Psychological Awareness Tip: Use Thoughtful Reflection

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Psychological Awareness and Self-Reflection

Carl Jung, a famous psychotherapist, once said,

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens.” [1]

In essence, Jung is saying that a person who contemplates their inner life will be alerted to their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviours as they relate to the world.

Jung is talking about a process of self-reflection or thoughtful reflection.  In my experience, when someone encourages someone to be ‘reflective’, you won’t be surprised to see the person’s eyes glaze over as they lose interest.  If you inquire about the reaction, people think of ‘reflection’ as soft or vague, and they don’t see it as a way to provide clarity for the ‘hard’ problems they face.  I can understand this, but in my experience, it is usually completely wrong.

For the most part, thoughtful reflection is a cognitive process, it is a process that starts and ends with your thoughts.  Apart from anything else, this means anyone can do it; it just takes time and commitment.  Being reflective means being able to:

  1. Consider some situation, which may be something that happens to the person, or something that the person imposes on someone else.
  2. While considering the situation, unidentified factors that influence the feelings, thoughts, and behaviours related to the situation can be raised and added to the now conscious decisions relating to the situation.
  3. As these factors become conscious, they can be used in the current situation and can be adapted to future situations.

Psychological awareness

This diagram shows the core of psychological awareness:

“When someone has psychological awareness, they are ‘aware’ of the psychological factors that influence and drive people’s lives, including their own.  Having awareness allows that person to analyse and act on their observations.”

Suffice to say, you can’t develop psychological awareness without developing self-reflective skills.  It is true that some people are naturally more self-reflective than others, but improving self-reflection can be learnt as a formula that a person can apply whenever they need to.  Like most formulae, the more you use it, the easier it is to apply.  As people integrate this formula into their lives, it becomes almost natural, and the formula will be used almost without thinking.  Complex problems become easier to reflect on and solutions follow.

Developing the Habit of Thoughtful Reflection

There are a variety of ways that self-reflection can be developed.  For some people, it might simply involving sitting down and thinking about the situation and considering the ‘bigger picture’.  However, for most people, at least as they are starting to develop a pattern of thoughtful reflection, I recommend trying to write their thoughts down.  Writing allows us to focus attention on one thing while setting other thoughts aside.  By writing things down, you can revisit those thoughts and add them into the mix so things don’t get lost, and connections can be made.

You might think of this as a type of journal, though for this purpose, it is fairly specific and can be driven by a series of questions.  Most journals are broader and are a space to write about experiences.  Journals also tend to be kept and revisited over time, but here, there is no strong need to create a set of journals for storage – you can of course, and there are advantages, but this reflective process is relatively immediate.

If you’ve never done this before:

  1. Have something you want to reflect on in your mind. This will be something that has troubled you, or you want to understand more about.
  2. Find a space where you can think without being disturbed.
  3. Take out a piece of paper, a booklet, and use the following questions to make some notes and guide your thoughts. However, while these questions are a good starting point, there is no need to be limited by them, feel free to ask any other question to help you understand the situation better.

What is the problem I am concerned about?

How is this problem affecting me?

How is the problem affecting the other person?

What does this remind me of?

Does this reflection challenge my current thoughts, feelings and behaviour?

How could I modify the situation, make suggestions, or alter the situation to make it work better?

Try to put this into practice… and monitor it for a while to see what happens.

Learn by Example

Recently I was speaking with a client, and to preserve her identity, let’s call her Rowena.  Rowena is in her early 30’s and we were speaking because she was having trouble coping with colleagues at work.  Rowena told me that she would make ‘snippy comments’ but more often, she kept her thoughts to herself but would feel annoyed for hours or even days after the event.  Rowena had not stepped up to management, but she wanted to, though she also knew it was important to be able to work with and understand people better.

There were many factors affecting Rowena, but I just want to talk about self-reflection.  She had spoken about some interactions in the past on one occasion she spoke about something that had happened just that day, she said, “It was ‘driving me mad’ thinking about it.”

This was the problem she was faced with:

Phillipa, a colleague she knew quite well, had taken on more responsibility while their boss was on leave.  There was no formal arrangement for anyone to ‘step up’, but Phillipa had taken on a greater load.  In this setting, Phillipa asked Rowena to set aside some of her own work so she could help with getting Phillipa’s tasks done at a time that suited her.

This seemed like an opportunity for Rowena to use a self-reflection exercise to help her resolve the situation.  We started with the same questions I described above, let’s go through her responses:

  1. What is the problem I am concerned about? The main problem is that I had my own work and they needed to be done as well.  I offered to help by doing the work a couple of days later, but it wasn’t in the time frame Phillipa ‘required’.  The frustration is worse because I know this colleague works 9 – 5 and basically leaves as soon as the clock strikes 5.  On the other hand, I am prepared to work back and get things done.  It seemed unfair that I was now expected to work later while my colleague rushed off.
  2. How is this problem affecting me? I felt frustrated by the situation.  I was being asked to pick-up that slack for someone else who wasn’t prepared to do some extra work.  That said, I could stay back to get the work done for a couple of days and still get my work done.  I think it’s just the unfairness of the situation.
  3. How is the problem affecting the other person? I think there are two issues.  One is the person’s family situation which means it’s harder to stay back.  Still, taking a computer home and doing some extra time at home was possible too, I don’t think it would be hard to achieve, even with a family.  The other is that Phillipa is very rigid, she can’t make changes in her routine without getting ‘stressed’.
  4. What does this remind me of? I haven’t thought about this before, but…  Now that I think about it, it reminds me a lot of dealing with my sister when we kids.  She would never do things at home, or, when she did, it was conditional.  For instance, if she did anything to help someone, she made sure it was noticed by everyone else, but often, she would get help to do things, but would then take the credit for all of it.  That used to really get up my nose.  I would do things when she asked me, but she would get all the credit for it.  In truth, she still does it now; she’s a complete pain, I honestly can’t stand her.
  5. Does this reminder challenge your current thoughts, feelings, and behaviour?   Phillipa actually looks a bit like my sister, and she does the same thing.  I already know that if I do this extra work for her, it will be racked up as Phillipa’s success, she will tell the boss what ‘she’ did while they were away.  I also know that I won’t get mentioned at all.  It will be just like my sister used to do, and again, Phillipa will get the credit for the work ‘she’ has done, and, she won’t have even put herself out by spending extra time.  So, now I understand that I’m not just annoyed with Phillipa, I’m annoyed about my sister too!
  6. How could I modify the situation, make suggestions, or alter the situation to make it work better? This created an opportunity to discuss something that Rowena wasn’t very good at, setting limits.  Setting limits is another psychological awareness tip, and we will discuss it in a future article.  However, to keep it brief, Rowena learnt about how to set limits with people who were expecting more than they should.  Rowena learnt some new skills and was able to apply it to the situation and manage to improve the situation with Phillipa.  Now, Rowena is more aware of setting limits as an issue, and is keeping it in mind with future interactions.

This was a hugely valuable interaction that could only have come about because of Rowena’s willingness to take the time to reflectively consider her situation.  This reflection provided an opportunity to dig a little deeper and make some connections that allowed her to understand what was happening in her life, then put it into context with other things that had happened to her, and were still affecting her.

Conclusion: Self-Reflection is Central to Psychological Awareness

Thoughtful reflection is at the core of psychological awareness, it is the cornerstone of understanding the process.  Psychological awareness creates opportunities to consider things more deeply, and to make connections with other aspects of your life and the lives of others.  Like most ‘habits’ they become stronger the more you use them.


[1] C.G. Jung, C.G. Jung Letters: Volume 2: 1951-1961, ed Gerhard Adler, tr Jeffrey Hulen (Princeton University Press, 1976).

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Dr Schultz spent 22 years working in psychiatry and then went on to qualify as a lawyer. He has spent 34 years helping people solve problems and the unique combination of medicine, psychiatry, law and mediation provides a unique academic and practical approach to life's challenges.

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