Searching your soul
Sharmila Bhosale finds that diving deep within yourself is the solution to all your woes. However, one must be cautious enough to not stray into the realm of overthinking, as that is counterproductive.
“But if these years have taught me anything it is this: you can never run away. Not ever. The only way out is in.”
―Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Maya was fascinated by the spacious sea view apartment, a prime acquisition in Mumbai. Her husband was a businessman, and as their bank balance soared, an apartment in a high-rise was the next step to upscale their lifestyle. She loved doing up her new place: discovering a palette for the decor, carving out spaces, choosing furnishings, and watching her vision transform the bare spaces. It appealed to her inherent artistic nature to watch a place come alive, to imbue it with a distinct character, to create a home.
When the time came to move, though, she developed cold feet. After two decades of living in a homely neighbourhood, where everyone knew each other in the predominantly middle-class milieu, a shift to an impersonal, huge, and high-society environment, equipped with the so-called luxurious amenities, seemed to take away something from her very soul. She realised she liked the quiet life. A space that was intimate and comfortable, not opulent and high up in the air—literally. She wondered how she had ever taken a decision to move homes, how she had agreed to buy this property, however much she had enjoyed decorating it. Not exactly impulsive, but she realised that she hadn’t given much thought to all the aspects of what moving house to a high-rise would entail and what uprooting herself from her old familiar spaces would mean. She realised she just hadn’t given this decision enough time and thought. She hadn’t introspected.
When Rimi decided to get married, she was 42. Her parents had almost all but given up, after being on her case for years. They told her she would not be able to have children and that if she married younger, she would be able to ‘adjust’ better. Her relatives gave her not-needed advice, and when she ignored it all, she was branded as adamant and uncompromising. They blamed her financial independence, her headstrong streak, and her parents, in turn. She faced it all with a shrug because she knew what she wanted out of her life. She wasn’t going to give in just because others thought they knew her or her life better than her. She didn’t want to marry for financial security; she had that already. She didn’t want to marry because her biological clock was ticking away; she knew she could always adopt. From her spouse, she wanted companionship, shared interests, someone who was independent-minded, had a sense of humour, and shared household duties. Not a tall order, and she was willing to wait till she found someone like that or remain happily single if she didn’t. She saw her friends getting married, and she found herself thinking and growing into herself, a habit she had inculcated since her college days. She found it important that she set aside time to think and write about what was important to her with each experience, to arrive at what she valued and what she could do without.
“A man must find time for himself. Time is what we spend our lives with. If we are not careful, we find others spending it for us. . . . It is necessary now and then for a man to go away by himself and experience loneliness; to sit on a rock in the forest and to ask of himself, 'Who am I, and where have I been, and where am I going?' . . . If one is not careful, one allows diversions to take up one’s time—the stuff of life.”
Introspection is the doorway to mental well-being
Most often, the reason why our minds remain healthy and balanced, clear and decisive, is ‘introspection.’ Call it what you will. Introspection. Soul-searching. Reflection. Naval-gazing. Contemplation.
According to researchers, knowing yourself better results in “stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose, and greater well-being, self-acceptance, and happiness.” These benefits can help you in almost every area of life. They’ll make you a better manager, employee, colleague, parent, spouse, and friend.
Many times, we find ourselves stuck in the rut of routine. Like a hamster on a wheel, we go through the same tired motions, wanting to get out, but are unable to. We can’t seem to find a way out. But as they say, the only way out is in.
Through the lens of self-awareness, we are able to see a clearer picture of our situation, of our self. We arrive at the centre of what drives our decisions, what we value. Self-reflection helps to build emotional self-awareness. By taking the time to ask yourself the important questions, you gain a better understanding of your emotions, strengths, weaknesses, and driving factors. Once you understand important aspects of the self, you become better able to adapt to changing situations and tough circumstances.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
―C G Jung
The American Psychological Association defines self-awareness as “self-focused attention or knowledge.” It means paying attention to yourself. It’s knowing what’s going on in your life. The habit of introspection leads to uncovering deeper layers of yourself. Going deeper, self-awareness means understanding your personality. You also understand your values, your relationships, and your beliefs. Self-awareness includes understanding how you process your experiences. Do you like to reflect on what happens each day or do you avoid thinking about your feelings? Can you allow yourself to feel your feelings and give space and time to process them or do you drown them with distractions of food and electronic devices?
“Introspection is very important in today’s time,” says Anand Rai, a neuropsychologist and researcher. “We live in a world with constant problems, be it personal, professional, or global. Introspection allows us to solve these problems. Not only is a solution accessible through introspection, but a sense of relief is also provided to you as a bonus. I don’t see why someone would not prefer to have a little perspective or clarity on what, oftentimes, can be a life full of noise and clutter. It’s essentially a mechanism to reduce stress and increase motivation.”
He emphasises that it is important to get to the core of the issue. In his illuminating article on LinkedIn he writes, “Introspecting can go in various directions. For example, ‘I am overweight, and I don’t like it because it causes me shortness of breath while walking small distances.’ It can also go in the direction of ‘I am overweight, and I don’t like it because it does not make me look attractive.’ ” Rai stresses that it is essential to dig deep—to the centre of the vortex. But how do we know that we are indeed travelling to this centre? How do we know we have reached it and should look no deeper? “One needs to find the bedrock of the problem. Trust me, every problem has one. There are various indicators to becoming aware of when we hit the bedrock. For me, the best way to identify the bedrock is to simply see if I can truly stick to the problem that I am facing rather than going to external factors associated with it. Once external factors—like the response of other people, controlling the outcome, or deflecting an unfavourable outcome—comes into play, our introspection has moved into the dangerous territory of overthinking.”
Sonal Savla, a psychologist and school counsellor says, “I think it is extremely crucial to introspect and maintain it as a daily habit. It not only helps us gain significant insights into our actions and reactions but also acts as an excellent mirror into self-reflecting on the actual underlying causes behind our feelings.”
“When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.”
How to increase your introspective quotient
Introspection entails a consistent and committed habit of setting aside a dedicated time for reflection every day—just a few minutes at the end of the day to review our experiences and feelings.
Essentially there are three components to increasing our introspective quotient.
Introspection is “the process of attempting to directly access one’s own internal psychological processes, judgments, perceptions, or states.”
Self-reflection involves the “examination, contemplation, and analysis of one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.”
Insight is “the clear and often sudden discernment of a solution to a problem.” It’s the result of self-reflection and introspection. It is the aha moment when a path suddenly opens up in front of you (where you initially saw a crisscrossing maze), a clearing through the labyrinth of confusion.
“When I was going through a kind of spiritual turmoil, questioning my beliefs that were a result of deep-seated conditioning, and was looking for an anchor to give me a direction, writing my thoughts in a diary and reading them after a few days helped to disentangle and clarify my feelings,” says Vrinda, an accountant, who found herself at the crossroads when she felt that her work didn’t fulfil her any longer. She felt stuck and irritable, and couldn’t seem to derive any joy out of her life. At the suggestion of a friend, she started writing a journal at the end of the day. Just putting down what she felt and what she was thinking helped her see patterns over time. “I could see my blocks about certain issues and how I was unable to get past them. I could also observe my feelings with a detached eye. Initially, I wrote in the journal erratically, but when I saw the almost imperceptible way writing things down changed my relationship with myself and helped me gain clarity over issues, I looked forward to that time in the evening when I kept everything aside and just spent time with myself.”
Over one year, Vrinda could see that she had to change the course of her career, get out of her comfortable but static zone, and venture into education since she had always harboured a passion for teaching and engaging with young minds. “It is fulfilling, and I feel energetic and motivated to dive into a new day. I don’t know why it never occurred to me before. It felt as if a fog had lifted with the soul-searching I did.”
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
Introspection: A matter of habit
Only by getting into the routine of self-reflection and making time during our day to think can we come up with solutions just waiting to be discovered inside our self.
If it is as simple as keeping a journal in order to begin a journey of self-discovery, why aren’t we all doing it? Why are so many of us reluctant to sit with ourselves and engage with our mind, to find what lies in its subterranean depths? What prevents us from finding answers to our persistent patterns when the answers are right there within us?
In many ways, buying a self-help book or looking for inspiration from a guru can give us the feeling of a quick fix, that we’re doing something about our problems. However, self-awareness requires finding time to answer our problems for ourselves and by ourselves. It takes work and courage. It requires us to face things which we deny in ourselves by projecting them on others. It requires us to be brutally honest with ourselves, owning up to our faults, and casting a frank gaze on both our positive and negative traits. It propels us to change, and change, in itself, is always a scary prospect. All this does entail a fair amount of discomfort. It is much easier to distract ourselves by keeping busy with constant activity, without pausing to make time for reflection. Looking inwards forces us to confront the person we really are.
But once we get into the habit, the rewards of introspection are immense. As Savla says, “Long term benefits of introspection include better inter- intrapersonal relationships, sustained genuine social relations, improved happiness quotient, being more comfortable with yourself, better emotion management, and higher EQ.”
It is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day aspects of life and forget to pause, self-reflect, and look at the bigger picture. Slowing down and taking time to think about your life is extremely helpful in creating a better sense of who you are, who you want to be, and how you will get there.
Developing a habit of introspection allows us to make well-thought-out, true-to-yourself decisions that are conscience-driven. We know what works for us and what doesn’t. In addition, introspection fosters character-building. What makes us tick? What do we really believe in? How to stay rooted in that core aspect of ourselves and not get swayed by the thoughts of others. As we can see, this paves the way for building healthy self-esteem, which is so vital for our mental health and happiness.
However, as important as knowing the value of introspection is, how do we actually introspect? How do we think in a manner that builds self-awareness? Where do we start, and what questions can we ask ourselves?
Introspection vs overthinking
“There is a thin line between introspection and overthinking,” points out Anand Rai, “and it is vital to know when our mind has wandered off into an endless loop.”
“I always thought I was an introspective person. I was given to analysing my actions and feelings on a regular basis and would spend a lot of time thinking about what I did, what I said, and what others thought about me. Most times, I would end up feeling low and confused. So, in my book, being introspective always got a bad rap. I would wish I was not introspective!” says Gayatri.
Overthinking or rumination is repeatedly and passively thinking about the causes or consequences of problems without moving to active problem-solving. For example, thinking about “Why can’t I start exercising?” rather than setting a dedicated time and plan, and sticking to it. Also, people often ruminate about comments other people have made.
Introspection yields a peaceful after-effect, as solutions come up and a path is cleared out in the mind, like a road freshly freed of fallen dried foliage and the sunlight streaming on to it. Rumination is about getting stuck like a record. The wheels are turning, but you’re not getting anywhere—you are left frustrated or depressed or angry. We certainly won’t worry about spending too much time being introspective, but when it comes to ruminating, if someone showed us the exit, we’d take it!
Reflecting occurs when we think about both our behaviour and its important consequences, and is helpful. Overthinking or ruminating occurs when a person thinks mainly about the behaviour and cannot predict likely outcomes of that behaviour and so cannot decide what to do.
Put simply though, introspection is a skill and a highly personal one at that. “Overthinking has certain red flags one can look out for,” suggests Rai. “One major indicator of overthinking is going deep into a problem but not focussing on the ‘core.’ We stop looking at the problem for what it is and, instead, look at it for what it ought to be, or worse, what it may turn out to be. One can just as easily try to write down their thoughts with as much clarity as possible. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but the write-up needs to be diligent and true. We have to face our problems acknowledging our limitations and, of course, watch out for focussing on emotions like fear, guilt, excitement, etc.”
Again, the key difference lies in the process and outcome. As Savla says, “Introspection leads to eureka moments when we actually get to the underlying cause or need to understand ourselves better. Though both introspection and overthinking can lead to initial discomfort, overthinking is just wasteful introspection without developing any insights. In fact, overthinking leads to more misery and self-blame, self-pity, and serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas introspection, when done honestly and genuinely, leads to our growth and makes us comfortable in our skin.”
With introspection, we become more of our self. We gain the quiet confidence to be who we really are. We stop depending on others to define us; instead, we are content and comfortable with what we have become and can outline where we want to go. We rely less on the approval of others and can see the comments of others objectively. We don’t take things personally anymore.
If we consider introspection as a self-improvement tool, there are correct ways to use it, and we should watch out if we are going wrong somewhere.
“The only journey is the one within.”
―Rainer Maria Rilke
Ask the right questions
The best way to get started is to ask questions. Questions about our self. Write down the questions and answers, about the present and the future. You can be creative and honest with your questions because only you know what’s inside of you. Real introspection means not only to examine our actions and reactions but to try to dig deeper, down into our attitudes and underlying motives. What was our real motive behind what we said or did? Which attitude dictated our response or reaction that day?
But there is a specific way to ask these questions.
When we engage in introspection, we too often start by asking ‘why’ questions. It might be as simple as, “Why do I feel this way?” We search for the reasons underlying our discontent. On the surface, it makes sense, but it can lead to misery. That’s because when we ask ‘why,’ our brain points toward the most obvious answer. We usually land on the one that confirms our pre-existing beliefs since most of our motives are beyond our conscious awareness. We tend to turn to answers that feel true in the moment. For example, if you find yourself snapping at your subordinate, you might think that the person is incompetent, and you will need to find a replacement soon. But the real reason could be you are stressed about a presentation coming up soon and feel unable to make a good one. Unfortunately, these easy, immediate answers are frequently wrong. ‘Why’ questions can cause us to obsess over our problems. They lead to greater anxiety and cause us to feel low. It takes more than ruminating to bring root causes to the surface. But we also need to take care that this deeper excavation doesn’t steer into overthinking. It’s a fine and delicate balance.
The emphasis should be on arriving at a solution instead of focussing on the difficulty. That’s why we should try asking ‘what’ questions. Ask questions like “What am I feeling right now?” rather than “Why do I feel so terrible?” This kind of thinking can help us name our emotions, which has been shown to reduce negative feelings and attitudes.
Also, avoid asking yourself a problem-centred question. Instead of “What difficulty am I facing right now?” frame the question around a goal, as in “What would I like my relationship with my boss to look like, a month from now?” Coaches and counsellors are learning that solution-focussed questions make their clients feel good, whereas problem-focussed questions make their clients feel less satisfied.
If you have a persistent problem on your mind, ask yourself questions that shift your focus to its possible solution. These could be as straightforward as, “What is one possible solution to this problem?” or “What is one way I could start to move toward creating this solution?”
Using solution-focussed questions has dual benefits: it throws up potential answers to problems, and it increases our confidence in our ability to solve future difficulties. We are invested with an agency of responsibility and confidence, and it improves our chances of following through with our intention.
The gateway into introspection lies in the right kind of questions. Once we are inside its vast environment, we can use other tools to navigate its path. Savla suggests, “Apart from maintaining a daily journal to record thoughts and experiences, practising mindfulness, indulging in self-interviews, and attempting to find the root cause behind our choices or behaviours, I think that engaging in some form of a physical fitness activity like a jog, a run, or a trek also provides much-needed breakthroughs as we learn to be comfortable with ourselves at our own pace. Some well-known excellent techniques for gaining introspection are SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis and Johari Window (to discover the Blind area and increase the Open area). One more opportunity to engage in introspection is going for the 10-day Vipassana program.”
The Sunlight of Self Discovery
Once we get the hang of incorporating introspection into our daily mental hygiene routine, it graduates into being a force of habit which cleanses our mindset of clutter. “Discipline and care: they are not two words that go together, but they are my favourite candidates for skills that can be developed for good introspection,” says Rai. “A sense of true care and understanding towards ourselves allows our thoughts to flow without censorship. Once the thoughts are out, they seldom change. They show a true picture. The diligent and timely practice of introspection, independent of censorship towards thought, leads to a healthy and natural progression towards introspection.”
Introspection helps us get out of the rut of routine, the endless treadmill of our patterns that we can’t seem to get out of. It refreshes our mental makeup, energises our creative thinking abilities, and improves our relationship with our self and our loved ones. We feel confident to deal with any change. We are able to review our life and reset our career goals to reflect who we truly are. We are able to take decisions in a balanced and mature way, no longer driven by impulse or the dictates of others. Instead of being shackled by the control of others or our circumstances, we are able to take charge of our inner world and direct it to the spaces we want in our outer world. We emerge from being under a cloud of confusion into the sunlight of self-awareness.
Ways to practice self-reflection
Identify the important question. Think of some questions that you want to ask yourself routinely. For example, “What habits did I form today?” “What could I better improve on?” “How did I feel overall today?”
Meditate. Sit in silence for as long as you can and see how your mind wanders. What are you thinking about? Take note of that, and try to focus on your breathing.
Journal. Writing a diary is a great way to get your thoughts and feelings out. It is also a great tool to look back to see any patterns in your habits and thoughts.
Do a writing exercise. Does your mind feel jumbled with thoughts and decisions? Simply set a timer for 5 to10 minutes and write everything that comes to mind. Notice any patterns? Which thoughts are fleeting and which are important? Get your thoughts out to reflect on later.
Take a walk in nature. Walks in nature have proven to improve mood. Introspection is best attempted in a calm and healthy environment.
Talk to yourself out loud. It can be a great way to have realisations. Having a conversation with yourself allows you to get your thoughts out to self-reflect.
Perform breathing exercises. From simple to complex, they allow you to steady your heart rate and calm down.
Read. Not only for self-improvement—the best self-actualisation comes from reading fiction novels. You find out what you enjoy and what you don’t.
Analyse a past event. Pick an event you have strong feelings about. Take a few moments to analyse that event: why do you feel the way you do about it, what did you do well, and what could you improve on in the future?
Assess what you are grateful for. Try to think of just three things you are grateful for each day and reflect on them.
Track your feelings. Grab a journal or an app and track your feelings each day. Do you notice any trends or patterns in your moods? Often, glimpsing the way you react to certain events brings about a realisation of why you do what you do.
Perform a self–check-up. Simply sit down with yourself and assess different areas of your life. Career. Love life. Education. Hobbies. Family. Fitness. How happy are you with your efforts in each area? What can you start improving on?
Set specific goals. After performing a self–check-up, setting specific goals can greatly improve your progress. Where do you want to be physically and mentally?
Try counselling to dig deeper.
Some questions to get you thinking. (Write them down for better effect.)
Who are the five people you spend the most time with? Are these people enabling you or holding you back?
What are your biggest goals? What is stopping you from pursuing them?
Strength and support are all around us. Where is support available to you already? Who can you share your goals with or ask for support?
What are the biggest things you have learned in the last year? How can you use your past experiences to help you in the future?
Where do you put your attention and energy when you are overwhelmed or stressed? Is this how you want to spend your resources?
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