My own journey toward understanding myself and learning what I value in life has been a long, at times arduous, and incredibly rewarding process. On occasion though, I have wished to go back to the “ignorance-is-bliss” state and avoid some of the pain and discomfort that comes along with this knowing. Thankfully, that wishful thinking passes quickly because what I have learned (so far) has been valuable, enlightening, and validating.
As a change enthusiast, I get excited when people talk about making positive changes in their life. However, I also know (from personal experience) that when making those changes, some level of self-awareness has to be developed, or it is only a matter of time before old patterns and habits creep their way back in.
So, what is self-awareness? How do we know if we have it or not? It can be simply defined as “being aware of oneself”, or as psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence (1995), offers:
Self-awareness is “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions”.
His definition emphasizes the ability to monitor our inner world, our thoughts, and emotions as they arise.
Another explanation comes from psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund who first developed the theory of self-awareness in 1972.
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.”
Based on these and other emotional intelligence researchers, I use a series of five questions that offer initial support for increasing self-awareness:
- What do I think about myself or how do I view myself in my world? (self-perception)
- What do I want and need in my life? (personal values)
- How do I respond or react in varying emotional situations? (self-regulation)
- What is my potential? What are my qualities as a human being? (self-identity)
- What character traits and skills do I have? (self-development)
The good news is we all have some level of self-awareness. Many of us are aware of when we are comfortable or uncomfortable in high stakes meetings, for example. Or, most of us know when we are telling a white-lie to someone we love (we all do it sometimes).
However, when we do not listen to the clues we are given, we can get stuck on auto-pilot – doing things mindlessly without knowing why we are doing them – and this is where trouble can arise.
An example of this are my auto-pilot tendencies to use food during moments or periods of high or low emotions. When I’m feeling particularly tired or overwhelmed, I head for the fridge or the cupboard (even when I’m not hungry), or I’ll catch myself mindlessly munching from a bag of chips while I scroll through Facebook or Instagram (usually because I’m putting something off or because I don’t have the energy or gumption to get on with it).
Now that I’m more aware of this unhelpful habit, I can catch myself more quickly (meaning, I don’t eat the whole bag of chips before realizing what I’ve done).
But, it wasn’t until I started being curious about myself and what makes me ME that I even had the slightest idea of what was going on or why.
How did I begin my self-awareness journey? How did I know I needed to do some work to develop this skill?
I got tired of repeating the same old patterns (which usually meant that I screwed something up or greatly disappointed or hurt someone), and feeling ashamed and/or guilty as a result. I did not want to star in my own “Groundhog Day” movie, so I started reading books, watching videos, studying, and researching to learn more about myself and to understand how I function. I journaled often about what I was discovering – especially during times of deepest angst, sorrow, joy, or curiosity – and I started practicing mindfulness.
Becoming more self-aware is a process that requires patience, openness, and courage. Doing inner work is not always easy, especially when doing it alone.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Find a quiet space to reflect on the question, “Who Am I?” Use a journal to jot down your thoughts or a voice recorder (most cell phones have this tool). Consider what you love about yourself and your life, and what you would like to improve upon.
- Take time to ask the questions, “What is working well for me in my life?” and “What is not working well for me?” It may be beneficial to make two columns on a piece of paper and write the questions as each header.
- Make a list of activities you love to currently do in your life. Once done, make a list of the activities you want to be doing in your life that you aren’t doing yet.
Becoming more self-aware does not happen overnight, please be kind to yourself, and feel free to reach out for guidance as you move forward.