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How to See Yourself Clearly: Skip the Introspection Trap

Too much introspection can harm you. Self-awareness requires looking outside not just inside.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 7, 2018

The secret to increasing self-awareness

"A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel." ― John Ruskin

Late one night, a blind old man was about to go home after visiting a friend. “Please,” he said to his friend, “may I take your lantern with me?”

“Why carry a lantern?” asked his friend. “You won’t see any better with it.”

“No, perhaps not,” said the blind one. “But others will see me better, and not bump into me.”

So his friend gave the blind man a bamboo lantern — it had a big candle inside. Off the blind man went and, before he had gone too far, a traveler bumped into him.

The blind man was furious. “Why don’t you look out?”  he stormed. “Haven’t you seen the lantern?”

“Lantern? Well, the candle is OUT!” replied the traveler.

Introspection is like a lantern — it might provide light, but it doesn’t guarantee seeing.

The blind man didn’t need any light. However, once he depended on it, he became careless and stopped being aware. The old man literally bumped into a stranger.

Being obsessed with self-improvement can have the same effect. The introspection mode — continually examining your thoughts and feelings — can get you stuck. Rather than becoming more self-aware, you lose touch with yourself (and others).

You might be thinking: “Gustavo, you always write about the importance of self-awareness. I don’t get it.” That’s precisely the point of this post, introspection is something different . Rehashing thoughts doesn’t generate insights.

To see your true self clearly you don’t need light, but to increase self-awareness. That’s the path for personal growth.

Too Much Introspection Can Kill You

“The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.” — Aldous Huxley

Thinking doesn’t mean knowledge.

Contrary to popular belief, people who score high on self-reflection are more stressed, anxious, and less satisfied with their work and personal relationships. They are more self-absorbed and feel less in control of their lives, according to research by organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich and team.

Thinking about yourself is not correlated with knowing yourself.

Australian Psychologist Anthony Grant discovered that the process of self-reflection and insights are logically independent. You may spend considerable time doing introspection without necessarily gaining insight.

Constantly inspecting your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors doesn’t mean you understand them.

Drawing a comparison between introspection and meditation can shed some light. Introspection is of the thinking realm; meditation is of the witnessing realm.

Introspection involves thinking, categorizing, labeling, and analyzing — you are evaluating your thoughts and emotions. Meditation is about being aware of what you’re doing and just observing — you contemplate your thoughts without judging them.

The Introspection Mode Trap

"The problem with introspection is that it has no end."― Philip K. Dick

Self-reflection is not wrong – how most people do it is.

Many people approach self-improvement with a rigid mindset — they expect to find a perfect answer. However, mindfulness is not about having the right formula but about appreciating the journey.

Jon Kabat-Zinn said: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Mindfulness is the practice of noticing the degree to which we are identified with our thoughts and beliefs. It’s creating space for:

  • Awareness, not thinking
  • An attitude of openness and curiosity, not judging
  • Flexibility of attention, not resisting

When you fall into the introspection trap, you become careless – as happened to the blind man. By becoming dependent on the lamp, you lose touch with yourself.

Here’s how the introspection trap works.

1. You let self-doubt take over

Your mind is fragile. Too much thinking invites self-doubt to take over. When you lose touch with yourself, you stop appreciating what you’re worth. What’s essential is invisible to reason.

Self-doubt erodes confidence. You start feeling sorry for yourself. Self-pity is an exaggerated sense of sorrow when you become a victim of your inner-critic. The quest for finding who you are can turn you upside down.

2. You rehash memories over and over

Rumination is an ineffective coping behavior when we cannot accept reality. Chewing sad experiences or conversations over and over is like getting stuck in the sand.

Rehashing memories is like watching the same movie over and over. You know the storyline by heart — pretending a different ending is useless. Spinning a story will get you stuck without providing any insights.

3. You’re obsessed with finding ‘the’ truth

Most people do soul searching to find the perfect answer. However, there’s no absolute truth. We all have different challenges — there’s no such a thing as a perfect solution that addresses everyone’s questions.

Trying to find ‘the’ truth can blind us. You stop observing; no answer will ever be good enough. It’s better to be kind to yourself than to be right. Be compassionate with yourself. What seems right today might not work for you tomorrow.

Your questions will change; so will your answers.

4. Your thoughts can eat you alive

Having thoughts is normal. But, when you fall into the introspection trap, you let your thoughts take over. Too much thinking can get you distracted. Or, even worse, they can cloud your mind.

Your thoughts are like wolves that live inside of you, as I wrote here. If you don’t tame them, they will eat you alive. You need to neutralize your thoughts to avoid turning introspection into a suffering game.

5. You have a perfectionist mindset

Perfectionism is the enemy of change. When your standards are too high, nothing you think or do, will ever be enough. Instead of helping you uncover insights, introspection feeds your judgmental mind.

Self-reflection without compassion is torture — it’s your judgmental self on steroids. Constantly trying to over-perform triggers the fear of making mistakes and underperforming. Reflect to improve, not to become perfect.

Increasing Self-Awareness Requires Looking Outside, Too

"Self is a sea boundless and measureless." – Kahlil Gibran

To know yourself is to accept yourself.

Self-awareness requires observing and accepting who you are — not who you should or shouldn’t be. Acceptance is embracing every part of your ‘self’, not just the nice bits.

Thinking about yourself isn’t necessarily correlated with knowing yourself. It can sometimes create the opposite effect: the more time you spend in introspective mode, the less self-aware you become.

You can spend a whole weekend doing introspection and, come Monday, you won’t have improved your self-knowledge.

Self-awareness is not just a nice to have. People with high self-awareness are more confident and creative, communicate more effectively, and build stronger relationships, as Tasha Eurich explains in this HBR article.

To increase your self-awareness you need to look outside, not just inside

Focusing too much on yourself is a trap. You stop noticing others, as happened to the old man. He wanted the lamp to make him visible to others but forgot that people don’t see in us what we expect.

People who score high in self-awareness (“Aware”) know themselves well and also understand how others see them.

a 2x2 by self-awareness matrix describing the four self awareness archetypes internal and external self-awareness
Source: Harvard Business Review

Conversely, “Introspectors” lack external self-awareness. They are unaware of their blind-spots — they don’t know what they don’t know. Looking for external feedback is critical to developing external self-awareness.

“Pleasers” are focused on external perception. They care so much about what others think of them that they aren’t authentic. They lost touch with themselves and don’t do much about it. Instead of seeking fulfillment, they wear the masks others expect from them, as I wrote here.

“Seekers” are lost souls. They lack clarity on who they are or what they stand for. They’re also clueless about how others perceive them. Being a “seeker” can be a temporary or permanent stage. We all lose clarity of who we are from time to time – some people simply decide not to do anything about it.

This matrix is helpful to assess where you are and what you need to work on. However, life cannot be lived through the eyes of a 2×2 graph.

Don’t get stuck if you fall into a “less sexy” quadrant.

Conquer perfectionism before it conquers you.

The Path of The Self Aware Person

"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." ― Aristotle

Developing self-awareness is not a goal; it’s the purpose of your existence. We spend our whole life understanding who we are.

The secret to increasing self-awareness that being obsessed with understanding your inner-self can get you stuck.

You are mutable. The person you are today is not the same ‘you’ you were ten years ago. Knowing yourself requires letting go of who you used to be or the choices you made — what you added and subtracted to your life.

Understand your personal evolution. Write down all the things that once defined who you were, but are no longer part of you. Reflect. We believe that stuff defines us. Yet, though we get rid of many beliefs, behaviors, or objects throughout our lives, we continue to be who we are.

The secret to increasing self-awareness is not just about how well you know yourself, but how others see you.

Ask for feedback. What are you good at? What turns you into a difficult person? Why do people like you? Why do some people feel uncomfortable with you? Write your answers. Ask several people to answer the question too. Compare notes. Learn from how other people see you.

Reflect without being judgmental. Practice meditation. Observe your thoughts and call them “thinking.” Don’t label them. Don’t categorize your ideas into right or wrong; you are the collection of all your thoughts.

Spend time reconnecting with the world around you. You are who you know. You are how other people see you. You are part of an abundant universe. We are all interconnected. Your identity influences more than your own behaviors.

Self-awareness makes you more confident. You no longer need a lamp to make you visible to others.

Do you consider yourself a self-aware person? Share your story.

Increase Your Self Awareness

Check out my book: Stretch Your Mind

What do you think?



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