From the ancient Greek Aphorism “know thyself” to the western psychology, the topic of self-awareness has always been an intriguing subject of inquiry of philosophers and psychologists for the last century.
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So what is self-awareness?
The psychological study of self-awareness can be first traced back to 1972 when 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 as a major mechanism of self-control.
Psychologist Daniel Goleman, has proposed a more 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 recognise that self-awareness is not only about what we notice about ourselves but also how we notice and monitor our inner world. The non-judgmental quality is an essential component to self-awareness. As we notice what’s happening inside us, we 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).
Furthermore, 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. 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 be conscious of these conditioning and preconceptions of the mind, which can form the foundation of freeing the mind from it.
Why 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 behaviours.
In addition, self-aware people tend to act consciously rather than react passively, to be in good psychological health and to 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.
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 examining 72 executives at public and private companies with revenues from $50 million to $5 billion, it was found that “a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success”.
Why is it not easy to be more self-aware?
So if self-awareness is so important, why aren’t we more self-aware? Well, a 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 affect our ability to have a more accurate understanding of ourselves. For example, confirmation bias can trick us into searching for or interpreting information in a way that confirms our pre-conception of something (you know that feeling when you’ve accepted a job offer but are still looking for extra assurance that it is the perfect job for you). 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.
What further complicate the picture is the different aspects of the self we relate to in everyday life. In his TED Talk, Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winner for his contribution to behavioral science, talked about the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self, and how it can affect our decision-making (Source). He explained how we feel about the experience in the moment and how we remember the experience can be very different and share only 50% correlation. And this difference can have 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.
How can we cultivate more 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 workplace is a useful tool to improve managers’ self-awareness (Source). We all have blind spots, so it is helpful to gain 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.
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.