Self-awareness, or awareness of self, is the first pillar of emotional intelligence and it really is the key to everything.
At a fundamental level self-awareness means being aware of the existence of an entity or presence which is identifiable 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 but 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. Developing more self-awareness is the intentional 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 important to your self-development?
You must start somewhere. If you don’t know where you are starting from how can you plot an effective course to anywhere else?
A deep and honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses takes real courage but the knowledge you will gain will pay huge dividends.
Assuming you have decided to develop yourself, it is well worth getting right down deep and looking at your inner self in a radical new way. This is scary. Seriously, it is very scary. We tend to hide ourselves from ourselves using sophisticated internal narratives which even we come to regard as absolute truth. These are not truths but rather constructs we have created to rationalise and make sense of our own inner worlds, combined with our experience of the external world. We form beliefs and hold values about both our inner world and the outer world.
When we formed these narratives they would have been, or at least have been believed 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. When we decide to do this ourselves, with or without help, this is called self-development.
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. Total self-awareness is the realm of the buddhas and other enlightened beings. I have never gotten close and simply treat the process of my life as a work in progress. I am simply enjoying the journey of discovery.
Completely solo self-discovery might be possible, but I struggle to picture someone making genuine and sustainable progress in isolation. We all need feedback to understand progress and this is easier working either directly with other people or using resources created by others who possess the knowledge and skills we seek.
I will briefly discuss five areas here:
- The Johari Window
- Psychometric tools and instruments
- Other self-development resources
The Johari Window
One interesting model for getting you started 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 and these impact on our interactions with the wider world. I’ll leave you to look on-line for 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, and of which others are aware.
- A “hidden” area of which we are aware, but of which others are not aware.
- An “unknown” area of which we are unaware, and of which others are 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 for individuals and groups. Why not try it out? Consider working with a coach or trusted friend and see what you can discover.
Psychometric tools and instruments
You could also examine some, or all if your budget will stretch that far, of the psychometric personality and psychological profiling tools, of which there are many. I will not bore you with the details, but a quick online search will reveal a substantial and 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, and quite a number are aimed at highly specific aspects of personality or behaviour. Not all are good of course so buyer beware or caveat emptor. Do your research and ask your network for feedback and advice. The results provided should be interpreted carefully and in context. I 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.
I have mentioned coaching several times now and I must admit to some bias here. I am a professional coach and 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.
Be coached by a trusted friend or colleague. Someone who has been on a similar journey. You could buddy up with someone and take the discovery journey together. I believe the journey is the important thing so begin it as soon as you can and do it the way which suits you best. Start with the why and the how will look after itself.
Mindfulness is a simple meditation-based practice. 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 and simply observing your thoughts and experiences as they appear. Thoughts are transient and thoughts are not the person. 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.
Over time, mindfulness practice can bring about long-term changes in 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 for improving or ameliorating any number of emotional attitudes, mental states and mind/body relationships.
Is 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. 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 and 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 to give deep, focused and non-judgemental observational attention to our own experience as it unfolds.
Mindfulness is a gym for the mind and as such it opens a world of possibilities. I am a huge fan of mindfulness. Seek a good introductory course and get practising. You could even attend a guided retreat if that is your thing.
Other self-development resources
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.
Choose carefully and 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. 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.
This search for true self-awareness takes courage, commitment and massive honesty. I’m not 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, your true values and beliefs and 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. Do whatever you need to do to learn more about the true you.
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. In truth, you may never find the absolute true you but if you try hard enough you will find enough truth to work wonders with.
The next post in this series will look at the second EI pillar which is the regulation of self.
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