By Emily Gibson, MS, LPCC
What does it really mean to be self-aware, and why should I work on having more self- awareness? First of all, I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you that there are no “shoulds” here. When we use the word “should,” there is usually some sort of shaming message attached to it. I’m not going to be telling you why you “should” increase your self-awareness, so stop shoulding yourself! Instead, I’ll be sharing what it means to be self-aware, how you can cultivate internal and external self-awareness, and what the benefits are to increasing one’s self-awareness.
First, let’s start with the definition of self-awareness. Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich defines it as, “at its core, the ability to see ourselves clearly – to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us.” She goes on to say that “this ability is arguably one of the most remarkable aspects of being human” and further defines it as “the will and skill to understand yourself and how others see you.”
Most adults move through life everyday with an astonishing lack of self-awareness and insight, all the while lacking insight about lacking insight! Tasha calls this “self-delusion, or the antithesis of self-awareness.” Research has shown that awareness of self is the foundation of being able to perform tasks well, making positive and healthy life choices, having quality, meaningful relationships, and having a fulfilling career. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get open, candid feedback from others about what they really see about us, so if you want the things I just mentioned, you’ll need to learn a lot more about what drives you and how you come across to others.
Let’s take Jim, for example. He is loud, brash, and annoying to others at work. He “jokes” with his coworkers, but the jokes often come across as mean-spirited and judgmental. He cuts corners and doesn’t put in his fair share in projects, is often late, and turns in work with multiple minor errors. He keeps trying for promotions, fails to get them, and then complains to anyone who listens that he was the most qualified for the role. If anyone asked him about it, he would be very puzzled and talk about how he didn’t understand getting passed over because of how well-liked and popular he is. Wow! How could anyone be so deluded? You probably have someone in your life or your workplace who reminds you of Jim. Or could *you* possibly be Jim?
So what are some ways to build self-awareness? Here comes one of the buzzwords quite popular right now: mindfulness. Unlike introspection, which is when we analyze our feelings, behaviors, and thoughts and potentially ruminate unproductively on them, mindfulness involves a simple noticing of what we’re feeling, thinking, and doing. But wait, aren’t those
essentially the same thing? Nope! We’re not endlessly turning them over and over in our minds; we’re simply just observing them without judgment. This can happen with mindfulness meditation (and that is an excellent way to bring more mindfulness in your life!), but there are so many ways to incorporate mindfulness. One is using a grounding exercise that involves the 5 senses. What do I see, hear, smell, taste, or touch right now? Another is to access your interoception, or your inner world. This is our felt sense, or what sensory perceptions from inside the body tell us about bodily temperature, tension, or pain and helps us know when we are hungry, tired, ill, or thirsty. It also helps us recognize when we are feeling emotions, which are sensations inside the body rather than the thoughts inside our heads. A way to access interoception is through quietly sitting and noticing what we are feeling inside, or our somatic (somatic means body) experiences. What are you feeling? Are you feeling more fidgety than usual? Tired or alert? Relaxed and at ease, or tense and anxious? Are you breathing steadily, or are you holding your breath? Welcome any and all sensations in the moment and observe and notice without judgment. Doing this regularly can increase your internal self-awareness and help keep your bodily cues from sideswiping you or feeling like they’re coming out of nowhere.
Developing external self-awareness is just as important. How objectively accurate are we in knowing and understanding ourselves and how we come across to others? One hard truth is that other people often see us much more objectively than we can see ourselves, but another hard truth is that the people closest to us are often rather reluctant to share their observations with us! Sometimes this involves having to specifically ask for feedback from family and friends, but the key to that is to be ready and willing to accept the feedback that we receive. This can certainly be tough! But tougher still is walking around like Jim, causing difficulties for others but having no awareness of how he impacts others in his environment. Having accurate internal and external information allows us to then change what we can to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be.
So what about Jim? I’d love to tell you that he woke up, began to examine himself mindfully, sought external feedback, and put the information to use to make changes and live with accurate self-awareness, but that wasn’t the case. He continued to cause issues for others and moved through life blissfully (for him!) unaware. He never did get that promotion, and his yearly reviews continued to be a source of confusion for him because he just would not see himself as others did nor accept any feedback about how his actions impacted others. Don’t be like Jim! You absolutely can develop insight and become internally and externally self-aware so that you can live your best, happiest, most self-aware life possible.