The Psychology of Self-Reflection

by Jan 2, 2020Leadership

The tradition of creating goals at this time of year is widespread and often they come with statements of resolve. This week, literally millions of articles about resolutions will be published. What we know from studying how people are able to make, and sustain change, is not easy to apply in the context of New Year’s Resolutions. This is why I suggest that, instead of making resolutions out of habit, you use a process based on the science of behavior change. It can help you make changes at any time, January 28th being as good as January 1st.


Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, famously said that it is far easier to fool oneself than to fool someone else. He was right. The tendency for us to avoid what is unpleasant, especially when it involves admitting something about ourselves that is unflattering, is both entirely normal and, at times, very maladaptive.

I can easily admit that I am very bad at arithmetic, but I usually follow up that admission by saying that I have a nearly savant-like capacity for statistics. These statements are supported by the facts of my grades from elementary school through graduate school. This is a simple example of a powerful principle, the need to preserve a particular image of ourselves.

Instead of making resolutions out of habit, you use a process based on the science of behavior change. Share on X

My example does show some self-knowledge, but it fails the ultimate test because it takes no courage whatsoever to admit that I am bad at arithmetic. This sort of self-reflection is insufficiently disruptive to create the kind of change that many of us seek. We need to rock our own boats. You can do that by asking yourself these questions and writing down your answers:


  • What do I want?


  • Why do I want to make this change? Do I want to?


  • What abilities did I use to make changes in the past?
  • What do I need to make this change that I don’t have ready access to?
  • Who can help me?

Now, ask yourself, “What would my answers be if I had greater courage?”

The answers with courage will almost always be different, even if only quantitatively. Courageous self-reflection helps us understand, in a highly personal way, what we want, why it is important, and what capacity we can rely upon in ourselves. Once we understand that, it’s far easier to admit what we need help to do and far more likely that we’ll ask for it.

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