Introspection is defined as a self-observation of your inner thoughts and feelings. If you've ever consciously reflected on your emotions and had an honest conversation with yourself, you've practiced introspection.
There are a plethora of benefits associated with introspection. According to Very Well Mind, introspection is useful for:
Growing Capacity for Empathy
Improving Your Mental Health
Through introspection, you are becoming more aware of what things you need to work on as well as what needs to be done to improve yourself. It is a great self-improvement technique that is meant to help you without any outside assistance. You are already equipped with what needs to be introspective: your mind.
However, your mind is a very funny thing. Your mind stores all of your memories, thoughts, and emotions. It holds everything you need to look back and consider why you act the way that you do. In introspection, your mind looks back at everything it has stored, and asks, “What do I need to improve on here?”
The thing about self-improvement through self-reflection is that it often becomes very self-deprecating. You become very critical of yourself and your past, and just like the phrase goes, “You are your own worst critic.”
While many people think harsh self-criticism is simply an innate personality trait they possess, it is a very common psychological occurrence. Self-criticism stems from unresolved trauma or acts as a self-defense mechanism. Unresolved trauma leads to victims blaming themselves, thinking, “I could've done something to prevent this.” In the case of self-defense, the rationale is if you are your own worst critic, no other criticism will hurt nearly as much.
Self-criticism may be a way to protect yourself from getting hurt, but it is actually more harmful than it is protective. Research has found that self-criticism is directly linked to exacerbating depression, anxiety, self-harm, delinquency, eating disorders, and suicidal behavior. All being said, self-criticism leads to significantly lower self-esteem, which results in low mental health.
This puts a damper on introspection as it requires self-reflection, which necessitates self-criticism. Self-criticism is necessary for introspection, but it cannot be the only thing that dominates your introspection. Otherwise, you will fall into what I call “The Mind Trap.”
What is The Mind Trap?
The Mind Trap is a trap that many habitual self-critics, like myself, often fall into. It is a trap that you mentally put yourself in when you are overly critical of yourself. For example, being the academic overachiever I am, I often put myself in this trap when I get a bad grade in school. I look at the grade and go over everything that I got wrong on the assignment. From there, I think about all the things that I could have done differently.
That part of self-reflection is not the issue. Thinking about what went wrong isn’t what The Mind Trap is about. What happens after that self-reflection is the issue.
Reflecting on everything that went wrong, I find myself trapped in a state of self-blame, calling myself foolish for making mistakes and convincing myself that I could have done more to prevent the situation. I start to believe that I am not smart enough to handle it. These thoughts lead me down a path of self-doubt, replaying past memories of similar incidents, which only serve to further reinforce my feelings of inadequacy.
That is The Mind Trap. That line of thinking is the issue. You get stuck in your self-criticism in an attempt to move forward and improve yourself. Instead of improving yourself, you bash yourself and your past mistakes. You cannot move forward. You are stuck and have convinced yourself that you cannot improve. You have effectively trapped yourself.
You need to move forward to improve. Introspection means reflecting on yourself, improving, and forgiving. If the only thing you needed to do to be introspective was to be critical of yourself, then everyone would be overly introspective. However, there is a reason that not many people are.
Improvement only happens when you can acknowledge what you need to work on and how to move forward. If I forever sat on what I could have done to improve my grade, and I didn’t put it into practice, then that self-reflection was for nothing. If you cannot take those experiences and mistakes and use them to work on what you are lacking, then there is no point in being introspective.
How Do I Avoid The Mind Trap?
Avoiding The Mind Trap is not a simple task. You have to be willing to forgive yourself AND your past self. Being forgiving of yourself takes a lot of mental strength and self-awareness, but it is doable.
Here are some tips for having self-forgiveness:
Changing the Way You Think About Mistakes
When you think about a mistake you’ve made, think about how you are approaching the mistake. Are you approaching the mistake from a more critical perspective OR are you approaching the mistake from a more positive perspective?
A more positive perspective could be looking at your mistakes as learning moments rather than items of criticism. Everyone makes mistakes. They’re inevitable. You are not less of a person for making mistakes. You are actually more of a person for making them.
It is how you learn from them that really matters. Are you willing to look at them as things to learn from or are you looking at them as things to wallow over? One of these approaches will make you a better person while one of them will demolish who you are as a person.
Start Thinking of Yourself Positively
Thinking positively about oneself has positive psychological and physical consequences, while thinking negatively has the opposite effect. Positive thinking is linked, but not limited to, longer lifespans, lower rates of mental turmoil, and better cardiovascular health.
So how do you think of yourself positively when all you do is think of yourself negatively? A good tip is to write down what criticisms you have about yourself on a piece of paper and use that as your starting point.
Once you jot down your inner criticisms onto paper, take those negative thoughts and rewrite them into a positive response.
Let’s say you’re talking about your work ethic. You noticed you’ve been falling behind and not having a lot of motivation to do what you need to do.
You would write, “I am lazy.”
Instead of calling yourself lazy, you might want to opt for a more positive approach.
You would write on the other side, “I may not have been able to do all the work I have set out to do recently, but I am perfectly capable of doing so.”
If you are not much of a writer, you can start doing this verbally when you talk to other people. You can turn your apologies into statements of gratitude.
For example, you would say, “I’m sorry for the inconvenience.”
Instead, you can turn this into gratitude, such as, “Thank you for understanding.”
This way, instead of putting yourself down when recognizing things you need to work on, you reassure yourself that you can and will improve.
Don’t Criticize “Yourself”
Another tip to stop criticizing yourself is to stop criticizing yourself. This may seem like a confusing concept, so let me clarify it for you.
Self-criticism is easy because it is criticism about yourself from yourself. It is easy because the only feelings that are getting hurt are your own. You are extremely harsh on yourself. Now, think about this: would you be that harsh to, let’s say, your grandmother?
Would you feel right telling your grandmother that she is lazy, dumb, or not enough? You probably wouldn’t (I would hope) because it would significantly hurt her self-esteem. If you wouldn’t say it to another person, why do you think it would be okay for you to say it to yourself when you criticize your past mistakes?
Why Should I Break Out of The Mind Trap?
Self-improvement comes from the courage to look back at your mistakes and understand the areas where you need to improve. From there, you need to have the confidence to understand that your faults do not devalue you as a person.
However, in order to have the confidence to improve, you cannot destroy every bit of confidence you have before you even have the chance to use it. Learning how to identify when you are stuck in The Mind Trap is the first step to getting out of it. Once you are out of the trap, that is where self-improvement results from introspection.
Introspection can only work once you have the needed confidence to keep you forever out of the clutches of The Mind Trap.
If you are already in The Mind Trap, this is the time to get out of it! You now have all the tools needed to break free from this psychological prison and venture into the freedom of self-improvement.
About the Author
Kahleia is in her junior year at UNLV, and currently majoring in History! She hopes to go into Public History post-graduation to help make history understandable and digestible for the general public. At school, she is part of the Dean’s Student Advisory Council (DSAC) for the College of Liberal Arts (COLA) which is a student-led organization that works to act as the voice for COLA undergraduate students. Also, for the last 5 years, she has been working at the Discovery Children’s Museum in a variety of positions, especially in their Birthdays department. She has had a passion for writing since she was in elementary school, and she was involved in journalism in elementary school and high school where she was the Editor-in-Chief!