From the ancient Greek Aphorism “know thyself” to western psychology, the topic of self-awareness has been studied by philosophers and psychologists for the last century.
In this article, we will cover what self-awareness is, how it can be beneficial in a therapy session, why it is difficult to achieve, and how one can cultivate it.
It is worthwhile to reflect on this overlooked attribute. After all, high levels of self-awareness benefit oneself and one’s social relations.
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What is Self-Awareness?
Simply put, self-awareness is an awareness of the self, with the self-being what makes one’s identity unique. These unique components include thoughts, experiences, and abilities.
The psychological study of self-awareness can be first traced back to 1972. Psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund’s developed the theory of self-awareness.
They proposed that:
“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.”
In essence, they consider self-awareness a major mechanism of self-control.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman proposed a popular definition of self-awareness in his best-selling book “Emotional Intelligence,” as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources, and intuitions.”
This definition places more emphasis on the ability to monitor our inner world, our thoughts and emotions as they arise.
In my view, it is important to recognize that self-awareness is not only about what we notice about ourselves but also how we notice and monitor our inner world.
Have you ever held judgment towards yourself regarding the thoughts or experiences you have? If so, then you are not alone, and there it is time to work towards a non-judgemental reflection of yourself.
This is—of course—easier said than done.
If non-judgmental quality is an essential component of self-awareness, how do we work towards that?
As we notice what’s happening inside us, we can acknowledge and accept them as the inevitable part of being human, rather than giving ourselves a hard time about it.
Hint: if you have ever said to yourself “I should/shouldn’t have done it,” then you know what I mean. Next time you are judging something you said or did, consider the question:
“Is what I experienced also a chance to learn and grow? Have other humans possibly made a similar mistake and learned from it?”
Self-awareness goes beyond accumulating knowledge about ourselves: it is also about paying attention to our inner state with a beginner’s mind and an open heart.
Our mind is extremely skillful at storing information about how we react to a certain event to form a blueprint of our emotional life (source).
Such information often ends up conditioning our mind to react in a certain way as we encounter a similar event in the future.
Self-awareness allows us to be conscious of this conditioning and preconceptions of the mind, which can form the foundation of freeing the mind from it.
Does Self-Awareness Matter?
Self-awareness is the key cornerstone to emotional intelligence, according to Daniel Goleman.
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), and tend to be in good psychological health and to have a positive outlook on life. They also have a greater depth of life experience and are more likely to be more compassionate.
An investigation by Sutton (2016) also examined the component parts of self-awareness and their benefits.
This study found that the self-reflection, insight, and mindfulness aspects of self-awareness can lead to benefits such as becoming a more accepting person, while the rumination and mindfulness aspects can lead to emotional burdens.
A number of researches have shown self-awareness as a crucial trait of successful business leaders.
In a study undertaken by Green Peak Partners and Cornell University, 72 executives at public and private companies were studied. They all had revenues from $50 million to $5 billion, and it was found that “a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success.
Self-awareness—in this study—was the strongest predictor of overall success.
Self-awareness is also crucial for psychotherapists.
“Therapists need to be aware of their own biases, values, stereotypical beliefs, and assumptions in order to appropriately serve culturally diverse clients” (Oden et al., 2009).
It has also been called a “precursor to multicultural competence” (Buckley & Foldy, 2010). In other words, self-awareness allows counselors to understand the differences between their lived experiences and their client’s lived experiences.
This can help counselors be more nonjudgmental towards their clients, and help them better understand their clients.
Why is Hard to be Self-Aware?
If self-awareness is so important, why aren’t we more self-aware?
The most obvious answer is that most of the time we are simply “not there” to observe ourselves. In other words, we are not there to pay attention to what’s going on inside or around us.
Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert found that almost half of the time we operate on “automatic pilot” or unconscious of what we are doing or how we feel, as our mind wanders to somewhere else other than here and now.
In addition to the constant mind-wandering, the various cognitive bias also affects our ability to have an accurate understanding of ourselves; we tend to believe narratives that support our already existing sense of self.
For example, if we have a solid belief that we are a high-quality and loyal friend, then we are likely to interpret events—even ones where perhaps we did make a mistake—as an anomaly of our identity as that “loyal friend.”
This pre-existing belief about ourselves might influence how we handle the aftermath of, say, forgetting about a lunch date with a friend.
Additionally, confirmation bias can trick us into searching for or interpreting information in a way that confirms our pre-conception of something.
Have you ever had that feeling when you’ve accepted a job offer, but are still looking for extra assurance that it is the perfect job for you? That is confirmation bias, in its finest.
Furthermore, the lack of the willingness to seek feedback could also work against us if we want to have a more holistic view of ourselves through the eyes of others.
If we want to cultivate our own self-awareness, how do we reconcile that with these psychological tendencies where we only acknowledge certain versions of ourselves?
It is not easy, but there are some options.
Kahneman Explains in His TED talk…
What further complicates the picture is the different aspects of the self we relate to in everyday life.
Daniel Kahneman, is a Nobel Prize winner for his contribution to behavioral science.
In his TED talk, Kahneman explains the difference between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self,” and how this affects our decision-making.
He explains how we feel about the experience at the moment and how we remember the experience can be very different and share only 50% correlation.
This difference can have a significant impact on the story we are telling ourselves, the way we relate to self and others, and the decision we make, even though we may not notice the difference most of the time.
Self-Awareness vs Self-Focused Attention
For our purposes, let us say that self-awareness consists of being mindful of our identities and lived experiences and how they relate to those of other people.
Self-focused attention consists of simply thinking about ourselves.
For example, self-focused attention might mean that a counselor thinks about how anxious they are about the therapy session, which leads to the client feeling that the counselor is not paying attention to them.
Self-awareness, on the other hand, would mean that the counselor realizes that if they are anxious about the session, it may indicate that the client is anxious about the session, and uses this to try to help the client’s anxiety as well as their own.
In other words, as one researcher concludes, “self-awareness might be a tool to decrease the negative impact of hindering self-focused attention on counseling self-efficacy” (Wei et al., 2017). This study offers an important look into how counselors can change this habit, and move towards self-awareness while meeting with clients.
Being self-aware about all aspects of one’s thoughts is crucial, rather than being aware of the current emotion one is feeling.
Some of the strategies that therapists can use to stop self-awareness from being distracting include remembering to focus on the client, their needs, and the goals of the counseling session.
Another strategy is using self-awareness as a way to better understand the client, rather than only being self-aware of one’s thoughts and appearing distracted.
If you are not a counselor or in the field, there are many more ways to increase self-awareness in your everyday life.
The tremendous benefits of high self-awareness can be felt by anyone who puts time towards it.
5 Ways to Cultivate Self-Awareness
- Create some space for yourself. When you are in a dark room without windows, it is fairly difficult to see things clearly. The space you create for yourself is that crack on the wall where you allow light to come through. Leave yourself some time and space every day – perhaps first thing in the morning or half an hour before sleep when you stay away from the digital distractions and spend some time with yourself, reading, writing, meditating, and connecting with yourself.
- Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is the key to self-awareness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Through mindfulness practice, you will be more present with yourself so that you can “be there” to observe what’s going on inside and around you. It is not about sitting cross-legged or suppressing your thoughts. It is about paying attention to your inner state as they arise. You can practice mindfulness at any time you want, through mindful listening, mindful eating or walking.
- 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 headspace as you let your thoughts flow out onto paper. Research shows that writing down things we are grateful for or even things we are struggling with helps increase happiness and satisfaction. (Source) You can also use the journal to record your inner state. Try this at home –choose a half day on a weekend, pay close attention to your inner world – what you are feeling, what you are saying to yourself, and make a note of what you observe every hour. You may be surprised about what you write down!
- Practice being a good listener. Listening is not the same as hearing. Listening is about being present and paying attention to other people’s emotions, body movement, and language. It is about showing empathy and understanding without constantly evaluating or judging. When you become a good listener, you will also be better at listening to your own inner voice and become the best friend of yourself.
- Gain different perspectives: Ask for feedback. Sometimes we can be too afraid to ask what others think of us – yes sometimes the feedback may be biased or even dishonest but you will be able to differentiate them from real, genuine and balanced feedback as you learn more about yourself and others. Research has shown conducting 360-degree feedback in the workplace is a useful tool to improve managers’ self-awareness (Source). We all have blind spots, so it is helpful to gain a different perspective to see a fuller picture of ourselves.
Self-awareness, as “arguably the most fundamental issue in psychology, from both a developmental and an evolutionary perspective,” is a rich and complicated subject.
As human beings, we may never fully understand ourselves, if there is such a destination. But perhaps it is the journey of exploring, understanding and becoming ourselves that makes life worth living.
Whether you want to be more accepting of yourself or more accepting of others, cultivating self-awareness is a good place to start.
I’d love to hear from you. Would you say you are a self-aware person? How do you see the role of self-awareness in your professional and personal life?
Please leave a comment below to share your thoughts.