Who Are You; Introspection vs Insight
Updated: Sep 12
My last post explored the value of self knowledge, including understanding our defenses, noting that as we look inward with curiosity we strengthen our self-awareness, gaining a greater sense of integrity, and the freedom to mindfully take action rather than to mindlessly react. To know thyself sounds like a great endeavor, but there's a catch, spending countless hours in introspection can have negative consequences. That's right, introspection can lead to feeling more stressed, depressed, anxious, less satisfied with, and less in control of ones life. It turns out that how we look inward is as important as looking inward.
What researchers have begun to understand is that introspection does not always lead to insight, thinking about ourselves does not necessarily correlate with knowing ourselves. One such researcher is psychologist Tasha Eurich, who explains in her book Insight : Why We're Not as Self-Aware as We Think and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life, "we can spend endless amounts of time in self-reflection but emerge with no more self insight than when we started."
Through years of researching the subject Eurich believes that the qualities needed for success, including "emotional intelligence, empathy, influence, persuasion, communication and collaboration - all stem from self-awareness." A number of studies have concluded that greater insight correlates with more dramatic personal growth, better relationships, and a clearer sense of purpose, greater self-acceptance and well-being.
We cannot attain self-awareness without introspection, yet looking inward can cloud our self-perceptions, so how do we solve this dilemma? Eurich found the answer in the results from a Hixon and Swann study; ask what not why.
Ask What Not Why
It's so tempting to ask why, I've done so countless times especially when trying to understand another's behavior, yet why is the question that leads to introspection without insight. Asking why can cause us to fixate on our problems, rationalize, justify, and place blame, in contrast to asking what which keeps us open to discovering new information about ourselves.
To better understand insight, Eurich and her team studied individuals who rank high in self-awareness. A woman from the study remarked “If you ask why, [I think] you’re putting yourself into a victim mentality… When I feel anything other than peace, I say ‘What’s going on?’; ‘What am I feeling?’; ‘What is the dialogue inside my head?’; ‘What’s another way to see this situation?’ or ‘What can I do to respond better?’” All good questions to ponder.
Of course why will always be an important question for science, research, understanding and improving our culture and environment, you may have noticed Eurich included it in the title of her book. It's just not helpful when it comes to introspection and insight. Eurich sums it up beautifully: "Why questions can draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future. "
Ask what not why aligns with the premise and practice of NonViolent Communication. The four components of Marshall Rosenberg's NVC are observations, feelings, needs, and requests. Notice these are all what questions, what am I observing, what am I feeling, what do I need, what am I requesting? NVC is about taking ownership of our feelings and needs, it helps to facilitate clear communication, and is at the same time incredibly empowering.
Asking What, An Experiential
To put asking what not why into practice with embodied awareness try the following:
Ask what is present in me now?
First observe by noticing and naming both what feeling is present and what bodily sensations come into awareness. It's important that you track what is alive in you at this moment without judgment, welcoming it if possible. If the feeling or sensation is uncomfortable it may help to remember that feelings and sensations move through us, they are ever changing and provide us with valuable information about ourselves, and our surroundings.
Next ask is there anything I need to improve upon what is present for me in this moment, or what do I need?
If your answer is no simply stay present with the feeling and sensation, enjoy the ride. If your answer is yes contemplate what you can do for yourself or request from another.
For instance you may feel lonely, asking what would feel better might lead to the realization that you're in need of a hug. But you're at home alone and there is no one to ask for a hug, so you pick up a pillow and wrap your arms around it. This elicits similar feelings in your body to an actual hug and soon you notice that you're sense of loneliness is not so intense, feelings and bodily sensations have shifted, the loneliness may even be gone altogether.
Or it could lead you to realize a need or desire to reach out to a friend and request their company.
Now ask what do I want to request?
You might call or text a friend and tell them that you're feeling a little lonely and would be grateful for their company. If they're unavailable it's important to remember that it was a request, not a demand, and again rather than asking why ask what.
What other friend can you reach out to, or what place can you go that will bring you into contact with others? A friendly smile from a stranger is sometimes enough to bring about a feeling of connection, which goes both ways, that stranger could be feeling lonely too.
In the example asking what brings about insight that leads to greater self-awareness and an improved sense of well being, regardless of whether there was a need or a request. So as you traverse the deeper realms of your inner landscape, remember to ask what not why.