The Value of Introspection

by Nancy Scott


Introspection has gotten a bad rap. Surely, “the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes,” the Oxford American Dictionary’s definition of introspection, is one of the tasks of being human. Jesus instructed us that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love one other. In self-reflection, we examine how we participate in loving, both how we succeed and how we fail. And after we examine our motives and our behaviors, we can show up and try again, fully participating in the relationships in which God has placed us. Introspection, then, is an important task in the pursuit of loving God and loving others.

The Goal of Introspection

If the greatest purpose of self-reflection is to love God and to love others, why has introspection become a bad word?

Perhaps introspection has received a bad reputation because some destructive behaviors have become associated with it. For example, if we wallow in self-pity or self-condemnation, then introspection can be hurtful, to ourselves and to others. If our introspection becomes stagnant, if we go in circles and never make any movement toward self-understanding or growth, our introspection can become destructive—an essentially selfish process that encourages a “victim” role rather than true responsibility and learning. Instead of a path toward being more human, such morbid introspection can become a self-protection against knowing our human frailty and acknowledging it with those who care about us; it can become an escape from making a decision or taking a difficult action. If the end of our introspection is self-absorption rather than love, introspection can lead to being less whole rather than to being more human.

The people I work with as a counselor frequently share concerns about the process of introspection, and their concerns are valid. They worry that the process they are undertaking is essentially selfish. Indeed, much counseling encourages an exploration of the self that is ultimately self-serving and uncaring and often comes at the expense of our relationships and commitments. “Finding ourselves” has come to mean escaping difficult circumstances and leaving those who depend on us.

I encourage people to consider that the journey toward “finding oneself” can also be a way to stay in difficult circumstances and to have more resources available to bring to the ones who depend on them. Sometimes we lose our perspective and get overwhelmed. Finding strength in a clear understanding of ourselves can help tremendously when life is hard. As the flight attendant insists, we must put on our own oxygen mask first, before assisting those around us.

While we can participate in healthy introspection with or without the support of a counselor, sometimes seeking help is beneficial. The kind of help we seek, however, can greatly influence the course of our self-discovery. Some counseling supports an unwholesome and self-obsessed form of introspection. If our introspection moves us away from truth and reality and participating in our lives and relationships, then it is not grounded in the goal of loving. But if counseling is grounded in the view that our greatest task is to love God and others, it can move us toward truth, toward participating, and toward loving. It can lead us to a healthy self-awareness that takes seriously the task of being responsible with our own feelings and actions.

Perhaps the bad reputation introspection has received also has to do with a faulty understanding of how our emotions work. Sometimes I talk with people who say they have been told that feelings are deceptive and that listening to them will lead only to impulsive behavior and errors in judgment. But our emotions are information, and we do well to acknowledge this information because it plays an important role in our decision-making. Our emotions are a complex resource that our Creator has given us for navigating our lives wisely and learning from our mistakes.

Life can get very messy, even for those who are interested in loving God and loving others. We do not love well. The process of becoming more loving takes work both within us and outside of us. As we observe consistent patterns of self-protection and failure, we try to learn a different way. As we face our failures, we seek God and His mercy, as well as the mercy of those we love. We will never love perfectly. But we must be committed to learning to love as best we can, which requires that we look at ourselves, seek to understand our self-protective motivations, and take responsibility for our actions. This project does not value reviewing the past for its own sake. But it may include exploring our past, when that past is playing itself out in the present.

As believers, we seek wisdom and truth. If our introspection impedes our seeking wisdom and truth, then it is not helpful. But it can be very helpful when it leads to a more integrated faith. Acknowledging a painful emotional reality, while a difficult process for any of us, can lead us to trust God with who we really are, and this trust is an invaluable part of our growth as believers. Our goal is not perfection; we will not attain it. God will sanctify us with or without our cooperation. And yet, it seems commonsensical that our calling includes being responsible with who we are and with what we bring to our relationships, both the good and the evil.

So then, the purpose of our introspection is to love God and to love others. Given this goal, what would healthy introspection look like? To help answer this question, let’s first consider some aspects of being human.

The Nature of Being Human

We are physical creatures. God created us with a body and placed us in a physical world. Our body’s senses serve as our interface with this created world: our eyes perceive the blue of the sky, our ears listen to the wind in the trees, our skin soaks in the warmth of the sun. With our senses, we learn about both pleasant and unpleasant experiences. We learn to put on a sweater when we are cold; we learn not to touch a hot stove. Becoming aware of body sensations and how they connect us to the physical world can be of tremendous help in “staying present” during difficult circumstances.

God also created us with a mind that is uniquely able to think and to feel. The cognitive part of our mind thinks, using reason and logic as tools, using judgment to interpret information and come to conclusions. We engage this part of us when we interact both with ideas and with practical experience: we determine what makes sense to us intellectually, and we choose what clothes to wear and what food to eat. The emotional part of our mind feels. With our emotions we experience both incredible joy and intense pain. Our mind interprets these feelings—often unconsciously—sorting, assimilating, and storing its interpretation. This interpretation then contributes to the “filter” through which our mind sifts other experiences, thus informing both our conscious and unconscious assessment of subsequent occurrences. Indeed, our body and mind store every piece of information we encounter, for the sake of protecting us from perceived threat. God made us with this important survival component. Our body and mind—including sensation, thought, and emotion—give us the capacity to develop physical, intellectual, and relational skill for living in the world.

God also created us with a deep interior “inwardness,” sometimes called our “spirit” or “soul,” from which we make a decision of a different kind. In this inscrutable region of our being, we decide what we will do with our Creator. Will we trust Him, or will we flee Him? In the end, we must all face this question. This decision is the central task of being human.

Together with many other facets of our makeup and experience, these parts—body, mind, and inwardness—contribute to making us human. But we are not reducible to our parts. God created us with astounding complexity—sense, thought, feeling, and inwardness. Being human involves integrating these parts, knowing and working with the complexity of God’s creation. Given this understanding of the complicated nature of being human, how then does introspection help us come to know ourselves?

The Work of Introspection

The work of introspection, focused on the goal of loving God and loving others, can bring insight and clarity to a confusing array of patterns and reactivity in our lives. This work will look different for different people; it will be as complex and variable as the individuals involved. How then should we proceed with this work?

We can allow our feelings to surface; we can “listen” to them and thus benefit from the input they bring. Self-reflection can help us discover the “emotional beliefs” behind our reactions. These beliefs are the emotional “interpretations” our mind has stored away and uses to interpret subsequent experiences. Once we discover our emotional beliefs, we have the chance to evaluate them and to decide whether or not they are true. Our emotional beliefs, often rooted in our childhood experiences, represent the best job we could do at the time to make sense of the often confusing experience of living around flawed humans. What we concluded, whether consciously or unconsciously, may or may not have been true of those earlier relationships, but we spend our lives acting as if those conclusions are true. Healthy introspection gives us the opportunity to evaluate those beliefs, and if we discover they are outdated or faulty, we can risk challenging them in our current relationships. Such risk can help “unstick” our “stuck” patterns of relating. Let’s look, then, at an example of how this process of introspection might work.

If I believe deep down that “if I disappoint you, you will leave me,” then when I disappoint you, I become afraid and seek to protect myself from feeling that fear, perhaps by insisting that my action should not have disappointed you or perhaps by manipulating you into not leaving me. “Listening to my feelings” means letting myself know that I feel afraid. And when I feel afraid, I am vulnerable. I need to work with my vulnerability, rather than protect myself from it. I need to work to trust God with my weakness, understanding that being a creature is a vulnerable thing to be.

When I stop to learn about my feeling, perhaps I discover that my fear about disappointing you comes from the way my original family worked, that when we screwed up, we felt abandoned. Then, I can be open to the possibility that this fear is not about you but about me. You have not told me that if I disappoint you, you will leave me. I learned it somewhere else. I can then learn to no longer be afraid of feeling my fear, but to accept it even though it is not comfortable. My “fear” feeling informs me that a long-held emotional belief is coming into play, and it challenges me to acknowledge the pain in my life and to trust God with it.

Furthermore, my feeling gives me the opportunity to challenge my emotional belief by opening it up to you. If we have a solid and trusted relationship, I might risk saying out loud, “Sometimes I feel afraid that if I disappoint you, you will leave me.” Such risk can bring about a new experience. And if you can say back to me, “Of course you will disappoint me, but I will disappoint you, too, and I’m not leaving,” then I can experience mercy and grace rather than abandonment.

Ironically, our self-protection is more likely than our openness to contribute to fulfilling our fears. If I continue to protect myself from the fear by keeping it locked inside, then I may work at ways to coerce or bully you into giving me what I want or need, and you are far more likely to want to leave me. But if I can turn toward you with openness, exposing my fear and trusting you (and God) with it, then you are more likely to move toward me rather than away from me. I also move toward knowing myself better. And I can know you as a separate person and discover something of what it means to love you. Remember, the ultimate end of our work toward self-discovery is to love God and to love others.

When we become aware of how we respond internally, perhaps not ever knowing why we feel something but knowing that we feel it, we are in the best position to respond externally in a more loving way. The task of loving can benefit from a fuller body of information, not just that which comes from our cognition, but that which comes from our emotions, indeed from the whole of our being. In the end, we become more available to those around us, as we open up spaces within ourselves for a slowed-down self-awareness that is whole and integrated and not afraid to ask hard questions.

The difficult work of introspection can take us either toward or away from truth and reality, toward or away from loving God and loving others. As we embark on this journey, it is important that we stay grounded in the physical world and connected to those outside of us. Responsible introspection does not isolate us from the world. If it begins to do so, we must work to reconnect and come back to our physical experience and to our relationships. Coming back to our senses, quite literally, by participating in our physical world can help greatly to restore our mind and body. We can do this in various ways, such as engaging our vocational, recreational, or relational life. With our body grounded, our senses attuned, our emotions acknowledged, and our minds engaged, with open awareness we can participate in the life and relationships that God has given us. Introspection can move us toward this integration and give us a wealth of resource for actively engaging the task of loving God and loving others.

Copyright April 2008 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

Nancy Scott