Self-reflection has several definitions based on specific theories and scales reported to measure the concept. However, most agree that self-reflection is time spent in introspection, with attention placed on the self-concept.
Psychologists and nonpsychologists use the term self-reflection to refer to at least four phenomena. The most common use of the term is the equivalent of self-awareness – self-reflection is examining the self through attention placed on the self-concept. A quick PsychINFO database search reveals around 200 articles using the term self-reflection in this way. In 1984, the term “self-reflection” became the name given to a type of private self-consciousness (Burnkrant and Page 1984). More recently, Trapnell and Campbell (1999) introduced rumination and reflection as an alternative bifurcation of private self-awareness. Last, Grant et al. (2002) proposed a scale also related to private self-consciousness, called the Self-Reflection and Insight scale.
Self-Reflection: Good or Bad?
Self-reflection, when used as a generalized term involving self-awareness, insight, introspection, and self-examination, is generally viewed as a positive term. How can we know ourselves, desires, personality traits, strengths, weaknesses, mistakes, and successes without time spent reflecting upon the self? Therapists often ask clients to reflect upon themselves to discover what may be the cause and contributing factors of a disorder. Insights gained in therapy often help clients recover or at least help them understand and relieve their symptoms (see Fenigstein et al. 1975 for a brief overview; Simsek 2013).
Unfortunately, a dark side of self-reflection may exist. People high in the tendency to self-reflect also have a tendency for psychopathology, including depression, anxiety, neuroticism, and low self-esteem. The idea that self-reflection can be both good and bad for psychological health has been named “The Self-Absorption Paradox” by Trapnell and Campbell (1999, see Simsek 2013 for a counterargument). At least three scales attempt to tap into this paradox by distinguishing positive, healthy self-reflection, introspection, and self-understanding from a more negative ruminative habitual self-reflection. These three scales are the Self-Reflectiveness and Internal State Awareness subscales of the Private Self-Consciousness scale (Burnkrant and Page 1984), the Rumination and Reflection scales (Trapnell and Campbell 1999), and the Self-Reflection and Insight scale (Grant et al. 2002). In each of these scales and the theories behind them, self-reflection has different meanings and implications.
Private self-consciousness is an individual differences variable referring to people who spend more or less time in self-awareness. People high in private self-consciousness tend to spend more time in a state of high self-awareness in which they examine themselves, their goals, and progress towards those goals. People low in private self-consciousness tend to spend more time in a state of low self-awareness, where attention is not placed on the self. Instead, attention is placed outward towards the environment around them. Self-consciousness is discussed in more detail in its own entry in this Encyclopedia.
The first and most commonly used measure of self-consciousness is the Self-Consciousness scale (Fenigstein et al. 1975). The scale has three subscales, but the private self-consciousness subscale is the most commonly used measure of individual differences in self-awareness. Burnkrant and Page (1984) discovered that private self-consciousness may have two subscales of its own. They labeled these as Self-Reflectiveness and Internal State Awareness.
Self-Reflectiveness correlates positively with negative emotions, and the scale seems to tap into some sort of ruminative emphasis on evaluating one’s self negatively, placing emphasis on judgment and failures. Internal State Awareness, however, does not generally correlate with negative emotions, nor does it correlate strongly with positive emotions. ISA seems to be an introspective type of awareness that involves less negativity and a more open and curious examinations of the self. The subscales of the private self-consciousness scale, however, are not completely stable from study to study – the items that load on each subscale in factor analyses vary, as do the correlations between the subscales (e.g., Trapnell and Campbell 1999; Silvia et al. 2004).
Rumination and Reflection
Trapnell and Campbell (1999) created the Rumination and Reflection scale as an alternate method of measuring a ruminative, negative aspect and a more positive, introspective aspect of private self-consciousness. Essentially, they believed that Self-Reflectiveness and Internal State Awareness confounded these types of self-consciousness, with both scales predicting the Openness trait and Self-Reflectiveness predicting the Neuroticism trait of the Big Five theory of personality (Costa and McCrae 1985). Trapnell and Campbell (1999) posited that this pattern of correlations demonstrates that both subscales of the Self-Consciousness scale measure the introspective aspect of self-consciousness, but Self-Reflectiveness also taps into the neurotic, less healthy, ruminative style of self-consciousness.
The Rumination and Reflection Scales were proposed as an alternate and more precise tool to measure positive and negative subtypes of private self-consciousness. Specifically, Trapnell and Campbell (1999) predicted that their Rumination scale would correlate with the personality trait Neuroticism as well as anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. They predicted that their Reflection scale would correlate with the personality trait of Openness as well as positive emotions and measures of psychological well-being. Rumination did predict Neuroticism and a variety of negative emotions, including depression and anxiety. Reflection likewise predicted Openness but had small negative correlations with negative affect (Trapnell and Campbell 1999). Over the years, rumination has continued to predict depression, but reflection has not consistently predicted positive emotions or well-being.
Self-Reflection and Insight
Self-Reflection and Insight were also proposed as alternative ways of measuring positive and negative aspects of private self-consciousness. Self-Reflection is defined as “the inspection and evaluation of one’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior,” and is the result of constantly judging oneself in reference to goals, without necessarily obtaining insight and clarity in one’s self-concept. This type of self-focused attention has a negative connotation, but is not necessarily as negative as Rumination. Insight refers to “the clarity of understanding one’s thoughts, feelings and behavior.” This type of self-focused attention has a positive connotation associated with understanding the self-concept (Grant et al. 2002).
Thus, theoretically Self-Reflection should be related to negative emotions, but perhaps more importantly, Insight should be related to positive emotions and psychological well-being. The relationship of Insight with psychological well-being is fairly well documented. Grant et al. (2002) found that higher scores on the insight scales were negatively correlated with depression, anxiety, stress, and alexithymia. Silvia and Phillips (2011) found that Insight was negatively correlated with depression, anxiety, and general negative affect, while it was positively correlated with positive affect and self-esteem. Lyke (2009) and Harrington and Laffredo (2010) also found that Insight predicted markers of positive well-being.
Self-Reflection is related to negative emotions, but the relationship is not as large as those between Insight and emotions. Grant et al. (2002) found small but significant positive correlations between Self-Reflection and anxiety and stress. This pattern was observed by Silvia and Phillips (2011), but the correlations did not achieve statistical significance. Harrington and Loffredo (2010) found some evidence that Self-Reflection negatively correlates with well-being.
Relation to Self-Focused Attention
Self-Reflectiveness and Internal State Awareness are part of the private self-conscious scale, which correlates with measures of self-focused attention and self-awareness. However, Rumination and Reflection do not (Silvia and Phillips 2011), and Self-Reflection and Insight have not been tested to assess whether they measure self-focused attention and self-awareness. What does this mean for attempts to resolve the self-absorption paradox – that self-reflection (as used as a synonym to self-focused attention) can have both positive and negative effects on psychology and mental health?
No conclusion can be made regarding the relationship between Self-Reflection and Insight and self-focused attention, simply because the relationship has not been tested. The two concepts do seem to tap into different perspectives on the self that are more and less psychologically healthy, but their relation to private self-consciousness and self-focused attention is unknown. Rumination and Reflection can predict negative emotions, but they do not achieve their goal of creating better measures of the subtypes of private self-consciousness. Currently, no psychologist has substantively proven that two subtypes of private self-consciousness are related to the self-absorption paradox of positive and negative self-focused attention. This is an area of research that deserves further attention and research.
Self-Reflection is commonly used as a synonym for introspection or self-awareness, but the term has several definitions in psychology. In the Private Self-Consciousness Scale, Self-Reflectiveness is a negative, ruminative type of self-consciousness in which people focus more on negative self-evaluative processes and outcomes. In the Rumination and Reflection scales, self-reflection has a more positive connotation in that self-reflection is not ruminative. In the Self-Reflection and Insight scales, self-reflection is the more negative of the two types of private self-consciousness, but it has not had strong and consistent relationships with negative emotions or well-being. Further research and theory is likely necessary to determine if two types of self-focused attention exist, what is the best way of measuring them, and what they should be called.
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