Self-reflexivity is a way for you to super power your reflective process, and deepen on your path of personal growth. If your asking yourself “what is self-reflexivity?” your are not alone. However, this little known term is central to the discovery of new ways to do things.
Reflexivity is more than reflection. It could be called applied reflection. That is because reflexivity takes you deeper into anything you become more aware of. That awareness will then feed itself back into new ideas and new ways of doing things.
In this article, I will explain what self-reflexivity is, ways for you to use it, and why it matters. I will also demystify some of the confusion over self-reflection versus self-reflexivity. Finally, I will talk about ways you can use self-reflexivity for either your personal growth, or your professional development.
However, to understand this topic I will need to explain the connection between awareness and change. I will also need to clear up some of the confusion, around the definitions around reflexive, reflexivity, and reflection.
In order to understand Self-Reflexivity we will discuss:
- How Change Begins With Awareness
- Defining Reflexivity
- Can Things Really Change?
- What is Self Reflexity?
- Ways to Engage in Self Reflexivity
Change Begins With Awareness
The concepts around self-reflexivity begin with the idea that your awareness of the self and of the other creates change.
If you keep doing things the exact same way your going to keep recreating the same situations and replaying the same stories. We live in a society that uses swift and forceful actions to change things we see as a problem. (Or ignore the problem because we don’t want to admit that we don’t know how to change it!)
If you think about it, it’s not surprising that despite all the effort we push into creating change, we often find ourselves right back where we started. When the principals and models we are using to design our plans haven’t changed, why should the outcomes?
The most surprising results for personal or societal change come from innovative thinking. Someone will think of a new way to get children to learn at earlier ages. Another person will come up with new community programs that actually make an impact on crime.
These innovations can involve revolutionary ideas, or they can involve ideas that simplify or clarify the situation. The key is that someone looked at the problem in a new way. How do you see a problem in a new way unless you become aware of how you are seeing it now?
If you don’t value awareness as an agent for change, you may not spend much of your time using your awareness to make new discoveries. Even being aware of how you see “awareness” is a type of self-reflexivity.
Can you only see the utility of awareness: ‘What does it do for me?’
Do you value awareness for awareness itself… ‘More awareness is better?’
Do you think that using your awareness can create change?
Before we can really understand self-reflexivity we need to get clear on the definition of reflexivity. Reflexivity can get very meta, which means we start becoming reflexive about reflexivity and quickly become confused. Lets clear up some of this confusion first by discussing the definitions around reflection, reflexive, and reflexivity.
The way I will be using the word reflexivity is “the capacity for and the influence of applied reflection.” Or more simply, using reflection to see things in a new way and for that new way to be the source for change. If your good with that, you can skip on down to the self-reflexivity section.
There are Many Definitions of Reflexivity
If you started looking up the definitions around Reflexivity that is one of the ways to get quickly confused. This is because the word’s definitions are different for different academic disciplines.
I initially learned about reflectivity as part of my masters program in Applied Professional Studies from DePaul University in Chicago.
The program emphasizes a strong relationship between inner knowledge and professional expression. Self-Reflexivity is an ideal concept for a program that focuses on becoming an accomplished professional by ‘seeing the bigger picture’ and ‘transforming personal definitions’ so that you can go to new places with the work you do. At the time, I assumed that self-reflexivity was one of those things I had missed learning about before starting my MA. I didn’t discover how little known reflectivity is, until I started preparing for this article.
Partly, this powerful tool may not have caught on because it appears in different ways for different academic disciplines.
- In some cases, reflexivity is seen as a way of keeping your biases in check. Be aware of what you think, so that you can be more objective.
- My MA used the approach of Reflexive Practice, where you grow in the work you do by observing yourself in action – in other words an engaging in an applied observation while doing the work.
- Reflexivity in economics – simply means that people’s perception of the market effects the market. In this case, that your perception of reality creates that reality.
- In Epistemology (studying the theories of what is knowledge) reflexivity is how cause and effect change each other in circular ways.
- In research, reflectivity includes the concept that the very act of researching changes what your researching and in turn changes your approach to that same research.
You can probably see this last one “change through research” most profoundly in social research. If you are studying subjects who went through abuse for instance, the opportunity to tell their story and be heard can be profoundly healing. Trauma is often helped through connection and care. The insights of those being healed by telling their story, will give insights to a responsive researcher, and new directions for that research can be uncovered.
Reflexive or Reflexivity?
You may find that Reflexive and Reflexivity are used interchangeably in certain discussions and in search results. Reflexive is a word about about relating to something, specifically something which relates back to its self. One of reflexive meanings includes the process of reflection.
In my master’s project we engaged in reflexive practice. That meant that I used a process of reflection while “in action.” While practicing my profession, I also observed and gathered insights about what I was doing. You are reflexive, because you are “taking account” of how you effect and affect the work that you do.
Reflexivity is an adjective that discusses a capacity for reflection, as well as fact of applying a process of reflections.
The Cambridge Dictionary Defines Reflexivity is:
the fact of someone being able to examine his or her own feelings, reactions, and motives (= reasons for acting) and how these influence what he or she does or thinks in a situation
So I engage in Reflexive Practice. I observe my practice and use my observations to better inform my practice. But my capacity to do this is my reflexivity. The influence this observation has on that which is observed – is reflexivity.
Perhaps my favorite definition for reflexivity is found in sociology:
[Reflexivity] means an act of self-reference where examination or action “bends back on”, refers to, and affects the entity instigating the action or examination.
In this definition, we get a strong sense that your observation CREATES CHANGE. You are reflexive because you engage in reflection and observation to inform what your doing. Reflexivity feeds back into what your doing, and has the capacity to make something new.
Reflection versus Reflexivity
We are on the home stretch, so stay with me.
The main problem with trying to understand reflexivity is the circular nature of something which bends back on itself. If we follow the concepts through from the starting point of reflection, we can become really clear about what reflexivity is.
Reflection is defined by the Merriam-Webster as:
6: a thought, idea, or opinion formed or a remark made as a result of meditation
7: consideration of some subject matter, idea, or purpose
So with Reflection, we really just have the act of thinking. We have the act of observation. We place our awareness on something, and think about what we see.
If we engage in reflection in a reflexive way, we be make the first bend. We observe or reflect in a way that refers back to itself.
The google definition:
(of a method or theory in the social sciences) taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.
1 a: directed or turned back on itself
b: marked by or capable of reflection
2 of, relating to, characterized by, or being a relation that exists between an entity and itself
So when we are reflexive, we establish a second order relationship through our observations. We aren’t just thinking about the observations; instead we look at the observations with regards to relationships of cause and effect. The observation takes account of the causes and effects.
Then we step it up one more level. We bend back for the second time. Reflexivity doesn’t just refer to cause and effect. The products of our observations become a new cause. The products of our observation EFFECT what we are studying.
Still Reflexivity is an adjective, not a verb. So the word really is about capacity. The capacity to be reflexive, and the capacity of a reflexive process to create change.
Can Things Really Change?
Sociology emphasizes reflexivity as a capacity to initiate social change through developing your own awareness of social structures. If you can see the structures you are a part of, that can result in a change to how you relate to that structure, and it can thereby alter your social position. In personal growth, the changes are both internal and external. However, they still involve change through deepening your capacity for awareness.
Often, we can only see one part of a picture. We think… my problems are due to a lack of discipline. Or… I don’t ever achieve things because I’m not trying hard enough. Or because I feel too much or I am too sensitive. Or because I don’t have access to resources I need.
However, the true causes for our struggles may have started generations before we arrived on the scene. The reasons we are struggling to move forward can be about larger social structures that we are participating and effected by. The cause of problems can include outdated self-concepts.
The initial assumption that we know and can see the true source of the problem may be a bad premise. Your way of seeing the world may have been shaped as a child, or by messages you received unconsciously through television or social media.
Before any change can happen, you need to examine your situation in more detail. You need to begin to develop a new awareness about your self, and how your self-concept situates you in your life and forms relationships with the world around you.
What is Self-Reflexivity?
Even the question: What is self-reflexivity? is a reflexive question. (Very meta!) There is a “what is this”, and “what is that” quality to self-reflexivity.
For the purposes of personal growth, the best way to think of Self-Reflexivity as applied reflection. The application of reflection to your self concept. The application of reflection by feeding insights gained through reflection, back into your new observational process. With Self-Reflexivity we don’t just think about the self. We apply our reflections in ways that create new insights, and that eventually serve as the source for change.
Because reflexivity’s definition includes something which bends back on itself, self-reflexivity has an additional bend in the s-curve of self-reflection. You become the one who observes yourself.
However, any time we want to observe anything, including ourselves, we need perspective. If you want to look at a very tall building, you can’t look at it with your nose pressed up against the window. You will have to take a walk, until you can get far enough away from it to see it.
Gaining Self Perspective
How do you get the kind of distance you need from yourself in order to “put yourself in perspective?”
First, in any reflexive process, you need to spend some time gathering data about the thing you are studying. For reflexive practice (described above) you gather data about your self as a practitioner of your vocation. Similarly, the data about yourself is gathered by watching and noticing how you engage in your life.
- Where and to what do you react?
- What things make you uncomfortable?
- What things excite you?
- Is there something you are avoiding?
- Taking an inventory of your belief system
- Noting where you get stuck, and which things you find easy to handle
The first step to gaining perspective of yourself, is this inventory process. Then you take note of what you see, and write them down in a journal, or even in post it notes on a blank wall. This is true of any research process, you first take note of what it is you think you know about the topic, and where your information may be more limited.
Armed with some perspective, you can begin to engage in a reflexive process and begin to deepen your capacity for self-reflexivity.
As I explained earlier, reflexivity is reflection which feeds back into itself.
So with self-reflexivity you use the inventory I mentioned in the last section and feed that into your reflective process. When you have fruits from reflexive observation, you feed those back into reflection process again. In this way, you bend your insights back into the process again and again.
Making puff pastry dough is very good analogy for a reflexive process of self-awareness. Puff pastry is a dough that is created by rolling out very thin layers of dough, folding them back and rolling out again to form multiple thin layers. (Croissants, for example, are a type of puff pastry.)
Before you start any reflective process, you don’t know anything. You have little or no insight into the thing your wishing to observe. Its like a lump of dough, where you cannot see inside of this thing (your self, a topic that you are researching, unconscious community structures, whatever.)
The process of trying to see inside is like rolling out dough. You are spreading the topic open, widening it so you can see the details of what inside. The thinner you spread the dough, the more minute your study of the inner workings of the topic.
Then with reflexivity, you fold the insights back into the dough, just as you do with puff pastry, thus putting one layer in relationship with the others.
Once the dough is folded back together, you begin rolling it out once more. Now that you have new layers of relationship, you spread the dough out again, looking for in-sight by spreading the topic wide once more.
Your capacity for self-reflexivity is how many layers of relationship you become capable of seeing by repeating this process over and over again.
While, dough analogies are nice and all… How do you apply self-reflexivity in your own life?
Three Methods for Self-Reflexivity
In the podcast at the top of this article, I go through three basic ways of engaging in self-reflexivity. Here they are again:
- Pure Observation or Reflexive Observation
- Self-Reflexivity in Action
- Self-Reflexivity Using your Full Awareness
You can be as detailed or as general with the reflection process as you wish. When you take the time to feed any insight back into your self awareness, that is helpful. So it really just depends on what your growth goals are, and how deep you wish to go with it. Any of these three ways can be tailored for what makes sense for you at this time in your life.
Self-Reflexivity as Pure Observation
I used the term pure observation, because I am trying to emphasize that you aren’t trying to act in a particular way or to change anything. Its as if you have a separate person inside of you who can act as an un-involved observer.
Just as with the scientific method, you don’t have any wish to disturb the system. You just want to watch it and gain insights.
The part that makes “pure observation” reflexive rather than reflective, is that you change and play with your perspectives during while observing.
If you have done a reflection inventory, you look for examples which align with or go against something on that inventory.
Lets say one of your inventory items is that “I hate dishonesty of any kind.”
Now you begin to observe yourself to see when you have reactions around honesty and dishonesty. You observe yourself to see instances of honesty. You look to see if there are any instances of dishonesty. You are looking at yourself in RELATIONSHIP to honesty/dishonesty, that is what makes this observation reflexive.
Perhaps you will discover that you spend more of your time thinking about honesty than you realized. Perhaps you will realize there are times when you feel drawn away from speaking your truth. Perhaps you will realize you actually don’t think about it much at all.
You are not meant to judge your findings. Judgement involves forming a conclusion, and growth is about staying open. If you begin to judge what you observe, you will start changing your behavior to avoid feeling bad about your self. To the best of your ability, you want to be an accepting self-observer.
Another way to engage in self-reflexivity in this mode, is to compare and contrast. Take a person whom you love, but tends to think very differently than you. As you observer yourself in different situations, ask yourself what your friend would think or do. Spend some time thinking about your preferences about your way of doing and reacting versus theirs. Are any of your ways old habits? Do you have strong feelings around reacting in particular ways.
This mode of self-reflexivity is an INVESTIGATION. Its meant to help you see something new, you may not have seen if you didn’t take the time to observe things in this way.
Self-Reflexivity Thru Action
The pure observation mode of reflexivity involves watching yourself while your going about your daily life, while you are in action. To clarify, this second mode of self-reflexivity is about actively changing things to see what happens.
You normally do things one way, try to do them the opposite. Try to do something you don’t usually do. Change things up.
We live in a results driven society, therefore, we usually change the way we do things in order to achieve particular results. What makes this self-reflexivity, is that your changing your action in order to gain new insight. You focus on your reaction to the changes, not the results from those changes. If you begin to steer towards a particular outcome, you may steer yourself away from learning something new. Focusing your attention on outcomes, means that your focus is not one of an un-involved observer.
Doing something completely different should bring up feelings, and reactions that will open your perceptions. Feelings of enjoyment, fear, or reluctance are little sign posts that say… there is something here. If you have no reaction, than perhaps this item doesn’t matter to you, or perhaps you have shut down around the issue at hand.
Following up with questions about why your reacting, or how often do I feel this way are good reflexive questions. These new questions can inform your pure observation modes of reflexivity.
Just as with the first approach, you aren’t judging and you are not assessing. You are gathering data, and seeing where it leads you.
Self-Reflexivity Using Full Awareness
In this mode of self-reflexivity, you invite your subconscious brain to be part of the process. Depending on what study you look at, something like 90 to 99.999 percent of the thinking done by your brain is unconscious. The brain sorts a lot of information before it comes to your conscious attention. Therefore a significant amount of your “awareness” comes from this part of your brain.
Since most people think of awareness, as conscious awareness, the idea that you could be aware of something unconsciously may seem absurd. The truth is that we are aware of more than we realize consciously. Our brain is continuously taking in information, sorting it, and drawing our attention to what seems important.
We can actually give some direction to these processes through a combination of conscious intention and allowing the brain to then do its thing in the background.
As an example of how the brain focuses depending on what we’ve consciously decided is important: If you are walking through a neighborhood that seems dangerous, or an empty parking lot late at night, your sense of unsafety will cause your brain to look out for dangers and unknown people. Anything that it deems dangerous will be brought to your attention.
If, on the other hand, your going out dancing and to meet new people, your brain will focus on seeking out what is new and exciting. Bringing your attention to the attractive girl over there, or the fun crowd you danced with last week. If your aware that even fun places can be dangerous, your brain may bring you information about both safety and fun.
In this way, the unconscious brain processes information based on what is deemed important in a particular setting.
In order to engage your full awareness, you will do a combination of conscious reflection and unconscious reflexivity. Going with the earlier example of dishonesty. You might consciously reflect around your feelings of dishonesty. Then you would set the intention that your brain be on the look out for examples. As your understanding becomes more sophisticated, your brain can do a better job sorting and bringing things to your attention.
Your brain can also sort out some of the more complex relationships in the collected data, and you may find unexpected new ideas come up as if they were “made by someone else.”
The key to this type of reflexivity is that you keep your conscious reflections to a short period of time a day, and intentionally allow your brain to sort through information while you do other things. Some people don’t realize that their brain works this way, and believe that they are only working on a problem if they are working on it consciously.
If you can “get out of the way” by not thinking about it consciously all the time, you avoid slowing down the unconscious brain. You commit to this self-reflexivity process by committing to conscious thinking time in which you gather the new information gathered by your unconscious brain and think it through consciously. In this way you can superpower your reflections by employing the full power of your brain.
I give an example of how I do this in my engineering work, in the podcast.
If you’re already engaged in self-reflection, reflexivity should allow you to empower your insights using an more informed reflection process. Many of the common modes for reflection, such as journaling, meditating, or group therapy are very complementary to the self-reflexivity process. You can use the techniques of self-reflexivity for either personal or professional growth.
New ideas, and new ways of seeing things are key to the reflexive process. As I explain in the Podcast at the top of this page, I have started the Reflections on Healing podcast to cover a variety of topics around personal growth, community awareness, as well as topics around spiritual evolution. For some of the episodes I will also provide workbooks for further reflection.
If your interested in new ideas, you might check out Reflections on Healing – Episode 1 which covers common misconceptions about love, or Episode 2 about the relationships between prejudice and our understanding of the world. You can also subscribe to Reflections on Healing, by visiting the homepage of the podcast.