From the ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” to western psychology, the topic of self-awareness has been an intriguing subject of inquiry for centuries.
Having self-awareness means that you have a sharp realization of yourself, including your strengths and weaknesses, your thoughts and beliefs, your emotions and motivations. This awareness allows you to understand other people, how they perceive you, your attitude and your responses to them in the moment. Self-awareness goes beyond merely accumulating knowledge about ourselves. It is also about paying attention to our inner state with a beginner’s mind and an open heart.
Furthermore, our mind is extremely skillful at storing information about how we react to a certain event to form a blueprint of our emotional life. Such information conditions our mind to react in a certain way as we encounter a similar event in the future. Self-awareness allows us be conscious of these preconceptions, which can ultimately free our mind of them.
Self-awareness is an essential building block for emotional intelligence. It is also a critical first step in creating the life you want. Where you choose to focus your energy, emotions and reactions, determines where you will go.
What is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness was first theorized in 1972 by psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund in their book A Theory of Objective Self-Awareness. They proposed: “When we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.”
Psychologist Daniel Goleman proposed a definition of self-awareness in his book Emotional Intelligence as “knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources and intuitions”. Goleman’s definition places more emphasis on the ability to monitor our inner world, our thoughts and emotions as they arise. It also recognizes that self-awareness is not only what we notice about ourselves, but also how we notice and monitor our inner world.
Internal vs External
Tasha Eurich, PhD, is an organizational psychologist and researcher. She and her team embarked on a large-scale scientific study of self-awareness. In 10 separate investigations with nearly 5,000 participants, they examined what self-awareness really is, why we need it and how we can increase it. They found that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality. They estimate that only 10%–15% of the people they studied actually fit the criteria.
Researchers have used varying definitions of self-awareness, from the ability to monitor our inner world to a temporary state of self-consciousness. Across the numerous studies that have been conducted, two broad categories of self-awareness have been defined.
The first, internal self-awareness, is your understanding of your authentic self. This is cultivated by introspection. It represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses) and impact on others. Internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness. This awareness is negatively related to anxiety, stress and depression.
The second, is external self-awareness. This is your understanding of how you fit in with the rest of the world. It involves understanding how other people view us, in terms of the factors listed above. People who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and receiving others’ perspectives. As an example, leaders who are able to see themselves as their employees do, have employees who tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them and see them as more effective in general.
These two types of self-awareness are independent of each other, yet both are required to be truly self-aware. As a result, Dr. Eurich developed four leadership archetypes, each with a different set of opportunities to improve:
The Four Self-Awareness Archetypes
This 2x2 maps internal self-awareness (how well do you know yourself) against external self-awareness (how well you understand how others see you).
But leaders must actively work on both in order to see themselves as clearly as possible.
Obstacles to Self-Awareness
Most of the time we are not present. We are simply “not here” to observe what’s going on inside or around us and as a consequence, we are unconscious of what we are doing and how we are feeling. We tend to operate on ‘automatic pilot’, with our minds and wandering into the future or the past.
Furthermore, when we focus on our self, we tend to do so in ways that are counterproductive. Self-esteem, self-reflection and introspection are forms of self-absorption which can obstruct authentic self-awareness.
Our culture once valued modesty and humility. It was the Age of Effort, where glorification of the self was shunned. In the late 20th Century, this was replaced by the Age of Esteem, where we don’t need to become great, all we really need is to feel great. For example: everyone gets a trophy, just for showing up.
There is no significant relationship between self-esteem and success. Research indicates that people with high self-esteem tend to be more violent and more aggressive. They are also more likely to walk away from challenging relationships and more likely to cheat, drink and do drugs.
The common belief is that more self-reflection should lead to greater self-awareness and thus happiness, less stress and more job satisfaction. Research has found the opposite. People who score high on self-reflection are actually more stressed, more depressed and more anxious. They are less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed and felt less in control of their lives. Thinking more about ourselves does not mean we know more about ourselves.
It is also widely assumed that introspection- examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors improves self-awareness. What better way to know ourselves than by reflecting on why we are the way we are? Yet research shows that people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being.
The problem with introspection is that most people are asking the wrong question. To understand this, let’s examine the most common introspective question: “Why?”. Why is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. When we ask ourselves “why” questions, we are generally looking for the easiest and most plausible answer. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings and motives we are searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true, but are often wrong. For example, after an uncharacteristic outburst by a new manager, a senior manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because the employee isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a severe case of low blood sugar.
In addition, the problem with asking why isn’t just how wrong we are, but how confident we are that we are right. The human mind rarely operates in a rational fashion, and our judgments are seldom free from bias. We tend to pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value, we ignore contradictory evidence, and we force our thoughts to conform to our initial explanations.
Another negative consequence of asking why- especially when trying to explain an undesired outcome, is that it invites unproductive negative thoughts. Research has found that people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns. For example, if an employee who receives a bad performance review asks: Why did I get such a bad rating?, they’re likely to land on an explanation focused on their fears, shortcomings or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, frequent self-analyzers are more depressed and anxious and experience poorer well-being.
Therefore, to increase productive self-insight and decrease unproductive rumination, we should ask what instead of why. “What” questions help us stay objective, future-focused and empowered to act on our new insights. When we ask ourselves “what” questions, we are more open to discovering new information. Consider the following questions: Why am I unhappy at work? vs. What makes me happy and what makes me unhappy at work? Asking yourself the right “what” questions increases your understanding of your values, passions, aspirations, the environment where you fit the best, your patterns (consistent ways of thinking, feeling and behaving), your reactions and the impact you have on others.
From Self-Absorption to Self-Awareness
Self-absorption is a judgmental drive that seeks to feed and protect our egos. As a consequence, we become overly preoccupied with our inner world and fail to appreciate our outer world. We find ourselves chatting away in our heads and making petty judgments, instead of letting go and living presently with what surrounds us.
To move from self-absorption to self-awareness, it is important to focus on cultivating humility and to practice self-acceptance. Appreciate your weaknesses and keep your successes in perspective. Social media is a great opportunity to practice this all because it tends to promote self-absorption. Focus on posting non-self related information- become an “informer” (one who post updates that are information sharing), instead of a “meformer” (one who posts updates relating to themselves).
Both internal and external self-awareness are critical to effective leadership. Leaders must work to see themselves as clearly as possible and solicit feedback to understand how others see them. In addition, it is essential to be mindful with self-reflection and introspection because they can actively block authentic self-awareness.
In Part II, we will further explore self-awareness, and examine ways to develop your self-awareness and thus, your emotional intelligence.
Increasing Your Emotional Intelligence
Self-awareness is positively correlated with increased well-being, stronger relationships, greater acceptance of others and increased empathy. Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make better decisions, communicate more effectively and build stronger relationships. We are less likely to lie, cheat and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we are more effective leaders with more satisfied employees and more profitable companies.
Emotional intelligence is essential to being an effective leader. In fact, self-awareness is the cornerstone of the 5 key elements of emotional intelligence. The ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts from moment to moment is key to understanding ourselves better, being at peace with who we are and proactively managing our thoughts, emotions and behaviors.
In addition, self-aware people tend to act consciously rather than react passively, be in good psychological health and have a positive outlook on life. They also have greater depth of life experience and are more likely to be more compassionate to themselves and others
Self-awareness allows us to listen without assumptions and judgments- which compromise healthy communication. Before we are able to listen deeply to others, we need to learn how to listen deeply to ourselves. It is this self-awareness that helps us to truly understand another’s frame of reference. Deep listening is transformative and begins with the development of self-awareness, the capacity to listen to ourselves.
Consider Carl Rogers’ approach to listening…when a tough discussion arises, stop the discussion and adhere to the following rule: each person can speak up for themselves, only after they have first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous person- to that speaker’s satisfaction. If you really understand another person’s perspective, you are more likely to see it their way. Ultimately, “the risk of being changed is one of the most frightening prospects we can face”.
When we engage in self-judgment and resist accepting ourselves- exactly as we are, we impede self-awareness. The quality of non-judgement is a vital component to self-awareness. It is critical that we acknowledge and accept who we are and what we have done, rather than second-guessing or beating ourselves up (“I should/shouldn’t have done that”). Self-awareness requires rigorous honesty, it also requires leaning into the discomfort of vulnerable thoughts or feelings.
The façade of perfection can also limit self-awareness. It is essential to aspire to fully open to who you are with an open heart and open mind and a willingness to completely surrender to what you see, feel, think and experience. Only when we truly accept ourselves can we accept others.
To better understand others, we must first better understand ourselves. Once we become more aware of what makes us who we are, we are better able to understand the differences between ourselves and others, and what makes them who they are. Empathy, along with self-awareness is considered to be one of the main pillars behind emotional intelligence. When you become more aware of yourself, you become more aware of others. The self/other dichotomy becomes clearer and you begin to recognize the ways you are both similar and different from others in your thinking and feeling. That’s a very important aspect of empathy – it’s not just about recognizing the ways you are different from others, but also recognizing the ways you are very similar to others.
Two studies published in Emotion and Mindfulness, surveyed more than 700 college students. The students answered questions about their emotional self-awareness and their empathy, including both cognitive empathy (the ability to understand other people’s emotions and perspectives) and affective empathy (their emotional response to other people’s feelings). The results for both groups were the same: The more self-awareness students demonstrated, the greater their cognitive empathy.
To get an even more accurate picture of empathy, researchers in the Emotion study gave participants a test. They watched videos of other students in a stressful situation (preparing and then delivering a five-minute speech on why they should be hired for their dream job) and tried to discern what the students in the videos were feeling before and after their speech. The speech-giving students had also rated their feelings, so researchers could compare the ratings to measure empathy. Again, the more self-aware participants excelled at this cognitive empathy test. Compared to their less self-aware peers, they could better detect negative emotions in the students who had just given their speech.
The root of empathy may very well be self-awareness.
When we are self-aware, we are better able to monitor our thoughts and feelings as an observer, pause and determine right action. In this state, we are more likely to be consciously responsive and less likely to be reactive.
Self-awareness is an integral trait for effective leadership. As a leader, self-awareness allows you to clearly read a situation and adapt to changes in your organization and environment. Self-aware leaders are mindful in their interactions with others- both perceived and actual, and they sense their feelings and the impact they are having on others and make the necessary adjustments.
Here are ways to cultivate self-awareness:
1. Create space for yourself.
Set aside time and space every day to connect with yourself. Set aside all digital distractions and spend time with yourself, reading, writing, meditating, doing whatever nourishes you.
2. Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is essential to self-awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. Research has found that a daily mindfulness practice leads to changes in the structure and function of the brain that enhance self-awareness. Mindfulness training enables you to expand your awareness of what’s happening from moment to moment. It helps you to notice and regulate your emotions, and it helps you to better understand the behavior, reactions and emotions of the people you lead. Through mindfulness practice, you will be more present with yourself so that you can “be there” to observe what is going on inside and around you. Mindfulness can be practiced at any time, such as through mindful listening, mindful eating or walking.
3.Keep a journal.
Writing not only helps us process our thoughts, but also makes us feel connected and at peace with ourselves. Writing can also create more space in your mind as you let your thoughts flow out onto paper and creates space for new information and ideas. Writing down things we are grateful for or even things we are struggling with can increase happiness and satisfaction. You can also use the journal to record your inner state, what you are feeling and what you are observing. Take time each night to write in your journal about your thoughts and feelings, and your successes and failures of the day. This will help you grow and move forward.
4.Practice being a good listener.
Listening requires being present and observing other people’s emotions, body movement and language. It is about empathy and understanding without constantly evaluating or judging. As you become a better listener, you will become better at listening to your own inner voice.
5. Gain different perspectives.
Ask for genuine, balanced feedback from the small group of people you depend on: your loving critics- people who care about you and are honest with you. You need to be intentional about getting feedback from others. Listen to the feedback of our peers and mentors, and let them play the role of an honest mirror. Please be aware that not all feedback is valuable. Don’t ignore others, but bounce their comments off of your loving critics. Research has shown that conducting 360 degree feedback in the workplace is a useful tool to improve managers’ self-awareness. We all have blind spots, so it is helpful to gain different perspectives to see a fuller picture of ourselves. Research also suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively.
6. Take Regular Breaks.
When we are under pressure, we tend to default to doing what we have always done- our habitual thinking and behavior. There is little awareness in that, and little space for understanding yourself or the people you lead. Taking regular short breaks- of even just one minute, gets you out of habitual thinking and behavior. It provides you the space for awareness to arise and to see things more clearly.
An awareness break, is a break where you simply do nothing. Refrain from checking the news, your phone or social media because that information occupies space in your mind and obstructs awareness. Rather, put your phone down, turn away from your computer, and simply look out the window, close your eyes, or go for a walk.
As you develop self-awareness, you will find that your thoughts and interpretations will begin to change. This mental change will in turn alter your emotions and increase your emotional intelligence. This awareness will help you recognize where your thoughts and emotions are leading you and empower you to direct your future. It is this journey of self-awareness, of exploring, understanding and becoming ourselves that makes life truly worth living.