Some time ago, before writing the last couple of Blog posts on introspection, I had decided that there would be exactly twelve posts in this series. Twelve is such a nice, complete number. There are twelve months in a year. In the Bible, there are the twelve tribes of Israel and Twelve Apostles (okay, now there are actually thirteen apostles according to the Catholic Church, since it recently elevated Mary Magdelene from prostitute to Apostle in 2016, fifteen hundred years after relegating her to moral degradation and irrelevance). Twelve is also nicely divisible by the first four numbers: 1, 2, 3 and 4. And, lo and behold, there were 12 kids in my family growing up! Knowing in advance this was going to be my final blog post on the topic of Introspection, I have dallied. I started it several times in several different ways, chose a topic, and then changed direction.
I have finally landed on the topic for this blog post—I will go back to where this blog series began: “what is introspection and why is it so important.” I will wrap together several central themes that come out of my work with clients that relate to the benefits of introspection and why it is a key part of a mentally healthy life. Here’s the quick and dirty answer: Introspection is looking inward to gain self-knowledge, and it is so important because the more you do it, the less uncomfortable it becomes and the better you will be able to know what you want and need, why you do the things you do, and even how to treat others more fairly and understand them better. Hopefully, after a time, introspection will mostly be second nature, with little to tell you that you’re doing anything special or difficult. There may come a day for you when introspection is no more difficult or different than washing the dishes, creating a grocery list, or, oh yeah, trying to figure out why you wanted to avoid talking to your partner about plans for the holidays earlier today. At that point, introspection will have become fully integrated into how you live your life, how you are “in the world.”
In this blog post, you will see several references to various chapters and ideas first introduced in my book, “Firewalking on Jupiter, A therapist’s guide to fearless self-discovery.” That’s because the whole idea of this 12-part series on introspection came from a friend who’d read the book, and thought it needed a detailed explanation of the process and benefits of introspection as a kind of prequel to the ideas offered in Firewalking on Jupiter. Now that I am “wrapping up” the series, I want to make sure you are familiar with the many links between the ideas and insights presented in this series of blogs and how they relate back to the ideas in the book. At some point it will probably make sense to do a second edition of the book and include this series of blog posts as an introductory part of the book (that might be kind of a long book, though, so maybe not).
You know the saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” attributed to Socrates (I am a big fan of Socrates, for this and other reasons). Let’s take that a slight step further: “The unexamined self is not worth having.” If you have a self, which you do, why would you not want to know that self? The self is so complicated, and so uniquely yours. It is a tool, a guide, and sometimes can feel like a whole world. You have to live in it anyway, so you might as well get to know it. You wouldn’t want to live in a house in which you hadn’t explored every room, would you? Nope. So, why would you want to live in a self that had vast regions relegated to the unknown. Scary. And harmful.
Knowing your self gives you two additional benefits. First, it tells you what you are made of and capable of, and it tells you what you are not; where you end, and where others and the world begin. Knowing the boundaries of your self tells you the boundaries of the world in which you live. Self-knowledge provides you with clear demarcation of what is your responsibility and what is not, what is your capacity and what is not, and what you can control and what you cannot. Second, knowing the intricacies of your self offers vital and constant information about your motivations—why you do the things you do, want the things you want, and need the things you need. As an incidental benefit, knowing these things about your self will also help you immensely in understanding these things about others. We are all different, with different motivations, wants and needs, but in another sense, we aren’t so different. Most of what humans want and need are roughly similar. We want security. We want safety. We want comfort. We want to be important, to matter to others and maybe to posterity. We want choice, opportunity. We want to be liked, and loved, and needed. We want to belong. We have many other common wants and needs. If we understand how these wants and needs surface as motivations for our behaviors, we will have a much better grasp of how the behavior of others is a manifestation of their own motivations for these common kinds of human wants and needs. Call this emotional intelligence. Jesus said, “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” A variant on this theme could be “Know your neighbor as you know yourself.” The golden rule is often stated as: “Treat others as you want others to treat you.” The more you know your self, the more you will understand how you want to be treated, and how the behavior of others affects you. This is crucial information for us to have in order to know how we should treat others, because it helps us guess how our behavior affects them based on how we feel when others treat us the same way.
When you know your motivations (the wants and needs that underpin your behavior—the reason you are doing whatever you are doing), when you know why you do what you do, why you say what you say, you can be much more clear, direct, honest and considerate in the way you try to obtain what you want and need. I call this “transparency” (say why you are saying a thing before you say it). (See my chapter on Transparency in Firewalking on Jupiter.) The advantage in doing so is that it reduces the chances that the person to whom you are speaking will need to make (often false) guesses about the motivations that underlie what you are trying to say. You cannot demonstrate transparency, you cannot say why you are saying a thing before you say it, without first knowing why you are saying the thing. The thing is, your reasons for saying a thing are often far from obvious and might take quite a bit of forethought, which is probably part of the reason we don’t practice transparency with any kind of frequency. With introspection, after it becomes more or less second nature, integrated into our everyday activities, transparency will fall into place almost automatically, once you make it part of an intentional practice.
I want everyone everywhere to be as comfortable with knowing their inner worlds and the inner worlds of others as they can possibly be. (See my blog post on “Intersubjectivity” for more on this ideal.) I want everyone to be able to use their self-knowledge to make better decisions for themselves and for creating the best possible relationships in their lives. I have said this before but it bears repeating: “mental health” can be defined along a spectrum in which greater mental health is represented by a person’s increased comfort, capacity, willingness and desire to know themselves (to engage in introspection, as needed). (See my chapter “Mental Health, Part 2” in Firewalking on Jupiter.) In a recent therapy session, I wrote on the whiteboard this ideal for individual mental health: “There shall be no place within myself I will not go.” For relational health, I wrote: “There shall be no place we will not go with each other’s inner experiences.”
Introspection amounts to “looking inward.” Denial, dissociation, and evasion are the opposite—they are all attempts to avoid, often destructively, looking inward. Most defense mechanisms (projection, repression, regression, etc.) fall into this latter category. Addiction, conflict avoidance, distraction of all manner also fall into the opposite of introspection. So many of the kinds of issues that bring people into therapy are based on harmful biproducts of avoidance of introspection. Imagine how many of these behaviors and character traits would simply vanish if people stopped being so afraid, so uncomfortable, so averse to looking at themselves, to looking inward, to being honest with themselves about what they might find.
There is a caveat though, a limiting factor, that must be mentioned. Introspection without end can be as harmful as avoidance. As is the case with almost anything human, balance is key. We seek a middle ground. Avoiding our inner selves is problematic. Dwelling exclusively on our inner selves, to the exclusion of the world around us can also be problematic. Maybe not for the few monks and ascetics among us, but for most of us, we need to be in the world, and cannot and maybe should not, spend our days and nights in an emotional ivory tower constantly exploring the nooks and crannies of our innermost, deepest self. Below is a table that is reminiscent of one that I drew for explaining when a person’s past is important in therapy in a chapter in Firewalking on Jupiter (short answer: when it has a direct impact on how a person is doing in the present). I have redrawn it as it applies to all manner of introspection, whether looking at your past, present or future self.
|Stay in||Move through||Go around|
|No change||Change||No change|
|Overwhelmed||Learn and grow||Deny|
The middle ground, or balanced approach, is a complete comfort with introspection, as necessary and appropriate, to address our needs, wants and behaviors, while staying engaged in the world, but to transcend the world, not to escape ourselves. (See my chapter “Transcendance” in Firewalking on Jupiter for more on this topic.) Simply put, by “transcend” I mean going out into the world, connecting with the world, with nature, with your loved ones, with your community and the earth entire, but taking all of your self with you as you go out into the world. Creativity is a kind of transcendence. It involves taking a part of who you are and bringing it to an activity in the world, like the creation of an artistic piece, or something you write, or a dance, or even connecting with a play that brings you meaning, perhaps tinged with both joy and sorrow. As we gain comfort with knowing our self, we will increase our ability to connect with creativity and openness, and will be ever more able to transcend ourselves and connect with the world authentically. We will also become less fearful of the world itself, because we will be less fearful of the place of our self in the world.
We can change ourselves, but only if we know ourselves. We cannot change others, but we might make the mistake of trying to change others, if we don’t know our own limits. This is where humility comes in. So, humility too is a function of self-knowledge, and can only come about through introspection. Humility and self-knowledge tell me I can’t make you happy. I can engage in behavior that is more or less likely to please you, but how you respond is ultimately up to you, not me. Therefore, I am not responsible for your reaction. I am only responsible for my behavior. In letting go of responsibility for your well-being, your feelings, your happiness or sadness, I can still maintain compassion and empathy by paying close attention to my own intent, motivations, and behavior. Our very moral fiber is strengthened by our increased comfort, capacity, willingness and desire to know our selves. Only through introspection, through knowing myself as fully as possible, can I align my thoughts, my values and my behavior to be the best person I can be. I wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same, use the self-knowledge you gain through introspection so you can be the best person you can be.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.