How to do self-enquiry: Using a self-enquiry journal

Self-enquiry is a type of mindfulness practice from radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT) used to help people learn about themselves and the ways they interact with the world and others around them. For example, you might practice self-enquiry when you find yourself closed – to new information or to someone else’s perspective or to feedback that you are receiving. Self-enquiry involves asking good questions to help you find your “edge” – the place where there is something for you to learn. Our edge usually involves feeling uncomfortable –for example, embarrassment, frustration, hurt, feeling urges to avoid, or having thoughts that we’d prefer not to acknowledge. Self-enquiry involves turning toward our discomfort in order to learn.

In this post, I want to give you some practical tips about how to do self-enquiry and how to keep a self-enquiry journal.

Self-enquiry can be done on the spot, when we find ourselves struggling with a feeling, ruminating about a problem, worrying or planning excessively, or strongly defending against feedback or perceived criticism, just to name just a few examples. Basically, self-enquiry can be used whenever your edge is present. However, RO-DBT particularly encourages people to make self-enquiry a formal practice and to buy a self-enquiry journal.

What’s a self-enquiry journal?

A self-enquiry journal is simply a place to write about the questions and observations that are part of your self-enquiry practice. Personally, I use a composition book. The picture to the right is of my self-enquiry journal. My dog actually ate part of the cover and I had to use duct tape to put it back together ?. I carry it with me in my bag  so it’s available to make note of potential self-enquiry questions that arise throughout the day or to jot down situations that I might want to do self-enquiry around later. I take a brief note on them when they arise and then later go back and do some self-enquiry around them.

We have more information about how to do self-enquiry in some of our other blog posts, but below is a brief summary and some examples that can help guide your practice.

Tips on how to do self-enquiry on your own

After you open up your self-enquiry journal, there are a few guidelines to consider when doing the self-enquiry practice. These are not meant to be followed strictly, but instead are something to use to guide you and help you develop your own practice. Instead, self-enquiry is an individual path of learning that is only fully grasped experientially (i.e., through practice).

Remember, the most basic self-enquiry question is: “What do I need to learn (in this situation or from this emotion)?” The RO-DBT skills manual has hundreds of self-enquiry questions you can use to further enhance your practice.

  1. Turn toward your edge rather than problem solving, soothing yourself, validating yourself, avoiding, defending yourself, or ruminating. For no more than 5 minutes, see if you can focus on exploring your edge in order to learn from it. Write down your self-enquiry questions and observations in your self-enquiry journal as you practice.
  2. Try to find a good question that helps you stay close to your edge. Tips for good questions:
  • Good questions tend to make you feel uncomfortable
  • Good questions are often about the things you don’t want to think about
  • Be cautious about asking too many questions that start with “why” since they tend to get us caught up in problem solving, blame, or justification.
  1. Record the thoughts, feelings, urges, memories, or other reactions that show up in response to your self-enquiry question. As you reflect on any questions that come up, you might ask yourself:
  • Did this question move me closer to my edge or further away?
  • If the question moved me further away, what can I ask that will move me closer to my edge (toward my personal unknown)?
  • Be a little suspicious of quick answers. Our immediate responses usually reflect what we already know. Instead, self-enquiry recognizes that we “don’t know what we don’t know” and that we all have more to learn. Practice allowing yourself space and time to discover what you might need to learn rather than quickly finding a way to justify or explain things or finding a way to feel better.
  1. Cycle through points 2 and 3 until 5 minutes are up, moving back and forth between trying to ask good questions and seeing what emerges in response. Remember that self-enquiry is not problem solving, so if you find yourself problem solving, that itself might become a focus of self-enquiry (e.g., “why must it be so important to solve this problem right now? What might this say about what I need to learn?”).
  2. Record the self-enquiry question that most strongly elicited your edge. Consider returning to this question for the next couple days for a couple more practices (remember, keep them short!).

Also, keep in mind that it can often be more helpful to do self-enquiry about the little things in life that elicit your edge, not just the big things, especially at first. So, there’s no need to try to push yourself into really challenging territory. This is meant to be a practice that can be interesting and energizing, not another chore to add to your list of things to do. Feel free to take it easy with your practice. You don’t need to get an answer (in fact if you find yourself really trying to get to an answer with self-enquiry, then that’s something to do self-enquiry about!).

Consider talking to another person about what you are discovering in your self-enquiry practice

Self-enquiry also goes along with “outing yourself” to a fellow practitioner or friend about what you are discovering. The goal is to learn more about our blind spots as others may often know thing about us that we do not. It also tells our brain that we don’t need to hide and that we don’t need to be ashamed of our quirks or our difficulties. In addition, outing ourselves about our inner lives can strengthen relationships. It tells the other person that we trust them (and people like to be trusted) and shows that we recognize our limitations and are open to learning.

Example journal entries

The following excerpts are taken from the book Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol and demonstrate what an entry in a self-enquiry might look like:

January 13th Picked an interaction I had with the contractor who we hired two weeks ago to design and build a deck extension to our house, However, I’ve noticed a growing sense of tension throughout the week; because every couple of days our ‘contractor’ kept informing me of this little added expense and that additional cost.  I noticed that I had some energy around this—and so today I decided to give him some feedback about this and it didn’t go well. So, what is it I need to learn? I definitely felt anger in my body. How dare he challenge me? Doesn’t he know the ‘customer is always right’? I used this for my practice today. My first self-enquiry question to myself was—“Where did I ever get the idea that the customer is always right? Whoever said that was an absolute truth? An image of dad… showed up; just a flash…something about him working and telling me to ‘do the right thing’.  I feel foggy about it. So, where is my edge? How do I get back to it? Wow, it just showed up…’how dare he challenge me?’ ‘How Dare he Challenge Me? Hmmmm… Who isthis Me that does not want to be challenged? Is it me? Wow…that hurt or something.  The last question. Who is the Me that insists on not being challenged? Closer maybe. I can feel some excitement in my body—what is it I need to learn about being challenged?  I will stop here. I’m worried that I will fall back into trying to solve things. 

January 14th I was excited today about the practice. I started out with the question that I discovered yesterday that seemed to generate the most energy in me– ‘Who is this Me that insists in not being challenged?  Nothing…then…suddenly ‘Why do I hate the word insist? Closer. INSIST! INSIST! How often in my life do I insist? I don’t think I do it very much at all—I always feel like I’m the meek one. Wow…a question just popped.  ‘But do I really?  How meek am I really?  Am I meek? Or is this just a story I like to tell myself? What is it I need to learn? . My first thought is, that I need to learn that I am not meek and to stop thinking I am. But since this sounds like an answer—I will stop here. But which question gets me to my edge?  Hmmmm.   It seems something like this ‘Am I meek?’  Am I meek?

Best wishes in your practice of self-enquiry! We hope this helps you in your ongoing journey to learn more about yourself.

About the author: Jason Luoma, Ph.D.

Jason Luoma, Ph.D., is CEO of Portland Psychotherapy, Clinic, Research, & Training Center. He is a practicing clinical psychologist and researcher focusing on shame, self-criticism, self-compassion and the interpersonal functions of emotion. He has provided numerous workshops around the world and has nearly 50 professional publications including a book. He is intensively trained in RO-DBT.