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The science of self-reflection

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Your subconscious mind never stops processing inputs of information from your surroundings, and this affects even your most intentional, conscious thought practices, like self-reflection or mindfulness meditation. 

According to Dr. Tabitha Kirkland, a social psychologist at the UW, humans are unique among other animal species in that they have the capacity to engage in self-reflective thought. Kirkland explained that you have two modes of thinking: the quick, animal thinking that comes effortlessly and uses the actual physical lower areas of the brain, and then uniquely human meta-conscious cognition. It is your conscious mind that distinguishes you from other living creatures and allows you to recognize this distinction, yet your conscious and unconscious mind are always interacting. 

According to Kirkland, reflection is a conscious process that is utterly shaped by unconscious processes. This is because your brain is always searching for models — its version of an algorithm-seeking shortcuts — to process the information that you are constantly being fed through your perception of the world. Your self-reflection is influenced by these automatic processes because the way we think of things is shaped by our expectations, which are are formed by past experiences.

Therefore, Kirkland notes, so many of our experiences end up being self-fulfilling. If someone struggles with anxiety, it may be that their anxious pattern of response is so ingrained they can’t get outside of the pattern enough to change it and see things objectively. They are stuck in a rut, so to speak. 

Yet mindfulness and meditation can help people ease out of those processes and build new ones. Keeping in mind that neither you nor any other human on this planet will ever quite be able to see things objectively while saddled with just one individual’s lens of perception, Kirkland recommended these three steps:

Mindfulness: Notice your patterns (even as you’re falling into them) instead of automatically falling into them; be conscious of them so that you can observe them and (someday) detach from them. 

Once you’re consciously observing, gently detach from those patterns so that you will (someday) be capable of letting them go.

Once you can regard the decisions that are in your hands with detachment, choose which reactions serve you.

Therapy can be part of the process of recognizing downward-spiraling trails of thought, and then letting them go, Kirkland said. 

Dr. Sarah Dale, clinical psychologist at the UW, agreed, cautioning that self-reflection can turn into “unhelpful, anxiety-driven rumination without guidance.” The Counseling Center and mindfulness groups on campus can help us learn to be better observers of our own experiences, as opposed to spiraling into these anxious ruminations. 

Each individual engages in self-reflection differently, and part of that might be because of how they’re socialized. For example, David Engle, a therapist at the UW Counseling Center, noted anecdotally that boys and men seem to be less aware of their emotions and their own need to reflect than his female clients. 

Kirkland agreed, noting that there is a whole literature on how both men and women perceive the validity of their thoughts and feelings, and that this is maybe related to the processes they exercise socially: men tend to bond over activities, whereas women tend to bond over a practice of mutual self-expression. 

Kirkland emphasizes that this is not about biology, but rather about observing how humans respond to cultural and social expectations, chuckling, “Who knows what men and women would be like in a vacuum?” 

Extroverts, people who get their energy from being around other people, and introverts may also engage in positive self-reflection through varying avenues; extroverts seem to be positively correlated with an aptitude for reflecting through talking things out with others, in what’s called external processing. This might sound antithetical to those who just need some peace and quiet in order to figure out their own thoughts, but as Kirkland said, extroverts just “need other people as a sounding board.”

The long and the short of it? Find a healthy way to engage in self-reflection for you, and don’t neglect it, as in giving it over to the unconscious processes that will guide you on autopilot. 

As Dale mused, “When we become known to ourselves, it’s easier for us to see our patterns, deal with our own stuff, and see other people objectively.”

Reach contributing writer Grace DeBusschere at Twitter: @gracedebusscher

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