Tag Archives: selfawareness

a book shelf

Dear Diary

The need to ponder and reflect is a basic human need and a valuable mechanism of evolution. It supports us in learning from an experience which ensured survival. In today’s complex world, we continue to benefit hugely from learning through reflection, but often we don’t have (or don’t make?) time for a deeper reflective practice that goes beyond thinking or talking about our day.

But the desire is there! ‘Reflective journaling’ returns over 1.2 million Google search results. Amazon sells over 1000 books with ‘reflective journal’ in their title. It’s clearly something people want to find out about. Reflective journaling might be the most prevalent approach to reflection, and this post focuses on writing. But reflection can of course be achieved through other means than writing, for example through a visual art journal or sketchbook.

Reflection provides the opportunity to process and integrate experiences and let them inform our future actions. This learning can be two-fold:

  1. learning about the world and others
  2. learning about ourselves

Learning about the world is particularly important in a world that’s changing constantly, quickly and in deep and significant ways. When we reflect on new situations and unfamiliar encounters (and our way of responding to them), we understand what has worked and what hasn’t led to a beneficial outcome. By putting ourselves in others’ shoes we develop empathy and compassion for those around us.

Learning about ourselves occurs when we make our typical patterns and responses visible through reflection. This includes emotional responses which we may not want to share with others. We can therefore attend to our emotional world as the journal offers a container to hold all kinds of experiences and feelings. Reflecting on emotional patterns builds self-regulation skills, resilience and emotional intelligence. When we use a reflective practice in the workplace, it helps us identify areas for learning and development. It can therefore inform the sometimes dreaded appraisal conversation and turn this into a shared reflection – not all reflection has to be a solitary activity. Reflection can be used as a tool for self-motivation and encouragement as it makes our progress visible, no matter how small the steps. Teresa Amabile has done extensive research on the importance of identifying and acknowledging progress in the workplace.

For learning to happen we must find a way of effectively capturing the key insights. There is always a risk of losing them in the constant busyness of our minds or in a sea of written notes. That why I find a written reflective practice so valuable. I have written about my process to find what works for me before. It is based on Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages, but I now call my practice ‘Anytime Pages’, acknowledging the original approach of Julia Cameron, just with the twist that I’m writing them whenever it works for me. I figured going a little rogue on the original concept is better than not getting into a habit of daily writing at all.

But doesn’t all this writing just create more stuff? More words? More cognitive load? It’s true, even three pages a day create a lot of words, and I felt the need to reduce my writing to memorable key insights. Some people promote the idea to trust that whatever is meaningful will automatically stick. But as a recovering ‘high achiever’, I needed to process my pages in some way. In order to build a habit around my writing it had to feel useful and purposeful beyond the act of writing.

I achieve this simplification with one of my favourite art therapy processes: key words. Whenever something resonates with me, surprises me or somehow feels important, I underline it. Every now and then I write all my underlined words or phrases onto a sheet of paper. Sometimes I do this after a couple of weeks, sometimes when I have filled a journal (which takes me roughly two months). Collecting these key words helps me to record my insights in a reduced manner.

They become something I can USE:

Unexpected – my underlining is guided by my curiosity. I often underline what feels new or surprising, sometimes even dissonant, that makes my key words relevant and worth following up on as part of learning about myself.

Simple – just some key phrases – for example: from my last journal (they are just under 200 pages) I have collected five themes. This makes is manageable.

Emotional – key words resonate with me on a deeper level which in itself means they touch something inside me. Our brains have developed in a way to remember emotionally charged situations or content better than just factual stuff.

As with every creative process – it only needs to make sense to you. If you want to have a stab at developing a reflective practice here is my suggested approach to start with – remember to adjust it to whatever works for you: 

  • Get a cheap journal, nothing fancy.
  • Use stream of consciousness writing, simply let the words flow without censoring or editing, ignore spelling and grammar.
  • Consider writing with pencil, it allows you to write fast, which is often important for stream of consciousness writing, and with little pressure (good for a daily habit, avoids any repetitive strain injuries…)
  • I don’t recommend typing, writing longhand seems to help me get into the flow of writing, it feels more personal and intimate, there are fewer distractions to manage. There is a form of body memory when I’ve written something by hand rather than typed it, which again supports the end goal of learning from my reflections.
  • As suggested by Julia Cameron, I write three A4 pages each day. It helps turning it into a habit and is achievable on a daily basis.
  • If you can’t get started, tune into your mind and write whatever internal chatter you hear, It might be thoughts like: I don’t know what to write, I’m bored, what a waste of time…Write that down, it’s a start.
  • I underline as I write. With some practice you will notice the little jolt in your body when something you just wrote is important, resonates and should be captured as key words.
  • Review all your key words regularly. You decide what ‘regular’ is for you. It can be every two weeks or when you have filled a journal. Whatever feels right. But set aside some time to sit with these words.
  • Don’t get disheartened by a few days without major insights and little or no underlining. The good stuff will bubble up eventually. Sometimes it’s like doing some stretches before you start a workout. Give yourself time to warm up.

Sometimes I create a little ‘poetic reduction’ or a tagline from my key words (hello, marketing background!). This is a way to reduce things further. But that approach is another post altogether.

Go get a journal and start writing, you’ll be surprised how much wisdom you carry inside you!

If you have any questions around this topic, email me, I’m happy to share my experience. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space

selection of shells and a small read heart

Who has time for self-care?

Self-care is a huge buzz word these days. Looking after ourselves, our physical and mental wellbeing is crucial, but sometimes I feel the idea of self-care has yet again been highjacked by commercial interests. Of course, it feels good to get your nails done, have a bubble bath and a scented candle. But self-care goes beyond products and services we buy to get some relaxing ‘me time’. Sometimes having to make time for these activities in a busy schedule can actually get quite stressful. And when we fail to fit them in it can trigger our inner critic, because we haven’t got the perfect manicure, eyebrows, hair colour… (all these examples highlight to me that self-care seems to be an idea that circulates a lot more among women – but this might be just my perspective of how I look at it…) So, what might self-care mean for you?

There are the basics. They include sufficient sleep, good nutrition, exercise, being on top of medical check-ups. Beyond this, I believe good self-care is based on two things: good self-awareness/ self-knowledge and good boundaries.

Self-awareness and knowledge are necessary to understand what it is that refuels us. I don’t get a kick out of a mani/pedi. Someone else might, and that’s totally ok, but for me a visit to a bookstore has much greater potential to help me care for myself. And that’s not just because I love to read, but also because over the years I have learned what recharges me. Bookstores are often quiet spaces; many offer a tucked-away corner where I can flick through books. I don’t have to talk to anyone (unless I seek advice) and no-one prods me. If there is music, it tends to be quiet, too. This refuels me. Noise, the waft of chemicals and close proximity to random strangers suck energy straight out of me. Knowing how certain sensory experiences impact me also helps me to make good, self-caring choices in other areas of my life. Often self-care is linked to experiences our senses enjoy. This also helps us to be in the present moment, which is the ultimate self-caring way of life.

How to improve self-knowledge: most of us will have a good idea of the energy givers and takers. If you want to get to know yourself better, I can recommend journaling. Capture each day the moments or activities that made you feel good, calm, balanced, refreshed. Do this for 2 or 3 weeks, then analyse your notes and look for patterns. You can add to this by also capturing the moments that made you feel irritated, tired, on edge; this could just be an unspecific ‘icky’ feeling in your body. Just notice this.

Thinking back to your childhood also holds a wealth of information. As children, we instinctively knew what filled us up – and usually we had the freedom and time to do just that. Take some time to remember your favourite activities, think about your favourite stories and what they were about. Which play dates were fun, which ones left you feeling tired or insecure? Which toys and activities did you gravitate to in kindergarten, which ones made you shrink and pull back?

Once we know ourselves, we need good boundaries as they help us to articulate what we need and to say ‘no’ to things we don’t want to do or don’t want to make time for. The better you know yourself the more accurately you can state your needs. Some people find it helpful to create a ‘No List’. This can include all the activities you don’t care about and that don’t do anything for you and your wellbeing. A few years ago, I was inspired by Sarah Knight’s book ‘The life-changing magic of not giving a f**k’. She suggests creating lists for four categories about things you don’t care (give a f**k) about. The categories are: things; work; friends, acquaintances and strangers; family. Ever since I carry these lists in my journal and happily add to them as and when I see fit. They are a good reminder of when I should say no and speed up the process rather than agonising over the same type of request again and again.


Some more myth busting about self-care:

Self-care is not limited to solo experiences; it can include others as long as they fill you up and don’t drag you down.

Self-care doesn’t need a lot of time. Think about micro-pauses such as planting your feet solidly on the ground and taking three deep breaths during a meeting. It takes just a few seconds, can be done without anyone noticing and it can do wonders for your wellbeing and ability to set your boundaries.

Self-care doesn’t need to be costly. Depending on your needs simple things like a cup of tea, a cheap journal, an essential oil or simply a completely free walk in the park can be all it takes.

Not all self-care needs to be pre-scheduled, the more you practice the more you’ll be able to naturally do more of the self-caring things. A pre-scheduled amount of self-care time can help if you have to consider a number of others in your day to day life or after a particularly stressful period. But ultimately, it’s great to get to a place where we practice self-care without thinking too much about it. 


Find out more about my work at Sensemaking Space