Have you ever thought about your thoughts?
Have you ever questioned your own mental processes?
Do you sometimes take a moment to clarify your values in a moment of doubt or uncertainty?
If so, you are no stranger to self-reflection!
Self-reflection and introspection are important exercises that can help people grow and develop by looking inward instead of outward.
This article contains:
- What is Introspection/Self-Reflection? A Definition
- What is the Importance of Introspection?
- 70 Self-Reflective Questions to Ask Yourself
- 10 Self-Reflection Exercises, Activities & Techniques for Adults & Students
- 4 Self-Reflection Worksheets & Tools
- The 3 Best Books on Self-Reflection/Introspection
- A Take Home Message
What is Introspection/Self-Reflection? A Definition
Introspection is both an informal reflection process and a formal experimental approach, but either process can be undertaken by anyone with curiosity and determination (Cherry, 2016).
The informal reflection process can be described as examining our own internal thoughts and feelings and reflecting on what they mean. The process can be focused on one’s currently ongoing mental experience or very recently past mental experiences. The research technique is a more objective and standardized version of this, in which people train themselves to carefully analyze the content of their own thoughts, in as unbiased a manner as possible.
The original idea of introspection was developed by Wilhelm Wundt in the late 1800s (McLeod, 2008). Wundt focused on three areas of mental functioning: thoughts, images, and feelings. Wundt’s work eventually led to the current work on perceptual processes and the establishment of the field of cognitive psychology.
What is the Importance of Introspection?
So, why is introspection so important? We have over 50,000 thoughts per day, over half of which are negative and over 90% of which are just repeats from the day before (Wood, 2013). If you don’t make the time and effort to focus your mind in a positive direction, you won’t give yourself the opportunity to grow and develop.
Enhancing our ability to understand ourselves and our motivations and learn more about our own values helps us take the power away from the distractions of our modern, fast-paced life, and bring our focus back where it belongs (Wood, 2013).
Importance of Doing it Right
While reflecting on our selves and our environment is a healthy and adaptive practice, it should be undertaken with some care – there actually is a wrong way to do it!
When you have reached the point of obsessiveness instead of dedication, you have taken it too far. In fact, those who take self-reflection too far can end up feeling more stressed, depressed, and anxious than ever (Eurich, 2017).
In addition, it is all too easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking we have found some deep insight that may or may not be completely accurate. We are surprisingly good at coming up with rational explanations for the irrational behaviors we engage in (Dahl, 2017)!
To help you stay on the right path with your self-reflection, consider asking more “what” questions than “why” questions. “Why” questions can highlight our limitations and stir up negative emotions, while “what” questions help keep us curious and positive about the future (Eurich, 2017).
With this important point in mind, let’s move on to the questions, exercises, and worksheets that you can use to work on your own self-reflection.
70 Self-Reflective Questions to Ask Yourself
There are nearly endless questions, prompts, and ideas you can use to take a self-reflection break. Some of these can be asked, answered, or addressed every day, while others may best be saved for occasional self-reflection.
Read through the following three lists to get some great ideas for questions that can take you from feeling like a relative stranger to yourself, to knowing yourself like the back of your hand.
These 10 questions are great ways to get you self-reflecting (Woronko, n.d.):
- Am I using my time wisely?
- Am I taking anything for granted?
- Am I employing a healthy perspective?
- Am I living true to myself?
- Am I waking up in the morning ready to take on the day?
- Am I thinking negative thoughts before I fall asleep?
- Am I putting enough effort into my relationships?
- Am I taking care of myself physically?
- Am I letting matters that are out of control stress me out?
- Am I achieving the goals that I’ve set for myself?
The following 30 questions are questions you can ask yourself every day to get to know you better (William, n.d.).
- Who am I really?
- What worries me most about the future?
- If this were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?
- What am I really scared of?
- Am I holding on to something I need to let go of?
- If not now, then when?
- What matters most in my life?
- What am I doing about the things that matter most in my life?
- What do I matter?
- Have I done anything lately worth remembering?
- Have I made someone smile today?
- What have I given up on?
- When did I last push the boundaries of my comfort zone?
- If I had to instill one piece of advice in a newborn baby’s mind, what advice would I give?
- What small act of kindness was I once shown that I will never forget?
- How shall I live, knowing I will die?
- What do I need to change about myself?
- Is it more important to love or be loved?
- How many of my friends would I trust with my life?
- Who has had the greatest impact on my life?
- Would I break the law to save a loved one?
- Would I steal to feed a starving child?
- What do I want most in life?
- What is life calling of me?
- Which is worse: failing or never trying?
- If I try to fail, and succeed, what have I done?
- What’s the one thing I’d like others to remember about me at the end of my life?
- Does it really matter what others think about me?
- To what degree have I actually controlled the course my life has taken?
- When it’s all said and done, what will I have said more than I’ve done?
Finally, the following 30 prompts and questions are great ways to put your journal to use (Tartakovsky, 2014):
- My favorite way to spend the day is…
- If I could talk to my teenage self, the one thing I would say is…
- The two moments I’ll never forget in my life are… Describe them in great detail, and what makes them so unforgettable.
- Make a list of 30 things that make you smile.
- “Write about a moment experienced through your body. Making love, making breakfast, going to a party, having a fight, an experience you’ve had or you imagine for your character. Leave out thought and emotion, and let all information be conveyed through the body and senses.”
- The words I’d like to live by are…
- I couldn’t imagine living without…
- When I’m in pain — physical or emotional — the kindest thing I can do for myself is…
- Make a list of the people in your life who genuinely support you, and who you can genuinely trust. (Then make time to hang out with them.)
- What does unconditional love look like for you?
- What would you do if you loved yourself unconditionally? How can you act on these things whether you do or don’t?
- I really wish others knew this about me…
- Name what is enough for you.
- If my body could talk, it would say…
- Name a compassionate way you’ve supported a friend recently. Then write down how you can do the same for yourself.
- What do you love about life?
- What always brings tears to your eyes? (As Paulo Coelho has said, “Tears are words that need to be written.”)
- “Write about a time when work felt real to you, necessary and satisfying. Paid or unpaid, professional or domestic, physical or mental.”
- Write about your first love — whether a person, place or thing.
- Using 10 words, describe yourself.
- What’s surprised you the most about your life or life in general?
- What can you learn from your biggest mistakes?
- I feel most energized when…
- “Write a list of questions to which you urgently need answers.” (This is probably my favorite prompt from Abercrombie’s book.)
- Make a list of everything that inspires you — from books to websites to quotes to people to paintings to stores to the stars.
- What’s one topic you need to learn more about to help you live a more fulfilling life? (Then learn about it.)
- I feel happiest in my skin when…
- Make a list of everything you’d like to say no to.
- Make a list of everything you’d like to say yes to.
- Write the words you need to hear.
10 Self-Reflection Exercises, Activities & Techniques for Adults & Students
Aside from the questions and prompts listed above, there are many exercises and activities that can open you up to valuable self-reflection.
For example, the five self-examination exercises listed below (Bates, 2012) are a good way to get started with self-reflection. They’re simple and easy to do, but they can get you familiar with the process for future, more in-depth reflection.
Self-Examination Exercise 1
Consider whether or not you tend to analyze people or diagnose their problems for them – without their encouragement or request.
Sometimes when we hold information that has helped us to make sense of the world, we tend to want to share it. This information, when unprompted and delivered to another person, sometimes doesn’t feel so good. They may feel like you are telling them something about them is wrong, something that they might not necessarily agree with.
Remind yourself that this information needs to be asked for and not prescribed by you, no matter how valid it feels to pass it on (Bates, 2012).
Self-Examination Exercise 2
This is a good exercise if you tend to expend a lot of energy trying to wrap your head around what upsets you about another person’s actions. You may also spend another good chunk of your energy bringing that thing up in just the right way with that person.
Not only does this burn a lot of your energy, it also can have an unintended effect on the person who has upset you. When you place a clear emphasis or focus on what is wrong when speaking with someone, it implies that you are dissatisfied and unhappy. Usually, the issue you have is not something that is making you terribly unhappy, just an annoyance or irritation, so this doom and gloom is not the message you want to deliver. It’s just a single issue that needs attention, but it can seem much bigger and more pervasive to the person you are planning to discuss it with.
Try to remind yourself that this problem, no matter how valid an issue or how important to you, is not the whole of your feelings. When you deliver this information remember that a person who loves you does not want to be the cause of your unhappiness – do not make them feel an unnecessary amount of pain as a result of the unhappiness they’ve caused you. Keep your focus on the big picture when you bring up issues, or you risk turning a small issue into a much broader problem (Bates, 2012).
Self-Examination Exercise 3
Do you frequently interrupt people or constantly think of your own stories you would like to share while they are talking? If you’re an average social person, the answer is probably yes. In order to relate to others, we have to share a little bit of ourselves with them – those stories can help you establish common ground with others or bring you closer together, but they can also be distracting you from the larger purpose of conversation.
One thing that can happen in our eagerness to relate, please, entertain, and share is that we remove ourselves from the present and, with that loss of presence, our ability to be sensitive and engaged listeners. Even if we spend our whole lives trying to be good listeners, sometimes we slip out of practice to empathize or identify with the person we’re conversing with, or to comfort or entertain the other person.
Next time you have a conversation with a loved one and you find yourself thinking ahead of them, take a moment to pause and truly listen. Don’t think about how you can personally identify with what they are talking about, and don’t search your memory bank for a relevant story of your own – just listen. It’s a rewarding experience to truly soak in what another person is saying, both for you and for the other person (Bates, 2012).
Self-Examination Exercise 4
Sometimes when we work very hard to do good things, even great things, we get to a level of comfort with that fact, and we begin to talk about it to others. That’s really a great thing in that it allows us to own our efforts and our actions and, with that, acknowledge our goodness to ourselves.
But for this exercise, consider how you might feel if you were to do things that are good and great, only for your own knowledge – something just for yourself. The next time you do something really wonderful, try keeping that wonderful thing for yourself and no one else.
Often when a person is good and loving, they don’t have to tell anyone; it’s a truth that shines from every angle of their person. As an experiment, keep that knowledge for yourself, as a gift for you (Bates, 2012).
Self-Examination Exercise 5
For this exercise, you need only do one thing: consider what you don’t know.
When we get to a place of comfort in our skin and in our world, we tend to lose the ability to see things from a different perspective. Things make sense to us in our own point of view, so what’s left to know? Everything!
What I mean is, try and remind yourself of this fact. You cannot know or understand everything and you are not the judge of what is right for another person. You cannot read minds, nor can you know what the future holds. You are at this one point in your life and you are changing every day. Trust that sometimes others know themselves and their lives better than you ever could. Listen with the awareness that you might learn something new.
Be open to the fact that you might one day feel totally different about something that you believe to be fixed – and that includes the sticking points, the “unchangeables” that you thought were forever set in stone. Let what you don’t know and can’t know be a comfort and not a fear, because it means that anything is possible (Bates, 2012).
Once you have found your footing with these self-examination exercises, the following introspective exercises are a great next step.
Creating affirmations is a great way to clear your mind and put things in perspective.
For this exercise, write a list of at least 50 affirmations. They should be written with what you want to embrace, improve, and achieve in your life.
Follow these directions when composing and practicing your affirmations:
- Write the affirmations in present tense and be sure to use the word “I” throughout the affirmations.
- Focus on the things that are occurring now that will lead to your future success. You may have negative thoughts pop up, but do your best to banish the negative thoughts and replace them with positive thinking.
- Repeat your affirmations aloud to help you reprogram your mind with more positive thoughts.
Following these steps will help you open yourself up to the positive in your life and encourage you to take the steps that will lead to the future you desire (Holothink, n.d.).
Subconscious Mind Exercise
In this exercise, you will dive into your subconscious. Don’t worry, it’s not as painful or scary as it sounds!
Your subconscious mind is where your self-image is stored. All of your attitudes, experiences, beliefs, and values are stored deep in your subconscious, forming the core of who you are and driving your behavior.
We don’t often take the time to think about ourselves on this level. In this exercise, take some time and put a concerted effort into thinking about your attitudes, experiences, beliefs, and values. It may take a few sessions of self-reflection to really uncover your core beliefs, but it is worth the effort to learn so much about yourself.
Reflecting on this core component of yourself will help you gain greater self-awareness. Much like meditation, it will help you achieve a new, higher level of consciousness, and it may just help you find valuable information and answers about yourself and your beliefs (Holothink, n.d.).
This exercise offers you an opportunity to put your creativity to use.
Create a box, a vision board, or some other medium to store and display who you are and your hopes and dreams for the future. You can create or decorate your box or board however you’d like – use whatever you feel represents who you are and what is important to you.
Place pictures, words, drawings, poems, or small items of personal significance on your board or in your box. The more details you include, the better!
The end result of this exercise is a visual representation of you and what you love. Come back to the box or board when you’re having a dilemma or trying to figure out the best course of action, and draw from this visual representation of yourself to help you make decisions (Holothink, n.d.).
For this exercise, feel free to put your imagination to good use – the sky is the limit with your visualization!
Questions About Yourself
This exercise is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. All you need to do is ask yourself questions.
Ask yourself questions about yourself. Write them down, and write down your answers to these questions. Ask yourself questions about your past, present, and future, and compose answers to these questions that are positive, insightful, and motivating to you.
Don’t worry about coming up with the “right” answers – there are no right answers, and they will likely change over time. Be as creative as you’d like with these questions and answers, as only you can actually answer them.
Be sure to structure your questions to include details about your hopes and dreams. The more detailed your questions and answers, the more opportunity you have to dig into some valuable self-reflection (Holothink, n.d.).
Write and Reflect
Journaling is great for many reasons, and it can be applied for several different purposes.
For this self-reflection exercise, get a journal, diary, or notebook with plenty of pages to write in.
Every day, write down three things in your journal:
- Write down at least one thing positive that happened to or around you today.
- Write down a question for yourself (you can use one of the questions from the previous exercise, a question from the lists we covered earlier, or something entirely new), but don’t answer it yet.
- Reflect on the question you wrote the previous day for yourself, and write an answer to it.
Following these steps, you will write only the first two components the first day, but all three components every day thereafter (Holothink, n.d.).
4 Self-Reflection Worksheets & Tools
In addition to the questions, prompts, writing ideas, and exercises included above, there are also worksheets and tools that can help you reflect on your self.
This worksheet is a treasure trove of exercises and ideas to help you think about your self, including your talents, qualities, values, and perceptions.
The point of this worksheet is to help you know and understand your:
- Beliefs and principles
- What you value and what is important to you
- What motivates you
- Your own emotions
- Your thinking patterns
- Your tendencies to react to certain situations
- What you want out of life
There are several sections to this worksheet, which are described below.
In this section, you will answer questions like:
- What are your greatest talents or skills?
- Which of your talents or skills gives you the greatest sense of pride or satisfaction?
In the traits and qualities section, you will be posed with questions such as:
- What are your five greatest strengths?
- What do you feel are your two biggest weaknesses?
- What qualities or traits do you most admire in others?
In the next section, you answer questions about your personal values, like:
- What are ten things that are really important to you?
- What are the three most important things to you?
- What are the values that you hold most near to your heart?
For the perception questions, you must answer questions like:
- How is the “public you” different from the “private you?”
- What do you want people to think and say about you?
- Is it more important to be liked by others or to be yourself? Why?
In the accomplishments section, the questions will probe what you have achieved or accomplished. For example, questions include:
- What three things are you most proud of in your life to date?
- What do you hope to achieve in life?
- If you could accomplish only one thing during the rest of your life, what would it be?
The reflection section will pose questions and prompts like:
- List three things that you are:
- What is something that represents you (e.g., song, animal, flower, poem, symbol, jewelry, etc.)? Why?
- What three things would you like to change most about yourself?
Finish the Sentence
In the final section, you will be shown several sentences stems to complete.
These stems include:
- I do my best when…
- I struggle when…
- I am comfortable when…
- I feel stress when…
- I am courageous when…
- One of the most important things I learned was…
- I missed a great opportunity when…
- One of my favorite memories is…
- My toughest decisions involve…
- Being myself is hard because…
- I can be myself when…
- I wish I were more…
- I wish I could…
- I wish I would regularly…
- I wish I had…
- I wish I knew…
- I wish I felt…
- I wish I saw…
- I wish I thought…
- Life should be about…
- I am going to make my life about…
Once you finish this worksheet, you should have plenty of insight into who you really are and what is most important to you. Use your answers to these sections to inform your decisions about what goals you choose to strive towards, what you would like to do in the future, and what moves to make next.
Click here to view, download, or print this worksheet for yourself.
Tool 1: Persona
Before moving on to the empathy map below, first create a “persona,” or a clear character representation of your actual self, your ideal self, and your “ought” self (Kos, n.d.).
To create this persona, you will need to thoroughly analyze who you are, who you want to become, and what the social expectations connected to your feelings and behaviors are like in different situations.
Answering questions like the following can help you define these three important selves:
- Why do I want to become [enter a characteristic important to you]? Who in my life was or is like that?
- Who would I made proud if I were [enter a characteristic important to you]? Why?
- How are my feelings in certain situations connected with my actual, ideal, and ought self?
- Am I pushing myself to be something I’m actually not?
- Am I doing something I’m not just because others are expecting me to?
Use your answers to these questions to help you get an idea of who you are, who you want to be, and who you feel you ought to be. Once this preparation has been completed, move on to creating an empathy map.
Tool 2: Empathy Map
An empathy map can help you engage in a valuable and informative process of self-reflection, using all of your senses to help you identify your needs and the disconnections between what you say and what you do (Kos, n.d.). Don’t worry – we all have a disconnect between what we say and what we do. This exercise can help you figure out where you have these disconnects, and how you can best address them to become the person you want to be.
To create your empathy map, simply draw four quadrants on a piece of paper. Each quadrant represents a different angle of yourself:
Consider a situation that evokes a specific, strong emotion in you, like having a fight with your spouse or significant other. In each quadrant, write down the relevant aspects of each perspective.
For example, for the fight scenario, you will write down something like the following:
- Say: What are some of the quotes and defining words you said in the situation?
- Do: What actions did you do and which behaviors did you notice in yourself? What is the behavioral pattern you can identify?
- Think: What were you thinking in that situation? What does this tell you about your beliefs?
- Feel: What emotions were you feeling? Why? Which past situation do they most remind you of?
On another piece of paper, the back side of your four quadrants, or next to your four quadrants, create a fifth “quadrant.” Here, you will write your insights and ideas based on your empathy map.
The following questions will help you with the self-reflection process while you’re working on your map:
- How is the situation connected to your fears and hopes? What are your fears? What are your hopes? Which of your needs are met or not met in that situation?
- What was the environment in which you encountered the situation? What do you remember from the environment? How did you find yourself in that environment and why? What was your sight focused on?
- What hurts you most in the situation or makes you feel good about the situation?
- What was the feedback you gathered from your environment – other people?
- What are all the positives about the situation? What can you learn about yourself, others, and the world by experiencing that kind of a situation?
Do your best to avoid falling prey to cognitive distortions or reinforcing negative feelings while answering these questions. Go deep, and identify why you feel like you do. Observe, but don’t judge (Kos, n.d.).
Tool 3: Life Satisfaction Chart
A life satisfaction chart is a great way to assess how well you are meeting your goals and furthering your hopes for the future. You can complete this chart periodically to track progress towards your goals and see what needs to be revised, improved, reduced, or eliminated to help you strive toward them.
Draw a scale from 1 (not at all satisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied) horizontally, and list the following ten areas of life vertically:
Assess each area on the scale from 1 to 10.
Next, take a second look at all the areas where you are only somewhat satisfied (between 4 and 7). It can be hard to effectively reflect when you don’t have a very clear idea of whether you are satisfied with a specific area or not.
Go back through these “somewhat satisfied” areas and rate your satisfaction again, but use only 1, 2, 3, 8, 9, and 10. Limiting your options to either very satisfied or not very satisfied will help you to make a more decisive judgment about your satisfaction in each area.
Highlight every 1, 2, and 3 with red, and highlight every 8, 9, and 10 with green. Finally, ask yourself “why” for all ten areas of life. Why did you rate each area how you did? What would make you change your rating?
Repeat this exercise as often as you’d like to help you keep track of your satisfaction with the way your life is going (Kos, n.d.).
The 3 Best Books on Self-Reflection/Introspection
There are many books out there on self-reflection, self-awareness, and introspection. The three books below are good places to start, but feel free to search for other books if these don’t satisfy your reading appetite!
Question Your Life: Naikan Self-Reflection and the Transformation of Our Stories by Gregg Krech
This book will introduce the reader to Naikan, a method of quiet self-reflection that originated in Japan.
Like our physical bags when we go on a trip, there is only so much space in our heart and in our mind for stories. Some stories inform our lives and help us understand ourselves, while others don’t serve a purpose and can weigh us down.
In this book, Krech will guide the reader through several powerful examples of people who have had an important turn of the mind as a result of this quiet self-reflection: a woman who hated her mother, a man estranged from his father, a pregnant woman hit by a train, a couple struggling with their marriage, and a rabbi who neglected his shoes.
Read this book to open yourself up to seeing the world in a new light, and finding a better path forward. You can find it here on Amazon.
Being Present: A Book of Daily Reflections by David Kundtz
This simple book will help the reader create a life that is more peaceful, more rewarding, and more awakened.
Being present is defined as:
- Paying full attention to what is going on right now
- Staying in the moment
- Observing what is, without criticism or judgment
- Balanced concern for things exactly as they are
- Accepting whatever experience we are having
- Having an awake participation in ongoing life
Use this book as a reminder to be more present, through every season of the year and every season of life. Draw inspiration from poets, scientists, spiritual teachers, children, butterflies, and big cities. Take each day as one full of possibilities and potential surprises, and you won’t be disappointed!
Click here to read more about this book or purchase it for yourself.
52 Weeks of Self Reflection by Erika R. Dawkins
This simple but powerful book will guide the reader through a full year of self-reflection through writing. Each week, the book will introduce you to a new topic that you will either reflect on immediately or incorporate throughout the week and reflect on at the end of the week.
You can use this book to guide you through self-reflection with any goal in mind. No matter what your goal, this guidebook will help you to clear your head, see the world from a new perspective, and build a greater understanding of yourself.
Click here to read more about this book, see reviews, or buy it for your own library.
A Take Home Message
In this piece, we defined introspection, described the importance of self-reflection (and especially the right method of self-reflection), and provided many example exercises, activities, and worksheets for you to enhance your understanding of yourself.
I hope you have found this piece to be packed full of helpful tips and suggestions, but keep in mind that it is an intensely personal process. If you find other activities that work better for you, feel free to focus on those – just come back and share them with us here!
Do you have any other self-reflective techniques you like to use? How important do you think self-reflection is to the average person, or to you in particular? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks for reading, and happy introspecting!
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- Cherry, K. (2016, June 14). What is introspection? Wundt’s experimental technique. Very Well. Retrieved from https://www.verywell.com/what-is-introspection-2795252
- Dahl, M. (2017). Sometimes ‘introspection’ is you just making stuff up. Science of Us. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2017/03/sometimes-introspection-is-you-just-making-stuff-up.html
- Eurich, T. (2017). The right way to be introspective (yes, there’s a wrong way). TED. Retrieved from https://ideas.ted.com/the-right-way-to-be-introspective-yes-theres-a-wrong-way/
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- Kos, B. (n.d.). Tools to help you with self-reflection. Agile Lean Life. Retrieved from https://agileleanlife.com/tools-to-help-you-with-self-reflection/
- McLeod, S. (2008). Wilhelm Wundt. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/wundt.html
- Tartakovsky, M. (2014). 30 journaling prompts for self-reflection and self-discovery. Psych Central. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2014/09/27/30-journaling-prompts-for-self-reflection-and-self-discovery/
- William, D. K. (n.d.). 30 thought-provoking questions you should ask yourself every day. Lifehack. Retrieved from http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/30-thought-provoking-questions-you-should-ask-yourself-every-day.html
- Wood, K. (2013). The lost art of introspection: Why you must master yourself. Expert Enough. Retrieved from http://expertenough.com/2990/the-lost-art-of-introspection-why-you-must-master-yourself
- Woronko, M. (n.d.). The power of self-reflection: Ten questions you should ask yourself. Lifehack. Retrieved from http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/the-power-self-reflection-ten-questions-you-should-ask-yourself.html