Every once in a while I run into a person who tells me they think introspection and self-awareness are a waste of time. I have even on occasion been told that introspection encourages negative feelings about ourselves, by causing us to dwell on difficult issues. I am almost universally so surprised by these ways of thinking about introspection and self-awareness, I find it difficult to respond. Yet, without a basis for understanding the benefits of self-awareness or how to obtain it (through introspection), the difficult feelings and moods it can force us to contend with might seem both daunting and pointless. It seems valid to have a concern about introspection becoming a form of self-absorption. The answer to this issue, though, is not to avoid introspection, but to balance introspection with transcendence. While I believe at a fundamental level that paying attention to your thoughts and feelings and where they come from is vital to living a satisfying life, I also think we need to reach out, to move outward into the world, to “transcend” ourselves in order to become and stay connected to everything outside of ourselves (see my chapter, “Transcendence” in Firewalking on Jupiter). Maybe then, the kind of balance I believe in is one which carries us inward through introspection and outward through transcendence, each as needed, and each as might be beneficial depending on the circumstances we encounter within ourselves and with the world. Readiness and willingness to go in both directions seems an essential part of living a full, rich, and genuinely satisfying life.
Some would say that knowing one’s self has an intrinsic benefit that needs no further justification, that greater self-awareness provides a rich experience within ourselves, and creates an ever expanding space to explore all that life has to offer, that this should be enough for anyone to want to engage in introspection. I tend to agree. I agree not because I am a therapist. Rather, I became a therapist because I had already come to believe in the powerful benefits of self-exploration as necessary for personal growth and change. Even if you don’t agree, there are also very specific and practical reasons to gain self-awareness beyond knowing one’s self better for its own sake.
The corollary benefits of greater self-awareness are predictability and flexibility. By exploring our inner lives, we get a better sense of the way our deeper motives influence our choices, thus allowing us to make choices more in line with how we want to live our lives. Introspection can also help us understand the patterns of responses in our relationships at home, in our communities, and at work, so we aren’t surprised by our reactions to others. This way, we can begin to identify certain kinds of behaviors in the moment and choose to act differently, if warranted, than we have in the past. In fact, this one benefit of introspection is essential to any kind of meaningful change in how we interact with the world. Once our identity (who we are) is set at about the age of 25, it cannot be changed. The good news is our personality (how we interact with the world) and our choices of behaviors can change in some pretty important ways. This change cannot happen unless we understand how we interact with the world and how that affects our lives and relationships. None of this can happen without introspection leading to greater self-awareness.
Introspection is the only way we can step outside of a conversation and “see” it “objectively” to learn how we are “in the conversation.” If we can’t step outside of ourselves and see ourselves more objectively, how can we know what we need to do differently to improve our interactions with others, to improve our relationships, to improve ourselves? We can’t. It may seem kind of funny that to get the outside perspective, we need to go into ourselves, through introspection. Here’s why. Think about any argument or conflict you might have had recently, any conversation that was for some reason mildly or greatly uncomfortable for you. Look back at what they said, what you said. The only way any of that will make sense to you, the only way you can learn from that argument or conflict is to pay attention to why you felt uncomfortable, to explore what was underneath your discomfort. The only way you will be able to get a sense of why the other person seemed to be uncomfortable is for you to pay attention to what you were doing that might have made them uncomfortable. This is introspection.
Jules and Bobbi have a great relationship, but the holidays always put them in a difficult position. Jules doesn’t like to spend time with family at the holidays. He wants to avoid the whole thing. Bobbi is just the opposite when it comes to the holidays. She wants to see her family on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, sometimes the day after Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve. They have difficulty discussing it every year, so they mostly avoid it. Jules goes with Bobbi to maybe one or two family gatherings, but not all of them, and he doesn’t want to stay too long. Last week, they argued about it, again. Bobbi brought it up, said she wanted to know what to expect from Jules, what to tell her family about which events he’d be coming to. He didn’t want to talk about it. They were both uncomfortable. Bobbi ended the conversation (there wasn’t much of one), by asking Jules to think about it and let her know. They watched their “show” that night in an uncomfortable silence and went to bed. Bobbi wants to know what she can do to improve their capacity to discuss the issue. Jules doesn’t want to think about it, or explore it, at all, but is willing to do so to ease the tension between them. I ask Jules about his family. He says they are not close, and most of them live in other states. I ask about his history of the holidays. His responses are short, don’t give me much information. Bobbi confirms that my inability to get anywhere on this issue with Jules is similar to her lack of success in getting Jules to open up about this issue.
At this point, there isn’t much I can do to help Jules and Bobbi resolve the issue of the holidays, for one reason: Jules is not willing to engage in introspection. It makes him very uncomfortable, especially on this issue. He might not even be aware of why it makes him uncomfortable, it just does. I can see no way for him and Bobbi to be able to come to a peaceful and satisfactory resolution of this issue. Bobbi refuses to spend the holidays away from her family, but also wants to be with Jules. That is not going to change, because she has no interest in changing her priorities during the holidays. Without knowing why Jules is so uncomfortable with the holidays, neither of them can make the kind of changes that might be possible if they (especially Jules) had a better understanding of these issues, how they affect Jules, why they affect Jules, and what might put him at ease with them. Is it the gift giving? The religious aspect, like going to Church on Christmas Eve? Is it the closeness of her family? Does someone in her family trigger some deeper historical aversion for Jules? Does their closeness make him feel even more lonely than he already does due to the distance between him and his own family? Any insights into these kinds of issues would be a valuable gateway for helping Jules, and helping Bobbi to help Jules, by giving him the kind of support he might need. As things stand, though, Jules’ unwillingness to explore his feelings, history, thoughts, moods, responses and reactions make improvement impossible. We have hit a wall, and no bricks will be removed until Jules decides to engage in some form of introspection. Bobbi and Jules will continue to either avoid the subject, or have uncomfortable conversations and silences and holidays.
I don’t really have to prove the value of introspection. If introspection had no intrinsic value, we would not be the way we are. For just a moment, think back to my blog post, “Introspection, Part 1,” where I created the image of the conscious and unconscious, in which you are sort of hovering over a pool of water, with bubbles coming up from the water, and bursting out onto the surface, after which you can either pay attention to this or that bubble. The you that is hovering is your conscious self, the water is your unconscious, the bubbles are thoughts, feelings, memories, all kinds of mental states emerging from your unconscious to your conscious. You have considerable control (but not complete control) over how much attention you decide to pay to all of the bubbles, or particular bubbles, as they emerge. If introspection and self-awareness were not vitally important to our well-being, we would simply not have this capacity, this way of being within ourselves. We have this capacity, we are this way, precisely because we need to know why we do what we do. We need to recognize our patterns of interaction, which must include underlying motivations for our decisions, if we are going to be able to predict the way those patterns will influence us in the future, how they will compel us to act in certain ways when we encounter certain kinds of situations. Introspection gives us this kind of predictability—the ability to predict how we, ourselves, will want to behave in the future to have a greater chance of obtaining whatever it is we seek. If we are not willing to do this, to explore ourselves, to look at those bubbles and pay attention to the important ones, we will be stuck, lost, confused, always waiting until the next uncomfortable situation, wondering without understanding why we are uncomfortable, and what can be done to make us less uncomfortable the next time. We will be like Jules, and all of the people around us will be like Bobbi, puzzled and frustrated by our inability to understand, cope, communicate or change.
In my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, in the Chapter, “Mental Illness, Part 2” I defined “mental health” as: “a state in which a person is able and willing to address every aspect of their inner life, regardless of whether they experience difficult feelings, including fear, while addressing those aspects of their inner life.” So, I guess you could say that my way of describing what it means to be “mentally healthy” is to regularly engage in introspection at whatever depth is required at any given point in time, to improve our capacity to know our triggers, motivations, and behaviors (predictability) so we can then make better choices in moments that matter to us and our relationships (flexibility). For a deeper discussion on the benefits of flexibility, you may want to read the three chapters on this topic in Firewalking on Jupiter, including the first part, which is aptly called “Flexibility is the hallmark of mental health.” Here, though, I will merely emphasize that flexibility allows us to make different kinds of choices. We won’t know which kinds of choices are available unless we know our own limits and capabilities. To know this, we must know ourselves, through introspection.
Now that I have shed some light on the benefits of introspection, in the next blog post on this topic, I will try to explain why people often avoid introspection despite what seems to me to be its obvious benefits.
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.