Self-awareness is having a good understanding of what motivates us, understanding our behaviour and feelings. It allows us to have better control over our emotions and our behaviour. Getting to know ourselves better enables us to make changes, develop new habits and learn new skills. It also allows us to be more accepting of our vulnerabilities so that once we acknowledge them, we can choose to develop strategies to build our resilience.
Being self-aware is an element of emotional intelligence (Mayer, et al., 2008). Research demonstrates that self-aware people are more balanced, confident, maintain positive relationships, and have a greater sense of achievement (Eurich, 2017).
We can be internally self-aware – that is, we are aware of our thoughts and feelings, and we can be externally self-aware – when we are aware of other people and how they view us. For example, when in a social situation, we may feel self-conscious about something we just said. We notice other people’s reactions and feel embarrassed, so we decide to leave the event. Later, we reflect on what happened, and we may say, “why did I say that? Now they will think I am silly”.
This question focuses our attention on our emotions or behaviours, but in doing so, we start to rationalise why we feel (or do) a certain way. It can inadvertently create a loop of negative thoughts lowering our mood, including self-critical thoughts. However, there could be several explanations for our behaviour.
Instead, if we ask, “What happened?” It directs our attention to exploring details of what is happening to tap into our problem-solving skills (Eurich, 2017).
We can go through the situation and focus on what we wanted to say and our intention. Maybe we wanted to contribute to the conversation and shared our perspective. Then we noticed their reactions and feelings but did not take time to check our assumptions or believe that our interpretation is true.
However, we do not stop to reflect and consider other possible interpretations. Perhaps, they did say something critical about us. If so, we can view this as their opinion, which is also an interpretation of the situation.
As we develop our self-awareness, we become better able to manage challenging situations. We can decide whether we ask for more information or let it go and focus on finding social situations where we feel people are more open-minded and understanding.
For example, instead of asking yourself, “Why do I always get such a low mark?”, ask yourself, “What are the factors that may contribute to getting lower marks? What can I do differently to make progress?”
When dealing with challenges, it is normal to experience self-doubt and have questions about our ability to cope with them. Becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings can be distressing if we focus only on negative thoughts.
For example, when things do not work out as we hoped, we tend to ask ourselves, “Why me? Why did this happen?” Initially, with a genuine interest to try to get to the root of the problem. However, this problem-focused approach leads us to more negative thoughts, leaving us more distressed and feeling stuck.
Being self-aware allows us to notice our thoughts and feelings and recognise when we need to redirect our attention to explore possible solutions. At other times, we will notice that there are factors we cannot control. We can practice reflecting on what is happening and identify alternative ways of viewing the problem.
Sometimes, changing our attitude to accept that sometimes we do not have control over events and focus instead of taking care of ourselves. It does not mean that we are giving up. Instead, we can prepare for when we can do something constructive. In the meantime, we can adjust our attitude to manage the situation and prepare for when we can make a different choice.
When we are tired, it is harder to persevere with our efforts. Our brain monitors our energy level and will calculate how much energy we can spend and when we need to replenish. It will prioritise essential body functions, and once we have more energy, we can allocate it to other energy-intensive tasks ((Feldman Barrett, 2020). Therefore, it is essential to maintain our energy level to function well. Being self-aware of what we need, and notice when we are getting tired, is a good sign that we need to take care of ourselves.
Increasing self-awareness enables us to learn from experience. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can recognise what would help us progress and make changes.
We are also better prepared to ask and receive feedback to view the learning perspective’s information. Applying the information enables us to improve and gradually master the skills we want to develop. Furthermore, having a good understanding of ourselves enables us to empathise with others to understand other people’s behaviour.
Unplug: dedicating time away from screens and creating the opportunity to be on our own for a while reduces tension. Learning to be comfortable in our company is necessary to learn about ourselves and to ground ourselves.
Practice mindfulness: This exercise involves noticing what is happening now—being fully present with all our senses, noticing sounds, smells, images, thoughts and feelings. It means being open to the experience without resistance or avoidance (Gilbert & Choden, 2013).
Take time to reflect: Research shows that writing down our thoughts in a notebook is an effective technique to process thoughts and feelings. Dedicating time to focusing our attention to understand the whole situation without self-judgment. It helps to clarify ideas and to understand feelings (Pennebaker, 2018).
Practice listening: We usually think we are good listeners; however, often, we can be more focused on our list of things to do that we miss information. Or, we make assumptions about what others are saying and miss important details. When in conversation, we can pay attention to the other person and to what they are saying. Listening carefully improves communications and feeling understood.
Practice self-compassion: It involves treating ourselves in the way we would treat our best friend when going through a difficult time. Dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings with kindness and understanding.
It means that, like all human beings, we can make mistakes. As we develop our self-awareness, we will learn how to manage our reactions and apply strategies to deal with challenges in constructive ways. It also enables us to maintain our social network – a key element in keeping well and have a sense of belonging (Neff, 2011).
Eurich, T. (2017) Insight. How to succeed by seeing yourself clearly. London: Pan
Feldman Barrett, L. (2020) Seven and a half lessons about the brain. London: Pan
Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and
compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson
Mayer, J.D., Salovey, P, & Caruso, D.R. Emotional intelligence. New ability or eclectic traits?
American Psychologist, September 2008, Vol 63, No 6, pp503-517.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind.
New York, NY: William Morrow.
Pennebaker, J.W. Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on
Psychological science. March 2018, Vol 13, No 2, pp 226-229.