The Unlived Life

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By nature I’ve always been an excessively introspective person.  My entire life I’ve believed, as Socrates said, that “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.”  Even now, my wife frequently accuses me of living mostly in my own head.  But in my first year of college, in response to my voicing my commitment to this credo, a friend of mine once replied, “Nor is the unlived life worth examining.” This struck me as more than just a clever reversal of ancient wisdom.  It struck me as valid.  When he said it, I realized just how much my commitment to introspection and self-observation had prevented me from fully engaging in life.

In high school, I’d had many friends but had belonged to no one group.  I’d always felt an arrogant sense of pride in thinking myself supremely egalitarian and far above the silly games my adolescent friends would often play.  I enjoyed my reputation as a wise observer of life, the person to whom others came for help with their problems.  But soon after my college friend said that to me, I realized, looking back, that in reality I’d simply been disconnected, not only from people but from my own experiences.

It’s far easier to watch others swim in life’s currents than to swim in them oneself.  Further, watching others engage in life while remaining disengaged does bring some benefits:

  1. You can avoid disappointment by remaining disconnected from any strong desires.
  2. You can more easily learn from others’ mistakes without having to make them yourself.
  3. You can help others by offering them wisdom gained from observation and introspection.
  4. You have space and time to learn about yourself through constant introspection.

I continue to agree with Socrates that the unexamined life isn’t worth living.  If we refuse to self-reflect at all, we’ll never be able to recognize our mistakes and grow, never become wiser, and therefore never become any happier than we are right now.  But to engage in self-reflection at the expense of participating in life risks several important things:

  1. Forfeiting the opportunity to enjoy the pleasure that being connected to others brings.  Neuroscience is finally catching up to psychology in proving we are elementally social beings.  Even the most independent among us requires fulfilling social interaction.
  2. Believing we’ve internalized important lessons simply by observing the mistakes of others.  It’s one thing to learn a lesson intellectually (e.g., gossiping is a poor choice) and quite another to acquire genuine life wisdom that leads to different feelings and results in different behavior.
  3. Believing advice is the greatest help we can provide others who are suffering.  It’s not.  The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is encouragement—encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.
  4. Accepting a false image of ourselves as true.  If all our ideas about ourselves are formed from observation of lives in a disengaged state—a state in which our limits and negativity are rarely, if ever, challenged—we’ll likely find little opportunity or reason to ever challenge our limits.  Only painful life experiences bring us to that.  It just seems to be the way we’re built.

After my college friend said what he did, I realized (during a period of self-examination) that in high school I’d remained in a state of detachment to minimize the risk of ever having to face disappointment.  Remaining detached from life and from other people felt safe and provided me a pedestal from which to observe others—and feel superior to them.  But in doing so I’d created a flat, empty, and unsatisfying life.

I wasn’t, of course, really standing above anyone, but rather avoiding experience.  Truth be told, it wasn’t until I plunged into the stream of life in an entirely engaging way during my second year of college, felt the shock of entry into its cold water, and started bumping into other people as a fellow life participant (sometimes pleasantly, sometimes not) that I began to acquire life experiences worthy of reflection.  Experiences I could push against that would force me to become stronger.  That’s when true growth began to occur, showing me that what had passed for it before had been only its appearance.  It took me roughly a decade after my college friend said what he did for me to achieve what I consider to be a healthy balance between living life and reflecting on the life I live.  But nothing has made me as grateful:  getting that balance right was what freed me to truly enjoy my life.

Next WeekThe Danger Of Early Closure

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  • Oh, how I relate. “Living mostly in my own head”—my husband just said the same to me today in similar words. Thanks for sharing this post.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by P. Mimi Poinsett MD and P. Mimi Poinsett MD, Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: The Unlived Life: […]

  • You already know from our last program together how much I love reflecting on the right amount of time to spend…reflecting.

    I look back fondly on the time between marriages as a vacation from (get this) failing someone. But that time was oh so lonesome, too—and if the price of friendship is being engaged (so to speak), I’m in.

  • I have done this, too, Alex. I always called it “holding back.” (In the health care business, they call it employee engagement.) Once I got over holding back and plunged in; it wasn’t pretty: Mistakes, some pretty ugly ones.

    After YOU plunged in, you say you had “experiences I could push against that would force me to become stronger. That’s when true growth began to occur…” You say that wisdom was the prize. For myself, I would say that now I know what is genuine, what is the real deal…and I have more self-respect as I reach for the genuine real deal more and more often as I get older. That is my prize and it is so worth having!

    Chris: It so is worth having!


  • Thanks so much for your insightful post. I’ll have to wait patiently to quote your college friend, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s so hard to make the effort to jump in the stream when your nature is to live in your head, but it makes all the difference in how well you live—both internally and externally.

  • Just to let you know that my daughter, Quah Lyn Si, passed away on 15/11/2010 peacefully. Thank you for the help and encouragement that you have wrote to me. From my heart, thank you very much.

    thquah: I’m sick to hear this news. I’m so very sorry for your loss.


  • Your friends words were very wise indeed, as was your embrace of them.

    I wonder why it seems that some people have that innate desire to self-reflect, while others have to work at it (i.e., it does not seem to come naturally). I’m sure innate is the right word, since within my own families, I see siblings raised under similar conditions with very different predilections toward introspection.

    I too have always had the inclination and ability, I will call it, to seem to be able to step outside myself and actually observe what I am doing. And also to abstract the situation and examine how it might be under different conditions or with different thought patterns.

    I don’t know why that is; I mean really, is something so conceptual really tied into ones genes? But it is fascinating nonetheless.

    Thanks again for provoking such reflection.

    Steven: I’ve made similar observations. It’s fascinating why some (like me) are so predisposed to meta-analyze everything they do and others (like my wife) have little interest.


  • Little shy of 500 words. Just kidding. I heard a good one, you can’t be learning and looking cool at the same time.

  • I find that living alone makes one especially vulnerable to self-reflection as a pasttime. It’s just SO much easier. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Ouch! I am in my fifties I can see that I have so often during my life used the 4 benefits you list to avoid actually living myself, and even be slightly smug about it because I have avoided the pitfalls of fully embracing life. I think fear is behind most of the choices I have made that I thought were sensible at the time, but were certainly far from “a daring adventure.”

  • Alex,

    I just want to know how you got into my head! You could have been writing about me, especially point #4. My therapist & I work on that a lot and I am trying to learn that the image of myself that I have constructed by thinking (imagining) how others perceive me has so buried the true me.

  • Great wisdom here—really enjoyed reading through.

  • Due to parental style of upbringing and anxieties I had, I grew up as you did—watching from a distance, glad not to be making the same mistakes as others, protected in many ways—it feels so safe.

    But once you are older and actually begin to live in the moments and the situations (hopefully), you make some mistakes that would have been better off made as a young, inexperienced person—people forgive those more easily. It was definitely a nightmare once I learned to get out of my head and try to LIVE—I’m still in practice. I agree with Jen -you can be smugly outside of the fray and it not only does you little good, but you lose out on the first hand knowledge. I can relate to all 4 on your list.

    Too bad it took me all these years to realize this…but I’m trying!

    Liz: I think your point about being better off making certain mistakes as a young person and others being less accepting of your making those mistakes when you’re older is right on the money.


  • I also wonder why, being an introspective person, my romantic partners always seem to have little interest in introspection. And when I date someone who trends toward introspection, I often love them but seldom develop big, romantic feeling for them.

    Don: Both are interesting questions that I suspect many others often ask themselves. Though I think the answer to the first depend on each individual, I think the answer to the second isn’t too hard to figure out: we tend to be attracted to people who think the way we do, and the differences in thinking between introspective and non-introspective people is often vast. Not that such a union can’t work, but I’m not surprised to hear you say you rarely develop “big, romantic feelings” for people so different in their thinking from you.


  • I gather from your article thinking and introspection are not the same thing. I mean is it wrong to think before you leap. After all if you can only jump 5 1/2 feet and the chasm is 6 feet, a little introspection may be a good idea. Know your emotional or physical limits. I think I do a lot of introspection as I live alone and must think before I do something rash, adventuresome, exciting and then find myself laying in the mountains or some such wishing I had thought about it a little. I have found that introspection didn’t help in my relationships but neither did just jumping in. But I have got to an older age and can still think and do.

  • Interesting!

    This post came at the right time. I was exactly in your situation now whereby i held an “examining” life attitude instead of participating.

    Just when I started to balance both examining and participating a few weeks back…I came upon this post. Haha.

    The issue is that we can never find the perfect balance between introspection and participating in life. It is sort of an uncertainty in which we must acknowledge and all the while, embrace it.

    And I guess that’s what makes life interesting too? When you laugh at your mistakes.

  • Alex, excellent posting, as always. After many years I have recently gained the same insights your post focuses on. Too bad it took so many years, but now I am seeking advice on how to motivate oneself to fully “engage.”

    It’s one thing to realize the benefits of doing so, and finally I feel secure enough in my own skin to take the chance on feeling, in real time, the “suffering” of the discomfort of full engagement. However, while I feel quite satisfied at having reached this stage, I still need to consciously overcome the inherent discomfort attendant full engagement.

    Any tips on how to motivate oneself and reward oneself gently for engaging in discussions, activities that don’t come easily—which previously one would have avoided.

    Tx for your postings. Inspiring.


    Tom: What worked for me was practice. Like starting an exercise program, I started slow, made sure to begin with activities in which I genuinely wanted to participate, and advanced only gradually.


  • I’ve been reading this blog for a little while (stumbled upon from tinybuddha) and this one really speaks to me. I overanalyze everything and am also very anxious in social situations. My boyfriend does very little analysis (that I can observe): things just are. He always tells me I think too much. I always tell him he thinks too little, but in reality I think the thinks the right amount he doesn’t let on to that.

    Thank you for this post. I’ve already started to do things on the small scale, but it’s nice to know that other people have and continue to overcome things like this.

  • […] has a wonderful essay up this week on the unexamined life vs the unlived life. I recognized so much of myself in his […]

  • In order to overcome our prejudices, we must constantly strive to develop the habit of looking at ourselves from the point of view of others. Realizing that all people have both good points and bad, in the end the important thing is to strive to combat our own inner obstinacy and narrow-mindedness.—Daisaku Ikeda

    We must do our human revolution to show actual proof; when people view us they will know how great Nichiren Buddhism is.

  • On my daughter passing away…

    From the standpoint of eternity, there is hardly any difference between a “long” and a “short” life. Therefore, it’s not whether one’s life is long or short, but how one lives that is important. It is what we accomplish, the degree to which…we develop our state of life, the number of people we help become happy—that is what matters.—Daisaku Ikeda

    *LynSi definitely has helped and touched some people to become happy.

  • On the bright side, your article has stirred something up in me if only because I now know that this is actually something that you and others struggle with. Frankly, I’m shocked with relief to find this out.

    On the other hand, and at the risk of sounding melodramatic, I’m in my 50’s and still struggle greatly with “unliving.” But my reticence has never come from feeling superior but from feeling extremely inferior. I always compare myself to others and come up short and have lost out on an awful lot of life’s experiences due to this. Sadly, I am now so tired of fighting it that I’m almost resigned to being this way for the rest of my life.


    prk: Believing in one’s inferiority is as delusional as believing in one’s superiority. In all the ways that matter, we are all equal. Of course, internalizing that belief is the tricky part.


  • @ prk and Don and others:

    Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person theory and books, says that highly sensitive persons, about 20% of all people by her reckoning, have this quality of holding back, being “shy” & introspective. She warns of withdrawal and encourages HSPs to put themselves out there . . .

    Perhaps her theories can provide some of us with a rationale, if we think that Alex’s personality sketch above is similar to Aron’s HSP personality type. Or maybe these are just pieces of the puzzle (& certainly not the full explanation) that we call “the big picture” of our lives.

    I don’t think 50-something is a terribly long time to hold back or NOT be fully engaged with life. I think wisdom is hard-won, and comes to us in these past-middle-age years. I am in the same developmental phase myself. No regrets.

  • Chris: Thanks for the information. HSP seems to fit me perfectly. I will definitely read Dr. Aron’s book on the subject

  • From someone who’s a severe introvert and who’s way too introspective, I really like the quote from your friend. I’ll have to remember that one.

  • Hmmm…. Not sure the unexamined life is “not worth living.” The unexamined life may not confer wisdom or provide the fulfillment some of the population choose to seek, but not worth living? The statement’s author lends this statement a gravitas that further examination reveals is possibly unintended. Think about the implications of telling someone—who prefers to lead the unexamined life—that his/hers is “not worth living.”

    Jonathan: You’ll have to take that one up with Socrates. 😉


  • I am an introspective person by nature as well and am married to the least introspective person I know. Recognizing my ability to get “paralyzed” by introspection early on, I was very attracted to my husband and his ability to take things at face value and live in the moment. We have learned (mostly the hard way!) to accept our difference, and both approach things from a more balance perspective. I’ve taught him to look before he leaps, and he has encouraged my to quit looking over and over and over again….

  • My favourite article.

  • This is a pretty big time difference in posting but I have thought about this idea for a while because it is triggered by me being in my first year of college. I don’t know if this is right but I tend to think of this as the idea of extroversion/introversion. I was wondering what you thought about this idea: if someone who has maybe less overall experiences but reflects on them more and someone who has more overall experience but has reflected on them less have gotten the same amount of meaning in life. Could it be thought of in terms of stimulants? Because (maybe I’m wrong) but it seems that our culture is so stimulant or externally driven that it is good to experience less and be more introspective. I still have experiences but I appreciate each one more by reflecting on them and I think that if I have to many experiences, they will all tend to lose their meaning and it just becomes going from one stimulant to the next. What do you think about this idea?

    Haylee: I think different people have different set points for what feels like “too much experience.” I think we should reflect just enough to learn from the experiences we have, but not so much that we stop having experiences from which we can learn. Balance, to quote a cliche, is key.


  • I think there are two dimensions to this topic that havn’t been covered yet.

    1. Varying degrees of introspection depending on where one is in life. What is said here seems to imply that it’s some sort of constant throughout life. When things are going well, do less introspection. When things aren’t going so well, do more.

    2. Introspection of different topics. One can be introspective about emotions, human interaction, work, school, hobbies, games, and more. It follows then that the amount of introspection a person does on each topic will vary as well.

  • Thanks so much for this!! I had an “I thought I was the only one” moment.

    Right now, this is a problem I notice makes a huge impact on my romantic relationships. I need some humility in this area. I need to understand that no one is perfect and if my expectations of others are high and rigid, then I will simply end up alone. I feel like I need to start by understanding that I am not perfect either and moreover, I don’t need to be. I can be loved even with all my imperfections, and failures (once I allow myself to live life, take risks and eventually fail at some of them).