The importance of reflecting after a therapy session
Self-reflection is positively connected to better work- and academic performance, better relationships and higher levels of happiness. The importance of self-reflection after therapy sessions has become increasingly discussed in recent years. Self-reflection has many benefits as well as pitfalls and it’s important to know when and how to reflect the right way to reach the best possible results.
Why should we reflect?
People don’t tend to see themselves clearly. We all know that changing our self-view is hard work, and we are more likely to stick to views we already agree with, and facts we already know about ourselves. Studies show that people are more likely to accept positive opinions of them without realising it. However, our unclear picture can be improved.
Experiments suggest that people who practice self-reflection tend to pick self-descriptions that match their friends’ descriptions of them. This means they have a better understanding of who they really are and how they are seen by others. This also works the other way, as people with a good level of self-reflection choose friends and partners who describe them the true way, rather than picking someone that gives overly favourable opinions of them.
To the contrary, people who don’t practice self-reflection tend to surround themselves with “self-enhancing interaction partners”. This can of course further worsen the reality of our self-image, and the cycle goes on.
Sitting through a therapy session is intense. And once you’re finished discussing deeply personal topics, you may be asked to reflect straight after the session or somewhere in the week until the next one. You may be given homework or asked to track or journal your feelings. These are all tools to deepen your understanding of what you may have learned during your last sessions and let it sink in. Practice -just like in any other aspect of our life- is key. Your therapist might slowly crumble down ideas you had of yourself for years and ask you to build new ones.
Your mind may have already understood the new ways you need to think in, and why old thinking patterns were damaging, but you may not feel it and believe it yet. This is referred to as the “heart-head lag”.
Unlearning old habits and getting into new thinking patterns may take some time and requires conscious practice and self-reflection. Without reflecting and creating new ways of thinking, you will keep acting in ways and participate in situations that will reinforce the old ones. This way you could forever avoid collecting evidence that supports your new thinking patterns.
Self-reflection and taking new kinds of actions according to what you have learned in therapy will help you to get to real cognitive restructuring.
When should we not reflect?
Surprisingly, on occasion the therapist will ask you not to think about what you have worked on until the next session. When discovering rough and personal subjects you need to keep in mind to be kind to yourself. When discussing these subjects, you’re often reliving negative past experiences. This is tiring and upsetting. Often a professional will suggest not reflecting on these until next time as experiencing these feelings once a week might be emotionally-demanding enough. Reflecting for too long can also turn into over-thinking. For many of us, going through these ideas without professional guidance or an outside person reflecting back to us can be dangerous and take us further away from the truth.
Rumination is also a common thinking trap that is the pitfall of self-reflection. A reflection exercise can often turn into rumination if you focus your attention on your distress and its causes rather than the solution. Ruminating over our negative features, upsetting life events and questioning why something has happened to us will lead to a false view on reality.
According to research, self-reflection predicts rumination, but rumination doesn’t predict self-reflection. This means it’s easy to fall into rumination when trying to self-reflect, but people who only ever ruminate will never end up with a clearer image of themselves.
Rumination is also connected to making depressive symptoms worse, while self-reflection is to making them better. It is proven that going over negative thoughts repeatedly delays the time it takes to recover from negative experiences, therefore watching out for thinking traps when exercising self-reflection is key.
So how should we do it?
Interestingly, a modest amount of reflection can make our unambiguous and strong self-cues more obvious and more accessible for us, while reflecting for too long can undermine our insights as we might end up thinking of information that has little to do with our true self-concepts. Reflecting on what we are rather than why we are the way we are also seems to lead to better results.
Research suggests that attempts to reflect on our thoughts and feelings often fail because of approaching them from a self-immersed perspective rather than a self-distanced perspective. Distancing ourselves from the topic we are reflecting on seems to have a positive effect, including long-term differences in our brain processing negative emotions.
This practice is referred to as “psychological distancing”. Professionals suggest that removing yourself from the events as a first person, and instead observing them as events going by while you’re a fly on the wall helps to distance yourself from your past feelings and reconstruct them, therefore helping adaptive self-reflection.
Reflecting on negative past events that have happened to us will lead to rumination and therefore will not facilitate self-reflection. Finally, psychological distancing also has physiological benefits. Studies show that people that practised distance during reflection experienced lower levels of blood pressure reactivity and stress, which leads to further health benefits and not only make you feel better at the time of the exercise, but positively affect how you feel over time.
All in all, reflection in general as well as post-session is beneficial. However, depending on the type of therapy and topic, often it’s also helpful to just be kind to ourselves and step back from reliving the experiences. If you decide to self-reflect, look out for rumination as it leads to the opposite of the desired result. Keeping your reflecting exercise short as well as distancing yourself from the examined situations and emotions will help you to see clearly. This way you can solidify newly learned habits and reach cognitive restructuring, which will lead to seeing an image of yourself closer to reality. In return, you get to surround yourself with people that reflect your true self back to you and love you for who you really are.
Ayduk, Ö., & Kross, E. (2010). Analyzing negative experiences without ruminating: The role of self‐distancing in enabling adaptive self‐reflection. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(10), 841-854.
Cho, M. K. (2015). The Relationships among Happiness, Happiness promotion activities and Self-reflection in the Convergence Society. J