The Lost Art of Self Reflection

Buzzfeed published a video entitled , “If You Talked To People The Way You Talk To Yourself.” It’s a humorous (and naturally, explicit) portrayal of an imagined—also shocking—transition between our private moments of self deprecation to the world of placing that shame and guilt on other people. We’d never tell someone, “Your parents aren’t proud of you,” but we insist on thinking it about ourselves, even in spite of their assurances to the contrary.

 

Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Barb Markway, a doctor of psychology, thinks that self-acceptance is so difficult for us because of three thoughts we tend to have:

“We think if we punish ourselves enough, we’ll change,” “we don’t believe we deserve self-acceptance,” and also because, “we believe we’re giving up control.”

Yet, treating ourselves poorly has never been an impetus for change, neither has it been a source of validation or security.

How do we come to a place where we can be “just all right,” with being ourselves? My hypothesis is that we can’t unless we discover the lost art of extended self-reflection. The only way I know how to make meaningful use out of 20 minutes of “thinking about myself” is through “reflective writing.” In other words, intentional, daily time spent writing about how my day went and is going. More than that, I include my thoughts and dreams about my wishes and hopes, rants and serenades, meals and parties, media and movies, and everything else I can think of. Some evenings my entries consist of a few words, “Today was legitimately awful,” and other mornings they span several pages.

The tragedy of our times isn’t that we’ve forgotten some mystical promise of well-being if we regularly keep a diary, write a blog, or even craft a vision board—it’s that we’ve experienced an unprecedented amnesia of what it means to flourish, individually and collectively. The practice of intentional quietness, of being-with-oneself, is not highly regarded—and that’s the real tragedy.

We can learn how to love and accept ourselves only when we have a useful understanding of who we are, and that isn’t available to us in vague, intellectual abstractions on the fly. We mindfully meditate, we gaze at sunsets, we celebrate with friends and family, but what does our actual “me time” look like? An honest response today looks like Netflix, potato chips, gymming, playing video games and watching funny videos online.

When we’re not engaging in me time, we’re studying, working, serving, or otherwise prevented from being by ourselves in a truly authentic sense of aloneness. Today we do everything in our power to prevent being alone with ourselves. Often times we ignore thinking about important events in our lives because we want to avoid asking the big questions about reality, our relationships, and the nature of truth—because they’re really difficult questions to ask.

So here is my suggestion: everyone should buy a journal and write in it each day. If you have awful handwriting or would like to keep your journal with you everywhere, Day One is the best platform available. If the physical act of writing composition isn’t your thing, consider recording your voice through an app or with a vintage tape recorder.

It’s important to journal because our memories are fickle. There’s a very good reason why Alzheimer’s disease instills so much fear in us: the thought of losing our most integral memories exists because they’re a part and parcel of who we are as human beings. From lieux de mémoire (places of memory) to our recollections of things that have happened in the past, our personal histories are by far the most important part of ourselves.

It is an important truth that our past does not define us. But people usually mean this in a moral sense—we have the ability to change and grow as people, and to stop dwelling on the mistakes we’ve made in the past. We can’t, however, take a meaningful look at self-acceptance if we don’t know who our “self” is that should be accepted.

Whom are you looking at when you step in front of a mirror? You have an internal sense of your identity. Maybe it’s time to give what’s only an internal intuition some tangible expression by relating your deepest thoughts, hopes, and dreams on paper?

 

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