The year after I graduated from college, I volunteered for a year helping to run a youth and family center in the lower Hudson Valley of New York. One of my favorite memories from that year was a conversation with some 12th-grade boys from the Bronx.
We were talking about the importance of taking time for quiet, reflection, and prayer in our increasingly loud and fast-paced world. I asked them if they ever took time for silence. One of the boys chimed in and said, “Yeah, I call it ‘g-checking.’ Every morning, as I’m getting ready, I look in the mirror and just make sure that I’m good with me. Make sure I’m right with God.”
I still marvel at this young man’s insight because he had hit on something (albeit, in different words) that spiritual teachers from across religious traditions have taught for millennia: the important practice of regularly examining one’s conscience.
If you’re Catholic, then you know that taking the time to do a good and thorough examination of conscience can be the difference between going through the motions of a stale ritual and an experience of vulnerability, intimacy, and healing.
Many people examine their consciences at the end of each day for personal growth and self-integration, but even on a more occasional basis, taking stock of yourself, your character, ideals, and actions can be rewarding and illuminating. A significant life event like a graduation, a new job, moving to a new town, a success (or failure), or beginning or ending a romantic relationship can be a great time for a personal inventory.
Whatever the reason or timing of your examination, here are a few tried and true methods that will help you check yourself.
Choose your favorite spiritual exhortation to awesomeness and see how you have been measuring up. A few of my favorites:
Ignatius’ Daily Examen
St. Ignatius Loyola, considered one of the great mystic minds of all time by many inside and outside the Christian tradition, spent part of his life on bed rest from a cannonball injury (yes, that’s as bad as it sounds). Needless to say, he had some time to think about his choices and he used it to reinvent himself from soldier into missionary. One of the fruits of that time of reflection is the Examen: a daily reflection that guides you thoughtfully through each step of your day.
It’s very easy to learn how to do it. My wife uses a simplified form every night: “What have I done today that was pleasing to God? What have I done today that was not pleasing to God? What will I try to do better tomorrow?”
Compare oneself to a personal hero
Most of us have heroes: people who inspire us to become our best selves. Take a few moments to write down some of the attributes you admire most about your mentors and then use those to assess yourself. If you are close to this person, you may even be able to talk with them and get some advice about how to excel in key areas. You can also do a more abstract version of this method by simply writing down five to 10 qualities you hope to embody and consider your progress in each.
Consult a confidant
Sometimes it’s best to bring in someone who knows you well. Someone who is wise, honest, trustworthy, and who cares for you can point out blind spots you might miss in yourself. This could be a friend, family member, minister, mentor, or counselor.
A few years ago, I had a nasty falling out with a good friend who accused me of some pretty serious character flaws. For a few weeks, I was a bit of a mess, not really sure if I actually was the decent person I had thought myself to be.
On a car trip with my old college roommate, I asked him for an outsider’s perspective. It was scary to ask but I’m glad I did because he was able to point out, lovingly, where the accusations were off-base and where they rang true. It was a significant moment in my own life as well as in our friendship.
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Whichever method you choose, before you begin I recommend taking a chill pill. When self-examining, it is really easy to be overly scrupulous and way too hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. No one is perfect and you are going to fall short. Holding oneself up next to high moral standards can be disheartening and perhaps shame-and-guilt-inducing, but beating yourself up is not the point of examining your conscience. Done this way, it will only discourage you from moving forward.
Instead, try to proceed with a spirit of hope. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Also, and perhaps most importantly, be sure to celebrate your successes. Give yourself credit where credit is due and use that satisfaction as a boost for your motivation to keep improving.
These guides are meant to provide vision and mission for your life. As we reflect on them, they should inspire us and fill us with the passion to become our best selves. If your examination results only in self-doubt and discouragement, then you are probably being overly critical. That said, don’t be too easy on yourself either. You should walk away with some areas for improvement (although I find that is not a problem for most people).
So, with that in mind and some new methods to choose from, when was the last time you took a look at yourself? Why not pick out a method and spend a few minutes with yourself today?