How to Practice Self-Reflection This Year

Events that cause a nation to stop in its tracks are rare.  We refer to them as “watershed moments.”  Decades later, you’ll still recall the event as if it happened yesterday.  We are going through a watershed moment.  A tipping point, forcing Americans to look in the mirror.  While confronting the ugliness embedded in our lives and culture is not a positive experience, it is an opportunity for profound change—if we take it.

The recent events have challenged me to look for blind spots in my life where bias, prejudice, and privilege have crept in.  We all have blind spots, but awareness leads to change. The practice of Self-reflection is a helpful for revealing our blind spots.  We should live to promote equality, justice, and kindness.  The world needs this effort from each of us now more than ever.

Self-reflection, simply put, is thinking about thinking.  It is how you articulate your inner-dialogue and the beliefs which shape your actions. self-reflection allows you to evaluate whether your beliefs are consistent with the type of person you want to be.  Here are three self-reflection exercises I have found to be extremely helpful.

1.  Fleshing Out Your Vertical vs. Horizontal Identities

You may be living according to someone else’s operating system.  We are products of both vertical and horizontal identities.  Vertical aspects are inherited from circumstances of birth —the language you speak, your ethnicity or religion.  These are the traits that come without choice. Horizontal identities, however, are made up of the values and preferences you personally adopted, and not necessarily shared by your family.

Issues arise when parents or family squeeze horizontal identities into vertical identities. You can end up living with values or preferences you’ve never questioned. Self-reflection can uncover any prejudice or racist attitudes that have shaped you through a vertical identity so you can rectify those traits.

It is helpful to write out the values, beliefs, and preferences passed onto you from parents and family.  Then, consider whether you have truly accepted these values as your own, and assessing if those values align with being a person of kindness and acceptance.

2. Uncovering Your Hidden Agendas

Do you have an ulterior motive when interacting with others? Behavior analysts have categorized our interactions in terms of: givers, matchers, and takers.  “Givers” are quick to help and do favors for others, with no expectation of return; “matchers” will scratch your back if you scratch theirs; and “takers” seek the greatest gain regardless of detriment to others.

If you were to evaluate the scope of your recent interactions, which of the three categories would you place yourself?  While “takers” are the most predisposed to bias and discriminatory practices, “givers” and “matchers” are not immune.

Another way to assess your relationships is asking whether you generally take the role of “mentor/mentee” or “teacher/student.” Do you tend to surround yourself with people you learn from and spend no time pouring into others?

The goal should be to balance giving and receiving while steering away from being a calculated “taker” or “matcher.” The more selfless you are, the less the tendency to seek for advantages over others that opens the door for prejudice and bias.

3. Understanding Moral Licensing

Moral licensing is keeping tally of your good deeds, and then taking a free pass to engage in bad acts. It is a toxic “get out of jail free card” everyone has used before. On the innocent end of the spectrum, we engage in moral licensing by eating junk food after a workout. On the insidious end, are the people who overlook their racism because they happen to be friendly with a person of color.

Moral licensing only reinforces toxic behavior. Instead of “two wrongs don’t make a right”, we reason that two rights (or ten, for that matter) justifies a wrong.  Take time to reflect on when you have engaged in moral licensing.

Change begins with awareness.  Awareness needs to be followed up with action. While collective action is inspiring, sustained transformation happens when people commit to individual change. Collective responses to watershed moments are often short-lived because the need for individual reflection is easily overshadowed. Practicing self-reflection and committing to taking action will ensure that profound change can take place.