[Image description: The top half of the image has a light pink background with the words “Reflections: whys and hows” written in a brown font. The bottom half of the image has a pale tan background with a mug of black coffee in the center. The bottom of the image has the logo for “The Tending Year.”]
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Since December’s theme is Looking Back, Looking Forward, it would be silly not to include a post on reflection.
The instruction to reflect holds strong across academia, business, and self development. Yet, regardless of its value, many of us fail to actually do the damn thing.
This may be due in part to its complex double act of reviewing and planning: by definition, the verb “reflect” means both “to bend or fold back” and “to make manifest or apparent.” Or, we might simply not know how to do it, why it matters, and we don’t want to waste our thinly-spread-as-it-is time.
In what follows, I break down why reflection works, how to make it work for you, and share with you the reflection practices and questions that are most helpful to me. Plus, I share reflection prompts and my most meaningful reflection of 2018, because what better time than the hinge between two years to resee reflection as both an act of “looking back” and a “looking forward”?
The Whats and the Whys
According to Tracy Kennedy, Lifehack’s Personal Development Expert, reflection offers multiple benefits. As detailed in her article, “How Self-Reflection Gives You a Happier and More Successful Life,” reflection can improve our lives in the following ways:
- Improves self-awareness
- Provides perspective
- Allows you to respond, not react
- Facilitates a deeper level of learning
- Improves confidence
- Challenges your assumptions
In addition to improving our self-knowing and presence, reflection can help us make better decisions when it comes to growth and change. Jennifer Porter, an executive coach, reports in her Harvard Business Review article “Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It)” that:
The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions.
Porter breaks down the purpose of reflection by connecting it to other important ideas and actions: learning, pause, untangle, consider, meaning, and, perhaps most importantly, future. She reports that many of the leaders she coaches actually put off doing reflection, sometimes because they lack an understanding of how to do it or other times because they have not prioritized it. So, let’s learn how to do it, shall we?
Although reflection is greatly beneficial, it still often ends up on the back burner. I think this is because reflection requires three things: time, energy, and focus.
I recommend that you set aside, and even schedule, time for intentional reflection. The goal is to view reflection as beneficial, not as one more thing that you’re trying to squeeze in between meetings or forcing yourself to do before bed.
It’s no surprise that reflection pulls on our mental energy: we are literally remembering and considering and interpreting. But, I want to note that it may also require emotional labor.
Reflection prompts ask us to think about both the highs and the lows. It is possible for us to get stuck in the quicksand of things we didn’t achieve, things or people we lost, disappointments or embarrassments, or other crummy memories. For that reason, I encourage you to pair questions such as “what didn’t work out well?” with others such as “what went well?” or “what did I feel proud of?”
Here’s a real life example of how this works. When I teach writing, I ask my students to reflect after each paper on two things: 1) something they struggled with and improved on, and 2) something that they continue to struggle with. I do this because I want my students to know that I do not expect them to become expert writers and researchers in one semester. In fact, I explicitly encourage them to see the acts of learning and practicing as a continual process
You can reflect in multiple ways, including handwriting, typing, and/or sharing out loud with someone else. There’s no right or wrong way to “do” reflection, and while I like the slow rumination of handwriting, typing out my answers allows me to capture more ideas quickly. I’ve done all three, but admit that my favorite reflection process is sharing out loud with someone else.
In one-on-one advising and coaching, I ask my clients specific reflection questions about their progress and process and I hold space and attention for their answers, which I record for them in our session notes. In my personal life, I often ask my Sweetie to reflect with me (”what are you grateful for” or “what are you most looking forward to about X and why”) on car rides or on walks together, and I absolutely love learning about what makes her feel fulfilled, moved, and inspired. I enjoy sharing my answers with her, too, which often leads to what we call “air signing” AKA a Gemini and a Libra talking for hours about life.
Make a Milestone List
Don’t have time or energy for reflection journaling? Make a list of things you want to achieve in the next month or year.
I keep a whiteboard on my fridge for the explicit purpose of listing milestones I want to accomplish every year. When I finish a milestone I check it off, so every time I’m in the kitchen I see a reminder of my goals and accomplishments. I theme it, too: 2017′s theme was “#make2017notsuck” and 2018′s was “2018 will be amazing.” Right now, the only two things left without checkmarks are “The Tending Year” and “Draft 1 Dissertation Chapter” (both of which will be done in one week!)
Want to see more models? Gretchen Rubin (who wrote the wonderful book about habit formation, Better than Before) made an “18 in 2018″ list of things she wanted to accomplish in 2018. You can listen to her process in in episodes 147, 149, 152, and 199 of her podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” and read updates in her blog posts “I Wrote My ‘18 for 2018′ List. Now It’s Time to See How I’m Doing So Far” and “2018 Is Almost Over! Time for an ‘18 for 2018′ Update.”
Practice Feeling Proud
At least once a semester, I ask my students to share something with the class that they are proud of. The first time I did this, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised and moved to hear my students share that they were proud of things like learning a new recipe, finishing a book, studying for a test, improving their language learning, trying a new hobby, etc. Everyone in the room was tuned in and supportive, and even the quieter students were excited to share. I highly recommend this activity for teachers or leaders.
To do it yourself, write down a list of things you are proud of from the last year. Remember that your Proud Of list does not have to focus on standard achievements, and be sure to recognize your continual progress. For example, one of my Proud Ofs is “I continue to heal, even if it is slow.”
Reflection Journal Prompt Questions
Kate Snowise of “Here to Thrive” and Thrive.how offers some wonderful reflection questions in her free Life Planning Kit. One of my favorites was: “If I could go back, what words of wisdom would I have given myself this time last year?” My answers were:
- You don’t have to do everything perfectly.
- Ask what people expect from you before you give 200%.
- Use your phone less.
- Don’t compare yourself to others so often.
- Try to find peace when the pain gets bad.
- Ask for help and support.
Kelly Exeter and Brooke McAlary’s podcast “Let it Be” always had great reflection posts, like this one from the end of 2016. Kelly repurposed some of the questions for the reflection episodes of her other podcast with Carly Jacobs, “Straight and Curly.” Check our their 2018 reflections in episode 148 and their 2017 in episode 88.
It was really cool to look back and compare my 2017 and my new 2018 reflections (shout out to past-Kate for putting my questions in a GoogleDoc!). Interestingly, I wrote both then and now that I’d like to spend less time on social media.
Here’s the whole list of Kelly’s questions:
- What worked for you?
- What did you enjoy?
- Who did you enjoy spending time with?
- What was your biggest achievement?
- How did you achieve it?
- Where did you enjoy going?
- What are some new things you tried or went through?
- What didn’t you enjoy?
- Who didn’t you enjoy spending time with?
- Was there a goal you didn’t achieve?
- What did you spend time on that didn’t add value to your life?
- What would you like to spend more time on?
- What would you like to spend less time on?
My Biggest Reflection of 2018
I wrote multiple reflection lists in preparation for this post, and regardless of the prompt or questions, I kept returning to one thing: my chronic pain.
As a recap: I spent most of 2017 seeing doctors who poked, prodded, X-rayed, and MRIed me, but none of whom diagnosed me for a pain in my tailbone, sacrum, and lower back. When I started 2018, my pain felt unbearable and overwhelming. Physically, my muscles, bones, ligaments, and organs torqued and pulled in my body, and it was difficult for me to sit without being in pain. Emotionally, I felt beaten down, hopeless, and vulnerable. I felt shame for needing to sit on pillows at work (and then I felt shame for feeling shame). I felt resentful of having to stand to work. As I write this, I remember how deeply I hated my body for being so broken, and I weep for how many, many months I spent consumed in that self-disdain.
However, as the year progressed, I began to shift my perspective. (Remember, one of my four goals for The Tending Year was to heal!) I shifted from seeing doctors to seeing energy healers and body workers, and I began to feel physical relief. I started yoga and dedicated myself to healing old, painful traumas in EMDR therapy.
Through these practices, I shifted my focus from one of self-loathing to one of self-compassion.
I started asking for help with things that I could not do myself. I cancelled plans with friends when my pain was high, and they loved me still. I slowly began to love my body again, starting by simply patting my legs and arms and saying “thank you for trying, body” when I started to say hateful things to myself.
I had two revelations that saved my life this year:
- One evening in the shower, out of the blue I thought: I am thankful for this mysterious pain because without it I never would have shifted my life. My pain forced me to address my workaholism, unrealistic expectations for myself, and unhealthy coping mechanisms like negative self talk or perfectionism. I don’t speak a lot on The Tending Year about my spirituality, but believe me when I say I felt held and humbled by spirit in this huge revelation.
- My second revelation was one that slowly built in my mind and then finally clicked. My pain will come and my pain will go. It may return, but it does not define me, and nor will it consume me. If I am able to name what number it is on a 1-10 pain scale, I will feel calmer. If I am able to breathe and use tools that return me to my window of tolerance, I will not feel terrified and hateful of my pain, nor of myself.
Many of the tools I researched and wrote about for The Tending Year helped me to develop a calmer nervous system and shift from self-disdain to self-compassion. It is my hope that my posts have guided you, too, to find new ways to love and tend to yourself.
Since next Tuesday is a holiday, my FINAL POST OF THE YEAR will come out on Friday, December 28, 2019. I’ll be back to Tuesday posting for January 1, 2019 to introduce a revamped The Tending Year for year two!
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.