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Why we avoid self-reflection, even though it’s good for us

You don’t have to be determined to avoid self-reflection these days. Most of us carry app-filled smart phones in our pockets to provide constant stimulation and distraction. Binge-watching shows on Netflix, social media, and even books all offer a ready escape from being alone with ourselves. Podcasts were my favorite way to avoid self-reflection until I tried going without them for a single walk two years ago.

After watching my productivity and free time slump for months, thanks to the two-hour walks our son required for a morning nap (believe me, we tried everything else), I had a break-through plan. I decided to ditch podcasts and use my walks to either think of fresh writing ideas or pray.

Mind you, I love podcasts. I hardly did anything without a podcast two years ago. I believed I was on the brink of a productivity explosion. I set off on my walk and promptly drove myself crazy with worry. Questions darted every which way in my mind:

• What did my new client really think of me?
• Would he even pay on time?
• What about that next book project? Would the editor go for it?
• Will people actually want to read it?
• Do people even take me seriously as an author?
• Who am I kidding? I’m going down in flames.
• What if we go broke?
• Do I need to find a new career?
• What would I put on my resume?

After this quick descent into white knuckling anxiety that left me short of breath alongside an ironically tranquil river, I opted to return to my podcasts for the next walk. In fact, the podcasts were just one of the many ways I avoided being alone with my thoughts.

Why we medicate through distraction

When I finally turned off my podcasts, here’s what I discovered: I desperately need self-reflection, but I avoid it. Here are a few reasons why:

It’s easier to watch other people reflect on themselves: Sign me up for an afternoon watching other people bare their souls on Facebook. It’s far more difficult to turn my gaze inward.

Distractions are good by themselves: We can always tell ourselves there’s nothing wrong with using a smart phone, watching television, or listening to podcasts. However, too much time devoted to these things may leave little space for self-reflection.

We fear there’s no cure for our fears: It was terrible to finally face my anxiety and fears. When I talked with my wife and a few trusted friends about the things I uncovered during my walk, I realized that a big contributor to my resistance was the fear that I couldn’t change anything.

We’re genuinely busy: My life back then was full, and with another kid added to the pack, it’s even crazier now. Self-reflection demands sacrifices and changes to our schedules. It has to be a conscious choice.

We don’t see how it could help: When I first set out on my walks, I didn’t see how self-reflection could actually help. However, I now recognize the sources of my anxieties and worries, and I’m learning ways to deal with them.

We don’t know where to begin: Although I started out well-intentioned on that first walk, I could have used structure or guidance for my self-reflection. Even if we know that self-reflection could help us and we’re prepared to make time to deal with the worries and concerns bubbling beneath the surface, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Cultivating Self-Reflection

It has taken a lot of trial and error to find healthy practices of self-reflection. I now use the spiritual exercise known as the Examen (via the “Examine” app) as a guide to self-reflection.

When I take walks, I pay attention to my body. Am I gripping the stroller tightly? Am I short of breath? Am I clenching my teeth? If so, then I need to explore my thoughts, especially through free writing or journaling. Why is a certain topic causing these reactions?

Awareness of my body’s physical signs of anxiety helps me stop in order to ask probing questions about the root causes of anxiety. Rather than just assuming my anxiety must have a reasonable basis, I assume that some probing questions will help, especially if I seek out a friend’s counsel later.

Lastly, I often resort to either reciting prayers or centering prayer throughout my day—the latter is typically a single word that I use to center my thoughts on God’s presence. You don’t have to pray if that’s not your thing, but I’ve found that left to my own devices, my mind can wander to the worst-case scenario in no time. These prepared words offer a sanctuary of sorts and redirect my thoughts to healthy places.

How do you practice self-reflection? Is there one particular barrier that keeps you from it?

15_02_13_PrayWriteGrow copyThis post was adapted from Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together. The $.99 pre-order sale ends March 10, 2015. The price goes up to $1.99 for its release on March 11-13. Order your copy here:
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  1. Jlynn

    Long walks in nature, prayer, sitting quietly and rocking in the rocking chair, instrumental relaxing music, paying attention to my body (clenched jaw, etc.), these are all ways that I start self-reflection.

    Barriers would be watching tv, thinking I’m too busy, avoidance, etc.

    • ed cyzewski

      I’ll second the part about walks. Regular walks have been so good for my peace of mind.

  2. Absolutely Tara

    I love this post. Great insight. I have to admit that although I LOVE self reflection, I often find myself feeling daunted by the prospect of taking the time out to meditate or think about things. It’s usually not until I feel consternated to the point of not being able to move forward, that I stop and take the time to reflect.

    • ed cyzewski

      Yes, sometimes the practice itself isn’t so bad. It’s just the stopping that gets us!

  3. Liz P

    I love running because it gives me time alone with my thoughts. Or an empty brain because I am focusing on the next step. I need both. Gardening and housework are also other good opportunities for reflection. Especially mowing. But if I have a big problem I write it out or talk it out. The book sounds great and I’ve preordered it!

  4. joanna n.

    it’s amazing how God recently has been bringing blog posts, Scriptures, people, & Bible verses into my life that all center around one topic: thoughts. i’ve concluded that Satan realizes how powerful our thoughts are & he’ll do whatever he can to take control of them. thus, i’ve found that having Scripture ready when satan comes knocking w/ his lies is a powerful force; what better way to combat lies than w/ Truth? thanks for being one of God’s tools to work in my garden of thought!

  5. Amanda S @ Passionately Simple Life

    During the warmer months, walking around the park nearby and taking the dog on her daily walk really sets my day in motion. It requires me to spend the time with myself I never get to. During these walks I’ve found such a range of emotions, they make me wonder where I’ve been all this time. Lately, I’ve been trying to start the day off with scripture with it being cold and all and seeing how it can change and affect my day.

  6. Katherine Willis Pershey

    I completely recognized myself in your story, Ed. I know that I do the same thing – fill every available moment with distraction/work/entertainment, to the detriment of my spirit. I’m learning that swimming and yoga are key for me – even though I practice them in community, there’s no way to sneak in checking email or listening to podcasts, etc.

    • Ed Cyzewski

      Back when we lived near a recreation center, I used to love swimming, and I often recited prayers from the office just to keep my mind “on track” as I did my laps. Something about staring at a long black line for a half hour prompted me to worry about existence and such.

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