What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness, or awareness of self if you prefer, is the first pillar of emotional intelligence. Self-awareness really is the key to everything in Emotional Intelligence terms.
Hopefully, you’ll recall that emotional intelligence comprises four pillars: self-awareness, self-regulation, understanding others and managing relationships. You could check out my “Emotional Intelligence is vital” post for more insight.
You’ve got to honestly get to know yourself first then be willing to work with that knowledge.
At its most fundamental level, self-awareness means being aware of yourself. Which means you become aware of the existence of an entity or presence which is identifiable, by you, as you. The idea that you are a distinct and unique being when compared to all the other beings around you. I’m going nowhere near this philosophical rabbit-hole here. However, feel free to explore it yourself if you like that sort of thing.
A more practical definition is the conscious knowledge of your own thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For instance, developing more self-awareness requires intentional monitoring. In other words, this means monitoring of one’s current self and the practical application of work and adaptation to produce a desired and different future self. This is generally known as self-development.
Why is self-awareness so important to your self-development?
You’ve got to make a start from somewhere known. In other words, if you don’t know where you are starting from how can you plot an effective course from there to anywhere else?
A deep and honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses takes real courage. However, the knowledge you’ll gain from your efforts at self-awareness will pay huge dividends. I’m serious, because it can literally transform your life.
Assuming you have decided to develop yourself, it’s time to get your mental hands dirty. Get right down deep early and begin to look at your inner self in a radical new way. This is scary stuff by the way. Seriously, it’s very scary, especially if you haven’t done it before.
Why is self-awareness so scary?
Self-awareness shines a light on things we may prefer to keep in the dark. Because of this, we tend to hide ourselves from ourselves. We do this using sophisticated internal narratives which even we come to regard as absolute truth. These are nothing more than rationalisations. They are not truths but rather personal mental constructs. We have created the constructs to help make sense of our own confusing inner worlds. We then combine them with our experience of the external world to create a complete narrative. The technical term is confabulation; not lies as such but modified versions of reality we come to believe as truths. We now use these constructs to form beliefs and hold values about both our inner world and the outer world. These are not always accurate or helpful.
Why do we tell ourselves these inaccurate stories?
When we formed these narratives they would have been, or at least we believed them to have been, highly beneficial and useful. As our lives move on, they may well stay useful but often become simply neutral; being neither useful or non-useful. Problems can arise when these narratives become non-useful to us. They can even become detrimental and harmful to us. We either decide, or are forced, to choose to make changes. We must now confront, understand, let go and replace beliefs and ideas. This is what self-awareness means in terms of emotional intelligence. When we decide to do this ourselves, with or without help, this is called self-development and, believe me, it is scary.
Ways to get under the hood
Assuming you have chosen to become more self-aware to make changes you must now get started. You can follow several pathways to make progress. By the way, I don’t believe many people ever gets to total self-awareness because it is so hard to achieve. Total self-awareness is the realm of the buddhas and other enlightened beings. I’ve never gotten close. I therefore always treat the process of my own self-awareness as a work in progress. In other words, I’m simply enjoying the journey of discovery.
The key to it all is feedback. Internal feedback is generally known as self-reflection. External feedback is generally known as … well, external feedback. I can’t think of a better term for it.
They are both useful to you but become most useful when combined.
Seeking high-quality feedback is key
Completely solo self-discovery might be possible, but I struggle to picture someone making genuine and sustainable progress in total isolation. We all need feedback to enable progress and a combination approach using self-reflection coupled with external feedback works best. Seek external feedback by working either directly with other people or using resources created by others who have the knowledge and skills you need.
I will briefly discuss four areas here which will help you seek feedback and self-reflect:
- The Johari Window
- Psychometric tools and instruments
- Coaching and/or mentoring
The Johari Window
One interesting model for getting you started on your self-awareness journey is to look at something called the Johari Window. The model was devised by American psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham back in 1955. The name chosen simply derives from a combination of their names. The model essentially states we have four symbolic or metaphorical areas within us. These impact on our interactions with the wider world. I’ll leave you to look on-line for more detailed information about the Johari Window model. It is fascinating and very well-documented, so I will not waste your time by reproducing unnecessary material here.
- An “open” area of which we are aware, but of which others are also aware.
- A “hidden” area of which we are aware, but of which others are not aware.
- An “unknown” area of which we are unaware, but of which others are also unaware.
- A “blind” area of which we are unaware, but of which others are aware
Actively exploring this model as a formal exercise is an interesting and informative activity. It’s good for both individuals and groups. Why not try it out? In addition, consider working with a coach or trusted friend and see what you can discover.
Psychometric tools and instruments
You could also examine some of, or all if your budget will stretch that far, the many psychometric personality and psychological profiling tools out there. Popular ones include MBTI, DiSC, Insights, MTQ48, EQi2.0 and many more. I won’t bore you with the details, but a quick online search will reveal a substantial and ever-growing list.
You may well have encountered such tools. They have their uses and can prove very incisive in some cases. There are many distinct types. Quite a number are aimed at highly specific aspects of personality or behaviour. Many are genuinely fantastic. I’m a fan and qualified user of several high-quality psychometric instruments. When used well and appropriately they are great for improving self-awareness. Not all the options out there are good of course, so buyer beware. Do your research and ask your own network for feedback and advice. The results obtained should be interpreted carefully and in context. I always recommend seeking out a trained and/or licenced practitioner to get the best value from your experience.
Once again, consider working with a coach or trusted friend and see what you can discover.
Coaching and/or mentoring
I have mentioned coaching several times now and I must admit to some bias here because I am a professional coach. I work with many people on just this kind of personal journey. People sometimes worry about the cost of employing a skilled professional coach, but the transformational returns often far outweigh any financial investment. The experience is often life changing and I would highly recommend it.
You can also be coached or mentored by a trusted friend or colleague. For example, someone who has been on a similar journey. You could buddy up with someone and take the discovery journey together. I believe the journey toward self-awareness itself is the most important thing so begin it as soon as you can and do it in the way which suits you best.
Start with the why and the how will look after itself.
Mindfulness is a simple meditation-based practice. I’m a huge fan. It yields a variety of mental, physical and emotional benefits; Many of these are now scientifically shown as highly effective. Mindfulness meditations typically consists of focusing full attention on something. For instance, simply observing your breathing, thoughts and experiences as they appear. Thoughts are transient, and thoughts are not the person. Energy flows where the attention goes so, by removing attention from unwanted thoughts they become of no importance. This means you have more control than you may have thought. Mindfulness is all about awareness, observing without criticism and learning to be compassionate with yourself.
With practice, mindfulness allows you to differentiate between wholesome and unwholesome thought patterns. The mindfulness practitioner then has many options available for either letting thoughts go entirely or modifying them into more wholesome forms.
Mindfulness takes time
Over time, mindfulness practice can bring about long-term changes in self-awareness, mood, happiness levels and overall mental and physical wellbeing. Studies have shown mindfulness can prevent the onset of depression and positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression and reactive emotions so that if they do arise, they dissipate more easily. Memory, creativity, reaction times and even productivity can all improve. Mindfulness practice creates wholesome thought processes. This improving or ameliorates any number of emotional attitudes, mental states and mind/body relationships.
Isn’t mindfulness just mystical nonsense?
Neuro-scientists have highlighted and proved the brain’s ability to alter its structure and internal connectivity in adaptive response to repeated conditioning: known as neural plasticity. We are familiar with the idea that effectively and repeatedly practising any activity, such as a musical instrument, leads to more and more skill with that instrument. In addition, running repeated thought processes over time will also alter the neural pathways to make that mode of thought easier and stronger; less commonly realised. Mindfulness takes positive advantage of this phenomenon because it seeks to strengthen wholesome thought patterns for the benefit of the mindfulness practitioner and those around them.
To practice mindfulness is to use the power of our minds. This gives us a deep, focused and non-judgemental view of ourselves. We then get live observational information about our own experience as it unfolds. It’s self-awareness on steroids.
Mindfulness is a gym for the mind and as such it opens a world of possibilities. As I said, I’m a huge fan of mindfulness. Seek a good introductory course. Read a good book for beginners. Above all, get practising. You could even attend a guided retreat if that is your thing.
Other self-development resources for self-awareness
There are numerous books, courses, guides, videos, audios, apps and more besides, all designed to help you, or at least relieve you of your money, in your efforts to self-develop. The mighty Interweb has a seemingly infinite number of resources.
Choose carefully, do some research and only work with solid proven sources. Once again, a good coach or mentor can help with this. Whatever you do make sure you do something.
Although self-development is often an internal pursuit, it is not a theoretical or spectator-based activity. It requires action so act. Do something positive and you are on your way.
Some last thoughts on developing self-awareness
You are the centre of your universe. It all starts with you.
If you can’t, don’t or won’t dig deep and fully acknowledge and accept your true, warts and all, self then the rest of your life will be inauthentic and superficial at best. For instance, even if you learn to get on well with others, your lack of knowledge or ownership of your own core being will leave you with a sense of incompleteness and imbalance. In my experience others can sense this fundamental lack in you and they will treat you differently as a result.
Self-awareness takes courage
This search for true self-awareness takes courage, commitment and massive honesty. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’m suggesting you go and sit cross-legged on top of a mountain for years on end. I am suggesting you begin to identify your true strengths and weaknesses. Look for your true values and beliefs. Seek out your true desires and fears. Work with a coach, friend or trusted advisor if you need to. Seek honest feedback and accept it with gratitude because it works. Do whatever you need to do to learn more about the true you.
Above all, remember that self-reflection and high quality feedback are the keys to your EI success.
An important caveat
Don’t become too fixated on looking inward. The EI element is called self-awareness not self-absorption or narcissism. Dig deep but don’t get lost down any reflective rabbit holes.
Is developing self-awareness easy?
Is it easy? Absolutely not. Is it even possible? Well, I’m still searching for my true self, so I can’t answer that one for you I’m afraid. I battle more than enough of my own demons to keep me busy on my search. I keep going because it is important to me. In truth, you may never find the absolute true you. However, if it’s important enough to you, and if you try hard enough, you’ll find enough truth to start working wonders.
The next post in this series will look at self-regulation. Self-regulation is the second pillar of Emotional Intelligence pillar.
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