A framework for deep introspection

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Whenever you are thinking about yourself, the way you feel about stuff, and whether how you acted is good or wrong, you are being introspective.

This is a process that allows us to gain self-awareness, especially in times when that goes adrift. Because we have our personal sight of the world and its happening, each of us can learn different things from the same event. Our individual growth provides us with unique neural patterns. These reflect onto the way we think and feel. Our introspections follow the same flow.

Why do we bother with rehearsing thoughts about things in the past? Because we want to know where we stand when chaos comes. Yet, these are usually thoughts that might not follow a factual logic, even if we are trying to be rational.

So, it isn’t a surprise that an introspective done bad does more harm than good. This can be either the gateway to self-awareness, or to melancholy, rumination, and depression. We need this kind of moment to make great decisions while catching a breath; to mourn over some loss; to put mental chaos into some sort of order.

Introspective is a very emotional and personal process. It is when we process our feelings towards people and things, alone in our room, or when we write our thoughts in a diary. We reflect our personality – our Self – in our thoughts, which means they are independent from our feelings (and cannot).

This means that we must have a hold on our emotional self so that it does not go crazy and take over the process. But how to do it?

Managing thoughts through meditation

We cannot silence thoughts permanently. At least, most of us cannot. It requires focus and energy, but when we are tired or do not feel well this is easier to be said than done.

However, we can reprocess them. Breathing techniques and meditation are very helpful, but their long-lasting effects are seen when we are consistent. Whenever I feel troubled, I do morning sessions immediately after waking up. This way, I oxygenate my brain and my body, which lowers the level of stress.

Even if thoughts occur to my mind, I let them come and leave rather than fighting them. I do not want mental tension, but at the same time, my priority is to keep the breathing cycle and the exercise as priority, the rest can happen in the background. Becoming a noise. And this noise decreases every day. It becomes easier for me to stay concentrated on mental imagery, body sensations, my heartbeat.

This makes it easier to deal with things like:

  • anxieties and fear
  • self-deception
  • emotional hijacks
  • dangerous or bad events
  • hits on self-esteem and drive
  • … and even good ideas that makes us enthusiast (but are still only ideas)

A model of retrospective introspection

For years I believed that emotions are often a nuisance and that with a purely rational mind we can outperform the pressure they put on us.

The truth is that we cannot silence emotions either, but we can govern them. To do that, we must harness them in context. How to do that?

My exercise of self-reflection involves two steps. The first one is a description of the facts, where I try to recall only the happenings. Subjects, actions, objects. Who, what, how, when, where. I prefer to do that by writing in my journal, two reasons I am about to explain.

Then, I think of why: I make hypothesis. I may think I know why something goes in a way, but I have only an incomplete picture. This is for me an important statement: that I might know better than somebody else, but never know anything perfectly and I am going to be biased, somehow. I start to fill in details by looking back at the fact.

This first exercise is not introspection, but a retrospective. I look back at the story, and I try to understand what went right, and what did not.

And here is why I prefer written statements:

  1. I look for semantics that let transpire my emotions. When I use harsh words rather than neutral, if I repeat myself many times, and what are the outstanding things. This is a further self-check that I do, before entering introspective.
  2. I can read this retrospective look in a second moment, for example when I am totally fine with myself – no tired, no headache. This provides a quasi-external perspective, surely a different one, and may help to settle unresolved situations.

These reasons are also valid for the introspective.

I ask myself many questions, these are the most recurring ones.
  • What do I remember best?
  • What did I miss? What I don’t know?
  • What are my assumptions?
  • Which facts are supporting my assumptions and why?
  • Where else I should have been better focused?

Reporting the facts is important to create the context that puts in motion our emotional brain. We are less than a cold-minded observers: if we feel involved in events, they become part of our story, and our reactions (evident or not) are elicited.

Retrospective sheds a light on facts that are different from the way we lived during the events we narrate in our mind or in our journal. It serves the purpose to understand ourselves in regard to these events.

These are some regulars during my introspections:
  • How much attention did I give to this? Why?
  • To which degree do I feel personally involved?
  • Was there something I disagree with, or I did not like?
  • What should I be detached for?
  • What does this tell me about myself?

The goal I try to achieve with this mental framework is to keep a critical eye on my way through the world.

I have a personal interest in knowing how my brain works: it affects my relationship, my social behavior, my interest and motivation for the things I love. It helps me learn more about myself every day.

Of course, this is not something that gets resolved in two hours with my back leaning over my diaries. The time this process takes varies, according to the situation.

What if it is an urgent matter?

Usually, it takes me longer breaks in between writing. Breaks filled by many days of meditations, breathing exercises, and/or physical exercise. Sometimes, I am done in between a few cups of tea or coffee.

It is important to assert here, that I use this process for what I deem important, but not urgent. I do not spend longer than one hour a day in it, for I do not want those thoughts to become my main business.

This way I avoid ruminating too much, and I get more things solved.

If you aren’t used to this, you might as well look at my Self-Coaching Toolbox. That is even more effective if what you are thinking about not only is important, but also critical right now.

In the Self-Coach Toolbox, you will find:

  • Simple breathing exercises to feel good
  • Solution-focused questions to reframe your thoughts
  • How to put together an action plan

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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