Self-Reflection – Helpful or Harmful?

I stumbled across them in a hospital of all places. It was a regular Thursday afternoon teaching session for trainee psychiatrists in Glasgow and ‘the psychotherapists’ had come to give us a lecture.  Well, perhaps the word ‘lecture’ does not do that afternoon’s meeting justice. An intimate encounter with a very select madness or alchemy?  I’m still not sure.


That nameless afternoon performance was probably a very carefully choreographed one, weirdly so.  Thankfully, I only discovered this much later when encountering psychotherapists in regular clinical practice. They often agonised over the set up of their rooms; pontificated long and hard about seeming trivia, like the hidden meaning of a mother choosing to eat her sandwiches in the waiting area whilst her child has therapy; and often seemed paralysed with fear over how to introduce a doctor into a ‘delicate therapy situation’. But that afternoon, the primordial anxiety would almost certainly have been how to handle this latest batch of ‘know it all’ junior doctors. Fresh from ‘houseman’s year’, each had survived the rite of passage of sleepless nights, hair-raising responsibility and a very conscious awareness of mortality. But we were about to brush with the ‘unconscious” in a way that would pique the curiosity of some and leave the rest unsure about our future career choice.

We learned about the work of Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein and their respective contributions to the world of psychoanalytic theories. Freud, in particular, began with a very reasonable hypothesis:

Freud believed that when we explain our behaviour to ourselves or others (conscious mental activity), we rarely give a true account of our motivation. This is not because we are deliberately lying. While human beings are great deceivers of others; they are even more adept at self-deception.

Saul Mcleod 2013.Simply Psychology.

The prophet Jeremiah in the Bible had come to the same conclusion many years before. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17, 9.

Freud (both Sigmund and his daughter Anna), Klein and others have made valiant attempts to understand the human psyche, both for its own sake and to help those individuals whose mental wellbeing is compromised by disorders of personality. All have made meaningful and intelligent contributions to research in their respective fields.

Sigmund Freud tried to make sense of our conscious and unconscious minds and the conflict between these. He made some helpful observations about how we as humans deal with unwanted thoughts through denial, repression and regression as well as lesser-known psychological defences such as projection (you ‘solve’ the problem of hating someone else by trying to convince yourself that it is really them who hate you) and displacement (you smash a cup, instead of hitting out at someone who has annoyed you).

Melanie Klein worked mainly with children. Again, she started from a fairly indisputable observation, namely that the child often gives an indication of their thoughts and feelings through play. Klein went on, however, to develop theories about how children internalise representations of significant others in their lives and used these to try to understand the conflict between the ‘good and bad self’ in adults.

I badly wanted to like psychotherapy that Thursday afternoon. It held all the promise of a refined and artistic pathway through the (largely scientific) world of medicine. The psychotherapists themselves were the embodiment of calm; with that perfect blend of bohemian style and professorial authority; bespeckled and thoughtful faces with answers to all the seemingly intractable problems on the wards.

But alas, aside from my sincere reservations about the efficacy of psychoanalytic psychotherapy in real-life clinical situations, I was left wondering whether self-reflection can easily become an agent of our destruction, rather than our healing.

Even if our own self-reflection takes an altogether more pragmatic and simple direction, it is so easy for us to become overly focused on ‘me’, my life, direction, relationships.

My psychotherapy lecturers that afternoon had a well-cultivated air of otherworldliness, of the sort that made one astonished and envious at the same time. I was drawn in by their unflappable confidence in the method yet deeply offended that any human being could assume capacity or insight to confidently ‘know’ the mind of another.

“I the Lord search the heart
    and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his deeds.”

Jeremiah 17, 10.

Sometimes when I am reading the Psalms or the Book Of Common Prayer I wonder at the tendency of our ancestors to bring God into all of life: triumphs, tragedies, the mundane, even the weather! Thier self-reflection was achieved through prayer, and although these prayers could be lengthy, repetitive and at times rambling no-one would deny the writers were self-aware and emotionally intelligent beings.

O Lord God who has justly humbled us by thy late plague of immoderate rain and waters, and in thy mercy hast relieved and comforted our souls by this seasonable and blessed change of weather; We praise and glorify thy holy Name for this thy mercy and will always declare thy lovingkindness from generation to generation, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Common Prayer. Hymns A&M. Thanksgivings- for fair weather

Perhaps it was exactly this discipline of morning and evening prayers which saved them from self-obsessed lives?

As I’ve been writing this article, I’ve read and re-read Psalm 19, mulling over its contents slowly. The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. Understanding and nurturing our souls ironically begins with a focus on God rather than on us. Why worship and praise God when our hearts are hurting? Simply because this is how God has made our hearts to be whole.

 It would be naive to assume that turning our minds to God in times of grief, hurt and loss functions merely as a temporary distraction from human ailments. It may even be overly simplistic to suggest that with an increasing focus on the ‘law of the Lord‘ our minds undergo some kind of cognitive restructuring. But God does not ask us to work out why. He simply offers human beings a way to inner wholeness

The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The idea of testimony in the Old Testament is intrinsic to the notion of biblical revelation, and the content of that revelation stands as testimony to its giver. Embracing the truth of God empowers our souls. Wisdom stands taller than cynicism. Relativism asks (intelligent) questions, but the ‘testimony of the Lord’ lends greater understanding.

`We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?`Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover, by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is a great reward. (Psalm 19, 7-11)

Most of us believe rules are needed for an ordered society but many consider God’s precepts too restrictive, somewhat outdated, inflexible perhaps. God’s commandments make demands on every area of our lives, they are consuming and require personal sacrifice. We ask, “surely if God gives us free will, the choices He offers would be wider than simply whether or not to obey God’s law?” Left to our own devices, we would probably have one set of rules for ourselves and another for others (privately of course). No doubt we would want to negotiate an element of flexibility in applying the rules depending on circumstances, and then there would be cultural considerations too.

 At the mere mention of ‘rules’, I’m back in that place of self-doubt. I’m imagining a better version of me. I’m excusing my past behaviour, blaming others, confessing the same sin to God again and again. I’m simply not seeing rules in the same light as the Psalmist. He has (from personal experience) come to know that God’s precepts are right, pure and clean. He should know, as he tried to flout them with disastrous results for himself and his family. Furthermore, he has discovered that God isn’t a tyrant in the sky setting unobtainable rules for the beings he has created, but rather He uses these same rules to lovingly guide them in ways that will bring joy, confidence, hope, forgiveness and ‘great reward’.

‘Who can discern her errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me! Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression”. Psalm 19

Confession takes me further than self-reflection. The more I confess, the deeper my heart knows God’s forgiveness. Self-reflection has a narrow focus but God’s law brings enlightenment through prayer.

 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
 O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Psalm 19,14.

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