I think we can all agree that we could all use a bit more happiness in our lives, especially when we are isolated from others and in the middle of a global pandemic. Although watching Netflix, taking walks, exercising, and video chatting with friends all bring us moments of happiness, they feel temporary—they are fleeting.
At the end of the day, when we lay our heads down on the pillow, we are still stuck in our own heads—ruminating negative thoughts, the argument with our partner, friend, or coworker we keep replaying in our head, our constant self-judgment “you’re not enough” conversation that we have back and forth, fear, and hopelessness. Then we wake up and do it all over again. Can you relate?
The good news is that there is a simple practice that can help. Introspection and mindfulness (self-introspection) can actually increase your happiness permanently.
What Is Introspection?
To begin, we have to first define and understand the word “introspection.”
Dictionary.com defines introspection as:
observation or examination of one’s own mental and emotional state, mental processes, etc.; the act of looking within oneself.
Introspection is a thinking, analytical process. It is the deliberate process of reflection. We don’t do this because frankly, it isn’t easy and it takes a lot of work!
Many people are often caught in the state of reaction and ego and do not actually take the time to reflect. They are clouded by emotions and are unable to see things clearly. For introspection to be helpful and effective, it requires self-awareness and the ability to put aside the ego and the need to be “right.”
Let me share an example from one of my clients.
Mandy has a long stressful day working from home while juggling her kids’ distance learning, goes grocery shopping, and comes home and begins to prepare dinner. Helping the kids complete their homework while cooking dinner, her husband comes home and plops himself on the couch. He turns on the TV and begins laughing at the sitcom that he’s watching.
Mandy is a bit annoyed and wished her husband would help out, but she holds her tongue knowing that he needs to unwind from his long day too. After dinner, Mandy gives the kids a bath, reads them a book, and puts them to bed. She finally has a chance to sit down for the first time in hours and asks her husband if he could help clean up and do the dishes. He says, “I’ll do it later honey.”
A few hours later, the dishes are still not done, he’s still watching TV, and Mandy begins feeling irritated, angry, and resentful. After all, this seems to happen quite frequently. She mentions the dishes again and he responds with an annoyed tone and harshly says, “I ALREADY told you, I will do it later.”
Mandy gets angry and begins to complain about how she has to do everything around the house and that he never helps with the kids. It turns into a full-blown argument and she retreats to her bedroom fuming. Mandy replays the argument over and over in her head and goes to bed stressed, angry, and in tears.
Introspection Alone Is Not Enough
Introspection uses a lot of “why” questions. “Why am I angry?” “Why do I feel this way?” with the well-intentioned goal of understanding self. The problem with this is that it keeps us trapped in our own perspective and oftentimes, in the past.
Introspection also has no clear direction of where it could go depending on what you’re looking at, how you’re looking at it, and where you’re looking.
As my mentor and friend Dave Potter eloquently put it:
“Introspection is like looking through the microscope and the slides keep changing.”
Introspection is the tool, the process—like in Dave’s analogy, it is the microscope. The slides (self, emotions, thoughts) keep changing.
Another downfall of introspection is that it is very ego-focused and self-centered and often results in either:
- Growing the ego and reinforcing the need to be “right” – In the previous example, Mandy can observe her emotions of anger and resentment and understand why she feels the way she does. She gathers evidence and past experiences and understands that this anger and resentment comes from years of feeling this way. Examining her feelings and experiences further causes her to feel even more entitled to her feelings of anger.
- Causes self-judgment, self-blame, and suppressing of emotions – Mandy can observe her emotions of anger and resentment and understand why she feels the way she does but feels bad. She tells herself “I shouldn’t be angry,” “I overreacted,” “I was stressed and I took it out on him,” etc., and begins judging herself, blaming herself, and ends up feeling even worse.
So, if introspection alone is not helpful, what else do we need? A touch of mindfulness (self-introspection)!
What Is Mindfulness?
There are many definitions for mindfulness, but I define it as non-judgemental, present moment awareness. Mindfulness opens our minds to observe our thoughts and feelings, acknowledging and accepting them without judgment.
To put more simply, it’s not about fixing or changing your thoughts or emotions but about noticing and accepting them as is.
So, how does this help exactly?
Let me first start by saying that mindfulness is a practice, meaning it is not an innate, automatic behavior or process that we do. It is a practice—it takes practice. It is a learnable skill and actually doesn’t take much time at all.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing attention to the emotion that comes up, not identifying it as part of self but simply noticing it and getting curious. When there is curiosity, there is no space for judgment. When there is no judgment, acceptance is much easier to follow.
It’s kind of a funny thing. When we are not so tied to our perspective and clouded by our emotions, it opens up a horizon of possibilities. We can see things as an observer, remove ourselves from our identity of the emotion, the intense feeling, and can take a step back. When we can do this, the emotion no longer has a hold on us.
Many research studies show that mindfulness meditation is effective at reducing stress and can improve physical and mental health by changing the brain and biology in positive ways. Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies of mindfulness among healthy people and found that mindfulness-based therapy was especially effective for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
As someone who was diagnosed with “Recurrent Major Depressive Disorder” since high school with many trips to the ER and inpatient stays at a psych unit, I have not had another recurrent depressive episode since I began practicing mindfulness and meditation. It has saved my life, and I am truly grateful.
Five Ways to Practice Self-Introspection
You may be wondering, “Great! How do I do this?” As someone who may be new at self-introspection, there are some key points to keep in mind to set you up for success.
1. Set Up Your Ideal Environment
As I mentioned before, “mindfulness is a practice” and it takes practice. Think of it as the rehearsals before the big show, the basketball scrimmages, or batting cage practices before the big game.
When we practice something, we make progress and become prepared for “the big game or show,” which is your life. Although mindfulness doesn’t necessarily require sitting and meditating for 30 minutes a day, this definitely helps train us to be still. When you are still, you are with yourself, your mind, and you can practice noticing the thoughts, the sounds, and the sensations.
This requires a quiet space without distractions or stimulation where you can be alone and undisturbed. Some noises or sensations are unavoidable, but trying to meditate, self-reflect, or think about things while the kids are running around, the TV blaring, or people talking is not an ideal environment.
If you have kids or a family and it is difficult to have alone time, waking up 30 minutes earlier in the morning, sitting in the car, or even while in the shower is an option. You might have to get creative. If you have difficulty sitting still, you could do a walking/moving meditation. If you feel stuck, being in nature and outdoors somehow helps bring us back to stillness.
Journaling is underrated. If you take a look at the most successful people in the world, thought leaders, and entrepreneurs such as Oprah, Warren Buffet, Einstein, and many others, they all have this in common: they journal.
Journaling has many benefits including increasing awareness and improving memory, self-confidence, communication skills, and self-expression. It also helps us keep organized, on track, and motivated.
What I personally love most about journaling is going back and seeing where I was just one year ago, what I was going through, the challenges, the learnings, and fast-forwarding to now—celebrating how much I’ve grown.
As one of my mentors, Ben Hardy, said, “You make progress on what you track”. Wouldn’t you want to make progress on yourself, your goals, your life?
Here are some helpful tips and ideas:
- Free write any thoughts, emotions, feelings that come up. Keep writing for one to two pages—just a free-flow stream of consciousness, not allowing yourself to think. The first few paragraphs will be very conscious, but continuing to write another two pages nonstop allows for the unconscious to come through. You will be surprised at what you find.
- If you are going through a really tough time and are unable to separate yourself from the situation or feelings (staying stuck in your story), try writing from a 3rd person’s perspective. This allows for more openness and perspective.
- Use your journal as your to-do list for the day. Set goals and outcomes for the day. Set an intention for the day.
- Journal your wins. Write down the things you’re most proud of accomplishing. We tend to not celebrate our wins and quickly look for the next big thing. Stop. Take a step back and celebrate your daily or weekly wins. You deserve some acknowledgment, don’t you?
- Journal on grateful moments. There are so many things to be grateful for but we often write them down as a list. This is slightly different and a slight deviation but I like to journal “gratitude moments.” It’s a moment in which you can close your eyes and almost re-experience it. For example, the moments when I’m outside sitting on my patio drinking my coffee, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. Take the time to engage in that positivity and all of the feelings that accompany it.
3. Use Positive Words and Phrases
We often identify with our feelings as if our feelings are who we are. We say things like “I am angry,” which keeps us identified with the emotion of anger making it difficult to let go.
We are not the emotions we experience, rather we are the experiencer of our emotions. Although we understand this in concept, our languaging and the words we use perpetuates the identification of the emotion.
As a Master Practitioner of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), I believe that language and the words we use affect how we experience the world. So, although we know that we are not our emotions, we speak as if we are—”I am angry”. Case in point.
If we want to use language that is congruent with our beliefs that we are not our emotions as well as a common mindfulness practice, we can use phrases such as “I notice that I am experiencing anger.” This allows for almost like a third person’s perspective and disconnects you from the emotion.
4. Ask Yourself Empowering Questions
Making a slight change to how you ask yourself questions while doing self-introspection makes a world of difference. Instead of asking yourself “why” questions, ask “what” questions.
Instead of asking “why do I feel so angry?” ask “what is that I am feeling?” “what do I notice?” “what is it exactly that I am upset about?” See how that opens up possibilities?
Asking “why” questions also has an underlying sense of judgment. Imagine if your child accidentally broke a vase. Your automatic response might be “Why did you do that?” The child doesn’t know what happened but knows that you are angry and starts crying. Instead, if you asked “What happened here?”, they might be able to explain that the ball bounced and accidentally hit the vase. Asking “what” questions opens the possibility for understanding, empathy, and compassion at a deeper level.
5. Focus on the Good for Just a Little Bit Longer
A relationship psychology study by John Gottman of the University of Washington found that it takes at least five positive interactions to make up for just one negative one. This means that negative interactions or thoughts have generally five times the impact than positive ones. Well, this is bad news and rings all too true, doesn’t it?
Rick Hanson Ph.D., psychologist and author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, has a saying:
“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
By ruminating on the negative, we strengthen the neural pathways for negativity and tend to see the world in this light. I bet you know these type of people in your life—the “Debbie Downers” and people who are always complaining, negative, pessimistic, and down about the world.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. We can almost counteract this by simply taking in the good for just a little bit longer. We can literally change the neurotransmitters in our brain to look for good things.
Rick Hanson says,
“Really savor the good. In other words, the way to remember something is to make it intense, felt in the body, and lasting. That’s how we give those neurons lots and lots time to fire together so they start wiring together. So rather than noticing it and feeling good for a couple of seconds, stay with it. Relish it, enjoy it, for 10, 20, or 30 seconds, so it really starts developing neural structure.”
I had the honor of interviewing Rick on this technique specifically to increase happiness. You can watch it below.
And this is how we can begin to rewire our brains for positivity, joy, gratitude and overall become a happier person.
Introspection does not come naturally. Even if you have a great mindset and a positive attitude, introspection can still be difficult. For introspection to be effective, it requires mindfulness and awareness. If you follow the points in this article, it will give you a great place to start. From there, it is just practice.
The combination of both introspection and mindfulness (or self-introspection) is the perfect recipe for creating lasting happiness—no matter the circumstances.
More About Self-Introspection
Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com