Definitive Guide to Self Reflection

Self-reflection is one of the best ways that you can shift your mindset, increase positivity in your life, and discover a greater connection to yourself.

Whereas meditation and mindfulness ask us to passively observe life, self-reflection invites us to actively participate in our thoughts and delve deeper inside.

It’s about observing ourselves without judgment, far from the demands of daily life. This is a chance for us to look within, process how we’re feeling, and then use that information to better ourselves.


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What is self-reflection

Observing yourself without judgement

Self-reflection is observing yourself and your thoughts without judgment.

It’s about looking within, processing how you’re feeling, and then using those insights to better yourself.

It is one of the best ways that you can shift your mindset, increase positivity in your life, and discover a greater connection to yourself.

Like meditation and mindfulness which can help you observe your thoughts, self-reflection invites you to actively participate and delve deeper inside.

The learning process

It is definitely a learning process, and no one gets it perfect the first time.

And while sometimes it can be jarring to see the disconnect between what you believe in and how you act – it is exactly what you need to grow and develop as a human being.

You have over 50,000 thoughts per day!

That's a lot of thoughts.

Often, this seemingly endless flow of thoughts can be anxiety-inducing and mentally exhausting, especially with the daily stresses in your life.

But through self-reflection, you can begin to develop empathy for yourself as well as for others.

Through the process on introspection, we learn which external and internal forces are influencing our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

And by understanding the thoughts that you’re creating, you can tap into your needs and wants, and how what you do, say, and think play into that.


Why is self-reflection important

Avoiding the blame game

No guilt, no shame, no righteousness. We take a non-judgmental stance and analyze our actions and feelings.

This leads to personal development and growth in different areas of our lives, such as work, relationships, health, self-esteem, and many others.

You can bring everything back to your “why” and use that to propel you forward, especially if we’re feeling stuck in a rut.

Self-reflection isn’t about putting yourself down or blaming yourself for things outside of your control. Rather, it gives you a chance to take a step back and analyze the bigger picture.

All too often as humans – we’re trapped in our own heads with those 50,000 daily thoughts, and this makes it difficult to focus on the important ones that help us make personal progress.

In life, progress over perfection is the name of the game – and to progress, we need be self-aware.

But how can you move up to the next level if you don’t know where you currently stand?

Avoiding the bad and extract the good from technology

In Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport explains how you can choose a focused life in a noisy world.  

Cal’s central thesis is that social media has changed the game. It supercharges you by giving you dopamine hits through exploiting vulnerabilities in your sociology.

He’s right, your life is more hectic than ever before.

There are constant distractions vying for our attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Thanks to smartphones, you’re always expected to be connected. Oddly enough, this has led to a lack of connection with others and even with ourselves.

But more connected isn't always more fulfilled

As Faizal Karmali from the The Rockefeller Foundation said,  “Just because humanity is better connected doesn’t mean humanity is any better off. It only means that we are better equipped to make it so.”

Through self-reflection, you can start to process your thoughts and emotions better, and see them from a new perspective.

You can identify that anxious tick you have to reach for your smartphone to distract yourself.

A lack of self-reflection and self-awareness means that we aren’t tuned in to ourselves, to each other, or to the world. Most of the time, we only evaluate our inner selves when we receive criticism or face hardship.

Self-reflection can be a practice to ensure you don’t become a slave to the screen, and get to experience the richness of life.

Being aware of your default emotions

On a regular basis, we don’t even know how we feel because we’re too busy to stop and pause.

Unless our emotions are extreme, we don’t regularly tap into them.

What’s your default emotion? Are you angry? Sad? Just “okay”? It’s important to turn inward during the good times AND the bad times.

You’re familiar with it and it takes less effort to just wear the stress mask than to take it off and really think about how you’re feeling.

It can feel awkward or difficult at first, and we might not even know where to start.

However, self-reflecting helps you get more in tune with your gut instincts so you no longer have to wear that mask.

A wealth of benefits to your psyche

It’s not surprising that self-reflection is a common trait among world leaders and change-makers throughout history.

While results don’t happen overnight, there’s no arguing with the fact that the benefits are life-changing:

What would your life be like if you weren’t tied to preconceived notions about what you can and can’t do, or how you think you should appear to others?


Why self-reflection is part of human nature

How long have humans been reflecting?

Humans have always grappled with the purpose of life.

This existential crisis is familiar to most of us, and something that can keep us up at night. What are you meant to do, and who are you meant to be?

Self-reflection is a natural way to get answers to these questions.

In the past, people have used self-reflection as a way to better understand human nature. In simple terms, human nature refers to a set of intrinsic traits that all people share.

Since ancient times, great thinkers have been trying to comprehend and analyze these characteristics. This is where we get the grand debate of whether individuals get their traits from nature or nurture.

Even though the world can’t seem to agree on the answer, one thing is true: there are many benefits to taking an objective view of humans.

Know Thyself

Self-reflection isn’t a new hipster practice; it’s been around for thousands of years.

As early as 1,000 B.C., Greek philosophers became aware that self-knowledge was the highest form of knowledge.

But even still today, we humans still have trouble looking inward.

Another Greek philosopher Thales even said that to know thyself was one of the hardest things to do.

We might find it easy to tell others what to do, but we rarely give ourselves advice. So, what’s the big idea?

The scariest place can be inside yourself

For one, we’re terrified of judgment.

Society naturally sets up these preconceived notions of who we are, and when we don’t meet those expectations, we feel awful.

We see this happen all the time: children fear that they will disappoint their parents (and vice versa); employees are afraid they won’t meet their boss’ expectations; some people aren’t even comfortable letting their significant other see them first thing in the morning.

In today’s world, anything less than perfect is seen as a failure, and we’re terrified of failure.

But … What would happen if you failed?

It's only failure when you don't learn

Who would be more disappointed, your peers or ourselves? Odds are, you would be much harsher on yourself than our friends or colleagues would.

Throughout history, we’ve seen stories and examples of people finally realizing that they’re their biggest critic.

It’s funny how often we read or hear these stories, but never really apply it to ourselves.

We still think the world is a big, bad place that will judge us mercilessly.

Another reason why know thyself is such a difficult thing to do is because most people aren’t taught how to do it.

The truth is, a person doesn’t have to be Gandhi to self-reflect. They just need to know how it’s done.

A case study from Stoicism

The Stoics were a group of philosophers in the Hellenistic period – which covers the 300-year period from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to the emergence of the Roman Empire in 31 BC.

The concepts of Stoicism were originally founded by a man named Zeno who was friendly with the successors of Alexander who ruled Greece, but it was really the three great stoics that made the ideas famous – Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.

These philosophers knew that clear writing was a reflection of thinking. Each of them has had a huge impact and have changed millions of lives as a result.

But most importantly – they started with themselves. They focused on the art of journaling as a vehicle for self-reflection.

This included preparing for the day ahead, reflecting on the day that has passed, reminding ourselves of the wisdom we have learned from all of our experiences.

It was never enough for the stoics to simply experience and write down the lessons they learned once. Instead, they would practice and reflect over and over and over again.

Self-knowledge grants us the ability to understand ourselves, our thoughts, how we appear to others, and most importantly – to practice and get better.


What happens when you don’t take time to reflect

Losing sight of who you really are

What happens when you don’t take time to reflect?

You put your head down and push through without stopping to find a better path. A lack of self-reflection is one of the reasons why people stay in jobs that are (literally) killing them and social relationships that steal their energy.

It’s hard see our own strengths and weaknesses, so when unexpected circumstances arise, we get stressed and stuck in the same habits that don’t work.

You take on jobs you don’t want or get into relationships you don’t care about just to make yourself feel better. Without an outlet for your thoughts and feelings, everything gets muddled and you can feel trapped.

When we don’t reflect, we lose perspective on what really matters. It becomes easy to forget what we have to offer or to write it off as worthless.

If only we could dig deeper into ourselves, we would see how we can learn and grow from situations.

Experts suggest that only 15% of people are self-aware.  

Losing sight of who you really are

It turns out we each have three basic versions of ourselves:

  • Your actual self (who you see yourself as)
  • Your ideal self (who you want to be)
  • Your ought self (who society thinks you should be)

Understanding these three versions can help you look inward and see gaps between how you see yourself, how others perceive you, and who you feel that you need to be based on pressures from society.


Leaders & Celebrities that follow a self-reflection practice

Learning from the best

The most successful people in the world- actors, athletes, authors, business leaders, musicians, scientists, inventors – understand and use the power of self-reflection.

They have a clear idea of how they see themselves, how others see them, and how they fit into the world. They say knowledge is power, and they’re right!

They have enhanced relationships with their counterparts and can think more critically while exhibiting greater empathy. Their productivity increases and they’re more engaged with the group, leading to improved communication and more trust.

Oftentimes, a leader’s level of self-awareness impacts how much success they’ll have in their position.

A balance of internal and external self-awareness helps leaders become their best selves and lead more effectively.

Case studies on self-reflection

How do today’s leaders do it?

Here are examples of successful people who use self-reflection to improve their quality of life.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah is now a female powerhouse who inspires fans on the daily. However, her early years showed no glimmer of what was to come for her life and career.

She was born to a teenage mother, never knew her father growing up, and was shuttled between family members due to her mom’s financial instability. Two of her siblings passed away young from drug-related illnesses, and she was molested and abused in her teen years.

Oprah could have chosen to see herself as a mistreated girl. Instead, she pushed through and began to recognize opportunities as they came her way.

Today she is one of the most successful female leaders in history.

She keeps a gratitude journal, and even collected some of her written entries and compiled them into a book called What I Know For Sure.

Richard Branson

Although Richard Branson’s upbringing was quite different from Oprah’s, he struggled with dyslexia, which negatively impacted his academic performance.

His school headmaster told him that he’d either end up in prison or as a millionaire. Rather than focus on the downsides, Branson dug deep into his entrepreneurial aspirations.

Today, he’s one of the richest people in the world and the founder of the Virgin Group, which owns more than 400 other companies.

Branson always has a notebook and pen on hand to jot down thoughts and ideas that come to him throughout his day.

Tony Robbins

For most of his adult life, mentor and philanthropist Tony Robbins has kept a journal.

He believes that “if your life is worth living, it’s worth recording.”

Robbins even compares journaling to having kids because if we don’t stop to look at our lives (or kids), we won’t see how much we’ve (or they’ve) grown!

Tim Ferriss

Entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss keeps a daily journal to help him become more mindful and to live an intentional life.

He actually uses the Five-Minute Journal to consistently improve his well-being and happiness.

Albert Einstein

Between 1921 and 1933, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein recorded his personal insights.

Similarly, superstar Lady Gaga keeps a journal so she can write down all of her thoughts, feelings, and grand ideas.

Self-reflection isn’t a magic bullet, but it’s the first step in realizing our own potential and seeing past the current reality that faces us in the moment.

Learn more about the self reflection practices from other leaders

How Journaling helped Robert Greene draft bestsellers

Robert Greene, author that wrote six international bestseller books revealed how self-reflection made him successful.

How Journaling helped Ryan Holiday succeed immensely in his career

Ryan Holiday, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and best-selling author shows that self-reflection is a crucial ingredient for success.

How keeping a journal can help fend off Black Swans

Nassim Taleb, risk analyst and derivatives trader for 20 years turned full-time essayist credited self-reflection as a way to achieve self-development.

Marc Andreessen, the Silicon Valley giant who writes the future

If you’re unhappy, you should change what you’re doing.

A profound, life-changing statement only LeBron James could make

Here’s what keeps LeBron James grounded and focused on his game.

Emma Watson’s simple daily habit

Emma Watson is a 28-year-old celebrity today, but it was her deep self-reflection that helped her to blaze a trail.


Exercises you can use to start a self-reflection practice

Writing down your thoughts

It’s best to reflect in a conscious way, such as with a journal or app.

That way, you can go back and see your progress and growth. This strategy also makes it easier to stick to the habit and build it up over time.

It also helps to have a goal in mind.  Here are some reasons why people take up this practice:

  • To improve their relationship with themselves and others
  • To get more fulfillment out of their job/work
  • To invest more time in their passions and interests
  • To ease anxiety and stress
  • To adopt a new lifestyle or change up their habits

The list can go on and on, but the thing to remember here is that without a reason to self-reflect, we’re not going to feel compelled to do it!

Coming back to identifying the three versions of yourself – it’s important to focus on your ideal self (who you want to be).

Asking the right questions

Another essential part of reflecting is asking the right questions, and this is where it can get intimidating for some people.

It’s scary to dig deep and explore the inner workings of our thoughts and feelings.

Yet, have you ever wondered what might happen if you start thinking about and questioning your own mental processes?

That’s the kind of thinking that will shift you mindset and let real growth happen.

Method #1 - 20 Questions to start your self-reflecting practice

When it comes to self-reflection, it’s all about asking those key questions

These questions are not easy to answer, and there might even be some tears or tumultuous emotions that come out of these.

  • Am I using my time wisely?
  • What am I taking for granted?
  • Am I living true to myself?
  • Is my perspective healthy?
  • What is my mindset when I wake up in the morning?
  • How do I feel when I go to bed?
  • Am I getting stressed about things that are out of my control?
  • What am I doing for my physical/mental/emotional wellness?
  • What are my goals? Am I working towards them?
  • What worries me about the future?
  • What regrets about the past am I holding onto?
  • What am I afraid to let go of?
  • How would I feel if today were my last day on earth?
  • What have I given up on?
  • When was the last time I stepped outside of my comfort zone?
  • What do I want people to think of when they remember me at my funeral?
  • Does it matter what people think of me?
  • How much of life is really in my control?

Method #2 - Completing a daily brain dump

Self-reflecting can seem overwhelming, so a good place to start might be to do a brain dump.

This involves writing down everything that’s in your mind with no filtering. These free association thoughts will link back to your present situation, your thoughts, and maybe even your dreams.

Seeing everything dumped onto a sheet of page (or multiple sheets of paper) can bring an immediate sense of relief. There’s no reason to store all of that in your mind all the time.

As David Allen taught us in Getting Things Done – our brain is great at thinking, but bad at remembering.

You can spend your day constantly juggling ideas and thoughts (50,000 of them!) and try and cram everything into your head. Or, you can keep notes, write it out, and consolidate it later to get a handle on the web of information and tasks in your mind.

Whether you choose to do a brain dump or to do a more structured journaling entry, try to find a specific time to fit it into your schedule.

You don’t want lack of time or a busy schedule to become an excuse not to do it at all. Pencil it in, whether it’s in the morning, on lunch break, or before bed.

Self-reflecting only has to take a few minutes each day.

Over time, you’ll probably find that you want to spend more time reflecting! undefined

Method #3- Habit stacking with another habit

One sneaky way to fit self-reflection into a busy schedule is to tack it onto an existing routine. This is known as habit stacking, when you add a new habit on top of one that you already do.

You can eventually build these into a chain of better to build better habits. For example, you might self-reflect while you drink your morning cup of coffee. Small changes make a big difference!

Method #4 - Create an imaginary council

Author Napoleon Hill suggested having an “imaginary council” each night to help with seeing problems and thoughts from a wider perspective.

We all have issues that we’d like some extra help with.

Imagine that those people convene with you every evening to reflect on the day’s events, thoughts, and feelings. How would they respond to perceived successes and failures? What advice would they give?


How to keep your self-reflections online?

What are online journals?

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with keeping a physical journal with your self-reflections, it can be burdensome.

You need to make sure you always have the book with you, and it needs to be the right size or else it won’t fit in your backpack or purse.

That’s why online journals exist.

Online journals are platforms that allow you to store your self reflections in the cloud.

They are always ready for action because they’re impossible to misplace (as long as you have access to the Internet).

All you have to do is go to the website and sign in. Easy.

Why online journals might be better for you?

Having an online self-reflection journal makes it a lot easier for you to commit to a practice.

Physical journals eventually fill up, and then we need to get new ones. What do we do with the old journal? Throw it out? Keep it? Where do we store it?

An online reflection journal never runs out of space, and it’s always possible to go back and read older entries.

Another key part of having an online reflection journal is that it is for your eyes only.

No one can take a peep or steal it because only you know the password. That kind of privacy can make us more likely to open up about what’s really going on.

But what if someone steals my password? If someone gets your online passwords, reading your journal might not be the best use of their time.

The power of prompts and nudges

Reflecting on your self-reflections

Imagine the new you after adopting this new self reflection habit.

Blogger Bryan Collins likes to read through his past entries every couple of months.

He takes away key insights and patterns, such as ideas that he had that were great (and not so great), as well as struggles or conflicts that he faced and what he did about them.

He can track goals that he set for himself and determine whether he actually achieved them or not.

Key apps that you can use

Technology, such as an app or website, can give you a good starting point.

Many times, these resources have journaling prompts or self-reflection questions for us, so it takes a lot of guesswork, anxiety, and confusion out of the mix.

Penzu is a customizable online journal.

It allows you to record your activities in a journal, keep track of milestones in a food diary or pregnancy journal, or record your dreams.

It has 766 reviews and a 4.3 score in the app store. You can learn more here.

Day One it allows you to keep track of your days in a journal.

It’s best for people that want to keep rich content in their calendar and journal every day of their life.

It has 2,861 reviews and a 4.3 score in the app store. You can learn more here.

Daylitude is a simple daily practice with proven results.

The app sends you nudges to complete two reflections each day – one in the morning, and one in the evening.

At the end of the week, you receive a weekly summary email and you can track, visualize and explore your data in your account.

You can learn more here.

Remember to find whats right for you!

All these applications are great tools, but they typically focus on one primary area, such as meditation, journaling or tracking moods.

None of them them combines all of these aspects into a single application – so it’s important to find one that works for you.


Where can you learn more about self-reflection?

The Power of Now

Perhaps one of the most famous contemporary leaders in self-awareness is Eckhart Tolle.

He spent much of his young adult life depressed until he had an inner transformation in which he realized that his depressive thoughts and his anxiety about the future were not who he was.

Discovering that his “self” was not rooted in those negative feelings, he began to become deeply reflective. His book The Power of Now, is an Oprah-approved bestseller with over 2 million copies in circulation.

The Untethered Soul

Michael A. Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul is another self-awareness favorite, in which the author delves into several deep questions about introspection.

The Four Agreements

Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements was a New York Times bestseller for a decade.

It explores the limitations we set up for ourselves and others and how to overcome them .

Two of the agreements are “don’t make assumptions” and “don’t take anything personally.”

52 Weeks of Self Reflection

Erika R. Dawkins’ 52 Weeks of Self Reflection is a simple but powerful book that guides the reader through writing exercises that cover a full year of self-reflection.

Each week, Erica’s book introduces the reader to a new topic.

Being Present

David Kundtz’s Being Present: A Book of Daily Reflections is another simple read that seeks to help the reader create a more awakened life. The books focuses on the key elements of being present that cover:

  • Paying full attention to what is going on right now
  • Staying in the moment
  • Observing what is, without criticism or judgment
  • Balanced concern for things exactly as they are
  • Accepting whatever experience we are having
  • Participating fully in ongoing life

The Courage to be Disliked

The Courage to be Disliked, by Fumitake Koga & Ichiro Kishimi looks at how to unlock who you really are to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life of happiness and gratitude.

Other successful authors and leaders in the self-reflection sphere are Edward de Bono, Jim Collins, Zig Ziglar, and Stephen Covey.


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