Introspection Guide

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The concept of introspection was studied well before the birth of modern psychology, generally originating from the studies of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and George Berkely. Many have identified introspection as a core tenant of psychology until the rise of behaviorism in the mid-20th century—despite its shift from this core definition, it’s still seen as a tool for self-awareness and understanding, possibly propelling us forward with a true knowledge of motive and self. 

Below, we explore what introspection is, where it fits into modern psychology and ways you can use it to increase your quality of life.

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What is introspection?

According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, introspection is “the process by which someone comes to form beliefs about their own mental states." Early pioneers in the field of psychology are believed to have viewed introspection as a possible way to access and understand a person's conscious experiences.

By today’s language standard, introspection has become nearly interchangeable with metacognition, which is generally defined as a similar self-analytical concept. Metacognition, like introspection, requires someone to apply conscious effort to "look inside" their mind. It is generally used as a common tool to help people learn study skills, change cognitive biases and address unconscious factors through deliberate action. Despite their similarities, many believe that metacognition and introspection are not identical. Metacognition generally involves applying one cognitive process, such as problem-solving, to change or analyze another cognitive process—such as focus or attention. Introspection can be tied to a person's consciousness, including any subjective experience the person is aware of. 

In short, metacognition can allow a person to investigate their cognition, while introspection can enable them to analyze their consciousness. Both can be equally valuable in the journey of self-awareness, compassion and understanding. 

Famous psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who founded the Institute for Experimental Psychology, often utilized the mental process of introspection within his research. His goal was to train patients to analyze their own thoughts as objectively as possible.

Introspection and epistemology

Epistemology is the field of philosophy that is generally concerned with the nature, origin and limits of human knowledge. Introspection and epistemology can interact seamlessly due to their subject matter and core focuses, which we begin to see in the early days of psychology. More specifically,. early philosophers were seen by many as noting that a person's beliefs are generally derived through introspection—and may appear more secure than their beliefs about the external world.

Philosophers then theorized that each person might have privileged access to their own mental states that could then be analyzed and understood using introspection. This is thought by many to have led to the prevailing belief that introspection was epistemically special, and that a person's reports about their mental states could be inherently more accurate than their beliefs about the external world. 

While it possibly would be helpful if individuals were able to know their conscious experiences with absolute infallibility, it is possible for introspection to be inaccurate. The fallibility of introspection, as opposed to its infallibility, has been the subject of debate and study in modern experimental psychology in many contexts. 

Introspection and modern psychology

Many of today's mental health practitioners have generally accepted introspection's fallibility. Self-reports of individual experiences are not considered inherently reliable or unreliable, instead being interpreted in the context of other available information in many cases.

Modern approaches to introspection generally focus heavily on self-awareness. As the name implies, self-awareness can describe how much an individual knows about their conscious experiences, and it may possibly color how they react to stimuli in the context of them. This cognitive process is generally known as internal self-awareness. A similar concept, external self-awareness, generally refers to understanding how other people see the individual.

While introspection is generally thought to be tied to self-awareness, increased introspection might not necessarily lead to increased self-awareness. The limitations of introspection can become clearer when one considers how limited the "privileged access" of introspection actually can be if a person chooses to do an introspective search of their own thoughts.

Many of a person's thoughts, feelings, and motives are unconscious, which can mean that they are not accessible to introspection. A person who uses introspection to gain self-awareness can then invent answers to justify conscious experiences that feel true but may be inaccurate. Introspection can also invite unproductive negative thoughts, which can introduce patterns that can be associated with rumination.

Current psychology research suggests that a person who analyzes themselves frequently might be more likely to be depressed or nervous than someone who rarely engages in self-analysis. Many believe that when people learn more about themselves, they can inevitably dredge up negative things like fears, shortcomings and insecurities. In this instance, they may assign their behaviors to a negative factor that is irrational or not linked to the true cause, such as baseless insecurity.

If excessive introspection or rumination has strained your mental health, we do want to note that online therapy can be a helpful supportive method to try. Therapists can help many attain a higher, more accurate level of self-communication, which can actively limit the effects of rumination in most.


Improving through introspection: Is it possible? 

Introspection, when done correctly, can increase self-awareness and possibly improve one's mental health.However, as stated above, introspection can also have adverse effects. Below are some tips to enhance self-awareness through introspection, possibly helping one to avoid negative thoughts and feelings that can be associated with rumination.

“What Not Why”

Developed by psychologist and New York Times bestselling author Tasha Eurich, What Not Why is generally known as a practical and popular tool for developing internal self-awareness. In this method, the person being introspective can avoid asking “why” questions of themselves and their experiences, focusing instead on asking “what” questions—which can be a useful way to ground themselves in more helpful and factually based thought processes.

Dr. Eurich postulated that "why" questions, such as: "Why do I feel this way," were less effective than "what" questions; such as: "What am I feeling right now?" Asking a "what" question might force a person to name and understand their thoughts and feelings, which can be a helpful technique for improving self-awareness in many. "Why" questions, however, can elicit unhelpful answers that can prompt rumination in some. For example, the question of: "Why do I feel this way?" may elicit nonspecific, incorrect or emotional answers—such as: "Because I am a negative or unworthy person."

Additionally, "what" questions invite specificity. "What am I feeling right now?"  can lead a person to conclude that they are hungry, tired or overwhelmed as they search for the emotions they are genuinely experiencing. That's not to say that "Why" questions are useless, however. "Why" questions can be especially effective for understanding and solving problems in our environment. However, in the context of introspection, "what" questions can be better at helping a person to understand themselves.


Many believe that meditation is one of the oldest forms of introspection. Meditation generally involves achieving a calm emotional state and asking introspective questions to increase self-awareness. To begin, you might find a quiet, safe area and make yourself comfortable. You can then begin breathing slowly and deeply. Once you feel noticeably relaxed, you can then begin to consider your introspective questions.

Here are some questions people commonly ask themselves during meditation. (Note that they are all "what" questions rather than "why" questions):

  • What am I trying to achieve?
  • What am I doing that is working?
  • What am I doing that is slowing me down?
  • What can I do to change? 

While you can ponder anything during your meditation session, these questions can offer you helpful places to start if you’re new or if you’re experiencing a lack of focus. 

Seeking proper feedback

Introspection generally works best with effective external information. Many people who lack self-awareness might seek only positive criticism—which may make them unlikely to have clear external self-awareness. Because internal and external self-awareness can be linked through introspection, poor external self-awareness can significantly distort an introspective process.

The key to avoiding this risk, for many, is to seek feedback from individuals who are known to be honest and constructive. Negative and hypercritical feedback can reduce the effectiveness of introspection, possibly introducing negative thought processes that should be avoided by many. A similar problem can occur with unbalanced positive feedback. If the person providing feedback isn’t able to be entirely honest, it may not help to improve external self-awareness. 


Keeping a journal of thoughts, feelings and actions can be an effective method for improving self-awareness. Journaling generally has two significant benefits in this context: It can empower a person to "re-live" or revisit relevant thoughts and feelings, possibly aiding in introspection. It can also be useful for understanding emotion, as merely identifying and logging an emotional state can lead to significant improvement in one’s self-awareness. 

We do want to note: There is not generally a "correct" way to journal, but journal entries that are designed to work with introspective processes may be most effective if they include emotional information, notable events and insights that you remember occurring "in the moment”.

No matter what method you use to strengthen your skill, introspection remains a powerful tool for many, if used properly. It can give you a deeper understanding of your conscious experience as well as your unconscious experience, encouraging you to look beyond the surface level of how you’re feeling.

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How can online therapy help?

Online therapy can allow you to visit with a licensed, experienced therapist from the comfort of your own home—which can be a more accessible and attainable treatment method for many. Attending therapy online removes possible common barriers to visiting a therapist, like travel time and service area restrictions. 

Is online therapy helpful to those wanting to build self-awareness? 

If you're concerned about your self-awareness, a licensed therapist can help provide guidance on introspection, as well as other techniques that can help you to explore your own mind. A therapist can also address relevant mental health concerns using evidence-based techniques, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Even though you'll participate in therapy from home, the methods used are the same as those used in the office and research in cognitive science has shown them to be just as effective. 


Introspection can be a powerful tool for increasing self-awareness in many. However, introspection can also bring up negative or unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Journaling and meditation are both effective methods for increasing introspection and knowledge of yourself in a healthy way, possibly mitigating these risks. Online therapy is also a helpful tool to use throughout this process, as a therapist can oversee your progress and support you using scientifically supported techniques. BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist in your area of need.
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