The right way to be introspective
Obsessive navel-gazing can be satisfying, but the problem is, it can also be damaging. Organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich suggests ways to escape the loop of rumination and learn how to move forward, for real.
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It was Tuesday evening around 11 pm. Holed up in my dark office, I sat staring at a set of freshly analysed data. A few weeks earlier, my team and I had run a study looking at the relationship between self-reflection and outcomes like happiness, stress and job satisfaction. I was confident the results would show that people who spent time and energy examining themselves would have a clearer understanding of themselves and that this knowledge would have positive effects throughout their lives.
But to my astonishment, our data told the exact opposite story. The people who scored high on self-reflection were more stressed, depressed and anxious; less satisfied with their jobs and relationships; more self-absorbed; and felt less in control of their lives. What’s more, these negative consequences seemed to increase the more they reflected.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I’d stumbled upon a myth about self-awareness and one that researchers are only beginning to understand. University of Sydney psychologist Dr Anthony M. Grant discovered that people who possess greater insight — which he defines as an intuitive understanding of ourselves — enjoy stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose and greater well-being, self-acceptance and happiness.
Similar studies have shown that people high in insight feel more in control of their lives, show more dramatic personal growth, enjoy better relationships and feel calmer and more content. However, Grant and others have also come to realise there’s no relationship between introspection and insight. This means that the act of thinking about ourselves isn’t necessarily correlated with knowing ourselves. And, in a few cases, they’ve even found the opposite: The more time the participants spend in introspection, the less self-knowledge they have. In other words, we can spend endless amounts of time in self-reflection but emerge with no more self-insight than when we started.
Why does this matter? After so many years of researching the subject of insight, I’ve come to believe that the qualities most critical for success in today’s world — including emotional intelligence, empathy, influence, persuasion, communication and collaboration — all stem from self-awareness (TEDxMileHigh talk: Learning to be awesome at everything you do). If we’re not self-aware, it’s almost impossible to master the skills that make us stronger team players, superior leaders and better relationship builders, either at work or in the rest of our lives.
Introspection is arguably the most universally hailed path to internal self-awareness. After all, what better way is there to increase our self-knowledge than to look inward, to delve deeply into our experiences and emotions, and to understand why we are the way we are? When we reflect, we might be trying to understand our feelings (Why am I so upset after that meeting?), questioning our beliefs (Do I really believe what I think I believe?), figuring out our future (What career would make me truly happy?) or trying to explain a negative outcome or pattern (Why do I beat myself up so much for minor mistakes?).
But my study results, along with those of Dr Grant and others, appear to show this kind of self-reflection doesn’t necessarily help people become more self-aware. One study examined the coping style and subsequent adjustment of men who had just lost a partner to AIDS. Although those who engaged in introspection — such as reflecting on how they would deal with life without their partners — had higher morale in the month following their loss, they were more depressed one year later. Another study of more than 14,000 university students showed that introspection was associated with poorer well-being. Other research suggests that self-analysers tend to have more anxiety, less positive social experiences and more negative attitudes about themselves.
In truth, introspection can cloud our self-perceptions and unleash a host of unintended consequences. Sometimes it may bring to the surface unproductive and upsetting emotions that can swamp us and impede positive action. Introspection might also lull us into a false sense of certainty that we’ve identified the real issue. Buddhist scholar Tarthang Tulku uses an apt analogy: When we introspect, our response is similar to a hungry cat watching mice. We eagerly pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value.
The problem with introspection isn’t that it’s categorically ineffective, but that we don’t always do it right. When we examine the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours — which we often do by asking ourselves why questions — we tend to search for the easiest and most plausible answers. Generally, once we’ve found one or two, we stop looking. This can be the result of our innate confirmation bias, which prompts us to lean toward reasons that confirm our existing beliefs.
Asking “Why?” in one study appeared to cause the participants to fixate on their problems instead of moving forward.
Asking why can sometimes cause our brains to mislead us. Let’s say I ask you to list all the reasons why your relationship is going the way it is. And let’s say that last night, your spouse stayed out at the office happy hour later than planned, leaving you alone to cook dinner for your visiting, rather dull, in-laws. Because of something called the “recency effect”, this could be your most salient thought about your relationship, so in reply to my question, your brain may misdirect you to the first available explanation — he doesn’t spend enough time at home and leaves me to deal with his parents — even though that behaviour is quite rare. Likewise, let’s say your spouse had gone to happy hour and then came home and surprised you with a weekend getaway; your brain could mislead you to think your relationship is in better shape than it really is.
Another reason that asking why is not always so beneficial is the negative impact it can have on our overall mental health. In one study, after British university students failed what they were told was an intelligence test, they were asked to write about why they felt the way they did. Compared to a control group, they were more depressed immediately afterwards and these negative effects persisted 12 hours later. Asking why appeared to cause the participants to fixate on their problems and place blame instead of moving forward in a healthy and productive way.
So, if asking why isn’t so helpful, what should we ask? A study by psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William B. Swann, Jr arrived at a simple answer. The researchers told a group of undergraduates that two raters would evaluate their personality based on a test of “sociability, likeability and interestingness” they’d taken earlier in the semester. Then they asked the students to judge the accuracy of their results.
In the course of my research on insight, my team and I compiled a group of 50 self-awareness “unicorns”: people we found who were rated high in self-awareness (both by themselves and by others) but who had started out with only low to moderate self-awareness. When we looked at their speech patterns, our unicorns reported asking what often and why rarely. In fact, when we analysed the transcripts of our interviews, the word why appeared less than 150 times, but the word what appeared more than 1,000 times. One unicorn, a 42-year-old mother who had walked away from a career as a lawyer when she finally realised that there was no joy for her in that path, explained it this way: “If you ask why, [I think] you’re putting yourself into a victim mentality …. When I feel anything other than peace, I say, ‘What’s going on? What am I feeling? What is the dialogue inside my head? What’s another way to see this situation?’ or ‘What can I do to respond better?’”
So, when it comes to developing internal self-awareness, I like to use a simple tool that I call What not why. Why questions can draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future. In addition to helping us gain insight, asking what instead of why can be used to help us better understand and manage our emotions.
Let’s say you’re in a terrible mood after work one day. Asking “Why do I feel this way?” might elicit such unhelpful answers as “Because I hate Mondays!” or “Because I’m just a negative person!” Instead, if you ask “What am I feeling right now?” you could realise you’re feeling overwhelmed at work, exhausted and hungry. Armed with that knowledge, you might decide to fix yourself dinner, call a friend or commit to an early bedtime.
At times, asking what instead of why can force us to name our emotions, a process that a strong body of research has shown to be effective. Evidence shows the simple act of translating our emotions into language — versus simply experiencing them — can stop our brains from activating our amygdala, the fight-or-flight command centre. This, in turn, seems to help us stay in control.
However, there is one important exception to What not why. When you’re navigating business challenges or solving problems in your team or organisation, asking why can be critical. For example, if a member of your team drops the ball on an important client project, not exploring why it happened means you risk recurrences of the problem. Or, if a new product fails, you need to know the reason to ensure that your products are better in the future. A good rule of thumb, then, is that why questions are generally better to help us understand events in our environment and what questions are generally better to help us understand ourselves.
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