On Self-Reflection

Who are you?

It’s a simple enough question. Depending on who’s asking, we have a dozen different answers at the ready. An immigrant, student, pharmacist, entrepreneur. Maybe a spouse loved one, or parent. Perhaps a sports enthusiast, or a fan of chess, each label tied so deeply to how we see ourselves that the two become inseparable. Dave not only works as a pharmacist, for example; Dave is a pharmacist. We gather a million different identifiers around ourselves to tell the world who we are. But if we’re not careful, we can put ourselves at risk of drowning in a sea of labels, without really knowing and understanding the person underneath. That’s where self-reflection can help.   

Self-reflection is not taught in school, but I’d argue that it’s one of the most important things we can do for ourselves. We’re bound with a life, 80 odd years, to accomplish all that we could ever desire. Knowing this, it seems almost a tragedy to spend the decades with a mind and personality we don’t really understand. How do you operate under extreme stress, for example, or feel about authority? What are your personal neuroses and ticks, the things you never realize you do until someone else points them out? How are you when you’re mad, or sad, or happy? What metrics do you use to gauge success in life? These aren’t questions we usually ask ourselves because, for the most part, we don’t regularly think about them. When we’re mad or sad or happy, we’re living those emotions, not analyzing how or why we reacted the way we did. When we have deadlines and assignments coming up, we rush to do them, not ask why we waited so long to complete them. If we want to make the most out of life to create honest and fulfilling relationships, we owe ourselves a little self-reflection every now and then.

Unfortunately, self-reflection is not a formulaic equation where you can plug in age, gender, or ethnicity, and get a personality spit out in a neat little box, nor is it a Myers-Briggs Test or horoscope test. It’s an honest and sometimes messy appraisal, not only of how you see yourself, but how you act in the blind spots of your personality. By its nature, there’s no guideline on how to approach self-reflection. Oftentimes, it’s as simple as asking yourself a series of questions. As the poet Carl Sandburg once said:

It is necessary now and then… to ask, ‘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.”

With that in mind, here are some basic questions you can ask yourself to help you get started.

How did I get here?

It’s almost a trope that we don’t really understand our past. We remember things through the veil of time, often blurred and distorted by nostalgia or trauma, which is not to say we don’t remember at all. However, it’s sometimes hard to understand the forces that shaped us. The past is littered with moments of significance that, for one reason or another, we realize only in hindsight.

I have a lifelong love of reading. In retrospect, I could trace that love back to one moment in time. When my parents refused to sign a permission slip for a field trip in elementary school, I was forced to stay in class with a handful of kids and a substitute teacher, Mr. Rose. He put a copy of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe in my hand, and so set me on a path of reading that shaped most of my childhood. I never questioned why I loved reading so much, until I found myself waiting in line, at midnight, on a cold and windy night for the latest Harry Potter book.

Which begs the question, how many other moments like this go unnoticed in our past? My parents leading me through thrift stores hunting for bargains, which instilled a respect for frugality and savings. Or the middle school teacher who nurtured my curiosity about science, and spurred me on to pursue a degree in genetics and pharmacy. A string of inconsequential moments that, together, end up weaving the pattern of our lives. But we can’t read this pattern if we don’t interrogate our own past, follow strands of memories to their beginnings, to make sense of the lives we live today.

What am I doing?

We’ve all got plans for the life we want to live, some more thought out than others. Maybe you have an outline detailing every year from now until retirement. Or you just have a vague sense of something inside telling you to keep looking for your passion. Whatever your plans are though, it can be easy to lose sight of them and fall into the routines of everyday life. Wake up. Eat. Work. Go out. Sleep. Rinse and repeat.

But it’s when you take a step back that you start to appreciate the arc of your life’s story. You can see the little hops you need to take through life to get to where you want to be. Life can seem fiery, tenuous, and unpredictable, with something new always behind the horizon, but knowing what you’re doing and what you’re doing it for, can help anchor you to the path you want to be on, without getting lost along the way. It can be as easy as reminding yourself every morning why you’re going to work and school. Or writing self-affirmation quotes to wake up too. Always being mindful of your actions and their purpose in your life can go a long way towards anchoring you to your life goals.  

What do I want?

It’s easy to answer with happiness or success in work. But figuring out the details of the things we want in life can go a long way towards helping us achieve them. What metrics do I use to define success, for example. Is it income, or power, or the number of people that depend on me? Will I be satisfied with a 9-5 job? Knowing exactly what it means to you to be successful can help you figure out why you want to be successful, which in turn can help you figure out what you want out of life.

When it comes to happiness, we can’t help but want to freeze it. We buy the things that make us happy, live in the cities that bring us joy, and surround ourselves with the people that make us smile. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the things we love most often change, and expecting happiness to come in year-long blocks can set us up for disappointment. The impressionist painters of the 19th century would often add brush strokes to show the passage of time in their paintings, highlighting the importance of transience in life. While the peaks of life may be short, understanding that can help us appreciate them all the more, and help give our dreams of the future a framework to work with.

Ready, Set, Go!

Self-reflection is a slow process, one we take a day at a time. It’s good to start slow, take the time to get used to the idea of introspection. Asking ourselves open-ended questions every now and then, about how we act, feel, and think, can be a great starting point. Looking back, I’ve realized that taking some time to think more deeply about the ways in which I interact with the world has allowed me to find and maintain fulfilling, lifelong relationships while letting me engage in meaningful conversations with people from all walks of life. In closing, I want to leave you with this quote:

“You are two people still separated by an ocean of time, Part of you bursting to talk about what you saw, Part of you longing to tell you what it means.”

-John Koenig


Photo: Charles Boyer


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