Having a deep understanding of ourselves is vital for everything we do. It’s vital for our well-being. It’s vital for building close, sincere relationships. It’s vital for creating a meaningful, fulfilling, satisfying life.
Because it’s hard to make good decisions if we don’t know what we want, if we don’t know who we are, if we don’t know what’s important to us.
As clinical psychologist Ryan Howes, Ph.D, said, “We’re all unique and respond to life differently, so we need to become aware of our individual differences in order to thrive and reduce stress.”
For instance, you know you’re a highly sensitive person who’s easily bothered by noise, big crowds and violent films, so you tell your friend you’d rather see a comedy than a horror flick. You know you’re an extrovert, so you structure your week to include lunch and dinner dates with your friends.
Self-reflection can spark bigger, potentially life-changing (and life-saving) insights. Maybe you discover a pattern of picking partners who are emotionally unavailable, coping with negative emotions by turning to alcohol or sabotaging your success because, in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe you deserve it, said Howes, also a writer and co-founder of the Mental Health Boot Camp, a 25-day online wellness program that helps people self-reflect, learn to meditate, understand relationships, and develop new habits to navigate life’s challenges.
“Once we uncover patterns and habits that may not have been evident before, we are empowered to make different choices. I can choose different people to date, find healthier ways to deal with stress, and challenge the belief that I don’t deserve success.”
Of course, this requires hard work. And it requires asking ourselves big questions — like what do I really want? why do I feel this way? — and possibly discovering bad news, Howes said. The truth can be disappointing. It may come with regrets and resentment. You might realize that your self-doubts stopped you from pursuing exciting professional opportunities. You might realize you made many mistakes in an important relationship.
“Many people want to keep those doors closed, believing that ‘what I don’t know won’t hurt me,’ but that won’t help in the long run.” Because pain is often part of growth.
Plus, opening these doors can reveal positive, valuable information, Howes said: Maybe you’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for. Maybe you’ve always had the support of your loved ones. Maybe you work hard and try your best.
Self-reflection may not be easy, but it is critical. Below, Howes shared an assortment of helpful prompts and exercises to try.
Explore your proudest moments. What about these moments made you so proud? Did you overcome a personal obstacle or speak up for yourself? Did you work incredibly hard, create something with your hands or venture outside your comfort zone? “Are your current goals helping you feel this same pride once again?”
Acknowledge your past behavior. “Many of us engage in numbing, striving for perfection, and pretending that we make no impact on others as ways of avoiding difficult emotions such as shame and vulnerability,” Howes said. Have you found yourself engaging in any of these behaviors?
Reflect on your role models. Think about several roles models you had growing up. Summarize in a sentence what each of these individuals taught you. “Now that you’re an adult, do you agree with these messages?”
Reflect on what resonates with you. Think about the books, movies and TV shows that resonate with you emotionally. Then explore what it is about your personal story that identifies with them in this profound way.
Ask your loved ones for feedback. Ask a friend or family member about what they notice makes you happy or frustrated. Of course, it’s not easy asking others for feedback. But they may share some helpful and surprising insights. After all, it’s usually easier to observe others than ourselves. “Take into account [your loved one’s] own biases or blindspots, but try to listen for kernels of truth in their perceptions.”
Connect to your younger self. Find a photo of yourself in a yearbook or photo album. Try to connect to your younger self’s feelings. Ask the younger you what they’d think of the adult you’ve become. “Does this make you want to change anything about your life?”
Rethink your habits. “How’s that working for you?” This is Dr. Phil’s favorite question to ask. And, according to Howes, it can actually provide us with important wisdom. “Look at the habits you currently have and ask if it’s productive or destructive in the long run.” Is your 70-hour work week productive or destructive? What about your nightly glass of wine? What about watching TV until 2 a.m.? If these habits make you miserable, how can you make a change?
Focus on what inspires you. Howes suggested asking, “When do you feel the most energized and free? Are you making those moments a priority in your life?”
Consider the “miracle question.” This question is one of the main techniques of solution-focused therapy: “Suppose tonight, while you slept, a miracle occurred. When you awake tomorrow, what would be some of the things you would notice that would tell you life had suddenly gotten better?” This question helps you identify what you really want, what’s getting in the way, and how to overcome those obstacles.
The first step in making healthy decisions is knowing ourselves. These healthy decisions may include the seemingly small—what we see in the movies—to the significantly big—the people we pick as our partners. The second step, of course, is actually taking action. It’s stepping into the decisions that support and serve us.