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A pensive woman reflecting in her journal

A Time for reflection

What kind of New Year’s person are you? Do you eagerly celebrate the fresh beginning, set resolutions, anticipate all that is to come? Or do you get a little melancholy looking back on the past year, perhaps dwelling on the things that didn’t go so well, lamenting the lost opportunities and unfulfilled hopes?

Endings and beginnings are often a time to pause and reflect, but how we choose to do so matters a lot for our mental health.

As we finish out 2020 and prepare to welcome in 2021, I encourage everyone to spend a little time this week on reflection. 

Reflection is an important psychological process. It is defined as giving “serious thought or consideration to a subject”. Reflection is thinking with the goal to understand ourselves and our lives better. Reflection is intentional, neutral, and open-minded.

Reflection should be differentiated from its close cousin and sometimes-imposter brooding. Brooding is also a form of thinking, but it is more passive in process and negative in content than reflection. Brooding is uncontrolled, negative, and close-minded. Brooding is sometimes called dwelling, or rumination.

Said differently, reflection is making slow and steady strokes through the waters of one’s life, with each pull and kick trying to understand yourself more. Brooding is floating aimlessly in the sea of one’s own negative thoughts, feelings, or events. Reflection gets you somewhere, while brooding doesn’t.

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Now, we’re not stupid. None of us intends to sit down and brood. We don’t plan to get sucked into the dark hole of negativity that is passively thinking about all the bad parts of our lives. Often our intentions are just the opposite - we think that playing over all the bad will help us problem-solve, will help us see where and how we went wrong. But the data is very clear – if we aren’t intentional and systematic about our thinking processes, we often end up unintentionally brooding. And brooding tends to make us feel worse. Brooding is associated with greater depression, anxiety, and loneliness, and doesn’t actually lead to problem-solving.

But reflection – purposefully giving thought to one’s life in a mindful, contemplative, problem-focused way – can actually improve our mental health. When we use the power of our brain in a reflective way, we have better insight, better relationships, and improved mood.

So given that we’re all likely to spend some time this week thinking on 2020 and looking ahead to 2021, how can we do that thinking in a way that is productive? How can we promote reflection and avoid brooding? Below are a few tips to harness the power of your mind in a constructive way:

  • Be intentional. Set aside the time (an hour ought to do it) and the method (journal, bullet list).
  • Be structured. Identify the questions you want to ask yourself and structure them so they are useful. You might repeat these questions across different areas of your life, such as school/work, relationships, or personal wellbeing. Ideas include:

                  •  What are 3 things that went well this past year? 

                   •  What are 2 things that were challenging this year?

                   •  What is 1 thing that I hope stays the same next year?

  • Be goal-oriented and problem-focused. Using the answers to the questions above, ask yourself: How can I grow in 2021? As above, consider asking yourself this question about the different areas of your life.

Best wishes to you and yours for 2021!

December 30, 2020
Amy Mezulis | Co-Founder & Chief Psychologist

Amy Mezulis | Co-Founder & Chief Psychologist

Amy Mezulis, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her BA from Harvard University and her MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology from University of Wisconsin – Madison. Dr. Mezulis provides services to older children, adolescents and adults utilizing an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral approach that includes mindfulness and acceptance-based treatments. Dr. Mezulis has specialized training in mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, suicidality and self-injury, trauma, substance use, and adolescent development.  She is currently on the faculty at Seattle Pacific University, where she chairs the Clinical Psychology PhD program.

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