“Mirrors should think longer before they reflect.”
― Jean Cocteau
Self-reflection may be broadly defined as the process of examining our own experience in order to become aware of our thoughts and feelings. The word “reflection” itself evokes the idea of the mind as a mirror. We may become aware of many different kinds of images in the mirror of the mind: what we see and hear, what we feel, what we think. And, we also have the capacity to turn our attention back to the surface of the mirror itself. This is the self-reflexive capacity of awareness.
Self-reflexivity is built into the very structure of the human mind. At times self-awareness operates in the background of our experience, giving rise to a vaguely felt sense of being. At other times, it may move into the foreground of our attention, amplified through intentional focus (as in meditation) or by virtue of emotional reactions (e.g. social anxiety; embarassment) or interpersonal events. Regardless, we can never become aware of ourselves from outside of our experience, only from within. So self-reflexivity is always both subjective and objective; it weaves together mind and body, thoughts and emotion, as it integrates both the observational and experiential dimensions of awareness.
Although an inborn potential, self-reflexivity is not a fixed capacity, but rather one which expands and deepens along with other aspects of psychological development. It is organized in relation to our understanding of our own minds as well as the minds of others. Moreover, because some aspects of ourselves are essentially invisible except in the mirror of another, our capacity to know ourselves is a function of our connection with others.
Interpersonal experience is an important domain for the development of self-reflection. Conflicts between ourselves and others call our attention to possible discrepancies between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Such disruptions invite us to de-center from our own point of view and consider the impact we may be having on others. They also galvanize our attention to what would otherwise remain unseen in ourselves.
For all of us, psychological defenses in the mind are engaged in order to obscure vulnerable aspects of ourselves. We may deny or disavow realities which are painful, attribute qualities of ourselves to others, or find other ways to avoid knowing the truth about our feelings.
What we are blind to in ourselves is the limiting boundary of our freedom.
Self-reflection is arguably the central integrative element in psycho-therapeutic exploration and psychological growth. Reflecting on our experience and behavior either by ourselves, or in conversation with others (including psychotherapists), can help us to become aware of how we are relating to our experience. In seeing more clearly what we are doing, how we are feeling, and the way that we react to things, we create a greater capacity for choice. In this way, self-reflective awareness may be likened to a “clutch” which allows the mind to shift gears so that new points of view can emerge.
Self-reflection is an evolving dimension of our subjectivity which can be intentionally cultivated in practices such as meditation. Mindfulness meditation amplifies self-reflection through the intention to notice what one is aware of from moment to moment and through the ability to shift awareness from the content of experience to the context of background awareness which surrounds and contains it. This enhances the clarity of what is seen in the mirror of self-reflection and creates greater access to somatic, psychological, and relational layers of the mind.
Last but by no means least, with the cultivation of mindful attention we can become aware of awareness itself. This transcendent dimension of self-reflexivity is conveyed by the statement that mindfulness is the state of mind in which you realize that you are more than your state of mind. This deepening of self-reflexivity allows us to see more and more deeply into the body/heart/mind and into the nature of self.
In the words of the Sufi aphorism, “What you are looking for is who is looking”.