Op-Ed: Why being introspective is a double-edged sword
“Live in the moment” is a cultural mantra of our time. Instead of reflecting on the past or imagining the future we are exhorted to connect with the present.
And yet this well-intentioned message runs counter to our biology. Humans weren’t made to hold fast to the present all the time. That’s just not what our brains evolved to do.
Research shows that we spend one-third to one-half of our waking life not living in the present. As naturally as we breathe, we decouple from the here and now, with our brains transporting us to past events, imagined scenarios and other internal musings.
Our ability to do this is a remarkable tool. Drifting off into our thoughts allows for introspection — the space to imagine, remember, reflect, and then use these reveries to solve problems, innovate, and create. Many scientists see this as one of the central evolutionary advances that distinguish human beings from other species.
But introspection can sometimes lead to more harm than good, contributing to anxiety and depression, which has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. When we focus inward to work through our problems we may find that doing so causes us to feel worse. This internal chatter — negative thought loops — can make our capacity for introspection feel more like a curse than a blessing. We think about that screw-up at work, or a misunderstanding with a loved one, or the COVID-19 case rate in our community — and we end up flooded by how bad we feel.
Then we think about it again.
The fact that introspection is both a helpful tool and destructive force is a great paradox of the human mind. Fortunately, science has begun to explain why this looping happens, and how to rein it in.
One thing we’ve learned is that negative thought cycles occur when we zoom in too close on our problems. This inflames our emotions to the exclusion of alternative ways of thinking about the issue that might cool us down. In other words, we lose perspective.
One natural solution to this problem is to zoom out — to “step back” from your problems so you can think about them more objectively. Although that prescription may seem straightforward, as anyone who has struggled with this problem knows, it’s easier said than done.
But science-based tools exist to help — in the words we use to think about ourselves, the conversations we have with our loved ones and the spaces we navigate. Consider just a few examples.
When the Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence became uncomfortable during an interview in 2015, she used a simple but effective strategy to regain perspective. She said to herself, “OK, get ahold of yourself, Jennifer. This is not therapy.” By addressing herself by name she talked to herself like she was speaking to someone else.
Most people find it easier to advise other people than themselves. When a problem isn’t happening to you, it’s easier to remain objective.
Language provides us with a tool to think about ourselves like we were someone else. Scientists call it distanced self-talk, which involves using your name and “you” to refer to yourself. And far from being a simple quirk of speech or a sign of narcissistic self-absorption, research shows that distanced self-talk helps people regulate negative emotions, reason wisely and perform better under stress.
Another way to gain perspective is to talk to others, but not any conversation will do. Many people think that venting helps. While that does make us feel closer and more connected to the people we vent to, it doesn’t help us solve our problems and in some cases makes them worse by revving up the internal chatter we want to go away.
The key to avoiding co-rumination, as it is often called, is to focus on talking to people who not only allow you to express your emotions but also help broaden your perspective. Seek out a friend who takes the time to empathically listen to how you feel but then nudges you to consider, for example, how you’ve successfully dealt with similar situations or how small the problem will seem a year from now.
Awe is an emotion we feel when we encounter something powerful that we can’t easily explain, like an incredible sunset or a transcendent piece of art. When you’re in the presence of something vast and indescribable, it’s hard to maintain the view that you are the center of the world, which improves how you feel by “shrinking” the causes of your stress.
While living in the present can be wonderful, thoughts that take us into the past, future or beyond aren’t something to avoid, in spite of the painful moments they can bring.
Introspection is central to the makeup of the human mind. The challenge is to minimize the negative aspects of that essential feature while harnessing its potential. Fortunately, science-based tools exist to help us do that. Being cognizant of how our minds and these tools work can help us keep internal chatter at bay.
Ethan Kross is a professor of psychology and management at the University of Michigan and author of the book “Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It.”
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