There are three words I want to discuss and unpick. They’re all part of the same family, and all pertain to what we look at. They’re worth talking about because of the value I believe they hold. In my opinion, if we’d take active steps to make them more integral in our lives, we’d be better off for it.
Those three words are introspective, retrospective and perspective. My aim is to take my time with each one and go into depth. With each word, we’ll first establish a basic understanding of what they are. Then we’ll discuss why they’re valuable, where they’re applicable and how we use them.
I’ve split this topic into two parts. Today, we’ll go over introspection and retrospection and compare them. We’ll go over perspective separately in another post. After this one, we’d have answered each of the following questions for intro- and retrospective:
- What does it mean?
- Why is it important?
- What are the benefits?
- When is it applicable?
- How to do it?
Let’s start off with the first one…
What is introspection? What does it mean to be introspective?
Merriam-Webster defines the word introspective as:
“characterised by examination of one’s own thoughts and feelings; thoughtfully reflective; employing, marked by, or tending to introspection.”
Introspection is essentially the process of examining our own thought’s and feelings.
Being introspective is about being able to look at yourself objectively. The prefix ‘intro’ literally means “in, on the inside, within, to the inside”. It’s about having the capacity to look in the mirror to question and assess yourself. Being introspective challenges what you believe and think you already know about yourself.
With that being said, I must clarify that introspection is not supposed to instil self-doubt. It’s not meant to make us unsure about our identity. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. Introspection will cause us to be more sure of and united within ourselves.
When we question and look at ourselves, we acquire truer and deeper clarity on who we are. It enables us to develop greater self-awareness and understanding of the person in the mirror.
The Value of Being Introspective
As unfortunate as is it, the truth is many of us often don’t think twice. We hardly ask ourselves why or question what we believe. We feel how we feel and think what we think. We believe what we believe and act how we act. But when do we take the time out to understand why and where it all comes from?
If I’m honest, I can’t blame us. In the world we live in today, everything moves so quickly. We can hardly get any physical or mental peace. It’s no surprise that many people struggle to inspect themselves. We, I included, get so caught up in the moment and emotions that we seldom take a step back just to look at it all.
But that can be dangerous. A lot of us may have bad patterns of behaviour and attitudes. We also have internal battles to overcome and personal struggles to face. Maybe we have a bad way of managing stress or unhealthy perspectives on things. The reality is, sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.
The truth is, that’s completely fine. We’re not machines, and we’re not going to be perfect. We’re going to have our own little individual things. We work at our struggles, we grow, and we evolve. But unless we are aware of these inner barriers and blocks, we can’t grow from them. Unless we take the time to evaluate and identify these things, they’ll forever hold us back. Similarly, how can we play to our strengths if we don’t know what they are?
That’s why it is dangerous.
Objectivity is Key
The whole point is that we look objectively; without factors such as emotions skewing our vision. That is a challenge in itself. But the fact that we seldom get that mental space to do so doesn’t make it any easier.
The best way to visualise this idea is to think of Marvel. For those non-Marvel fans, this superhero Doctor Strange is a ‘Master of the Mystic Arts. He can detach people’s beings from their bodies. It’s similar to the idea of astral projections. For those who don’t watch Marvel, here you go.
That’s what it should be like when we assess ourselves. We accept our predispositions, beliefs and hope. We acknowledge them, but we disconnect from them just to give us a chance to look at things how they are.
Think about your best friend or someone you’re incredibly close with. Chances are, you know quite a lot about them, sometimes more than they know themselves. Besides all the basic things like their birthday, you also know the ‘deep stuff’. You’re probably confident you know them better than anyone else.
But yet, half of us can’t even say our own strengths and weaknesses. That’s a problem.
No one else can do it for us
It’s empowering to become more united with yourself. We often know so many things about so many other things besides ourselves. We’re so engrossed in knowing what’s happening in other people’s lives and around the world, and we forget to study ourselves.
We can learn about science at school. We can get our degree in our chosen field at university. We can buy books, buy courses and watch videos about anything we want to learn.
But unfortunately, few resources teach us about ourselves. There is no book out there that will tell you your personal motives. There isn’t a course that will highlight your individual strengths and weaknesses. No university will give me a BSc in Steffanology. The fact is you’re you, and only you are you. Sure, general principles apply to most of us, but that will only take us so far. And that makes it difficult for anything besides you to identify these things. That’s why it’s so imperative we do it ourselves.
For that same reason, introspection is pivotal in personal growth and development.
The Honest, Painful Truth
All of us, by nature, are ridiculously complex, including everything from our biology and psychology to our individual thought processes, beliefs, and paradigms. Understandably, many may not know ourselves at the depth we should. We’ve also mentioned that we struggle to just sit down and sit back for a while.
But one crucial element makes introspection difficult and hasn’t yet been mentioned.
It’s not fun.
The very idea of self-examination means that we’re likely to come face to face with all of our faults, weaknesses, failures and shortcomings. That brutal honesty we must adopt means acknowledging our bad and the good. And let’s be honest, that’s not fun. It’s not fun to know and see all things ‘wrong with us’. It can damage our ego and taint the image we wish to have of ourselves. We feel bad and embarrassed. No one wants to spend their Friday evening thinking about their insecurities and weaknesses.
Final words on the idea
There are many things that introspection is not. It isn’t easy. It is usually not fun. It’s something many of us aren’t used to. It’s not part of our daily routine. But I can tell you what it is.
It is liberating. It’s freeing and strengthening. Something is freeing about being one with yourself and understanding yourself more personally. Something is liberating about learning the truth having more clarity. It’s a chance to just slow down and take a break from this thing called life.
As much as it can be difficult and somewhat painful, it can be amazing. You see the things can be improved. But you also come face to face with what you’re amazing at. You can list the skills that you can do better than most people. You identify the things that make you unique and makes you you. It’s honestly empowering.
You can take pride in knowing that you’re learning about yourself, both the good and bad. Whether it’s to add more to your CV or be more at peace. Whether it’s to strengthen your weaknesses or to focus on your strengths.
Personally, the best part is taking the new knowledge you have about yourself and using it in the next opportunity, and you see the difference it made.
Now we move onto retrospective. While intro- means “in, on the inside, within, to the inside”, retro- means “backwards, back, behind”.
Introspection and retrospection are very similar.
- Both intro- and retrospection give you a greater understanding.
- They both pertain to looking.
- They’re both beneficial when done properly.
However, the main difference is the scope they both operate in. Introspection largely analyses and looks at the present; you question and assess your current perspectives, values, and motives. On the other hand, retrospection is about specific events that have already taken place, 10 minutes into the past or 10 years.
What is retrospect used for?
Introspect is almost always used for one reason, but the purpose of retrospect isn’t the same.
Looking in retrospect can be for the sake of memories. I recently spent a whole evening looking back through all my Snapchat memories from up to 6 years ago. I took a trip down Memory Lane, looking at what I got up to. Although I spent a lot of the time cringing at younger me, all in all, it was fun, and I’m glad I did.
The second reason we may look retrospectively is to understand more. We sometimes think back to recent events, such as an argument with someone. We look back to understand how we felt at that moment or what we would have done differently. Maybe we remember a book we read or a film we watched because of what taught us.
Sometimes, we encounter questions we don’t know the answer to or barriers we can’t get over. We can spend so long trying to figure out the solution. But it can be the case that the answer is behind us and all we have to do is recall how we came through it last time. It could be a matter of reminding ourselves of what we already know.
Our Past in Our Present
The truth is, our past and personal history have a major influence on our present lives. Many of our current behaviours and attitudes directly result from our experiences. The way I see it, the present is a product of the past.
I stand as a simple example. If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I’m a very open, trusting person. I don’t hold much back; I’m almost an open book from the start. People may label me as a people person and an extrovert. While that may be true, it didn’t just come from nowhere.
If you look at my history, you’ll see that I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve pretty much always had good friends. I’ve consistently had an encouraging and supportive social circle. I’ve never had my trust majorly broken or been cheated on.
I did door-2-door sales with charities for three years. From the nature of the work, I made friends quickly. I learned about different cultures and met amazing people. Within minutes of knocking on their door, I’d be inside their house, had food cooked for me, and I’d know half their life story.
Considering all of that, my open and trusting character suddenly becomes a lot less impressive. Why? Because after reading that, you probably realise I can’t take much of the credit for how I am. It hasn’t got much to do with me. The reality is that anyone who shared similar experiences would be exactly like me.
Another example is my mum. She is the youngest of all 9 siblings. Growing up in Barbados, they didn’t have the most money. They had to make the most of the little they had. The lack of money was a major influence on their childhood.
Decades later, she is a grown woman with a husband and family, better off than many of them back home. She makes more money but still carries the same perception and approach to money. She still treats and protects money like it’s an endangered species. Everything for her is about minimising costs and maximising savings. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you can understand where it comes from.
While those examples of mum and me aren’t necessarily bad, they can be. In fact, I know people whose relationships ended for those reasons. They had adopted certain unhealthy behaviours that were harming their partner. Both circumstances were rooted in their childhood, so they had to unlearn and reform.
Introspective vs Retrospective
The more I think about it, the two complement each other.
- They often come in hand. Some past event or experience will likely come into the equation when looking inwardly to understand yourself.
- When used together, you get the best of both worlds. When you assess your own thoughts, beliefs and motives, you have more clarity on the ‘what’. But it’s only when you consider the past that you have a better chance at getting to know the ‘why’.
- If I were to simplify massively, I would say that introspection gives a breadth of knowledge. In contrast, retrospection gives a depth of understanding.
Sure, you might say that life naturally exposes us to new ideas and teach us about ourselves. You might say that it’s more our environment and external conditions that stimulate our growth rather than our own self-assessment. And I’d partly agree with you.
But that all becomes redundant unless we take the time to acknowledge and study these growth stimulants. Otherwise, these opportunities will pass us by, and we’ll be none the wiser. There is no point in being in a teaching environment if we aren’t looking to learn. Unless you inspect and investigate these things, it will be as if they never happened. You might be in a school lesson, but if you’re not listening, you won’t learn.
The Sensitivity of Our History
The past can be a sensitive topic, though. We said that looking at yourself objectively can be scary and painful for various reasons. But depending on what your past looks like, it can be worse, particularly if it was traumatic. (That’s why it can be best to discuss and unpick them with a professional in many cases. See help here.)
But every coin has two sides. Retrospect can be just as joyful as it can be deep. When I went through my old photos and videos, as much as I was embarrassed, I was twice as much proud.
I can sometimes be very hard on myself and not give myself enough credit. I’ve often been quick to discredit my achievements. And at the time of writing this, I’m still learning not to. But looking through those memories gave me tangible evidence of the progress I’ve made and how far I’ve come. I’m reminded of challenges I overcame and the experiences I’m stronger for. Looking back can prove that we are better, stronger and wiser. I know I’m not alone in that; many of us need that.
Although we’ve gone through how the past can be useful, we still have to live in the present. It’s easy for it to pass us by, and before we know it, the present becomes the past. Ultimately, the present is the most valuable. We only get it once and don’t get another chance.
Hopefully, you have a clearer understanding of what intro- and retrospection are and the value they have. I genuinely hope you found that useful. If you’ve been able to take at least one thing from this post, then it’s been worth it. We’ll go over perspective in another post. Until then, let me know your thoughts in the comments below!