With self-reflection, take small doses only.

“This is not a synthale kind of night.”
Bashir in Star Trek DS9

I got a question regarding what I had written at the end of one of my postings:

one quick question: would you explain a little bit more your final remark: “As with any self-reflection, remember to take small doses only.” The reason(s) of “small doses only”?

I think it’s a good question. While self-reflection might sound positive (and often is), I think it’s also easy for self-reflection to have negative consequences if you do too much too quickly. Not only finding out negative things about yourself, but also confronting yourself with a lot of data about yourself and focusing on the negative aspects. After all, self-reflection is usually tied in with self-improvement, and when it comes to improvement, we rarely look at things where we achieve our standards.

I think the issue becomes more clear when looking at a way to find out more about yourself, which I’ve used for a couple of years. One thing I strongly recommend is creating an infrastructure to capture and collect your ideas. Creativity needs organization and organizing your ideas (and your work) is often the only way to succeed. You need to have your ideas easily available to work with.

Now imagine using that infrastructure for a very personal creative project: yourself.

Unless you simply adopt an identity that is presented to you (e.g., by some “authority” in your environment) you have to create yourself. It’s not like “who you are” is lying somewhere around for you to find, and it’s not that life came with a handbook either.

So imagine what happens if you apply that capturing and collecting infrastructure to ideas, reflections, and information about yourself. For example, capturing:

  • what other people tell you (taking agenda of the source into account),
  • the moments of insight many people have when they find out something about themselves they had not realized before,
  • the situations when you achieved or failed to adhere to your standards,
  • and much more.

Nothing gets forgotten when you capture it immediately, and hey, the infrastructure is there. Creating a short note is all that’s needed to have these “learning opportunities” available to revisit them in the future. Note that this is not comparable to a diary. There is no “fluff” around it. It’s short pieces of information, almost twitter style. Cells in a content outline so to speak. Created in the moment, not later after some reflection.

And now imagine looking at notes spanning a couple of years, consisting of about thousands of words.

Sure, it can be a nice basis for reflection (if you were honest in your notes and did get good feedback). But while I think learning about oneself is useful, esp. when based on “good” data — confronting yourself with all these notes about yourself can be … overwhelming. Not only because you can get into some sort of “analysis paralysis” where you occupy yourself with notes about yourself without changing anything, but also because it can be an emotional ride that can deplete you quickly.

Having a lot of notes, with content covering moments that range from funny to enlightening to gut-wrenching to hellish in a couple of paragraphs … I mean, even if the actions turned out positive in the end, remembering and reliving moments of failings and despair … holla. Sure, there are likely positive moments as well, but a streak of negative moments can bring you down quickly. Personally, my figurative emotional shields go down in less than an hour. Then I have to stop.

After all, self-reflection to improve yourself does not work if you become discouraged and depressive instead. Perhaps one strategy is to tag notes about oneself immediately. That would allow the use of a program that selects a certain number of notes, mostly positive, but with a few negative ones as well. Another strategy would be to ask specific questions, e.g., “What helped me in situation x?”, and then skim the notes for clues. And it’s probably important to remember to look at some positive moments in the end — or that it is an achievement to try to improve oneself.

But no matter what, I would recommend small doses. Find something out about yourself, then deal with it. Otherwise it’s just too easy to get overwhelmed, mentally and emotionally. And that should not be a consequence of self-reflection.

So yup, in self-reflection, remember to take small doses only.