How self-aware are you?
Asking that question, and getting you to reflect on it, is an example of self-awareness.
How often do you find yourself engaging in this type of reflection?
If you answered, ‘not often,’ then this article is perfect for you.
If you responded, ‘all the time!’ this article also is perfect for you.
Why? Because self-awareness is a skill that, like a muscle, needs a good work out to stay strong and flexible.
Emotional Intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman, once said:
If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.
This article contains:
- What is Self-Awareness Theory? A Definition
- Objective Self-Awareness in Psychology
- A Look at the Work of Duval and Wicklund
- A Look at the Theory in Social Psychology
- 7 Examples of Self-Awareness Theory
- What is Self-Perception Theory and How Does it Differ?
- What are Self-Awareness Skills?
- 7 Ways to Improve Self-Awareness Skills
- 7 Useful Activities and Exercises (PDF)
- A Take-Home Message
What is Self-Awareness Theory? A Definition
The American Psychological Association (APA; n.d.) defines self-awareness theory as “the consequences of focusing attention on the self.” Much of the research and literature available today distinguishes between two types.
The first is subjective self-awareness. We are the source of all our perceptions and behaviors. The world revolves around us based on our observations and experience.
The second is objective self-awareness. Duval and Wicklund, whom you will read about later, sought to define this. It is the idea that we compare ourselves to others and some standard of correct behavior. These comparisons in behaviors, attitudes, and traits all contribute to our sense of self-awareness (APA, n.d.).
What got us to this understanding of self-awareness? When does self-awareness actually begin? What happens when someone is not self-aware?
In the rest of this article, we will dig into some of the possible answers. As we do, you might reflect on your beliefs about self-awareness. If so, please feel free to share them in the comment section.
Objective Self-Awareness in Psychology
In the late 1800s, William James made a distinction between the subjective and objective self. Since then, self-awareness has been the interest of many psychologists (Brownell, Zerwas, & Ramani, 2007). The quest to define when the self emerges, why it is important, and what it means in our development is ongoing.
From a developmental theory perspective, children become self-aware at about 18 months old (Brownell et al., 2007). This period marks the beginning of the “terrible twos,” many parents know too well. Their child begins behaving more independently. They see themselves as separate from others and recognize themselves in mirrors. Their new favorite word is, ‘no.’ This is an example of subjective awareness.
Rochat (2003) asserted that five levels of self-awareness exist early in a child’s life. These happen sequentially by about the age of four or five.
Level 0 – Confusion. The child is unable to see a difference between self and the reflection of self.
Level 1 – Differentiation. The child begins to understand that the mirror is a reflection of the environment. They see that something is different.
Level 2 – Situation. This marks the start of understanding the uniqueness of the self, as seen in a mirror. The child recognizes that the reflection is “out there” in relation to their actual body.
Level 3 – Identification. Recognition that the mirror image is the self becomes clearer.
Level 4 – Permanence. The child recognizes itself in pictures and videos, even when that self is the younger self.
Level 5 – Self-consciousness or “meta” self-awareness. The child is aware of self and how others perceive them.
Objective self-awareness, according to the APA, is “a reflective state of self-focused attention.” It involves assessing oneself as compared to others, and then correcting behaviors and beliefs as needed. When differences exist between our ideal and actual selves, we experience unease. To fix this, we look outside of ourselves to others.
With Rochat’s levels in mind then, objective self-awareness happens after level five. Self-regulation, another key concept in developmental literature, is more difficult without objective self-awareness. Self-regulation is our ability to control our actions and impulses. People who can do this are more likely to achieve their goals. They also tend to meet specified standards of behavior. Find more self-regulation tools here.
A Look at the Work of Duval and Wicklund
In 1972, two researchers developed the idea of objective self-awareness (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). They asserted that at any given moment, a person could be self-focused or other-focused. Further, they believed that inward focus involved comparing the self with standards.
These standards arise from interactions with the external environment. Once internalized, the individual may make adjustments to their thoughts and behaviors. The more self-focused a person is, the more self-aware the person becomes.
To test their ideas, they conducted a series of experiments. In one study, they sought to determine if opinions and performance would change if the subject became more self-aware. A series of three experiments showed this to be the case (Wicklund & Duval, 1971).
Subjects who were tape-recorded, exposed to a TV camera, or faced a mirror while performing a task, showed increased self-awareness. Subjects’ opinions aligned with a specified standard (experiment 1 and 2), or their performance improved (experiment 3).
Duval and Wicklund’s research are the basis for contemporary research in the area of self-awareness generally and objective self-awareness specifically. Their work demonstrated that empirical study of self-focused attention was possible (Morin, 2011).
A Look at the Theory in Social Psychology
Social psychology is a branch of psychology that studies human interactions. Thus, it makes sense that self-awareness is of interest to these researchers. Scientists want to know the origins and effects of our interactions. An understanding of the interplay between increased self-awareness and standards is important.
Some questions explored by social psychologists are:
- Is there such a thing as an automatic comparison of self to standards? (Silva & Phillips, 2013)
- What are the effects of public and private self-awareness on de-individuation and aggression? (Prentice-Dunn & Rogers, 1982)
- How does self-awareness affect leadership? (Showry & Manasa, 2014)
- Is consumer behavior affected by self-awareness? If so, how? (Ertimur & Lavoie, 2019)
- How does culture affect self-awareness? (Steven, 2005)
The study of self-awareness within social psychology is on-going. It is an area filled with dynamic research and is not without criticisms (Silvia & Duval, 2001). Silvia and Duval highlight three areas needing further attention.
- how expectancies influence approach and avoidance of self-standard discrepancies,
- the nature of standards; and,
- the role of causal attribution in directing discrepancy reduction.
7 Examples of Self-Awareness Theory
Self-awareness is being “in-tune” with yourself in relationship to others, too. If you are a boss who does not listen to your staff, then you might not realize their perception of you. One management tool often used to address this is 360 Degree Feedback.
Some other examples of the theory are:
Awareness of …
- your actions in the moment,
- attitudes about your actions in the moment,
- your emotions in the moment,
- how you want others to perceive you,
- your appearance,
- inner conflicts (For example, between your beliefs and actions),
- your beliefs and values; and,
- other peoples’ attitudes, feelings, and beliefs (ToM).
An inability to develop self-awareness can make situations uncomfortable for others. It also can lead to greater conflict. There are several situations in which a person might lack self-awareness that is out of their control.
For example, people with certain neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s, other forms of dementia, anosognosia – some people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder), neurological and developmental disorders (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and brain injury. In some of these situations, a person still can learn to become more self-aware (Huang et al., 2017; Shany-Ur et al., 2014).
What is Self-Perception Theory and How Does it Differ?
Daryl Bem (1972) developed this theory of basic human attitude formation. People observe their own behavior, and then decide what attitudes caused the behavior. There is no experience required or necessary. Bem believed people use this same approach when interpreting the behavior of others. Behavior happens; emotion follows.
For example, try this:
Look into a mirror and scowl. Do this for several minutes. Then, ask yourself how you are feeling. Are you angry? Irritable? Annoyed? Your behavior led to the emotion.
Another example is the idea behind “fake it until you make it.” Maybe you have had a horrible day, but because you agreed to attend a social function, you feel obligated to show up. After arriving, people do what everyone expects. They greet you, you greet them, and everyone smiles. Before you know it, you have forgotten about whatever irritated you. You ‘feel’ happier or less irritated because you imitated the expected “nod and smile” behavior.
One difference between the two theories is self-perception asserts that behavior precedes emotion. This happens without an explicit comparison to others’ attitudes or behaviors.
What are Self-Awareness Skills?
Daniel Goleman (2012) describes self-awareness skills as “knowing what we’re feeling and why. They are the basis for good intuition and decision making. [Self-awareness] is a moral compass.” His theory of emotional intelligence (Hay Group, 2005) describes three competencies involved in self-awareness.
- Emotional self-awareness – Recognizing one’s emotions and their effects,
- Accurate self-assessment – Knowing one’s strengths and limits; and,
- Self-confidence – A strong sense of one’s self-worth and capabilities.
These three skills are critical to the development of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 2012). We already understand that humans are social animals. Our communication often occurs at an unconscious level (Mlodinow, 2012).
Think back to a time when you were not having a good day. With whom did you communicate? Whether the person knew you well or not does not matter. In most cases, humans are very accurate at detecting unconscious communication. Becoming more self-aware can lead to more relational success within our various communities.
7 Ways to Improve Self-Awareness Skills
We have touched on some of the research about the role self-awareness plays in our lives. Now, the question is, “How do we get better at this skill?” Fortunately, there are several ways to do this.
You can try each of the ones described below to determine which is your best fit:
- Learn to meditate. If this seems daunting, start with as little as 30 seconds of slow, deep breathing.
- Seek feedback. Sometimes we do not know our strengths or weaknesses. Asking others helps us see where we can improve, and also where we already excel.
- Learn to write, track, and analyze your goals. As you see yourself accomplishing goals, you gain insights into what drives you to either do so or not.
- Use personality and character trait assessments to gain insights. Examples include VIA Character Survey and StrengthsFinder, but there are others.
- Journal. Allow yourself to free write or use prompts. Both help you gain a different perspective on your thoughts, beliefs, and feelings.
- Write morning pages. This idea is from Julia Cameron and her book, The Artist’s Way. Every morning write three longhand pages of whatever comes to your mind. Even if all you write for three pages is, “I can’t think of anything to write,” that is okay. The point is to allow yourself to get everything out of your head before you begin your day. It might look like a jumble of mismatched rubbish. It also might come together into something you could follow-up on later. This is a stream of consciousness writing, not plotting and planning. Do not reread your pages, unless of course, an idea for something cool surfaces (A kernel for a book? A solution to a problem?) You might learn something surprising about who you are, what you value, and what matters to you most.
- Albert Ellis’ ABCs. Each of us experiences events that trigger negative emotional responses. These emotional responses surface as internal dialogue or beliefs. Ellis developed rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) to help people better deal with the irrational beliefs associated with adverse events. REBT increases our self-awareness by teaching us to “identify, challenge, and replace self-defeating beliefs with healthier ones that promote emotional well-being and goal achievement.“
You can also check out our selection of self-awareness books to help you improve your skills.
7 Useful Activities and Exercises (PDF)
It is time for a deep dive into specific practices you can adopt and adapt in your pursuit of self-awareness. Each of these works with individuals and groups.
1. Make a date with yourself.
Artist dates, another exercise created by Julia Cameron, are a fun way to explore your creative side. Once per week, think of one thing that would be fun to learn or explore. For example, be a tourist in your own town. What can you discover that you did not already know? Decide to search for a specific shape while going for a walk.
There are countless ways you could experience artist dates. Your expeditions are bound to spark your imagination. They also might help you better connect with your creative self. Who are you when you are at your most creative? Are you more playful?
To adapt the example to a small group setting, invite the group to each choose one thing for which they will search. Then head outside. Allow up to 15 minutes for the exploration. When everyone returns, group members can journal about their experience. The facilitator can also invite group members to share their experiences.
2. The Johari Window.
Counselor Carl explains it beautifully in the video below. The task is a combined self and other assessment. The insights you gain help you become more self-aware. If you want to explore the approach, visit Kevan.org.
From the site, you will see a list of adjectives. You identify five to six words that describe you and then share a link with others. When your friends and colleagues give you feedback, they can do so anonymously. You do not need to sign up for anything.
3. Paradigm Shift.
You will need large colored images or advertisements. From your pile, choose one picture. Cut the image into smaller pieces so that you cannot determine what it was before. Create a new design and give it a title. If you are doing this with someone else, explain what the new image is and what it was originally. When finished, consider these questions:
- How did it feel to convert one image to another?
- How difficult was it to “let go” of the first picture?
- What is necessary to “let go” of one thing so that something new can take its place?
- When have you successfully done this in the past? OR When have you seen this done successfully?
4. Who are these people?
Sometimes it can be challenging to shift our thinking. We get comfortable where we are and with who we have become. Besides, change can be scary and hard. In this exercise, you must decipher a list of ten anagrams. For example:
- IN ARREST
- COD ROTS
- A COIN STUD
- STEW A SIR
- LOG REF
- SNAG MARE
- SOUR HAT
- SLY WARE
- IS TART
When you finish, reflect on these questions,
- What prevented you from seeing the answers?
- What helped you solve the anagrams?
- What ideas or beliefs do you hold that serve as restrictions or constraints?
5. Mind over body.
Do you believe what we think affects how our body responds? For this exercise, you will need a partner. Ask your friend to stand in front of you, eyes closed, and call to mind a positive experience.
When they are ready, instruct them to nod. Ask your partner to raise their dominant arm shoulder height and make a fist. Their arm should be parallel to the floor and in front of them. Tell your partner to state their name as you attempt to push their arm down. Now, it is your turn.
Follow the same procedure as before, but this time, you will recall an unpleasant memory. When your partner instructs you to raise your arm, you will say a fictitious name instead of your own. Chances are your partner’s arm didn’t lower much, if at all, but yours did.
Think about this:
- What is the typical impact on our bodies when we are happy and honest?
- What is the typical impact on our body when we are feeling negative or untruthful?
6. Maori Intuitive Drawing Exercise.
Maori Medicine Men of New Zealand used this as a way to help people assess their life. Done annually, and usually on one’s birthday, the person explores their past, present, and future through drawing a picture.
You will need: (1) pen or pencil (2) one plain sheet of paper 8 1/2′′ x 11′′ or larger; Optional (3) colored pens, markers or crayons.
Draw a large circle on a piece of paper, creating what the Maori would call a ‘sacred space’ for yourself on the page. On the back of the paper, write these words:
Draw these eight symbols into your sacred space anywhere you like. Take as much time as you want. After you finish, add a dotted horizontal and vertical line to divide the paper into four quadrants. The explanation is lengthy. Look for it here. This is a wonderful activity to do every year.
7. Self-Reflecting on Emotional Intelligence (PDF).
This exercise, developed by Hugo Alberts, focuses on assisting you in assessing your ability to:
- understand your emotions,
- understand others’ emotions,
- regulate your emotions; and,
- use your emotions to improve yourself.
For each of the above areas, you appraise your current abilities and how you can strengthen them. Alberts includes several questions to prompt your reflection.
For example, if you are trying to understand your emotions better, ponder these:
- How good am I at identifying how I am feeling?
- How well do I know whether I am happy or not?
- How well am I able to notice when I am angry, sad, bored, etc.?
- How good am I at identifying emotional swings in myself?
After considering the list of questions, write your current analysis. Then, write about how you think you could strengthen your skills in that area. Each appraisal section averages six questions.
In a group setting, the facilitator can introduce this with an example. After discussing the example, group members work independently. Time constraints may not allow for the completion of each appraisal during a workshop.
There are a few ways to handle this,
- If the group is meeting over a few days, this can be homework.
- If the group is only meeting once, then the trainer can encourage completion at home.
- If the group reconvenes, participants can share their insights in small groups. The facilitator also can invite large group sharing for those who are comfortable.
Sharing with others is optional and not part of the original activity. Alberts also provides a list of suggested readings. You can learn more about this tool, and others in the Positive Psychology Toolkit.
A Take-Home Message
Self-awareness is one of the best ways to create a harmonious life. Like a muscle that atrophies without use, a lack of self-awareness can erode our relationships not only with others but also ourselves.
Luckily, we do not have to allow that to happen. Exercises like meditation, journaling, and others that involve consistent reflection, strengthen our self-awareness.
What will you do today to become more self-aware?
- APA. (n.d.). Self-awareness theory. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/self-awareness-theory
- Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental psychology (Vol. 6, pp. 1-62). Academic Press.
- Brownell, C. A., Zerwas, S., & Ramani, G. B. (2007). “So big”: The development of body self-awareness in toddlers. Child Development, 78(5), 1426-1440.
- Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. Academic Press.
- Ertimur, B., & Lvaoie, D. R. (2019). Calibrating the self: Building self-awareness and encouraging self-regulation in understanding consumer behavior. Marketing Education Review, 29(2), 113-118.
- Hay Group. (2005, November). Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI). McClelland Center for Research and Innovation. Retrieved from http://www.eiconsortium.org/pdf/ECI_2_0_Technical_Manual_v2.pdf
- Huang, A. X., Hughes, T. L., Sutton, L. R., Lawrence, M., Chen, X., Ji, Z., & Zeleke, W. (2017). Understanding the self in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD): A review of literature. Frontiers in Psychology, 8.
- Mlodinow, L. (2012). Subliminal: How your unconscious mind rules your behavior. Vintage.
- Morin, A. (2011). Self‐awareness Part 1: Definition, measures, effects, functions, and antecedents. Social and Personality Psychology compass, 5(10), 807-823.
- Prentice-Dunn, S., & Rogers, R. W. (1982). Effects of public and private self-awareness on deindividuation and aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43(3), 503-513.
- Rochat, P. (2003). Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life. Consciousness and Cognition, 12(4), 717-731.
- Shany-Ur, T., Lin, N., Rosen, H. J., Sollberger, M., Miller, B. L., & Rankin, K. P. (2014). Self-awareness in neurodegenerative disease relies on neural structures mediating reward-driven attention. Brain, 137(8), 2368-2381.
- Showry, M., & Manasa, K. V. L. (2014). Self-awareness-key to effective leadership. IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 8(1), 15-26.
- Silvia, P. J., & Duval, T. S. (2001). Objective self-awareness theory: Recent progress and enduring problems. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 230-241.
- Silvia, P. J., & Phillips, A. G. (2013). Self-awareness without awareness? Implicit self-focused attention and behavioral self-regulation. Self Identity, 12(2), 114-127.
- Wicklund, R. A., & Duval, S. (1971). Opinion change and performance facilitation as a result of objective self-awareness. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(3), 319-342.