Thursday, June 2, 2011

Are You Introspective? You Should Be.

If I’ve made any progress at all in this journey of mine, I think it is mostly due to introspection.

One of my earliest memories of this process was as a young girl. I think I was maybe 10 or 11. A friend of mine pointed out to me that I liked to blame external causes for my problems, leading me to, frankly, whine a lot or not take responsibility for my actions. I was a terrible athlete, and every time I did poorly in some athletic event—either in school or with friends—I found some external reason for why I failed. I was terrified to face the truth that I simply wasn’t talented or well practiced enough to be good at sports. What she said stuck with me, and I just stopped whining about being bad at sports, just stopped accusing others of cheating, or whatever else I was doing that was not helping me get better and was in fact just helping me to accumulate enemies.

I learned that I had a problem, and then I figured out how to apply what I learned to make the problem go away. Applied introspection.

This is also how I figured out what to major in. I knew myself well enough that I’d be miserable in anything else but a life devoted to words, so I ignored all the calls to major in Econ or Comp Sci or plan for a career in law, and simply studied what felt effortless to study. (I also studied evolutionary anthropology, which was fun at the time—learning for the love of learning—but has since allowed me to do a lot of science/technology writing and editing, and given me an interesting background for fiction and other creative projects.) As it turns out, I have found success, independence and a decent degree of financial remuneration doing what I love.

When it came to love, I had one major and several minor failed relationships. After each one, I came to understand why the person was a poor match for me, and also what I had contributed to the relationship’s demise. When I finally met my husband and fell in love with him, thanks to all that introspective work I’d done, I was ready to commit to him -- the right person –- the person for whom I had authentic feelings, the person who had the qualities that I’d discovered I valued and who I was certain loved me for who I was, not who he hoped or imagined me to be. (You may know someone who falls for the same type over and over again, always ending up in heartbroken ruins. Happily, I avoided making this mistake, going for a more varied let’s-give-this-a-chance approach, and I attribute that broad-mindedness to this introspective process, which revealed more and more about what I felt, needed and wanted and who I was with each relationship.)

So by now you have guessed that I believe introspection to be one of the most valuable qualities to possess if you are to find balance and bliss and love in your life.

However, the question remains: Is introspection innate, or can it be acquired?

I don’t really know. I believe that people are blessed with certain gifts and talents that are just part of who they are, and that other personality traits are developed, nurtured and even instilled over time.

Is introspection an intellectual gift, or simply a learned behavior?

On this blog, I talk a lot about taking the time to mediate and examine the world and the self with a high level of analysis. I’m certain you can get better at introspection by practicing these things, but I wonder if you can become introspective if you’ve never been before. Maybe after a brush with death, or some similarly life-changing event?

I’d wager my readers here are a pretty introspective bunch. I’d like to hear from you: Were you always introspective? Do you think it is only innate or that it can be acquired?

More than anything, I'm curious about this process. Whenever I dispense advice, such as it is, it usually presumes that an introspective process is available. But what if it isn't always? What then?

I'm looking forward to any thoughts or ideas about this most fascinating of psychological and spiritual practices.


ArianeK said...

I am definitely a very introspective person - probably too introspective, as I've been known to overanalyze and nitpick at myself (partly because of the "faults" I have, ie. chronic illness, and how those affect my life and those around me). Before I found my current therapist a few years ago, I was introspective, but it never went deep enough to be productive.

He taught me how to take whatever I was nitpicking about superficially, and then ask myself what I am actually worried will be the result of the "fault" - what my fears are. Then to question logically those fears, discount whatever are unrealistic, and unless worth it (and possible to) change, then to accept whatever it was. Just accept it. (I think this is part of some fairly standard cognitive behavioural therapy?)

So I think when introspection is superficial and runs rampant, it leads to self-hate and anxiety. But when it's directed and deeper, it can lead to epiphanies and self-awareness.

Tiffany Hamburger said...

Great comment, Ariane.
I agree that introspection is certainly a process that cuts both ways.

Maybe it's helpful to look at it as a tool that must be used skillfully to be productive?

I also like the process outlined by your therapist -- very practical and useful.

My yoga teacher talks a lot about the "monkey mind"--where the mind just runs around jumping from this to that and never really finding balance. The cure for this, is a meditative practice like yoga (or whatever else might be like that). So, in the hands of the "monkey mind" a tool like introspection gets the user into trouble.

But in an aware, centered mind, introspection does what you say: leads to epiphanies and self-awareness.

Very interesting... :-) Thank you so much for giving me such a great comment to chew on.

Hope all is well with you!

ArianeK said...

Exactly - monkey mind, that's a great name for it. I think introspection definitely is a skill that takes a while to really hone (and some guidance).

Also, my cousin told me about something new to me "radical acceptance" - going to do some looking to see what that's all about, sounds interesting!

Anonymous said...

I have always been introspective. I believe this is a natural tendency for me, but concede that many events in my life gave me ample opportunity to exercise an introspection that might, under other circumstances, never come to any fruition. As a recovered nihilist, I agree with Ariane that the wrong sort of introspection can be harmful.

That said, I don't think that a sentient being can celebrate the miracle of consciousness without introspection.

Happy contemplation!