Reflection and Psychotherapy


Reflection is the ability to hold a stimulus in the present moment without reacting automatically. In a state of reflection, a person can notice or observeSONY DSC the presence of a thought or feeling that they are experiencing… noticing or observing can then lead to two different reflective actions; either the person can continue to observe the stimulus (thought or emotion) without judgment or the person can choose to use judgment as a means of guiding their next action (“what do I want to do as a result of this thought or feeling?”).

Without reflection, a person would believe that their actions can be controlled by their environment. This is because of the unconscious belief that the environment MAKES us feel or think a certain way… further, when a certain emotion is felt or a thought is experienced we carry the belief that we MUST react a certain way.

Emotion Examples would be:  “he made me hit him because he made me feel disrespected.” (emotion governed behavior externalized)… or … “He made me stay at home in my despondency because of how disrespected he made me feel.” (Emotion governed behavior internalized)

Thought examples would be:  “He made me hit him because he was being unfair.” (Thought governed behavior externalized)… or…  “I could not go to the same function as him as he is not fair.” (thought governed behavior internalized).

I will go out on a limb and say that the ability to reflect may be the single most important component to mental health. With reflection we become emancipated from automaticity… we are no longer governed by thoughts or emotions as reflection serves as the tool to dis-identify our core self from attachments.

This is where the confusion sets in as people interpret the message of attachment as essentially disputing the validity of emotions… this is absolutely not what I am suggesting. Emotions exist… trying to rationalize them away is a form of avoidance that ironically leads to a life in which there is a dramatic increase in unconsciousness.

To accept a stimulus one must allow the stimulus to exist… denying the existence of a stimulus (such as an emotion) is a form of forced unconsciousness which could be said to be the exact opposite of reflection.

If I can allow myself to feel the sadness which does exist… If I can hold the emotion in a state of non-judgmental reflection, then the burden of that sadness will lessen as I do not fuel the sadness with resistant action (defensiveness, aggression, substance use etc.) or with over identification (ex. “I am the sadness” instead of “I am feeling the presence of sadness.”

As mentioned earlier there are two results of reflection…

The first is intrinsic … reflection is a state of allowing; it is a state of acceptance and presence which allows the clarity and completeness of the moment.  In this moment there is serenity as everything simply is…

The second is instrumental … in a state of reflection a person is given the freedom to choose what actions they would like to engage in as a result of the emotion or thought they are holding in calm observance.

This creates the following sequence: environmental stimulus – automatic thought based on beliefs – reflection (can influence resulting emotion occasionally) – automatic emotion (usually this is automatic as well though with an advanced reflective ability it is not always) – Reflect on the emotion – Choose action based on what would feel most authentic in the relative moment.

The sequence without reflection is generally: environmental stimulus – thought and emotions surface mostly outside of conscious awareness (the person is generally aware of the secondary emotion – ex. “I am pissed” but not conscious of the preliminary emotion = ex. “I am embarrassed.”  Additionally the thoughts tend to be viewed with dogmatic dichotomies ex. “this is the only valid belief concerning this stimulus.” – automatic action or behavior results.

Note: this is not to say that an automatic reaction is never authentic… in fact the resulting action could possibly be exactly the same despite the sequence used, but reflection allows choice, which increases the probability of authenticity (an action which is congruent with the core self).

I have been toying with the hypothesis lately that all effective psychotherapy interventions are essentially doing the same thing… increasing reflective ability and decreasing automaticity.

The reason that this result would be most impact by the therapeutic relationship is that perhaps increasing reflection necessitates a reflective, safe, and accepting space… this would possibly answer why technique (CBT, EFT, DBT, narrative etc) has shown to have very little impact on outcomes… the most important thing that the therapist is doing is holding space.

More on this later

In being a soft reflective water unrippled by judgments we allow the observer to placate the waters of their own existence…  and reflection grows

In reflection we find the existence of dialectics and in this space of co-existing opposites acceptance becomes authentic.


William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

William Hambleton Bishop

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

2 thoughts on “Reflection and Psychotherapy

  1. Love this! I am thrilled I came across this site by chance, as I am also a student at UNC in the clinical counseling program. I am a huge fan of meditation for this reason, it helps me to not be so quick to react. Sometimes it is best to just slow down and reflect.

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