The Right Way(s) to Do Introspection

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Photo: Martin Puddy/Getty Images

Like so many good and timeless things, knowing thyself has been co-opted by New Agey thought leaders and feel-good, if shallow, party anthems. Yet to know yourself, know your worth remains an elusive and meaningful project in a life. As any hand-wringing take about modernity has duly informed you, we have less room for contemplation than (perhaps) ever: There are friends to see, family to care for, work to do, bills to pay, trains to catch, tweets to fave. When alone time does present itself, facing it without any entertainment to occupy the mind risks anxiety, whether in its more positive or negative guises. So it’s all too easy to go from appointment to appointment, relationship to relationship, without actually knowing what the hell you feel and think about the things in your life, especially, one would assume, in a stimulation-saturated city like New York.

While it’s easy to neglect introspection, fancy science says that it’s rather important for leading a life. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose findings about how emotion shapes decision-making skewered the centuries-old insistence that cold logic is the optimal mode of navigating life, has said that what we refer to as insight is really the accumulation of getting intimate with what you already know. “What we construct as wisdom over time is actually the result of cultivating that knowledge of how our emotions behaved and what we learn from them,” he explains.

Introspection, however, takes healthy and unhealthy forms. Psychologists split introspection, that peering inside of one’s self, into two primary varieties. There’s self-reflection, which has a “positive valence,” psych-speak for “it feels good,” and rumination, which has a “negative valence.” Not only does it feel bad, it can start a spiral that can be hard to get out of. Unlike worry, which is concerned with the future, rumination rehearses things you did or that were done to you in the past. Todd Farchione, an assistant professor at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, tells Science of Us that self-examination can be valuable, as it helps your understanding of yourself and nudges along your growth as an individual. But things go off the rails when you start interpreting and reinterpreting your emotional state. If you start feeling bad about feeling bad, that’s rumination. “Ideally, approach the experience in a more open, I suppose, compassionate way,” Farchione says. “Not that the feeling is right or wrong, but simply ‘What am I feeling?’” From that more accommodating perspective, you can then tease out the various ingredients of your interior state. From there, you can decide how to respond.

Like anything else, reflection can go too far. Reflection starts working against you when it prevents you from taking action, Farchione says, and this is precisely what can happen in depression. “There’s a tendency for the person to ruminate about how the depression is interfering with their life, so they become preoccupied with the depressive state they’re experiencing, which of course creates more problems — this idea of ‘can’t function until this depression resolves,’” he says. Reflecting on the depression leads to further depression, and soon you start avoiding and withdrawing. That’s where the “acceptance” piece of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an intervention that’s been super successful in treating anxiety and depression and getting people to go for runs, comes into play. You’ve got to accept that you feel depressed, and from there you can move forward. Farchione phrases it as a question: “Can I, with the feelings I have, commit to the things that are important in my life? Can I still go out with my friends and do the things I need to do?” he says. “If I’m ruminating on it, I can get easily stuck in that process.”

This is where adding structure may help. Over 40 years of research, the University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker has found that taking 20 minutes a day to write expressively about painful memories or current struggles has breathtakingly powerful effects, from improving immune function and reducing blood pressure to helping fired workers get hired faster, precisely because, as Susan David noted for Science of Us, it helped them go from immobilized to mobile. “Just months after the emotionally charged writing sessions, the men who had delved into how they truly felt were three times more likely to have been reemployed compared with those who had not,” she writes. “Not only did the writing help the men process their experiences, it helped them step out from their despondent inertia and into meaningful action.” Just as in bowling, adding some bumpers ensures that you don’t end up going into the gutter.

Along with writing, another ancient technology for allowing the unconscious to fruitfully become conscious is meditation. “People think meditation is about quelling thought, but in Tibetan Buddhism, contemplation can be thought of as a directed thinking practice, a way of thinking with greater boundaries and greater intention,” explains Ethan Nichtern, a senior teacher in Shambhala Buddhism and author of The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. In your regular mindfulness meditation, the place you gather (and regather) your attention is your breathing and the sensations that surround it. But in a contemplation practice — say for 20 or 30 minutes — the object of meditation is a word or a phrase. “Let’s say you’re thinking of making a career change,” he says. “You would think of a question or a phrase that is short enough to be a nonproliferating anchor for attention.” It should be single-pointed enough that your attention can be gently placed back on it when it inevitably wanders off — a well-lit camp that you can return to after wandering around in the woods of your psyche for a while. Simple is good: What should I do? What do I want to do? “You don’t treat it like a mantra, you let it arise and make space, see what comes up,” Nichtern says. “Maybe there’s a thought of fear about changing career. An image, a memory, maybe not. Rather than trying to narrow in on one answer, find what feelings and insights are around a question.”

To Nichtern, the big difference between contemplation — a structured form of reflection — and rumination is that when you’re contemplating, your awareness and attention are in charge, but when you’re perseverating, your mind wanders around like a bull in a china shop. But these valences aren’t purely abstract; as the word feeling itself attests, emotions are sensory. With rumination, there’s a tightness, maybe in your neck, maybe in your hips, and yogalike looseness with reflection. “All of these traits feel a certain way,” he says, “that’s the best way to know if you’re freaking out.” That’s one of the subtle benefits of cultivating a mindfulness practice: Experienced meditators have enhanced proprioception, or bodily awareness, even more so than trained dancers, according to a 2010 study. To Nichtern, all this is indicative of one of the fundamental postulations underlying Buddhist thought: that your mind is essentially good, and if you take the time to cultivate it, it will blossom.