What is Self-Awareness? And How Do I Get More of It?
Updated: Mar 19, 2020
Self-awareness is our capacity for introspection.
It’s the ability to see our own thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and feelings as our own, as separate to others, as separate to the world around us, and as having consequences for the quality of the feedback we get from our world.
If someone is unaware that they are overly defensive, easily offended, easily moved to rage, and believes they are ‘entitled’ to ‘feel how they feel’, and that others are the ‘cause’ of their reactions, that person is going to have a lonely, frustrating, and limited experience of their world. No matter how justified they may think they are, their lack of awareness of their own agency in these patterns of reaction will conscript them to repeat the patterns over and over.
Self-awareness is also the ability to accurately compare our own behaviours/ reactions/ responses to our internal set of values, standards and beliefs about what is appropriate for us.
If I value ‘love’, and spend my time being angry, upset, and defensive, then my value of love is not being lived or expressed. My ability to see this accurately, and adjust my behaviour to match my value, is self-awareness. Alternatively, I may face that I don’t value ‘love’ as much as I value ‘upset’. This may be a more confronting reality, but the question isn’t about how confronting it is, it’s about how accurate it is.
Self-awareness is the beginnings of all progress.
Without self-awareness, there is no progress. Ultimately, we either cultivate our own ability to see ourselves accurately, warts and all, and make decisions from that accuracy, or we are operating with an inaccurate map of reality. If our map of reality is inaccurate, all decisions we make will be inaccurate. I would go further and say I am deluding myself when I deny the accuracy of the situation, no matter how painful a truth it is to face.
Pattern recognition, generalising, and consequentialism takes the ability to get our own egos out of the way and see the terrain accurately, rather than how we would like or prefer it to be. The less accurately we see the terrain, the more unreliable our pattern recognition, generalising, and consequential thinking is going to be. Each decision will be made with imprecise, flawed and misleading data.
If the pattern keeps occurring in your life, and not in the lives of everyone around you (reacting angrily to a street closure, constantly feeling defensive about what people say, getting upset when receiving feedback, having the same complaint about different people in your life, constantly changing jobs because of the boss, struggling to manage finances, struggling to manage a healthy diet), the gift is, it is most likely you.
If you keep getting similar results despite your belief that you’re doing ‘everything’ (generalisation) you can, you’re inaccurate. You’re probably doing the things you’re comfortable doing, and blocking out awareness of the harder, less comfortable stuff that you could be considering to change your circumstance and terrain. If you consistently fail to see the consequences of repeated actions, this is you, not someone or something else.
Self-awareness starts from the question: How much of myself and my life am I prepared to doubt, question, and change, in the pursuit of a happier, more meaningful life?
The journey to self-awareness is filled with feedback to yourself, from others to you, from your environment to you.
It is delivered in easy-to-take messages and in difficult-to-take messages. The more of this feedback you can handle, welcome, enjoy, and act upon (when it is accurate) the greater your self-awareness, and thus the more empowered choices you will make.
The journey to self-awareness is also filled with contrasting frames.
A contrasting frame is when we compare our own frame of reference with another frame of reference. For example, to become proficient at sales from stage, I had to contrast my own woeful skill set with that of the experts. Studying the gaps revealed all manner of train-wrecking choices I had been making. I continued this contrastive analysis until my skill equalled the frames of reference I was studying. This required the decision to doubt, question, and change everything about my selling from stage techniques. It also required extraordinary amounts of feedback to myself, and from others. The ultimate feedback was, of course, the results I achieved. And finally it required that I continue to contrast my frame of reference with the frame of reference of those who also endeavoured to succeed on stage.
It can be challenging to do all of this with gusto. Sometimes we want things to go well, even though we haven’t earned the right to this ease, because our skill set is still wanting. There is little point in deciding this is ‘confronting’, and wanting to avoid the process, as all this does is slow down the inevitable process of learning that is required to achieve proficiency. No one gets to avoid this. No one is the exception. Anyone who doesn’t want to proceed with these strategies but says they want success doesn’t understand that success is not easy and success is earned.
Are there exceptions to this? Yes.
If someone is born into wealth and privilege, they don’t have to do the grind of learning to acquire wealth. If someone is born with inordinate intelligence, pattern recognition will be innate within them and they will be able to make better decisions sooner than others, and with greater frequency (although this may be limited to a specific area of expertise). If someone is gifted athletically, they will benefit from this gift of genetics. Unless you are in one of these categories, you must apply the steps to acquiring the results you want.
With this said, the talented singer may have massive success and fame, but it makes them no better at managing their relationships, or their finances, or at recognising when someone is using them for their prestige. Similarly, someone who is a gifted mathematician may lack all skills in relationships, or in some other area of their lives.
And, genetic gifts, being in the right place at the right time, having the luck of lotto falling in your lap is no guarantee of success. There are endless examples of people squandering their genetic inheritance, or their lucky break.
Philosophers and psychologists speak of self-awareness and its transformative impact.
Carl Jung annoyingly 😊 shared: “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” So then, what I see in someone else that I don’t like, is a potential insight into what I can examine within myself.
Marcus Aurelius spoke similarly, sharing: “Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
Jung also said “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” For me this speaks to the importance of my commitment to examine my own motives, perceptions, beliefs and assumptions about my choices and behaviour. I’ve reached the point now, when asked why I did something, to share that I have no idea, but the reason I’m going to make up about it, as a reflection of where I am in my consciousness at this moment, is…
Carl Rogers, humanist and psychologist, shared: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” This speaks to the heart of self-awareness, in that only when we see ourselves accurately, are we able to do something about a pattern in our lives which is bringing us pain.
The Dalai Lama shared: “We must each lead a way of life with self-awareness and compassion, to do as much as we can. Then, whatever happens we will have no regrets.”
For me, my definition of hell is to be on my deathbed, and meet in my mind the person I could have become, had I been more self-aware, and brave enough to act on my discoveries.