The Art of Reflection: Feel Your Way to a Happier Life


“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” ~Steve Jobs

One of the best ways I’ve found to develop wisdom is through reflection. While reflection might look like a quiet session of daydreaming, it’s actually an active process during which you enrich your life and encourage personal growth by reviewing parts of your day or your life.

It was January 2001 and I was sitting in New York’s La Guardia airport waiting for my flight to Atlanta. I had moved to New York to attend a graduate program there, and in spite of doing well academically, I withdrew after one semester.

I questioned my career path. I felt lost and deflated. Now what? I didn’t know what I wanted. Or did I? I figured what I was supposed to do now was just move back to Atlanta, where I lived previously.

What I didn’t know back then was how to be present, listen to my inner voice, and ultimately how to reflect in order to learn.

That day at La Guardia, every cell in my body was telling me that New York wasn’t finished with me yet. I still had some things to do and people to meet. I loved the energy of the city.

That being said, I didn’t know how to deal with the voice in my head that was telling me all about the “shoulds.” You should move back to Atlanta. Your stuff is still in storage there. It’s expensive in New York.

I couldn’t logically explain what I was feeling. I just felt like it wasn’t time yet to move back to Atlanta.

While sitting at the gate, I called my friend, Helen. “I don’t want to get on the plane.” What? What do you mean? “I just don’t want to go back yet.”

After Helen respectfully listened, I called another friend, Prema.

Prema answered. “I don’t want to get on the plane.” What?

Granted, I had already said my goodbyes with my grad school New York friends.

Ultimately, I got on the plane that day because I though I had to in spite of what I was feeling…only to return to New York two weeks later, when an awesome rent-controlled apartment in the West Village seemed to fall in my lap, and I somehow landed a coveted position, which led to many great opportunities in my career.

My pattern of not listening to my inner voice continued for years until I began to make a conscious effort to trust my intuition, reflect, and learn from my experiences. My patterns of not trusting myself showed up with my relationships, jobs, school programs, and apparently, moves.

Looking back, I know the reason I was indecisive was because I did not trust my gut and pay attention to what I was feeling. I made fear-based decisions. After some practice with reflection, I now realize that my inner voice does always know.

What I’ve learned is that while our busy lives can make it seem difficult to reflect on our experiences, taking some time for self-reflection is necessary if we are to learn and grow.

Reflection helps us to build upon the successful moments and break free from the self-doubt that holds us back from embracing our true dreams and living a fulfilling life.

I think it’s important to be clear that I am not talking about reliving negative experiences of the past. Dwelling in the past is just as unproductive and unhealthy as stressing about the future.

We can’t change the past. What we can do, though, is use self-compassion to reflect on and learn from what is happening right now.

This is what helps us to embrace a vibrant life and allows our spirit to flourish.

The following tips will help you to learn how to listen to your inner voice while you practice reflection so that you can learn and move forward.

Carve out some solo time for your sessions of self-reflection.

By definition, self-reflection is a solitary process. Typically, you will want to choose a time and place for reflection that is quiet and where you can be alone with your thoughts.

You can make this part of your daily or weekly habits. This quiet time will help you to be able to center your thoughts without interruption, and make it easier for you to “hear” your inner voice.

Listen to your inner voice.

Many people find it helpful to sit down somewhere that it is quiet and write down their thoughts and feelings when they are reflecting. If writing is an activity that you enjoy, by all means keep a journal or diary to record your inner discoveries.

Others find it easier to hear their inner voice and consider their past as they go for a long walk, or as they practice meditation. I like to sit or walk in nature. There is no “right” or “wrong” way. Select the space that helps you to best feel relaxed and calm as you look back on your past.

Let your mind float.

Set your thoughts free. You don’t necessarily have to try to direct them to a specific event or time. Your subconscious knows where it wants to take you.

Tune in to what it’s showing you. Can you see something or hear a voice? Is it bringing you a feeling? Let it sit with you in peace for a while.

The message will come when it’s ready and often it’s a real “aha” moment. Other times it’s a gentle nudge in a new direction.

Trust yourself.

We are very used to giving people reasons—evidence—for our choices and decisions, so basing your actions on something that can be as unquantifiable as reflection may initially make you nervous.

The beauty of reflection is that it won’t steer you wrong. It gives you perhaps the most honest and clear guidance you will ever have.

Reflect even when there seems to be nothing to reflect on.

Don’t be tempted to skip your reflection period because everything seems to be going well for you. Use the time to let go of any stresses and worries that are hiding in you.

Look for the positives and seek the keys to help you become the person you want to be. Sit in peace and think about life, love, and all the wonderful things you have to be grateful for. Personal growth springs out of silence just as often as it does from experience.

With practice, your confidence in your abilities will grow and your self-esteem and spirit will soar. You will come to love the quiet moments of reflection that you have given yourself.

By looking back we can sometimes make sense of life, and as Steve Jobs put it, connect the dots to our future.

Often the ability to grow as individuals is tied to the understanding of the context of our lives. Personal reflection is a powerful and liberating experience that can smooth out life’s bumps, boost our happiness, and help us become the people we want to be.

Contemplation image via Shutterstock

About Nancie Vito

Nancie Vito, MPH, CHES is a transformational coach on a mission to help others find joy and get out of their own way. After learning so much on her own journey, and with so many people burned out from a "soul-sucking” job, she feels passionately about helping others create lives they love. Visit her on her site or on facebook.

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  • JS

    Hi Nancie, thanks for the thoughtful article. We talk about mindfulness, inner voice and self-love, but never actually put that in practice. I think all of us have an intuition that we should rely on, but with everything going on, its much easier to ignore that and move on to easier things, than listen to it and pave the difficult way.
    I’m going through some difficult period right now, and the article helped me find a direction where to start. So thank you again

  • Peace Within

    I love reflecting. I reflect when I am taking nature walks by the ocean. It heals my soul. It clears my head of clutter. I do this almost everyday. It’s helped me come up with solutions to problems I have been facing. It really does help us in getting tune with our intuition. It’s a great way to think clearly, alone, without any outside distractions. A way to ground ourselves and re-energize. Thank you for sharing.

  • Hi Nancie
    What a great article tackling an issue that pretty much everyone can relate to in some way or another. I have always been a pretty reflective person, and it has served me quite well. It can be challenging though, because it usually means having to tread some uncomfortable waters, but it is oh-so-worth it.

    When we turn inward and reflect on what is happening inside of us, we get in touch with who we really are and our higher self who has all the answers we seek. When we do this, it becomes so much easier to live a happier life because we gain clarity on who we truly are and what we truly want. We are less likely to make decisions based on what other people think or do, what we think we ‘should’ do, etc…It gives us confidence to move forward and it makes it easier to make the decisions that carry us where we want to be.

    You gave some great tips on getting in touch with that part of us. Great post!

  • lv2terp

    Great post, thank you for sharing your experience and perspective. Reflection is not something that I do when I listen to my inner voice, but something that now seems valuable to add to that process. Thank you so much for your insight and tips! 🙂

  • You’re welcome, Iv2terp. Thank YOU for sharing your thoughts. I’ve found reflection helpful and I definitely get some good “a-ha” moments when I tie things together. (Those a-ha lightbulb moments can be fun. :)) I appreciate you! xx

  • Hi Kelli! Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Basically, reflection –> clarity –> confidence –> better decisions. At one point in my life I would ask people’s their opinions way too much, and while that can be helpful sometimes, it’s generally not in the sense that everyone has their own opinion (which is based on their value system and the lens they look through). I could ask 5 people and get 5 opinions. Trusting myself is key. And you’re also right in that reflection (and being honest with yourself!) could get uncomfortable. My last blog post on my site touches on this, actually. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it and glad you enjoyed the article. xx

  • Hi Peace Within 🙂 Ooh, reflecting when taking nature walks by the ocean sounds amazing. And I believe you’re right on, what a great way to clear out the clutter. I think when we clear out the clutter, it also makes room for new ideas and creativity. Reflecting can be so healing and (especially without distractions) it can do wonders for the soul. Heck, even on road trips I sometimes enjoy just being alone with my thoughts with no music or audio books. Lovely. Thank you for sharing! xx

  • Hi there, JS. Thanks so much for your comment and I’m so glad you found the article helpful. I think with anything it takes a conscious effort to put into place. I truly believe we have all the answers inside of us and it can get confusing when others give (well-meaning) advice, which is based on their values. I think that if we don’t listen to the messages we receive, they’ll just keep showing up until we do. (They may start out as whispers and get louder.) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and all the best to you. xx

  • Thanks for the powerful reminder to quieten ourselves now and then and calmly reflect. I have found by personal experience, this does help. The hustle and bustle of our modern lifestyle may stop us; but once we succeed in making this a regular habit, our ability to tackle the problems would tremendously increase. In due course, we can always have the benefit of our mental clarity and presence of mind.

  • MJ

    Beautifully said. I have made of my best choices listening to my inner voice and have regretted many times when I haven’t.

  • Thank you so much, MJ. Same goes for me, that’s for sure! xx

  • Thank you so much, K S. It’s so true; there will always be something going on so it takes a conscious effort to stop and listen. Mental clarity and presence of mind? Sounds good to me. Well worth taking the time to stop and slow down in my opinion. 🙂 Thanks again.

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  • Peace Within

    When I was younger I had to have music on, always. Now, I actually appreciate just peace and quiet. I also had to be around people. Now, I enjoy being alone. I guess that I am more comfortable being in my own skin. =)

  • Some here. I really look forward to my downtime alone. What a gift. 🙂

  • Reflection (I love the word!) is how I like to end my days, just as I’m falling asleep. That time seems to have a numinous, in-between quality that seems to help me step into that world where I can hear that inner voice.

    Very well written Nancie – the NYC story is pretty cool too 🙂

  • Oh thank you so much, Saiisha. How beautiful that you end your days with reflection (which I agree is a great word!) It sounds so much better than ruminating on what we perceive didn’t go well throughout the day. Keep on keepin’ on. 🙂 I appreciate you. xx

  • Bill Lee

    Hey Peace. I applaud your practice of mindful walking and hiking.

  • Peace Within

    Thanks! (=