Is self-reflection dangerous?

BLUF: Counterintuitively, many academic studies have shown that journaling and self-reflection is often bad for happiness and confidence (and, therefore, performance). I have redesigned my personal process based on the insights in this paper (which is likely too verbose and wide-reaching to be worth your time). The most important findings were that we should:
  • actively reflect more on good moments than bad events
  • avoid reflecting when upset (emphasized by the authors)
    • good reflection almost only comes when someone is "psychologically healthy, confident, open, and feels in control" while reflecting
    • [WR’s personal note: a good workout and sleep is important before trying to analyze a negative situation]
  • enjoy the process & avoid expectations: Sometimes useful reflections do not come in a set time
    • expecting that journaling should 'go a certain way' or we 'should uncover an insight' reduces the efficacy & creates stress
    • approaching it with a sense of forgiveness — things take time — will let you uncover more real insights
  • Note that good reflection is less self-centric, it is more motivated by curiosity or an "epistemic interest in the events"
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Lengelle, Reineke, Tom Luken, and Frans Meijers. 2016. “Is Self-Reflection Dangerous? Preventing Rumination in Career Learning.” Australian Journal of Career Development 25 (3): 99–109. https://doi.org/10.1177/1038416216670675.

Technical Notes

  • Rather than explicitly bad, the general body of research into journaling struggles to find positive correlations with the practice.
  • Negative journaling is called rumination — and the academics spend multiple pages explaining that self-reflection can easily turn into rumination. Apparently if reflection is rumination, it is a cyclical, overly self-focused, poor thinking process.
  • "Rumination seems motivated by perceived threats, losses, or injustices to the self. Reflection is motivated by curiosity or epistemic interest in the self."

Extra notes

  • the clear structure of the 5 minute journal that Tim Ferriss uses is likely beneficial. Additionally, "morning pages" which is one of the most prevalent journaling practices is incidentally built on the same observatory (non-judgemental) focus.

The author's recommended journaling process:

A successful method will promote the following developmental processes:

(1) engaging with (i.e. having/allowing/ articulating) as well as observing feelings;

(2) cultivating a mutually inspiring internal as well as an external dialogue (a conversation with one’s self and others);

(3) articulating lived experiences while also questioning existing beliefs about those experiences (using specific and concrete details to construct stories and using questions to deconstruct our responses to experience);

(4) understanding the theory of the growth process involved in identity formation, which includes identifying pitfalls and responding with do-able steps (theory is provided on a just-enough, just-in-time basis);

(5) stimulating a playful, creative process that fosters a sense of fun and competence.

  • A group-work format has additional benefits because it allows for the development of a wider range of pos- sible perspectives, has individuals see and experience that they are ‘‘not alone’’ with their struggles and pro- vides opportunities to witness one’s own growing com- petence through the eyes of others.

WR's personal reference: