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Self-reflection could link to negative feelings, but it could also be helpful if you know how to avoid those pitfalls. So let’s learn how self-reflection works and get to know yourself in a healthy way!

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[ ♪INTRO ].

You know what I hate? When you’re lying in bed, starting to fall asleep, but then suddenly your brain decides to remind you about some embarrassing thing you did that day, or that year, or like 12 years ago.

In fact, your brain says, Let’s go over all the dumb things you’ve done ever! When this happens, it typically doesn’t feel very good. And it might make you think self-reflection isn’t so great.

But lots of therapies are based on the idea that digging up stressors and emotional conflicts from your past is healthy and leads to positive changes. Well, we live in a complex and confusing world, and it turns out spending time reflecting on yourself and your problems can be harmful. But, it can also be good for you — if you avoid some pitfalls.

As with many things in psychology, the idea that going over your problems can help fix them goes all the way back to Freud. He thought that digging up unresolved conflicts from your childhood would help you solve current struggles with things like depression or anxiety. Basically, the idea was that knowing what was distressing you would essentially make it dissolve — that truly knowing yourself was a solution in itself.

He called this idea insight. And though we've moved on a lot from Freud's ideas of how the mind works, the concept of insight has stuck around. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy does often focus on changing people's biased perceptions of themselves and others — which tends to involve a lot of reviewing your past.

So you might think self-reflection is universally great. But that’s not what’s seen in studies. In fact, self-reflection tends to have no correlation to measures of well-being, or even a negative correlation at times.

And that’s because simply reflecting doesn’t automatically guarantee insight, and you can self-reflect in harmful ways, like rumination. Rumination is when you focus on negative feelings, like your anxiety and sadness, as well as the causes and consequences of those feelings. Generally speaking, this isn't the best way to spend your time; it seems to make symptoms of anxiety and depression worse.

For example, a 2010 study asked 121 survey respondents about how much they engage in self-reflection and rumination, and whether or not they experience insight about their feelings, and then correlated their responses to other measures of well-being. Across the board, experiencing insight about their feelings was associated with greater feelings of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in life, as well as having better relationships with others and more self-acceptance. But more self-reflection wasn’t correlated with more insight, or most measures of well-being, for that matter.

That’s probably because their self-reflection included rumination. Among the study participants, a lot of rumination was linked to all sorts of negative feelings. And rumination can be an even bigger problem if you co-ruminate — meaning you get together with all your friends to dwell on your bad feelings — especially when you’re young.

So self-reflection doesn't necessarily lead to insight, and runs the risk of making you feel worse. But that doesn’t mean that you should never stop and reflect. One thing that helps steer you toward insight is if your reflection focuses on others.

When you think all the bad things going on in your life, you can focus on your own personal distress, or you can use your empathy to consider others' perspectives. Psychologists use the emotional labels "shame" and "guilt" to refer to these two kinds of reflection — shame when it’s all about you, and guilt when it’s about your relationships with others. I only have that 2nd one.

Like, in a 2004 study , 177 college students were given a bunch of hypothetical scenarios where they were kind of the bad guy — they’d just forgotten to meet a friend for lunch, for example. Researchers took it as an indication of shame if their response to the scenarios was to say they were just an inconsiderate person. If they said they'd try to make it up to the friend as soon as possible, though, that was an indication of guilt.

And people who reported more "shame" responses had lower self-esteem and more personal distress — but those who had more "guilt" reactions showed the opposite, and also scored higher on a measure of empathy. Basically, the researchers argue that self-attention is what makes the difference. When you focus more on yourself, your problems and bad things happening to you, you just make yourself feel worse about you.

But focusing your pondering on how others might feel, empathizing with them, and thinking about how you can maintain your relationships, helps you feel better. And that may be because focusing on others helps you learn from mistakes you’ve made — or it could just be that social connection is important to well-being, and focusing on others keeps you connected. Also, self reflection isn’t the only way to insight.

Anything that leads to that "aha!" experience that you get when you solve a problem can work, and some people can get there without the need for a lot self-reflection. Like we said before, many kinds of therapy focus on improving people's insight — and lots of them seem to work well, depending on what problems they're treating. But there aren’t a lot of studies done with people who don’t have clinical disorders to tease out exactly what about therapy works so well, and what could be done outside the therapist’s office.

A few things have been tried, like life coaches who focus on objective measures of performance, or imagery exercises, but there just isn’t a ton of research on these ideas, so how well they work is unclear. Psychologists are still working on figuring out the best ways to become more insightful — and how to avoid rumination in the process. In the meantime, if you feel like you’ve got some problems that keep coming up and make you dwell on negative feelings, it’s always a good idea to talk to a professional about it.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, where we dig into psychological science to understand how these big brains of ours work. If you like what we do and want to support the free, educational content we create, you might consider becoming one of our patrons on Patreon. Because that is really awesome and we love it. [ ♪OUTRO ].