The Dark Side of Self-Reflection

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Written by Katie Wang.

The start of a new year often prompts introspection. We consider our successes and challenges during the past year, celebrate our accomplishments, and try to understand why certain things did not go as well as we would have liked. While reflecting on our past behaviors serves us well in many situations, it can be problematic when we become overly critical of ourselves and fixated on things we cannot change. This form of passive, repetitive thinking about the past, also known as rumination, can make manageable problems seem overwhelming, increasing the risk for mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. After all, asking yourself “Why can’t I get my act together?” or “Why do things like this always happen to me?” after failing an exam or having a fight with your best friend will only make you feel worse about yourself; it is unlikely to help you perform better on the next test or resolve the argument.

There are things you can do to facilitate adaptive self-reflection and help you avoid getting stuck in ruminative thinking. Simple activities, such as distracting yourself by taking a quick walk around the neighborhood, can often get you into a more positive state of mind and help you break free from rumination. Sharing your worries with someone you trust or writing in a journal can also help by allowing you to distance yourself from upsetting events, thus giving you a more constructive perspective. Most importantly, focus on the present and on what you can control.

For example, you might be frustrated with yourself for doing poorly in all your classes last semester. Perhaps you wish you had done a better job with managing academic pressures, which not only hurt your grades but also strained your mental health. There’s no reason to beat yourself up for feeling this way; it’s OK to be frustrated and upset under the circumstances. However, it’s also important to recognize that you can’t change what already happened; asking yourself why you can’t handle stress better over and over again is unlikely to help you do better next semester. You can, however, use the past as a guide for how to change your behaviors in the future. Ask yourself concrete questions, such as “What made me so stressed last semester?” and “What sorts of things can I do to make me more efficient in my studying?” Answers to these questions can help you identify ways to improve your academic performance while also taking better care of your mental health.

The capacity to reflect on our past behaviors is one of the things that makes human beings unique. Depending on how we leverage this capacity, it can serve as a source of important insights or a significant barrier to mental wellness and effective problem-solving. Being aware of the dark side of self-reflection can help us avoid unnecessary self-criticism and allow us to keep our focus on the present and work towards a better future.

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