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Reflection – as Elusive as it is Effective

Take some time to reflect every day and live your life better day by day
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I started writing this back in January with all the talk of New Year's resolutions and am now editing it in the midst of Olympic heartache and triumphs. We're now long past when most of us do our year-end or New Year reflecting and resolving, and most of us are only experiencing the Olympics from the comfort of our own homes. As invested as we may feel in a certain team or competitor, when the final whistle goes, they cross the finish line, or see their final marks posted, we are just not experiencing those highs and lows the same way they are.

Having said that, this blog is about reflection, and we don't need to be Olympic athletes to have important highs and lows in our lives to reflect on; we don't need to wait for New Year's to reflect on where we've been, what we've done, and how we should move forward. Reflecting may seem like a pretty straightforward and easy thing to do. You might be thinking, "yep, I think about something that's already happened and that's reflecting on it." The truth is, it's a bit more complicated than that, and a lot of the time, when we think we're reflecting, we actually might not be.

Reflection is about more than looking at what is there.

In my line of work we talk a lot about focus, and I like to use something called the 3Ps as a nice reminder of what an ideal performance focus looks like. The 3Ps stand for Present, Positive, and Process: stay focused on what is happening right now (present), what is going well and what your strengths are (positive), and the simple things you have to do to be successful (process). This is great for during your performance, and if you listened to interviews with any of the Olympians you likely heard them say things like "I just stayed focused on what I had to do," or "we're just going to worry about one game at a time."

Once the performance is over, however, we get into a situation much more like our New Year's resolution time. It is important that before we plough forward with new plans, we take some time to look back.  Especially when things haven't gone well, it can be tempting to just forget the bad, ignore our past failures, and either carry on as if it hadn't happened. Or maybe we redirect towards a new goal thinking we can avoid remembering or reliving those difficult times. On the other hand, when things are good, we sometimes would rather just celebrate and move on without thinking about it much further than that. Looking forward and planning for the future with a positive outlook is definitely an important step, but ignoring the past (good or bad) can actually hurt our future planning.

Now, here is the big difference: we don't want to LIVE IN the past, we want to LEARN FROM the past and let that learning INFORM our decisions for the future. We don't want to get stuck ruminating on the past - going over the same thoughts or ideas again and again and again. Reliving situations and feelings from the past and wallowing in the negativity (or basking in the positivity) can keep us from moving forward. Instead, we want to be able to grieve or celebrate for a short time and then reflect on our success and failure to help us determine the best way to move forward. While this may involve reliving the situation and feelings, it should go further than that to consider things like the actions taken by you and others, and the level of control you had over those actions. You can read more about controlling your attributions in my last post 'Heros, Villians, and Attributions.'

In order to really get the most out of our reflections, however, we have to consider more than the event itself. We can do this by asking ourselves questions, taking different perspectives, revisiting past situations after a fresh experience, and comparing current situations and feelings with similar situations from our pasts. We want to compare a single event or time period and our thoughts and feelings related to it, with other experiences, thoughts, and feelings in order to learn as much as we can about ourselves and also the world around us.

Good reflection can help us to see things in a way we never have before.

If you're not sure where to start here's my advice.

1. Start with the facts.

•     Get started by writing down what you remember as the main ideas from the event or time period you are reflecting on. Remember the longer the time period, the more there may be to write about, but the more general you can be as well. If reflecting on a longer period of time, hopefully you have done some smaller reflections within that time (don't wait until the end of the Olympic quadrennial or your entire undergrad to reflect on all four years, instead reflect after each event, season, or year as they come), but, if not, still focus your energy on the bigger picture -  look for patterns and events that stand out the most.

•     Questions to ask yourself: What happened? Who was there? When and where did things happen?

Keep your reflections in one place so you can always come back to them.

2. Fill in your subjective experience.

•     Now you can get away from actual facts and into your experience of the events. These may feel like facts to you but they are your own thoughts, perceptions, and interpretations of the facts.

•     Questions to ask yourself: What were you thinking? How did you feel? What did you imagine other people were thinking and feeling?

3. Compare and contrast.

•     At this step you should look at the similarities and differences not just within this time period or event but between this time period and others. If reflecting on a larger time period, look back at reflections you've done during that time period and ask yourself what has changed?

•     Questions to ask yourself: Have you ever experienced this before? How was this experience the same or different from your experiences in the past? Did (or do) certain feelings remind you of another time or experience in your life? Does this experience remind you of an experience you've heard or read about (real or fictional)?

4. Imagine and connect.

•     This is where some great reflection can happen. Use your imagination and critical thinking to question and try to understand even more of your experience from new perspectives and with new information. You can pretty much ask yourself any question you can think of and include any information you might have to bring your reflection to an even deeper level. You could even question why you are asking the questions you are asking!

•     Questions to ask yourself: How would you feel if you were a different actor in this scenario? How would you want to act if a similar situation were to happen again? What have you read or heard in the past that might support or contradict your beliefs on this topic? How do these other views make you feel about your own opinions and beliefs? What other factors could play a role in a situation like this one? How do you feel now looking back at these facts and experiences - is it the same or different than how you felt at the time and what might have caused it to change or stay the same?

Often, when we think we are reflecting, we don't actually get past steps one and two, which means we're remembering without actually reflecting. If we can give ourselves the time and permission to really delve into some deeper questioning, we can move beyond remembering or ruminating and create an opportunity to learn and grow from our experiences. This allows us to move forward in a healthier and more positive direction.

As a bonus, developing these reflection skills not only helps our self-growth but it also helps to develop important critical thinking skills. Also, the practice of taking other perspectives and questioning our own beliefs can make us more open to new ideas and more empathetic of other people's situations. In other words, a little reflection could make us all better friends, parents, partners, teammates, leaders and more.

Make an appointment with a helping professional or plan a regular time to reflect on your own.

Finally, like anything else, knowing how to reflect does not have any effect unless we actually make or find the time to do it. This might mean scheduling a session with a mental performance consultant or another professional. Having a trained neutral third party can help you take your reflection further than you might on your own. If you don't have access to a professional, a trusted friend can also be helpful, but usually, your best bet is to see how you do on your own first and then bring in outside help to prompt some new perspectives.

Whether on your own or with a helper, a quiet, distraction-free environment is going to be best for this. I'm not saying you need a solo weekend forest retreat, just half an hour with your phone turned off after the kids have gone to sleep, or a few extra minutes in the parked car at the beginning or end of your workday. Some people find they think better when they are active and might prefer to work through some of these questions over a lunchtime walk or morning run - just make sure that if you do your thinking while moving, you leave yourself time to consolidate in writing soon afterwards.

Fresh air and activity can be helpful to get your reflection started - just be sure to make note of your questions and revelations afterwards.

Now you're all set to start reflecting and learning from events in your life. Maybe it's a recent promotion or demotion, or an interaction with a teammate or colleague that is keeping you up at night; maybe you were cut from a team or had a change in your relationship status; maybe you've been trying to make a lifestyle change and don't seem to be having much success. Whatever is going on in your life - take some time to really reflect and give yourself the opportunity to learn from your past and move forward ready to take on new challenges. Let me know how it goes, or reach out to me if you have questions or would like to chat.

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