“Every time I thought I’d got it made it seemed the taste was not so sweet, so I turned myself to face me.”
David Bowie – Changes
“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
Engaging in meaningful, self-focused personal change is at the heart of any kind of serious personal and professional development.
It might be a change in your habits, a change in your behaviours or a change in the way that you typically think about things.
Whatever it is, if you are going to be successful, you will practice what psychologists call self-regulation. This is the process whereby you monitor the progress you are making and use the feedback you gain in to improve or alter your performance.
This, inevitably, means that you’ll need to engage in a good deal of introspection as you try to fulfil your change goals – and one type of introspection that you might engage in is self-reflection. This is the process of consciously inspecting and evaluating your thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
The problem with self-reflection, as the research shows, is that it is not necessarily very helpful. Self-reflection is not always related to goal attainment (Grant, 2003), nor is it always related to well-being or insight (Lyke, 2008).
In other words, self-reflection may interfere with your ability to make the changes for the better that you are looking to make.
The reason for this is that self-reflection has various facets. It can involve positive or accepting evaluations of your thoughts feelings or behaviours. But in can also be ruminative, involving negative reflections on your emotional reactions and problems. And of course, these different facets don’t necessarily manifest themselves separately. So, your positive and accepting evaluations can easily get sidelined by your rumination.
Thus, the qualitative evaluation of thoughts, feelings and behaviour in your self-reflection can lead to change being thwarted and, where rumination features significantly, unhappiness as well.
So what should you do instead?
Surely you can’t engage in meaningful change without some kind of introspective reflection?
Indeed, to paraphrase David Bowie, you do need look inside yourself to face you, as you try to be a different man (or woman).
But when you do, you should be trying to gain insight, rather than simply engage in a reflective process.
Insight in this context does not mean the insight we associate with sudden realisations, or ‘ah-hah’ moments. It simply means clarity of understanding of your thoughts, feelings and behaviour.
So, to be clear, whereas self-reflection involves inspection and evaluation, insight involves understanding.
The difference seems small but it can be great.
It is the difference between focusing on the problem (inspection and evaluation) and focusing on the way to the solution (clarity and understanding).
And this difference is backed up by the science.
It has been shown that:
- insight, not self-reflection is related to subjective well-being (Lyke, 2008, Harrington and Loffredo, 2010)
- insight is strongly related to self-regulation, which, as we have seen is a crucial element of any change process; and
- self-regulation in turn is related to well-being (Cheers, 2014).
This is one of the reasons why a solution focused approach is so important in any change process and why it is at the core of the kind of coaching that I and many other coaches practice.
It has in fact been demonstrated that during the course of a solution focused programme of coaching, the more that insight increased the more that self-reflection decreased (Grant, 2003).
Further evidence for the power of the solution focused orientation also emerges from another study (Grant, 2012), which compared two groups who approached a problem from a solution focused or a problem focused perspective.
The results showed that those who took the solution focused approach subsequently had significant increases in both positive affect (emotions) and self-efficacy (confidence to face the challenge) and a significant decrease in negative affect. By contrast, those who took the problem focused approach had no significant changes on those measures. Significantly, the solution focused group were also twice as likely to reach their goal of resolving the problem than the problem focused group.
Solution focused coaching helps clients gain insight by:
- framing the discussion by reference to the clients’ strengths and resources and their ability to build solutions or make desired change;
- focusing on supporting clients to discover the path towards the changes they wish to make;
- encouraging a forward thinking process of self-regulation; and
- discouraging rumination by placing attention on those things clients have the capacity to change.
Meaningful personal change cannot realistically be expected to take place in the absence of self-awareness and introspection. However, it is clear that care needs to be taken to ensure that self-regulatory processes are solution focused and insightful rather than ruminatively self-reflective. Therefore:
- Set clear goals with a focus on the outcome you want to achieve, not the problem you are trying to solve;
- Reflect on your progress, but do so to gain clarity of understanding about your thoughts, feelings and behaviours;
- Avoid ruminative self-reflection;
- Do more of what is working, change what is not working;
- Maintain a solution focused approach throughout the change process.
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Grant, A. M. (2003). The impact of life coaching on goal attainment, metacognition and mental health. Social Behavior & Personality, 31(3), 253-264. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2003.31.3.253
Harrington, R., & Loffredo, D. A. (2010). Insight, rumination, and self-reflection as predictors of well-being. The Journal of psychology, 145(1), 39-57. doi: 10.1080/00223980.2010.528072
Grant, A. M. (2012). Making positive change: Comparing solution-focused vs.problem-focused questions . Journal of Systemic Therapies. doi: 10.1521/jsyt.2012.31.2.21
Lyke, J. A. (2008). Insight, but not self-reflection, is related to subjective well-being Personality and Individual Differences, 46(1), 66-70 doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2008.09.010
Stein, D., & Grant, A. M. (2014). Disentangling the Relationships Between Self-Reflection,Insight and Subjective Well-being: The Role of Dysfunctional Attitudes and Core Self-Evaluations. The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, 148(5), 505-522. doi: 10.1080/00223980.2013.810128