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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