Reflection is widely considered a critical process for increasing self-awareness, and a catalyst for growth. Yet few of us are taught how to reflect, and this is why some of us will fall into the trap of reliving vs. reflecting. Both are backward-looking, but one adds in a crucial ingredient for true growth: distance.
Reliving is replaying an experience by stepping fully into it. What this means is that we re-experience the emotions and thought patterns associated with an event. We are not noticing how we felt or what we thought because we are too entangled with the experience. We are seeing ourselves as our reaction, instead of noticing that we had a reaction. For example, if a situation sparked frustration, we become frustrated all over again. Once we move into this state, we are more firmly entrenching ourselves in our old patterns. In fact, when we relive an experience without separating ourself from it, we actually strengthen the neural connections for how we responded in that situation. This means we're actually more likely to behave in the same way in the future, even if we don't want to. It becomes harder to let go of patterns that are no longer serving us.
Reflecting, on the other hand, is looking back on a past event with separation from it. When reflecting, we are able to settle into our seat of awareness, which allows us to examine how we thought, felt and responded without becoming enmeshed. For example, if a situation sparked frustration, we don't become frustrated all over again but rather objectively notice that we were triggered and experienced an emotional response. In essence, we are a neutral observer of our experience, allowing us to become more aware of patterns that don't serve us, to let go of negative emotions attached to a situation, and to make intentional choices about how to show up differently in the future.
Distance is key.
How can you tell if you are slipping into reliving instead of reflecting? Here are some common signs that you're actually reliving experiences:
Strongly identifying with the thoughts or emotions associated with an event
Intensely feeling the emotions of an event all over again
Moving into judgment, blame, justification or defensiveness
Criticizing and/or berating yourself for how you responded to a past event
Go forward and reflect.