When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself

As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.

While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.

Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.

“Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”

Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.

The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.

“Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.

Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.

“She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”

As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.

If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.

“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”

The Importance of Self-Reflection

We’ve all heard of self-reflection, and I’d wager most of us would feel comfortable defining it. But generally, self-reflection exists more as a concept that’s understood in theory rather than in practice. How many of us genuinely self-reflect consistently? And how could we? Why should we? Today’s world is full of information, activity, and resources; it’s hard to find the time or sufficient justification for why self-reflection is needed in the first place. Yet, it’s that abundance that makes self-reflection all the more essential right now. In the following, we’ll take a look at what self-reflection is, why we all need it now more than ever, and the value it can bring into our lives.

What is Self-Reflection?

In the simplest terms, self-reflection is setting time aside to evaluate and give serious thought to your emotions, behavior, motivation, thoughts, perspective, and desires. It’s about going beyond the surface level to find the “why” behind these elements of ourselves and the experiences we have. The idea of self-reflection is to gain a more profound, rawer understanding of yourself. And for those unfamiliar, you’ll find that with that understanding comes empowerment and clarity that simply cannot be captured otherwise.

Today’s world is more advanced than it’s ever been and constantly reminds us of what’s out there and available to us. But within this environment can lie a trap. A trap that convinces us that the answers we need to the hardest questions are out in the world for us to find, rather than within ourselves waiting to be unveiled. With that being said, let’s dive into the reasons why self-reflection is more vital than it’s ever been.

Why Now?

Covid & the Climate of Uncertainty and Hostility 

We start with a somewhat obvious one: the present state of society. Over the last year and a half, we’ve all likely felt like we’ve been carrying extra weight around. The air of uncertainty combined with what seems to be growing polarization and hostility has placed a lot on us personally and societally. In times like these, in particular, self-reflection can be a great friend to us. It can help us stay grounded and sharpen our ability not to lose perspective. Just because you engage in self-reflection doesn’t mean the world will change or problems will go away, but it can certainly help in your ability to manage said problems and stay true to what brings you fulfillment in life.

The Modern, Digital Age

Let’s be clear; this piece is not intended to portray our modern advancement as a negative. There are certainly great benefits to it. However, there are legitimate downsides we’ve all likely experienced. Whether it be social media, the internet as a whole, the many gadgets we use, etc., the point is that there have never been more distractions in the world that make it incredibly hard to stay within ourselves. Every day, we’re constantly reminded of what else is out in the world, what others have that we don’t, and people’s perceptions of us. A failure to keep these reminders in check is a recipe for all kinds of negative mental repercussions. Self-reflection can help you in this regard. It’s an incredible tool for staying focused on what you have in life, what matters most to you, and understanding your true identity, no matter what others may think.

Mental Health Crisis

It’s no secret that mental health issues have become a national, if not a worldwide, concern. More and more young people report suffering from mental health problems, and of course, the issue has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while we’ve evolved tremendously in our acceptance of mental health struggles, we still have a long way to go, particularly with helping people navigate these difficult times. Self-reflection is not a cure-all approach, but it certainly won’t hurt in managing mental health issues. As mentioned before, when done right, self-reflection ultimately can be empowering and fulfilling. And as we’ll see next, there’s a lot of value it can bring into your life, whether mental health has been a problem area or not.

The Value of Self-Reflection 

Tool for Learning & Growth

We naturally tend to believe we know ourselves well, which is a fair assumption. However, you’d be surprised how much you don’t know about yourself if you don’t self-reflect often. Not everything is always as it seems on the surface. Sometimes our emotions are driven by something else deep within ourselves, or perhaps our behavior was motivated by a force we had never considered before. We’re far more complicated creatures than we give ourselves credit for, and it can often be hard to keep up without taking the extra time to retrace and reconsider. Self-reflection opens up doors that perhaps have never been seen before, let alone opened. And with that knowledge comes the power to learn, evolve, and grow as a person.

Vessel for Self-Peace

This builds off that understanding touched on before. By having a more authentic conception of yourself, you can make better decisions and engage in behavior that you know will ultimately be rewarding to you. For example, not everything we enjoy doing is necessarily beneficial for us in the long run. Sometimes we engage in behavior that gives us what we need at the moment but leaves us empty in the long haul. It can be hard to truly realize what’s good for us and what’s not until we take that time to dive deep within. And once we do, we have more control over our ability to feel at peace with who we are, where we’re going, and what matters most to us in life.

Your Life GPS

Where those previous points lead you is here, a conceptualized roadmap for life. Now, let’s be clear, a big part of life is the unknown, taking chances, learning from experience, and simply “living.” However, most of us often have an overwhelming feeling that we have no idea where our life is going, what we want from it, and where to go next. And that’s precisely where self-reflection and that understanding of self can help. You’ll be able to better understand what fulfills you the most, what you want to get out of your time here, where you want to go next, and how you might be able to do that. Self-reflection will not give you all the answers or allow you to map your entire life step-by-step, nor should that be desired anyway; that’s what living is for. But it can help you on your journey towards getting those answers, learning from your experiences, growing as a person, and finding your purpose in life.

Conclusion

It’s important to know, value can only be experienced if you approach self-reflection with discipline, legitimate intent, and consistent action. Self-reflection also requires a willingness to be honest with yourself and possibly confront areas you may have been reluctant to in the past. But, what you get from self-reflection and how you do it is really just up to you. Below, I’ve included a few resources to help you get started. If you’re new to this, try different ones out and see what sticks for you. Don’t look at self-reflection as a daunting task; it’s meant to be helpful, not stressful. You have to find what brings the most value to you. And hopefully, this journey will leave you feeling empowered, more connected with yourself, and more clear on what you want from this life.

Resources to Get Started:

https://positivepsychology.com/introspection-self-reflection/

https://www.minimalismmadesimple.com/home/self-reflection/

https://www.wikihow.com/Self-Reflect

Confidence and Humility – The Dance of the Balanced Ego

Balancing confidence and humility in any relationship, be it personal or professional, is a real skill. The first step is to become aware of what the two are. Author of The Art and Etiquette of Polyamory, Françoise Simpère writes:

“Arrogance…is generally a cover for a chronic lack of self-confidence.To be specific, self-confidence is when one is aware of his or her qualities without falling victim to false modesty. Humility allows one to recognise quietly that even though he or she is a wonderful person, there may be qualities that he or she lacks. An individual with a balanced ego is fully aware of his or her own existence and does not need others to confirm it. He or she is interested in others because of who they are, and not because of a need to see him or herself as a reflection in their admiring eyes.”

Their dictionary definitions are as follows:

confidence: a feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities.

humility: the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance.

The key things to note about confidence are:

  1. It’s a feeling, not knowledge, action etc.
  2. It’s about you, not others.
  3. It’s about self-awareness.

So being confident requires awareness of self rather than others, and it needs to be balanced by a sense of modesty. But, as Simpère cautions, not false modesty. So it’s not about feeling unimportant — it’s just about moderating your sense of importance. Particularly in professional relationships, it’s important to see your customer or client as more important than you, while retaining an appreciation of your abilities and qualities, one of which needs to be humility.

Simpère says arrogance is a sign of chronic lack of confidence. I think over-confidence also often shows as arrogance, or at least as a lack of care for and interest in the other person.

The balance of confidence and humility is not static. It’s a dance. You need to keep adjusting your sense of both. So, a balanced ego comes from the inner awareness of how confident or humble it is appropriate to be in any given situation.

Engaging with diversity requires a similar dance. It requires you to be confident in your identity while having the humility to know that there will be aspects of others’ identities that you won’t know. I’ve observed arrogance in people who are both over- and under-confident in their understanding of diversity. A lack of humility stops them asking questions, checking that they’ve got things right and apologising if they haven’t, without getting into guilt or shame.

A balanced ego is an asset to foster in all aspects of life. Get dancing!

Self Care: Placing An Oxygen Mask On Yourself Prior To Assisting Others

Traveling with friends and family to events is something I like to do for two reasons. One is the fact that I like to share experiences with others who might not otherwise have the opportunity to travel. If I can help them create new memories and expand their minds I always try to. Two, I simply prefer to have company when I travel for speaking engagements or HipHop performances.

But there’s one specific time I recall that I’m sure my travel companions may have wished they had missed out on my excursions.

Primarily filled with judges and lawyers, this 1000 person audience threw me for a loop and off my game. What happened was both humbling and embarrassing. It also opened my eyes to some internal emotional work that I had yet to address. I wish it wouldn’t have unfolded on stage, but everything happens for a reason and this was no exception.

I stayed up until 5AM the night before the big conference preparing my notes and pacing in my hotel room, undoubtably irritating both my sister and friend/videographer who were sharing the two room suite that had been provided to us. I was noticeably more nervous than usual. Rightfully so, it was an entirely new audience. This nervousness led up to a level of self-exposure that was not planned nor pretty.

Keep in mind that keynote speaking is my full time career. These organizations don’t hire me just because of my fancy website or produced videos, they hire me because I have personal experience in the system and spent 15 years working as a Registered Nurse and child welfare advocate prior to launching my platform and publishing my book. Hopefully this tells you that this mishap was not due to inexperience, but rather a lack of awareness in the self-care department. It was not something that was obvious.

A small dog suffering from smoke inhalation was rescued by firefighters and given oxygen by firefighter/paramedic Mark Hubert. Photo by: Gigi Graciette (shared by OCFA)
A small dog suffering from smoke inhalation was rescued by firefighters and given oxygen by firefighter/paramedic Mark Hubert. Photo by: Gigi Graciette (shared by OCFA)

I have spent nearly a decade engulfed in self-development and improving my approach to self-care so it was not for lack of trying. It was simply something that went under the radar. I think that we all have little things that sift through the cracks of our diligent efforts time and time again. Which is why we need to regularly and consistently be reminded of the importance of self-care.

No matter how many times you have flown, the flight attendants always remind you to take care of yourself first. If the cabin loses oxygen then make sure you have your oxygen mask on prior to assisting others even children. You’re no good to anyone if you die before getting to them. And that is what happens when we keep letting little things slip through the cracks.

We die a little inside and aren’t able to be the great people we were meant to be for our friends, family, and clients. How many social workers do you know that need a social worker? Probably a lot. Remembering this can save your life and your relationships.

Therefore, at the risk of exposing my own insecurities to yet another large audience, I offer this story to inspire your own self-reflection in hopes of allowing you to be better prepared to face the unknowns in your life and work. Allow yourself to care for your own hidden emotional barriers before making a fool out of yourself in front of friends, co-workers, and most-importantly family members and clients.

During my presentations, I often speak about my relationship with my mother and the impact it had on me as a child as she was absent and often emotionally abusive. Shortly before this presentation, I learned more about the truth behind my mother’s behaviors during my childhood. I learned that she had been labeled with multiple mental health diagnoses and placed on several psychotropic medications that impaired her ability to function, much less parent.

It gave me a sense of relief. So much of my life, I had hatred pent up in my heart for her inability to provide love, compassion, trust, and understanding. But, this new knowledge gave me a new direction for that anger. It allowed me to blame others or simply blame the system.

During this presentation, I spoke about those new findings. Self-exposure is generally very moving, right? I thought so too, but I found that to be the case only if done strategically and with purpose.

There was no purpose for my ranting about the corruption of the system. I was simply ranting.

Afterwards, a lady who looked my mom’s age and as if she may have had a rough life herself gave me a note. She told me to open it when I get back to my hotel room, and I did. It read: “I’m glad your aunty was there for you when I wasn’t able to be. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to be who you needed me to be. I love you very much. -signed, Mom”

I didn’t know it, but those were the words I had been longing to hear my entire life. And this woman knew it. Something tells me she was in my mothers shoes most of her life and possibly was once in my shoes as well.

Sitting in that hotel room, I broke down in tears immediately upon reading those words. She got it. She found a gaping wound and she picked up on it from my ranting on stage when I should have been providing actionable steps for the audience.

50 percent of the reviews from this event were negative. I obviously didn’t follow through with what the audience needed. I am embarrassed to say that, but hopefully this is a reminder that it is okay to need help. It is okay to take time away. Self care is essential, and it is okay for the counselors to seek counsel. Actually, it is necessary so that you don’t cause 50 percent of the people in your life to feel negative about your interactions with them.

We are here to help others, but we must help ourselves first.

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