Creating a mirror for your mind

To learn whether or not there’s something in your teeth, you use a mirror.

Mirrors tell us almost everything physically about the outside of our bodies. Are we having a good hair day? Does our outfit look attractive? Are the rings under our eyes getting softer or darker? Do we look how we want to be perceived today?

Mirrors can be helpful for getting a glimpse into how we look on our outside, but don’t do very much for exposing us to what’s going on inside. They’re specifically not very helpful for reflecting what’s going on our minds.

To look around our thoughts and feelings we need other, specialized tools.

Most of us feel as though we already have a good handle on our thoughts. Why would we need something to reflect back to us what we’re already thinking? But, like the time you got a big leaf of spinach stuck in your teeth, you don’t know what you don’t know about yourself until the mirror shows it to you.

For reflecting your thoughts and ideas you need a mirror for the mind. And there are a myriad of tools we can use to reflect what’s going on inside our brains. Therapists and conversations with close friends can be insightful.

Undoubtedly the best mirror for your mind comes in the form of a regular journal.

Personal journals, like mirrors, allow us to see ourselves from our own advantage. They ask us to look and interpret what it is we see about ourselves, and all the beauty or ugliness that comes with it.

When we take time to journal we’re stepping up to the mirror and taking note of what we see. Are we having good thoughts? Do our ideas feel unique and valuable? Are we consistently thinking in the same ways we always have, limiting our ability to see new possibilities? Do we think in ways we want to be?

It’s hard to know what your hair is doing at any given moment, a mirror can help. Similarly, it’s hard to know what our thoughts are doing unless we put them in a place we can reflect on them.

We can’t get the food out of our teeth if we don’t first know it’s there. We’ll struggle to think in the ways we want to—creatively, more constructively—if we don’t put our thoughts into a mirror too.

How to think more about your thinking

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We’re always thinking, even when we don’t think we are.

Our brains are constantly working to solve problems, to remedy issues or mental conflicts, consolidating information, and processing new knowledge or stimulus. Our brains function in ways we can’t consciously comprehend, always doing something behind the scenes. By becoming more in-tune with our personal thinking patterns we can develop healthier habits of creative and productive thinking.

If you tend to think of unique ideas when you’re surrounded in a noisy room by strangers, it’s powerful to know why that is so you can recreate the stimulus more of the time. Or if you find yourself struggling to feel motivated whenever you’re at home, figuring out why that is can help you change the environment or create different types of motivators there, and elsewhere.

Building self-awareness isn’t always as easy as it may seem however. There isn’t a silver bullet to self-awareness, but there are ample things you can do on a daily basis to build awareness of your own thinking. In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich dives into the research around why self-awareness is so foundational to performance, decision making, relationships and creativity. She also uncovers a number of exercises you can do to improve how you think about your own thinking.

Meditation, occasional free-writing or journaling, reading, daily check-ins, trying new things, and having regular conversations with a good friend, are all great ways to become more aware of your thinking patterns.

With mindfulness meditation the goal is to sit silently with yourself for anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. No music, no direction, just sitting with yourself and learning to observe where your thoughts go.

It’s amazing when people first start meditating like this. I’m often told by those just starting to meditate: “My thoughts jump all over the place! I can’t control what I’m thinking.” And that’s the whole point of this type of meditation practice, you’re not supposed to try and control your thoughts, you simply need to be aware of where they come from, how long your mind tends to sit on any particular subject, notice if there’s anything surprising or recurring in your thoughts that might need more attention when you’re done with the meditation practice.

The longer you meditate over time, the more in-tune you can become with your inner thinking patterns. (I recently built a simple meditation timer and tracker to help build a habit of the practice if you’re looking for an elegant app to help you get started.)

Free-writing or journaling also helps you become more aware of your thinking patterns, but in a way you can come back to later on and be more reflective of. The trick, as Eurich explains in Insight, is to not spend too much time being reflective or focusing on negatives in your life. A good way to keep journaling beneficial is to use prompts to help focus your thinking as you write.

You can find a ton of free resources online for daily writing or journaling prompts. If you have an iPhone or iPad I built a free app for creative writing called Prompts.

Eurich gives a few other exercises you can use to become more self-aware, including what’s known as the Miracle Question: imagine while sleeping tonight a miracle occurs which influences many parts of your life. When you wake up, think about how you would feel and what would have changed.

Or consider one of the best ways to gain awareness: ask someone you’re close to for feedback about you. What traits first come to mind when someone thinks about you? What do they view as your sentiment towards things, what are your regular habits or behaviors? When do you appear to be more creative or productive than not?

We may not be able to fully control everything that goes on in our brains, but through building self-awareness and habits of thinking we can help encourage more creative output.