What Is Self-reflection?

Human self-reflection is the capacity of humans to exercise introspection and the willingness to learn more about their fundamental nature, purpose and essence. The earliest historical records demonstrate the great interest which humanity has had in itself.

Human self-reflection is related to the philosophy of consciousness, the topic of awareness, consciousness in general and the philosophy of mind.




Prehistoric times

Prehistoric notions about the status of humanity may be guessed by the etymology of ancient words for man. Latin homo (PIE dʰǵʰm̥mō) means “of the earth, earthling”, probably in opposition to “celestial” beings. Greek ἂνθρωπος (mycenaean anthropos) means “low-eyed”, again probably contrasting with a divine perspective.

Ancient Orient

From the 3rd-millennium Old Kingdom of Egypt, belief in the eternal afterlife of the human ka is documented. From the earliest times, man made out a claim of dominance of humanity alongside radical pessimism because of the frailty and brevity of human life (in the Hebrew Bible, for example, dominion of man is promised in Genesis 1:28, but the author of Ecclesiastes bewails the vanity of all human effort).

Classical antiquity

Thinking Man

The Thinker

Protagoras made the famous claim that “Man is the measure of all things; of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not”. Socrates advocated for all humans to “know thyself”, and gave the (doubtlessly tongue-in-cheek) definition of humans as “featherless bipeds” (Plato, Politicus). More serious is Aristotle’s description of man as the “communal animal” (ζῶον πολιτικόν), i.e., emphasizing society-building as a central trait of human nature, and “thought bearer animal” (ζῶον λόγον ἔχονanimal rationale), a term that also inspired the species’ taxonomy, Homo sapiens.

Middle Ages

The dominant world-view of medieval Europe, as directed by the Catholic Church, was that human existence is essentially good and created in “original grace”, but because of concupiscence, is marred by sin, and that its aim should be to focus on the beatific vision after death. The 13th century pope Innocent III wrote about the essential misery of earthly existence in his “On the misery of the human condition” – a view that was disputed by, for example, Giannozzo Manetti in his treatise “On human dignity.”


A famous quote of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (II, ii, 115-117), expressing the contrast of human physical beauty, intellectual faculty, and ephemeral nature:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

René Descartes famously and succinctly proposed: Cogito ergo sum[2] (French: “Je pense donc je suis“; English: “I think, therefore I am“).

Modern era

The Enlightenment was driven by a renewed conviction, that, in the words of Immanuel Kant, “Man is distinguished above all animals by his self-consciousness, by which he is a ‘rational animal’.” In the 19th century, Karl Marx defined man as “labouring animal” (animal laborans) in conscious opposition to this tradition. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud dealt a serious blow to positivism by postulating that human behaviour is to a large part controlled by the unconscious mind.

Comparison to other species

Various attempts have been made to identify a single behavioural characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other animals. Many anthropologists think that readily observable characteristics (tool-making and language) are based on less easily observable mental processes that might be unique among humans: the ability to think symbolically, in the abstract or logically, although several species have demonstrated some abilities in these areas. Nor is it clear at what point exactly in human evolution these traits became prevalent. They may not be restricted to the species Homo sapiens, as the extinct species of the genus Homo (e.g. Homo neanderthalensisHomo erectus) are believed to also have been adept tool makers and may also have had linguistic skills.

In learning environments reflection is an important part of the loop to go through in order to maximise the utility of having experiences. Rather than moving on to the next ‘task’ we can review the process and outcome of the task and – with the benefit of a little distance (lapsed time) we can reconsider what the value of experience might be for us and for the context of which it was a part.


Self-reflection is a process of communicating internally with oneself. When one takes time to think about their character or behavior, they analyze the reasons that caused the behavior, where this comes from, what the outcome of the behavior means to them, is it effective for them and what they can do about it. Individuals process this information about themselves to help them find methods to deal with the information gained during the self-reflection process and applying this information to future behavior has been shown to elicit strength and joy. Self-reflection helps people in multiple ways.

First, self-reflection fortifies an individual’s emotional stability. When setting aside some effort to self-reflect they are looking inwards. This assists with building two parts to their emotional intelligence: self-awareness and self-concept. Self-awareness enables a person to comprehend their feelings, qualities, shortcomings, drives, qualities, and objectives, and recognize their effect on others. Self-concept includes the capacity to control or divert their troublesome feelings and motivations and adjust to changing circumstances. Building these skills will improve both their personal and professional life.

Second, self-reflection enhances a person’s self-esteem and gives transparency for decision-making. Self-esteem is significant for dealing with a filled, complex life that incorporates meetings, vocation, family, network, and self-necessities. It helps in decision-making, effective communication, and building influence. The more they think about their qualities and how they can grow them the more confident they will be later on. A person may become happy with their good qualities and identify the ones that require growth.

Third, the self-reflection process requires honesty of the individual in order to be effective. When a person is honest with themselves when self-reflecting, they are able to understand their experiences, this person can grow and makes changes based on what they have learned and lead them to better choices.

Fourth, self-reflection adapts a person’s actions in future situations. Making time to step back and consider their behaviors, the consequences of those behaviors, and the expectations of those behaviors can give them a source of a clear insight and learning. A person engaging in self-reflection may ask themselves: What appeared to have a more remarkable impact? How can we accomplish a greater amount of that and enhance it? This cycle of reflection and variation—before, during, after actions—is regularly a recognized part of the process.

Finally, self-reflection may create a positive mentality. An individual may try to keep their ideas and thoughts positive; however, they should be frank with themselves. They may view negative outcomes that may lead to self-culpability, or self-loathing—negative self-talk which may obstruct their progress throughout their everyday life

In sobriety

See also: Sobriety

A study involving clients in a twelve-step program explored the role of self‑reflection through diary writing, not only as daily therapy, but in a retrospective context. The study concluded that clients who read and reflected on their past diary entries demonstrated increased participation in the treatment program. The twelve-step program is based on self reflection and the accountability of actions past. The article by Mitchell Friedman indicates that success in one’s recovery relies on self-reflection.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia