Updated: May 5, 2022
Discover what introspection is and the tools you need to do it.
Generally, introspection involves looking inward to try to understand ourselves. It does not involve looking outward. For example, we can learn about our internal states by asking other people to give us feedback or by looking in the mirror and seeing our facial expressions, but these are not considered forms of introspection (Schwitzgebel, 2012).
Given psychology is all about the mind, introspection plays an important role in both mental health. For example, if we are unable to identify our emotions, how are we supposed to understand or manage them? Or, if we are unable to notice the thoughts that give rise to negative emotions, how are we to change these thoughts to create a happier mind? Through introspection, we can gain knowledge about our inner workings. This knowledge can help us improve our lives.
Why Might We Want to Be More Introspective?
Scientists suggest that many states are accessible to us through introspection. These states include attitudes, beliefs, desires, evaluations, intentions, emotions, and sensory experiences (Schwitzgebel, 2012). On the other hand, it's thought that our personality traits are not available to us through introspection, largely because we often have a difficult time knowing precisely what our character traits are.
Given we all experience these states, introspection is a tool that is available to all of us. With practice and effort, we can improve our ability to introspect, better understand ourselves, and use this knowledge to create the life we desire. So how does one gain (or improve) their ability to look inward?
How to Be More Introspective
To improve introspection, we have to find ways to make the information in our minds more accessible—we need to bring it toward consciousness (Vermersch, 1999). So let's talk about how to do that.
One theory of introspection is that it is self-monitoring—it is a simple scanning process that involves simply noticing what's going on in our minds (Schwitzgebel, 2012). If this is true, it would require relatively little effort and would likely be aided by psychological tools like mindful meditation.
Mindfulness is a technique that simply involves observing without judgment. Thoughts, emotions, and other information flow through your mind and you simply notice. You might also imagine these thoughts floating away like clouds in the sky. By quieting your mind, you allow yourself to observe, learn, and gain insights about your inner workings.
Introspection may be viewed as a type of self-detection that uses multiple processes. In this view, we pay attention to our internal states and processes. Then we form judgments about them (Schwitzgebel, 2012). In this sense, introspection is a process where our active mind may observe or it may interact with the information. For example, let's say I introspect and notice myself getting really anxious before I have to give a speech. I might judge that this is a bad thing, and suddenly my anxiety starts increasing. Introspecting has just changed my inner state.
Indeed, research shows that paying attention to our negative thoughts and emotions tends to amplify them. So we do need to be careful when looking inward. Be careful to notice how you respond to what you learn. The mindful approach, which is non-judgmental, may indeed be the safest route to self-discovery.
Ask Yourself Questions
Remember, introspection can be used to better understand our attitudes, beliefs, desires, evaluations, intentions, emotions, and sensory experiences. So what exactly do we do? One thing we can do is ask ourselves questions like the ones below:
Who am I?
Who do I want to be?
What do I really want in life?
How do I really feel about myself?
What are my beliefs?
What do I value?
What matters most to me?
What is the right next step for me?
After asking each question, just sit with the question and try to notice, without judgment, what thoughts come to mind. If it's helpful to you, you may also want to get a journal to take notes and record your thoughts.
Is There a Downside to Introspection?
Introspection, when done carefully, can help us learn about ourselves. But we do have to be cautious that well-intentioned introspection doesn't turn into rumination. Rumination is where we turn thoughts over and over again in our minds, continuing to think about something we said—or did or even about who we are—in an effort to solve a problem that can't be solved.
If you find that introspection makes you feel anxious or gets you stuck in your thoughts, then take a step back and try to remember to let thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky or leaves in a river. Also, be careful not to judge yourself or your discoveries.
Introspection is a valuable tool that can help us gain self-insight. With this information, we can hopefully change our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in ways that help us grow our happiness and well-being.
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Schwitzgebel, E. (2012). Introspection, what?. Introspection and consciousness, 29-48.
Vermersch, P. (1999). Introspection as practice. Journal of consciousness studies, 6(2-3), 17-42.