Over the weekend, Jews throughout the world are observing Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Although Yom Kippur serves many roles, one of its primary functions is to encourage people to reflect on their misdeeds performed against God and others, with the goal of improving one's future actions.
Beyond its importance as one of the holiest days for Jews, it occurred to me that its focus on self-reflection serves a very important psychological function, and that Jews are not alone in such a focus on the self in the service of self-improvement. Part of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (and other groups that follow similar step traditions) is that alcoholics take a personal moral inventory of their resentments and perceived character defects to become better people. Similarly, philosophical and religious orientations that emphasize mindfulness (e.g., Buddhist meditation) encourage individuals to become aware of their feelings and mental contents rather than to bury them and ignore them.
The psychology behind self-reflection and change
Although we often think of "self focus" as a destructive force (e.g., the narcissist who only thinks of herself without concern for others), psychological research shows that it is a critical component of positive change in life. A variety of theories on self-regulation (i.e., how people direct their behavior in the pursuit of their goals) emphasize that change requires two things: a goal, and an awareness of where one currently is in order to assess the discrepancy between the two. In short, we cannot reach our destinations without knowledge of our current location on the map.
In life, people have many goals (e.g., exercise more, be a better spouse, save more money). However, goals often go unrealized because people lack self-awareness. That is, without monitoring one's current behavior (e.g., tracking how often one gets to the gym), the salience of the discrepancy between one's goal (e.g., hit the gym three times per week) and one's actual behavior (e.g., only going to the gym once this week) is low. Goal pursuit is no different than any other fact of life: out of sight, out of mind. Thus, to improve our chances of reaching our goals, we must remain aware of our current behavior to have a clearer sense of its departure from our goals.
Why is self awareness so critical? Research in the psychological literature suggests that the negativity elicited from our awareness of a discrepancy between our current state and our goal is critical to spur self-improvement. That is, the pain that emanates from our confronting a transgression (e.g., the person who faces a chart on his fridge that confirms his only going to the gym once in the past week) is aversive, and it is this negative feeling that motivates one to reduce the discrepancy. There is debate in the literature about whether this pain is the driver or whether this pain serves as a cue that spurs learning in the service of meeting our goals, but all of the major theoretical perspectives on self-regulation acknowledge that the sting of one's discrepancies plays a critical role in changing behavior.
The right kind of self awareness
A few things about "self awareness" must be kept in mind in order for positive change to occur. First, there is a happy medium in how much negativity we experience in order for change to take place. That is, if we are overwhelmed or become paralyzed by the magnitude of our shortcomings, we can shut down and tune out rather than double down and persevere. Thus, the morbidly obese person should not adopt the goal of becoming "a size 4" if she is "a size 22" because such a huge discrepancy might overwhelm her rather than motivate her. However, by picking smaller, more manageable goals, progress rather than paralysis can result.
Second, it is important to once again re-emphasize the difference between self-focus and self-absorption. Quality self-focus is about one having an accurate view of the self for the sake of self-understanding. Narcissists, on the other hand, are focused on the self in pursuit of vanity, egotism, and an inflated sense of self importance. Ironically, the megalomaniacal person is focused on the self, but rather than seeing an accurate sense of self that has deficiencies and room for improvement, this ego-centric person has a delusional sense of omnipotence and grandiosity. Although the narcissist may need self-regulation more than most, their self-awareness typically is incredibly misaligned (and in a real twist of irony, they are the ones who are least likely to be aware of it).
Many traditions that share a common theme
In sum, there is much to learn from those who frequently and conscientiously engage in self-reflection. Whether it's Buddhists engaging in meditation, alcoholics at AA meetings, or philosophers of the Enlightenment studying the texts of Immanuel Kant, being aware of ourselves is an essential step in self-improvement. It is reassuring to see so many traditions spanning thousands of years that emphasize themes identified in the psychological literature as critical for self-improvement. Goals are a dime a dozen, but progress toward them requires an understanding of where we are now and how far away our ideals are from the present. As Jews heed the sound of the shofar this weekend, we should all listen to the lessons of self-reflection in order to make progress on the goals that matter and that improve our lives.