As humans, we have a deeply ingrained desire to understand “why?” The question moves science and math forward, each breakthrough leading to the next. While a problem may not be solvable now, we believe concrete answers exist and will eventually emerge.
Questions about human motivation are another issue altogether. Why did I say that? Why do I make the same mistakes over and over? Why did I ever take that job? Why me? Why now?
These kinds of questions have no answers; only stories we make up to explain to ourselves. Our stories, at best, may contain grains of truth. Mostly they make us miserable. With enough repetition and embellishment, they become a morbid preoccupation, sustaining or worsening our misery and even contributing to mental illness in some people.
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is …. (Romans 12:2). Storytelling is one way that we conform to the pattern of this world. We create our own reality that exists only in our minds. In this case, healthy self-reflection is a way of renewing our minds.
When our stories become a morbid preoccupation, we can’t stop thinking about them. We ruminate, repeating the same story over and over in our thoughts. In our stories, we blame, defend, explain, accuse, argue, judge, criticize and condemn ourselves and others or both.
The trouble with the stories is that we believe and act on them as though they are true. Then, the stories affect how we interact with family and friends. They lead us to procrastinate and avoid. We lay awake at night thinking about them. We wake up thinking about them. We think about them at the expense of paying attention to what’s happening now. So in our misery we miss our true life, including moments of joy promised to us by the living Christ Jesus.
Questions To Ask Yourself
It isn’t that we shouldn’t examine ourselves. It’s just that “why?” is the wrong question. Asking “what is there to learn from this situation?” is a far more productive question that increases our ability to experience pleasure, enjoy people and feel God’s presence.
Another healthy question is “how do I make meaning of what’s going on in my life now?” After surviving the holocaust in a concentration camp, Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, went on to write Man’s Search for Meaning about those who survived and those who didn’t. Those who survived understood that the Nazis could take everything external from them but they could not take what gave meaning to their lives — their thoughts about meaning.
Meaning is not the sum of what we do; it’s more the way we interact with ourselves and others — kindness, seeing the good in others, loving my neighbor as myself, making people feel good about themselves, helping where we can and listening to understand to the extent possible. Noticing and labeling these keeps us in touch with all the ways our life has meaning.
Keeping in touch with what gives meaning to our lives frees us so our moods and self-esteem do not fluctuate with the inevitable ups and downs of everyday life. Whatever happens, nothing can take away our meaning, the reason for our being here on this Earth now.
So how do we tell the difference between morbid preoccupation and healthy self-reflection?
Approaching Healthy Reflection
My experience as a therapist, mostly working with people suffering with Borderline Personality Disorder, tells me there is a fine line between morbid preoccupation and healthy self-reflection. Along the continuum, morbid preoccupation makes us miserable while healthy self-reflection leads to freedom. Most of us have been at both ends of the continuum at one time or another.
As I’ve watched people go through therapy, I’ve learned it’s not what you do but how you do it that differentiates morbid preoccupation and healthy self-reflection. Healthy self-reflection is:
- Intentional and purposeful
- As close to in the moment as possible
- Without self-judgment or judgment of others
- Accepting our situation, others and the environment as is here and now
Intentional and purposeful. Healthy self-reflectioni mindfully asks what can I learn from this situation? and what is the meaning of what’s happening now? in two types of situations:
- when I have thoughtfully responded and want to respond similarly in the future
- when I have mindlessly reacted without thinking and want to respond differently in the future.
Healthy self reflection also asks these same two questions when:
- my thoughts make me miserable or give me pleasure
- I give into or resist self-destructive urges
- I let go of my emotions when it’s time or hang onto them well beyond their time.
The questions focus on how can I use this experience to be more consistent with my beliefs and values over time or what can I learn from this? It does not ask why — an unaswerable question that more often than not leads to judgment or blame.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” In order to respond intentionally and purposefully, we must pause after we are triggered to create space for a thoughtful response. Otherwise, we react on autopilot and miss the moment of choice, often regretting our reactions.
As close to in the moment as possible. Educators talk about “teachable moments.” People are most open to learning in the moment when it is most relevant or urgent. The longer we wait after the moment of choice the less relevant or urgent it is to learn. The longer we wait the more likely we start telling stories to explain our autopilot reaction and preoccupation becomes more likely. The teachable moment is as close to the moment of choice as possible.
Without self-judgment or judgment of others. When you house train a puppy, the puppy learns fastest if you gently move her to the place you want her to pee in the teachable moment. When you scold or yell at her, she gets frightened and confused about what you want.
We humans are the same. When self-reflection leads me to the dark places of my being, I get frightened and confused when I mercilessly beat myself up. I learn to avoid those dark places entirely. When this happens over and over, I carry so much shame that I deny the dark places when I reflect on myself and miss much of who I am.
Henri Nouwen, priest, psychologist and author, calls us to look at the dark cellars as well as the light rooms of our self as we are in the here and now. To focus only on one gives us only a partial picture of our self. I cannot reflect on or learn from what I do not notice or accept.
Blaming others also leads us to avoid the dark places in our being. By focusing on someone else, we do not feel the need to examine our own dark places. The dark place exists because someone abused me as a child, a spouse called me vile names, a parent told me I was worthless. Even though it’s not our fault, we have to deal with the after effects within ourselves.
Self-compassion is the antidote. Poet Mary Oliver writes “Someone I loved once gave me a boxfull of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” In order to feel somewhat comfortable in the dark places, it is much more effective to show ourselves compassion, not to excuse bad behavior but to accept that what’s done is done and learn for next time. “Compassion,” writes historian Karen Armstrong “asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on [ourselves or] anybody else.”
Accepting our situation, others and the environment as is here and now. Healthy self-reflection hinges on accepting what is in reality in this moment — not that the situation won’t change (it most assuredly will) but not some story about what should be.
We each have an idealized self who lives in an idealized world.The trouble with this idealized life is that it’s just a story but we act as though it’s true. If I don’t have my idealized life by the time I’m 35, nothing will change. I’m a failure. I’ll never be happy. No one will hire me. Nobody will marry me. I’ll never get out of debt. I quit trying. My story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If I’m plunging downward in a raging river, I need to accept what is and go with it as best I can in order to survive. There’s no going back. Denying or fighting it, only leads to destruction. If I’m stuck in a whirlpool going nowhere, I have to notice and accept what is in order to examine my options and choose a thoughtful way to move forward again. If I react mindlessly on autopilot, my instincts will be wrong and I could end up in a crisis or stay stuck until I do something different.
Often I don’t see what is because I am so focused on the past (why?) or future (what if?) that I miss what’s in the present altogether. By the time I notice something, it is past and I make up a story to explain the consequences.
I also can get caught up in impossible rules or expectations I have made for myself (e.g., what I should do or think). I am looking for something that isn’t possible so fail to see what is.
Moreover, the expectations are constantly changing. When I tell myself, “I’ll be happy when …. when I get married, when I get a promotion, when I buy a house, when I have a child, when I retire, and so on. Whenever I achieve one goal, I move to the next and happiness eludes me. I miss out on living in the eternal now because I’m always looking to what should come next.
The antidote to keep you from acting on stories is to ask what’s the evidence this is reality? For example, in the situation above I ask myself: Am I thinking emotionally? What about my life right now is satisfying? meaningful? How can I do more of what is satisfying or meaningful to me right now? What about my life right now can I tweak to move me toward my goals and values?
The four qualities of healthy self-reflection are also qualities of mindfulness. So mindfully ask yourself “what can I learn that I want to replicate or change?” or “how do I make meaning of what’s going on in my life now?” Ask the questions intentionally, in the present moment, nonjugmentally focusing on what is. When your mind wanders to past or future, bring your attention back to the moment of choice. What is in front of me to do NOW?