Introspection Part 4, Tools for self-discovery
It occurs to me that in addition to all the negative reasons one might not engage in self-exploration I noted in Part 3 of this series on introspection (fear of emotional pain, family or gender negative messages, avoiding responsibility), some of us do not engage in self-exploration because we just don’t really know how to do it. So, I am concluding this series of blog posts on introspection by offering some basic tools to begin and carry on the process of introspection.
Pay attention to what is happening to you, with you, within you, as often as possible. Some call this “mindfulness” (a word hopelessly overused in therapy circles). I just call it paying attention. It is the gateway to all manner of self-exploration. It can be done in so many ways, and it takes no effort other than willingness and remembering to do it.
You can pay attention any time you want. In a meeting at work, make a conscious effort to notice stuff you’ve maybe never paid attention to before. Pay attention to the way you feel when a certain colleague drinks from her coffee cup. Does it bother you? Do you care? Is she sloppy with it. Does it make any difference to you how she drinks her coffee? Yes, this is trivial. Paying attention to the trivial is a good start, because you are at least paying attention, and the stuff you are noticing is therefore not terribly deep or have the potential to be uncomfortable. The trick is to pay attention as often as you can remember. This will not be natural at first. Our minds go out into the world. We naturally want to pay attention to what is happening, without giving a lot of thought to how it affects us internally. This is like a new muscle you are exercising—it will be weak at first, so you have to use it, a lot, for it to become stronger.
Part of paying attention or noticing all that is happening around you and within you is encouraged by curiosity. I have written about Curiosity in Firewalking on Jupiter. If you have that book, it has some ideas about how to increase your level of curiosity and how that can provide all kinds of benefits. Simultaneously paying attention to what is happening around us and what is happening within us is the only real way to know in any given moment how we respond to the world. Doing this repeatedly, checking this time against the last time something similar happened, is the only way to start recognizing patterns. Next time you have a meeting with your coffee drinking colleague (see above), check to see if it bothers you the way it did before. If it does, could it mean there are other things that bother you about her that you are not paying attention to. If not, it might mean you’d been unfair to her before and were just in a funk yourself. Whichever is the case, paying attention over time, from one context to the next, and from one context to a similar context, will not only make you better at seeing yourself in a situation, it will also help you rule out irrelevant information about yourself and the world around you. Over time, you will get better at zeroing in on the things that can teach you, inform you about who you are, tell you what matters to you, and why.
One form of paying attention is meditation. Meditation is in some ways nothing more than a structured way to pay attention by letting go of all your other thoughts from the day. If you sit for 5, or 10, or 30 minutes, doing nothing but sitting, perhaps with your eyes closed, with someone guiding the meditation, or just silence, you will be paying attention to what you happen to be thinking, feeling. The idea is to sit within your observer self, and just observe. Observe the bubbles of thoughts coming up. Don’t chase them, or grab them, or follow them. Let them rise to the surface, break open and reveal what they are, while you, the observer, in meditation, realize what you have observed and then let the next bubble come. This is meditation, and it is a great way to get to know all that you are, without stress, urgency, and with acceptance. A regular practice of meditation can help increase your level of self-knowledge, while also helping you come to accept yourself as you are, without worrying so much about who you think you should be. That would be a nice goal, anyway.
If you aren’t sure what to think about meditation, or how to do it, you might want to consider finding a meditation practice location and community. In most major cities, there are several. They may or may not have some religious background (for instance Buddhism). But the approach to meditation is going to be roughly the same, to help you find ways to go within yourself and just experience what is happening at that moment. If the community you find pushes its religious aspect too much for you, look elsewhere, until you find a place or community that feels comfortable to you.
If finding a community isn’t an option for you or is something you do not wish to explore, an alternative is to find other personal tools to help you on your way with meditation. It could be a book, a video, an audio tape or CD, or software. There are now multiple apps for your smartphone which can help you get started with meditation, guiding the process, and offering different options for the kind and duration of meditation that works for you. No matter what option you choose—by yourself, or with some tool, person, or community—meditation can supplement other ways for you to look into yourself, all of which are forms of introspection.
Somatic experiences—what is happening in your body.
The term “somatic” simply means “pertaining to the body.” So, all I am suggesting here is to pay attention to your body as well as your mind.
Many of the physical symptoms clients tell me about might be related to their emotional states, or inner lives, which they can access best by telling me how their body feels or reacts. This is not surprising considering that mental health diagnosis criteria (like depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar) contain many physical symptoms as well as mental symptoms. Anxiety, for instance, includes “easily fatigued” and “muscle tension.” Depression includes the feelings of either inability to be still or moving very slowly. You can use your own body to gain access to the way you feel even or especially when it might be difficult for you to articulate or identify the actual emotions or mental states you are experiencing.
A really good example is the way people often describe something that sounds like a panic attack. They don’t often come in and say, “I had a panic attack.” Instead, they tell me they had an experience that felt like they were going crazy, or were very anxious, and that their heart was pounding, they were sweaty, had difficulty breathing, they thought they might be having a heart attack, it came on suddenly, lasted for several minutes and then went away. These are all potentially symptoms of a panic attack. If these kinds of symptoms happen repeatedly, it is possible to begin to identify patterns of when they happen, under what circumstance, which can help to identify the underlying triggers, causes and possible solutions so they don’t keep happening. Of course, if you are experiencing significant chest pain and think you might be having a heart attack, don’t assume that it is a panic attack. It might actually be a heart attack requiring immediate medical attention.
The close relationship between our body and mind is undeniable. Some would even say the mind is merely part of your body. At some level, this must be true—without our bodies, our minds would simply not exist (leaving aside questions of the afterlife for others to contemplate). So, it must be true that our body affects the way our mind feels and the way our minds feel affects how our bodies feel. If we have trouble accessing our mental states, we can look to our bodies for some clues. If I am tired more often than I should be, if I lack energy most days, if I tend not to get excited about things that normally excite me, I might have some kind of flu or other illness. If I don’t have a flu or other illness, I might also be suffering from a kind of depression. By paying attention to the way our bodies feel, especially staying in touch with our bodies, over time, we can learn a great deal about how our moods arise and change in relationship to the way our bodies feel. This is just another form of getting to know ourselves, another form of introspection.
Record what you experience and later reflect on it.
I would just say, write it down in a journal (I’ll come back to this in a minute), but that isn’t always the favored approach for some people. I have clients that prefer to draw, paint, take pictures, write poetry, all as ways for them to gain access to their inner states. I encourage it all. The commonality is that they are using their own creative means and preferences with the intent to pay attention, to notice, to explore their inner selves. Their created “artifacts” (artwork, music, poetry) are ways for them to go back to those inner states later and contemplate what they might have meant, where they might have come from, what those states tell them about what they want and don’t want in their lives, in their relationships, in themselves.
I happen to think writing stuff down in some kind of journal is important, even if you also have other modes of creative expression. I was in a therapy session with a visual artist who brought his drawings in to show me how he used drawing as part of his introspective method. He had some really great interpretations of his drawings. So, it was useful, interesting and fun. On several occasions though, as I asked questions about various parts of the drawing, he was not able to articulate or remember specifically why he had incorporated those particular elements, but felt sure they had had meaning at the time he did the drawing. He noted that, if he had written some of these thoughts down, in addition to doing the drawing, he’d have the words in front of him to more clearly recall what he’d been thinking or feeling when drawing that particular piece.
The act of recording in some way what you have thought, felt, realized, remembered, considered, or in whatever other way come to know some part of your inner self will require you to put it into action, mental action. If I don’t record my inner life, this is often what happens. I think a thing. It passes. I forget it. No realization. I think a thing. I write it down. In the act of writing it down, I have to consider what the thought is, how to describe it, how it might relate to other thoughts, feelings, perceptions and various mental states. Even if I never re-read that journal entry, the process of writing it down helps me sort through it, make sense of it, come to know it, and integrate it into my greater self. If I write a thought of feeling down, or compose music about it (my thing), and then later read what I wrote or listen to the music, it can bring me right back to the exact thought or feeling in that previous time to reconsider from a different perspective a different version of myself. I will realize the difference between how I felt or thought then and how I think and feel now. I will see change, notice growth, and become more integrated over time. Do this. Repeatedly. And you will notice changes within yourself over time.
I kind of do the same thing with my client case notes. Clients have often found it very helpful to go through their session case notes with me, so they can see my observations and written comments about their issues and how they dealt with those issues differently, over time. They can see their growth. It can be very encouraging for them. You don’t need me to do that. Keep your own “case notes” in the form of your own personal journal, and then go back over it from time to time to notice the changes you are making, how you are making them, and how you can continue to do so.
Writing in a journal need not be complicated, long or time consuming. I had a client who did both meditation and journaling. After she meditated, she would write down just a few words to describe what she experienced as part of her meditation, so she could reflect on it later, or share it with me in therapy. It might have been things like: “lonely, bored.” Or, “envious of sister.” Or, “content, peaceful.” See, it doesn’t have to be complicated, difficult, or negative either. Some people do the same with important dreams, so they can gain access back into what the dream was about. A simple keyword or phrase is all they need to remember elements of the dream, and then they can often go all the way back into some important part of it. The same can be true for recalling a past mood state or a particular situation that was bothering you.
Writing longer journal entries can also be good, because you might have contradictory or opposing feelings, thoughts, and perspectives at the same time. Writing about it can help you pinpoint the nature of the contradiction, and resolve it right then and there, or at least give you ideas about what you might want to do to resolve the inconsistencies at a later time. Writing in a journal, whether using basic feelings words, or longer passages, can also help you get the vocabulary you need to think in feelings terms when having the feelings, and can help you get practice in sorting your feelings out when you have the space and time, which will help you be able to do the same thing in moments of stressful interactions with others. When I write in my journal, I often look up words in online dictionaries or thesauruses to find the right word to describe what I am feeling or thinking while writing. I had a pretty strange and twisted educational path, so I’ve been doing this a long time. It is one of the main ways I’ve increased my capacity to describe my experiences, whether while writing, or just thinking, or talking with a friend, colleague, or client.
Catharsis: exploring your feelings through other people’s art.
Creating your own art, music, writings or recordings of any kind is just one way of getting your feelings out there, where you can see them, know them, experience them. Another way is through allowing yourself to be moved by the artistic creations of others. Think of all the love songs that might have made you swoon for someone you loved, or cry over someone you loved and then lost, or the movies that were tragic that had you on the point of tears, or sobbing, by the end. This is catharsis.
Dictionary.com defines “catharsis” as “the purging of the emotions or relieving of emotional tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.” In the context of this discussion, I am not so interested in the “purging” aspect of catharsis as I am in the feelings it allows you to know, to explore, understand, and eventually, put in perspective as part of your overall inner self. The more you are able to sort through the feelings you have as part of the cathartic experience, the less scary it will seem, because you will see difficult emotions within the context of your greater self, your whole strong self. Feelings of pain, fear, doubt, confusion, anger will be a subset of other parts of you that are strong, safe, secure, grateful, and solid. You will learn how to experience feelings in the moment that do not make you fear how you will rid yourself of such feelings. The advantage of catharsis is purging, but it is also understanding your inner self, as part of introspection.
So give it a try, if you feel strong enough—go see a movie, or watch one at home, that you know might encourage you to have difficult feelings. If you don’t feel strong enough to do this on your own, that’s okay, invite someone you trust to watch it with you. Sometimes sharing a cathartic experience with someone else can create a kind of emotional closeness and intimacy that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Even better, if you feel the desire to discuss your experience with the other person afterward, you will gain a deeper understanding about yourselves than catharsis by itself, and by yourself, would otherwise bring you. Next time you hear a song that you know often moves you emotionally, try to let it move you, don’t hold it back, see where it goes.
Consider a daily reading routine.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a daily reading book, called “One Day at a Time,” which has a single short page with a few passages to get your mind thinking in new directions about you, your life, and your relationships. Al-anon has a similar daily reading book, called “Courage to Change.” The self-help section at your bookstore and at Amazon have many varieties of books you can use, to be read in small sections, to get the “juices flowing” with self-reflection. Some people say it helps them to do this at a certain time of day, either first thing in the morning, at lunch, or at bedtime. Whatever book or time works for you is fine. The point is that you might need some help getting your mind headed in the direction of self-reflection, especially if you are new to introspection, or if you are prone to allowing daily affairs to consume your thoughts. A daily reading book can do this. I thought about making a reference to my own book here, but just couldn’t overcome the obvious self-promotion, so I will leave it out (noting only my sheepish grin).
I find it can help to have these kinds of books around even if it is not part of a daily routine. When I am in a mood, and I feel “off,” or something is bothering me and I don’t know what it is, I might read from one of my daily reading books, which then prompts some thinking, and then I might write about it in my journal to narrow down the issue or see where my thoughts lead me.
Another option is to read a passage from a book you like, one that is focused on self-improvement in some way, or it could be a religious text, and then discuss this with someone you trust, someone who you believe is interested in hearing your thoughts and insights about these kinds of things (see below).
Talk about yourself with others.
Like mindfulness, or noticing, whatever you happen to be experiencing, making it a habit to talk about yourself, your inner self, with others, will go a long way toward helping you explore your inner self. Think of it as like role-playing introspection, but with someone else. They can then also give you feedback on your discoveries. Obviously, you want to do this with someone you can trust. By trust, I mean someone you believe will be open to whatever you might discover about yourself, and share with them, without undue judgment or unsolicited advice, someone who will accept your insights as you explore them. The more you do this, the easier it will become, until it feels fairly natural. In addition, while you are sharing what you discover, you may find yourself expressing feelings you didn’t even know you had before sharing your thoughts and insights.
This is really part of the nature of catharsis. It goes back to something I mentioned in Part 3 of this series of blog posts on introspection—we can have a feeling without experiencing that feeling (denial, repression), but we cannot genuinely express a feeling without both having the feeling and experiencing it. In other words, sometimes the only way we end up experiencing the feelings we already have is to express the feeling. This is also why journal writing, or recording our inner states in some other way, is an important part of introspection. Recording through art or journaling is basically sharing our inner lives, but sharing them with ourselves, until we decide to share them with others.
If you write in a journal, or paint, draw, sculpt, compose, or engage in any other form of recording your exploration of your inner life, sharing any of that, especially with the intent of letting others know the parts of yourself that prompted the piece, can be very helpful, for all of the reasons I just mentioned. Feedback is good, as long as it is with someone whose perspective, agenda, motives, and insights you trust.
Here’s another important aspect of sharing your introspective findings with others. It will begin to change the way you pick who you spend time with, whether friends or family. The more you share about yourself, the more you are likely to surround yourself with others who are actually interested in knowing you, the real you, the inner you, the complete you, both inside and out. Those who do not value what you are on the inside will respond to what you have to share about yourself in a way that may increasingly bother you. You will start to choose others as primary people in your life who are likewise dedicated, or at least interested or open, to the idea of introspection, from you and with themselves. Of course, friendships are a two way street. So, hopefully, as you become more comfortable with exploring your inner life and sharing it with others, you will also become more interested and comfortable in learning about the inner lives of others in ways you previously hadn’t. This will be the topic of the next blog post in this series on introspection, which is about something I call “intersubjectivity” (relationships based on a the premise of mutual interest and capacity to account for each other’s subjective experience). The idea is, once you become more acquainted with the tools that work for you for self-exploration, and become more comfortable and accepting of who you are, you will be more able to imagine what it might be like to be others, including those with whom you have relationships. Most important, the more you know about yourself and what matters to you, the more you will ask that others know and attend to these things about you too.
Seek professional help.
This almost goes without saying, especially coming from a therapist: if you are not sure you are ready to use the tools in this discussion, reach out to a mental health professional to help you. I would not be where I am today, if I had not started out by getting the support I needed at various points from professionals who helped me get perspective on what I could handle at those points where it was most needed. I encourage you to do the same if you have any doubts about your own capacity to engage in deeper introspection on your own.
It is entirely possible that you might need some help getting started down the road of meaningful introspection, either because your family or cultural background frown on such things, or because you have issues that are understandably more difficult than you can handle on your own. Maybe both reasons are true for you. I have been in this situation more than once in my life, and so have many of my clients. I am always glad they reached out to me when this was their situation. The tools above should be viewed as possibilities, but only when you know you are ready. Having a professional guide you to help you understand your own needs and capabilities is very important if you believe your inner life, your emotional or mental state, are not stable enough to do this on your own, at least not initially. A qualified mental health professional can then also give you objective perspectives on what you can handle, and when, and how much. Introspection is an important part of growth, but can also benefit from moderation with the assistance of someone more familiar with the process than you might be.
Having a professional who has the experience, tools, and objectivity to offer a safe and effective space for you to explore your inner life and issues can be absolutely necessary when the issues you might need to confront and resolve pose the risk of further harm without that help. A good example is a person who has experienced some kind of trauma who wants to heal and resolve the pain from the trauma, but doesn’t know how to do so without re-enacting trauma scenarios and re-traumatizing them, which can happen without proper resources and assistance. Likewise, even if you are otherwise doing well, it can be really important and even just helpful to seek guidance about the ways you might particularly benefit from introspection and the kind of tools most appropriate to get you on your way. For those trying to overcome normative prohibitions against introspection (see Introspection, Part 3), having someone as a supportive and encouraging person along the way might help you get traction and sustain you in your own process of self-discovery .
Consider using all of these tools, together or separately, as needed.
The format of this blog post is somewhat artificial. By separating these various tools, it makes it seem like you should do one or the other of them. Of course, this doesn’t have to be the way you engage in self-discovery. It’s not the way most people do. Use these tools in combination with each other, in whatever way makes sense to you at the time. I have clients that do a daily reading, write in their journal, bring their journal to a therapy session, and then go home and start a drawing based on all of these. Each step has at its core a common specific intent: learning more about who you are and why you do what you do. With this knowledge and experience, you will be well on your way to identifying what you want to change about yourself and your life, and far more likely to be open to making those very changes so you can have more of what you want in your life.
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.