If the idea of Personal Reflection (capital P, capital R) sounds New-Age-y and cliched to you, you may want to stop rolling your eyes for a moment and hear me out.
I’m 52 years old, soon to be 53.
For nearly all of those years, I led a passive life. Or maybe a more apt description is an unconscious life. Day by day, moving forward and not giving more than an idle thought to the way my past mistakes were keeping me from reaching my full potential.
The reason is simple: It made me uncomfortable to focus on my “failures.” So I’d plod, plod, plod along without a meaningful glance behind me.
On the day my husband asked for a divorce, I stopped plodding and shook myself awake.
Emotionally, I was prepared for the news. It was a long time coming. Practically, I felt blind-sighted, but it was my own fault. I had known for years that I was financially dependent on my husband but never addressed this concern because it made me too uneasy.
As a stay-at-home mom, I hadn’t worked for more than a decade. How would I support myself and my two pre-teen boys?
I was panicked but also saw an opportunity to take charge of my life and plan for a better future.
The catch is that there’s no way to build a better future without first looking backward.
I had to answer these questions: How did I get here? What choices did I make that led me to this place? What were the reasons I made those choices? And what can I do now to correct course?
It sounds like a huge undertaking. But I divided it into chunks and it became much easier.
The chunks were definable time periods in my life, carved out in ways that made sense to me. I’m a visual person, so it helped to type up a chart while I dug into a deep analysis of my past.
Here’s a time period from my Personal Reflection Study so you can see what I’m talking about.
Personal Reflection Study Example
Time Period: College and Graduate School (Age 18-23)
- Decision: I applied to only one school – my state university – because I feared rejection and I wanted to be close to home.
- Analysis: I had neither confidence nor faith in my potential to be accepted at other schools. And I selected a university many of my high school classmates were attending, so I wouldn’t be forced to make new friends.
- Conclusion: Lack of self-esteem and fear of new things thwarted my growth.
- Decision: I chose a major that matched my interests, but veered away from a career that inspired me.
- Analysis: I knew I liked to write, so I picked the Advertising major. However, I wasn’t confident that I could compile a good portfolio and land a copywriting job. I hemmed and hawed and decided to apply for graduate school because I wanted to stall a decision.
- Conclusion: Lack of confidence made me question if I was foolish to consider a job as a writer, so I sat on my hands for another year.
- Decision: When I attended graduate school, I had another opportunity to consider copywriting. But I was enrolled in a Masters program, and I figured it made more sense to put my sights on management or planning. I chose to focus on Media Planning jobs after I was given a financial incentive (scholarship) to do so.
- Analysis: Once again, I took the easy way out, instead of paying attention to what inspired me.
- Conclusion: Taking what I thought was the easy way out didn’t turn out to be so easy in the end. I was unhappy in my Media Planning career and that showed up in my attitude toward my job, my perceived competence, and my overall performance. After I was let go in a layoff in the early 2000’s I never returned to the field.
I continued my Personal Reflection Study with time periods devoted to Early Career/Dating and Marriage/Parenthood.
How I used the results of my Personal Reflection Study
What I could gather from looking at the results of my Personal Reflection Study was that I had demonstrated consistent patterns. It’s not difficult to see – even by looking at only one of the time periods – that I had let low self-esteem and fear determine the way I lived my life for nearly three decades.
On the day my husband asked for a divorce, I understood immediately that I had to re-enter the workforce. Fortunately, I waited until I had time to reflect on my past decisions, or I could have made another ill-suited decision.
Before I began the study, it sounded reasonable to go back to my old career. It was familiar, even if it had made me miserable while I was immersed in it.
My Personal Reflection Study helped me to see that I could escape entrenched patterns. It made me recognize that I had ignored my passions and had settled based on fear. It also made me think about employment in a new way.
Right now, I’m concentrating on more than one income stream to help ends meet. I do some contract work in the Marketing field but have also set aside time to build a career as a freelance writer. I’m starting to see that I don’t have to compromise or give up on my goals. I have freedom because I’m giving myself permission to choose.
So, although it was a bit painful to revisit my past, I’m glad I did. Now that I’ve identified what kept me stuck in the past, I believe I can move forward successfully. And happily.
How might your past decisions be holding you back? I invite you to design your own Personal Reflection Study (or you can call it whatever you want) and tell me how you will use the results.