The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size. ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mindful Introspection & Self-Evaluation

"You've got to do a checkup from the neck-up to stop your stinking thinking". ~ Zig Zigler

Have you ever taken a good look at yourself? I mean a "real" good look. Not just outward appearances, but rather deep inside the dark recesses of your mind. It's sort of like rummaging through the basement or attic of your house. You never know what you might find stored away.

What do you see? Is it someone who is well adjusted, reasonably content with their lot in life and comfortable in their own skin? Someone you would choose to be best friends with? If so, that's wonderful.

But what if that image is of a confused, tormented, or frightened person? Do you feel disconnected from the reflection or does it make you uncomfortable? If you are unhappy about who or what you see - that's alright, you are far from alone. One in four people (or more) suffer from psychiatric disorders ranging from very mild to severely dibilitating. There's absolutely nothing to be ashamed of and don't let anyone tell you there is.

Recognition that things are not "A-ok" is a sign that you are ready to get back on track. Being able to admit that something is amiss within your mind or environment, that concerns for your (or a loved one's) health is too much to handle, or that you find relationships, your career or interests are no longer satisfying is a crucial first step. This is especially true when it impedes your ability to function or feel happy. So what's holding you back?

Unfortunately, you must first overcome the roadblocks of denial, blame, guilt, shame, resentment, ignorance, or just plain arrogance. These factors interfer with our ability to see the truth. Once you get past them, you must be willing to commit yourself to change and that requires persistence and hard work on your part. Like Ringo Starr sang, " You got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues and you know it don't come easy."

Support is readily available if you seek it. All you have to do is ask for help. No matter how big or little your problem is, there are numerous MDs, psychologists, social workers, counselors, clerics, life coaches/mentors and advocacy groups that can provide counseling either in person or via social media. So no excuses! I'm sure even your mother, in-laws or best friend will be more than happy to dish out advice. Well... maybe it's better to stick to the pros.

γνῶθι σεαυτόν or "Know Thyself"

You can get a head start on good mental health or keep tabs on it through self-awareness.  This is an important exercise whether you have troubles weighing you down or if you feel everything is fine just the way it is. Not a new concept, the Delphic command in ancient Greece was γνῶθι σεαυτόν.  The hippies of the 60's talked of "tuning in and tuning out". Today we call it "mindfulness."

Like any other type of examination you may undergo, it isn't always pleasant. It may induce anxiety of varying degrees depending on your individual circumstances. Therefore, it is best performed in conjunction with a relaxation exercise. Even if you don’t use this method for quiet introspection, practicing it for as little as five minutes a day is a healthy way of reducing stress and blood pressure levels while improving your overall health, providing a boost of energy and focus.

Find a quiet spot where you can be alone without interruption. If there is outside noise you may want to put on head phones and listen to relaxing music or perhaps buy yourself a "Sound Conditioner". If all else fails resort to ear plugs. Put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign to make sure everyone is aware not to bother you and most of all, turn that damned cell phone off and set it to voice mail! This is time for YOU.

Sit in a comfortable, upright position with legs crossed and hands clasped in your lap (or lie down if you are more comfortable).  Relax and close your eyes.  Slowly breathe in naturally and concentrate on the air flowing in and out of your nostrils, filling your lungs and exhale through your mouth.  At first you may be distracted by thoughts racing through your head. Try to avoid the temptation of allowing your mind to wander off and bring attention back your breathing. Be patient with yourself. It may take awhile until you can feel fully focused, relaxed, and calm.

You may enter a state with a dream-like quality. With your mind's eye, visualize the "real you", taking note of colors, forms, and shapes. Are they whole or fragmented, real or abstract? Do you see symbols, objects, animals, pictures or other people? Practice this until you can view yourself objectively, supportively and lovingly, as you would a lost child. Try painting a self-portrait of what you see, in words or pictures, whatever outlet or media allows you to express yourself best. Creativity is an expression of the unconscious mind.

"Who am I?"
Skip details such as career, social/marital status, religion, domicile and so forth. This is an introspective exercise - NOT a resume. Those things may tell something "about" you but are not "you". They are merely temporary descriptions and roles that may wax and wane as life passes by. Delve deeper into your psyche and identify what unique qualities makes you stand out from the rest of the crowd.

"What issues are weighing me down the most? What things would I like to change?"
How does your body respond to each thought that crosses your mind. Does your chest tighten? Does your pulse increase? Do your muscles tighten up? You may lie to yourself, but the body tells all.  Take note of what triggers set off a emotional reaction. With practice you can learn to recognize them and relax when they occur.

"What topics or memories do I avoid because they are too troubling? Which cause a sense of guilt, embarrassment or shame?"
We tend to repress things that are too painful to think about. It is a natural defense mechanism, although not always the most helpful if we want to heal. If thinking about such issues cause you anxiety, picture yourself in a special place, somewhere that you know you will be safe. Remind yourself that thoughts cannot harm you. In fact, by opening up and facing them you can set yourself free from their hold on you.


Now it's time for the written part of this exam. Make a list of your personal talents, interests and strong points. This is not time for modesty so go ahead - let your ego run wild. There are no rules or boundaries.

Write down and answer each of the following questions:

  • What and who do I want to be?
  • What positive traits do I wish to develop?
  • What are my dreams and wildest fantasies?
  • What did I want to be as a child or teenager?
  • If I could be anyone else in time or place, whom would that be?
  • Who are my mentors or heroes?
  • If I could make one difference in this world, what would it be?

Keep a journal of your thoughts and experiences throughout this exercise, noting how it made you feel (physically and emotionally). As time passes you may want to go back and review it, however, don't give in to the desire to change anything. You may be surprised at the patterns that begin to emerge. This will provide you with a gage to measure where you've been, where you are now and what you need to stay on track for where you're headed.


It's time to get down to the nitty gritty. Answer the following questions honestly. Make sure it's from your perspective and not what you think the "right" answer is or what others might say. Keep focused on the present moment.

Are you in good health?

Are your eating, sleeping, and fitness habits conducive to good health?

Are you comfortable with your body, your looks, and your weight?

Do you have enough energy to get you through the day?

Are your sexual desires and practices healthy, safe, and satisfying?

Do you avoid smoking and the use of drugs?

Do you limit your intake of alcohol?

Do you have regular physical, dental and visual check-ups?

Do you practice preventitive care?

Do you live a happy, fulfilling life?

Are you independent and comfortable being alone?

Do you fill your spare time with hobbies, interests, and physical activity?

Are you fully functional when it comes to caring and providing for yourself?

Are you involved in a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship(s)?

Do you have friends?

Do you function well in a variety of social settings, from one on one to large gatherings?

Are you flexible, accepting of others, unbiased and open-minded?

Are you equally comfortable taking the lead or working as a member of a team?

Do you avoid gossip?

Do you consider yourself to be well balanced, stable and normal?

Do you have a healthy level of self-esteem, without need for validation?

Do you accept reality along with its limitations and possibilities?

Can you focus without being easily distracted?

Are you capable of making sound decisions?

Do you think and act rationally and logically?

Are your emotions and behaviors on par with the average person?

Do you express your feelings with the same intensity as most people?

Do you experience a normal range of ups and downs in response to your environment?

Do you react reasonably and conscientious to stressors?

Are you quicker to share good news rather than lament about your problems?

Do you have firm goals, ambitions or desires to aim for?

Do you take pleasure in life, taking on new challenges?

Do you enjoy your work or career?

Is your outlook on life promising and positive?

Can you laugh and smile?

Do you allow yourself to dream and wish?

Do you handle anger, disappointment, and criticism in a balanced, calm fashion?

Are you able to cope with transitions, traumas, losses or painful adversities?

Do you bounce back quickly?

Do you practice forgiveness?

Can you let go of the past, concentrating on living in the present?

Do you feel relaxed and unencumbered by stress, anxiety or unwarranted fears?

Do you feel safe at home, work and/or school?

Are you free of compulsions, obsessive behaviors?

Are you free of nervous twitches otherwise known as "tics"?

Can you say "no"?

Do you value your life and well being, avoiding things or people that may be toxic?

Do you set reasonable boundaries or what you will or will not tolerate?

Have you managed to stay on a consistent career path?

Do you handle you finances responsibly?

Are you prepared and willing to take on challenges in a responsible fashion?

Do you calculate potential risks and consequences, taking all necessary precautions?

Do you think before you speak or act?

Can you accept responsibility for your choices and actions?

Have you always been honest, never cheating or telling a lie?

Did you answer YES to every question? (If so - are you running for President on the GOP ticket?)
May I remind you of the tagline from the medical show “House” - “Everybody lies.” The most “normal” person would have answered NO to at least a few questions, especially the last!

Remember, address these questions only by what you consider to be “normal” or typical for you. You'll find the same questions on an endless array of Internet sites claiming to provide self-evaluation quizes for various disorders. Bear in mind that many of those tests base their results feebly on generalized data or statistics and are usually geared to a specific product or service. They do not take into consideration that age, medications and certain physical conditions may cause or mimic psychiatric symptoms. Nor do they allow for your unique circumstances, such as the environment or culture in which you were raised. I pose these questions as merely a guideline or starting point for introspection and further consideration.


Please note: If you’ve answered NO to several of these questions, you might consider seeking a professional opinion or evaluation to learn more.

Just as a yearly doctor's exam protects you from potential physical illness by revealing underlying conditions that you may not be aware of, the occasional Check-up from the Neck-up will keep you in touch with yourself providing the same healthy security for your psyche and brain.  Don't be afraid to take a look inside and make an honest assessment. Your peace of mind and mental well being may depend on it.