Very few people in the general population regularly engage in critical introspection. The ability to assess one’s external behaviour against one’s inner state is one of the habits followed by successful people – successful meaning happy, not just in money terms – and although in theory it is actually very easy, in practice it takes years to develop and requires constant maintenance to avoid slipping back into the view that the world has it in for us.
Introspection is the examination of our thoughts and feelings, the retrospective assessment of our behaviour and motives with the aim of either repeating successful moments or avoiding unfortunate ones in the future. It is not the same as external observation, whether this be impassive or critical of others. If it condemns flaws in others, it does so with the sole purpose of detecting the same flaw in ourselves.
Research suggests most people practise introspection around 5% of the time. This low figure comes from studies using beepers. Whenever the beeper went off, subjects were asked to record their thoughts. Self-aware thinking amounted to 5% of the time. The rest? Planning, complaining, thinking of the past, and criticising others, as well as structured thinking in connection with a task or job.
Most people, when faced with a problem, look outside themselves for the cause. But there are few situations where the problem is not actually rooted within our psyche. Here are some examples :
1. These young women with their babies are boring: they think their children are more interesting than anyone else’s. Their conversation is dull and they are ignoring me.
Question to ask : Am I envious of their youth, and their recent motherhood?
2. The disrespect my children show me makes me angry. They have no idea what I have been through to give them what they have.
Question to ask : Have I really done more than what any normal parent would? Do they actually wish to make me angry, and even if so, is winding me up really easy and therefore fun? No one can make me angry: I get angry on my own.
3. This job is boring and unfulfilling. The hours are too long and the pay too low.
Question to ask : How did I end up in this job? Was it a personal choice? Is it really so bad compared to other jobs? How can I change my thoughts to find this fun?
Introspection is about catching a thought in midflight and nailing it before it gets into our cells. It is a powerful tool to construct our lives around and create our days. A good strategy is to choose one of the seven deadly sins and look for signs of it during a day, or a week. For example, pride:
– I was so hurt by that comment. But it is my pride that it hurt. If I had more humility, the comment could not hurt me.
– I was late for a meeting because the old lady in the queue spent too long chatting to the checkout girl. I sighed and fidgeted, and my blood pressure soared. My pride told me my meeting was more important than the old lady’s conversation. But in the cosmic scheme of things, maybe I am not so indispensable to the meeting, and maybe that conversation was really important to the old lady.
– I was furious when I heard about that malicious gossip about me. But if I had less pride I wouldn’t be so obsessed with other people’s opinion of me.
Most people live their lives in an orgy of self-justification. Introspection can lead to discovering much about ourselves we did not know and can help us subsequently eliminate thoughts, attitudes and behaviours that cause stress (DNA damage) and illness; but it also brings depth of character and understanding of others. It is an extremely powerful life tool that enriches every day when practised on a regular basis.
Man know thyself, said the inscription written on the Temple at Delphi, and thou shalt know the universe and the gods.