that what they remember is the truth. Unfortunately, science suggests that once even a small amount of time has passed, your memory may well be unconsciously modified by further experience, and simply get a bit ‘Lucy Goosy’ and fuzzy
  • You have something you can share with others that captures a picture of a moment in time
  • By writing things down with pen to paper, you process the experience. By processing in this way, you commit some things to your long-term memory
  • By noting things down, you feel lighter – you stress less about what happened, or what you are thinking about
  • You feel more in control, and less controlled by others



What skills does self-reflection require?

As we’ve already noted, self-reflection is a natural inbuilt human capability. Even if you think you’re not doing it, or are not capable of it, trust us – you definitely are.

That said, some people do find self-reflection easier than others. We think it’s probably down to these natural character traits, likes and skills.

  • Introspection – this simply means tuning into the conversation in your head, and letting that conversation play out, objectively observing and considering what passes. To improve your introspection, start a journal and take 5 minutes each day to simply note down your thoughts and feelings on the day. Do this every day and you will improve your reflective capability.
  • Self-awareness –  being self-aware is part of your emotional intelligence. This signals your ability to understand who you are – your moods, emotions and drivers. Additionally, being self-aware means that you can put that understanding into the context of your impact on others. If you want to improve your self-reflection, then being self-aware is an important component in your armoury. To become more self-aware read our blog on getting to know yourself activities.
  • Openness to self-improvement – self-reflection alone is perfectly fine if you want to contain your considerations to yourself. If, however, you want to self-reflect with a view to changing a situation or something about who you are, then it’s important that you desire self-improvement. Just being open to learning and to the idea that you may need to change your thinking and behaviour is a step in the right direction. To be more open to self-improvement, consider completing a personal development plan. You can read our partner blog with Notebook Love for more information on personal development planning.
  • Humility – if you want to be more reflective and open to self-improvement, chances are you will need to think about humility. People often say that you need objectivity to reflect. We think it’s hard to be objective when your feelings and emotions are involved. Instead, think about your willingness to see yourself clearly. This means accepting that you have faults, being modest and seeing yourself as you really are.
  • Psychological courage – becoming a more reflective thinker requires a degree of psychological courage. We think of it as a combination of all of the skills and traits we have described above – put in context. You may find that your self-reflection stirs up negative emotions. If this is the case, you will need the courage to work through these. You may find that you have sat too long in reflective mode – sometimes it’s important not to over analyse and to instead take action. This requires the psychological courage to stop thinking and move on. Accepting that you have faults or that you may be operating less than at your best, takes courage.


By noting these thoughts and feelings down – deciding what things to let go of, what things to dismiss and what to focus and take action on, you can build your confidence and the courage to improve.

There are times in our lives when self-reflection is particularly important – perhaps before you are making a crucial life decision or at a time of crisis.

There is also joy in simply getting to know yourself better, learning to express and accept who you are, to yourself and to others.

Elisa Nardi is Founder and CEO of Notebook Mentor makers of inspiring notebooks and career journals to help ordinary people manage, develop and be happier at work.


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