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What is self-awareness and why do I need it? 

Quick! Tell me what self-awareness is.

“It’s the, uh, it’s when you, ah, hmmm…”

Little harder than you think, right? We hear the phrase all the time, from sci-fi movies (it’s become self-aware!) to animal experts, to spiritual leaders.

But what is self-awareness? Why do we need it? And how can we increase it.

I wanted to know these things too, so I set out to find out. What I discovered was pretty ground-shaking, and I want to share with you these hacks to improve your self-awareness.

Let’s jump in!

What is self-awareness

Self-awareness is the experience of one’s own individuality. This means that we understand that we are uniquely us, and we are experiencing ourselves.

It means we recognize our own feelings, character, and motivations as being unique to ourselves.

What’s a great example of self-awareness? The ability to recognize ourselves!

Take a look in the mirror. Wave your hand. Tilt your head. You see that your reflection is mimicking those actions. You know that the reflection is you. This is self-awareness.

Great. You might be thinking. I can identify myself in a mirror. Problem solved.

Not so fast. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Self-awareness exists on a spectrum.

When we are more self-aware, we are able to see ourselves objectively. When we can examine ourselves objectively, we can reflect on our problems and figure out strong solutions.

There’s an exciting theory called “self-awareness theory” which examines how our self-evaluations are directly tied to our self-awareness. Let’s see how this “self-awareness theory” can help us engage in some self-help.

What is self-awareness theory?

Self-awareness theory is the concept that our consciousness is an entity observing our thoughts.

That is to say, we are not our thoughts. We are not a collection of thoughts.

Instead, we are one who observes our thoughts.

This distinction is critical. When we realize that we are observing our thoughts, rather than simply existing as our thoughts, we can reflect back on our thoughts themselves.

Why do we need to reflect? We need to reflect to engage in the process of “self-evaluation,” which basically means we examine our thoughts and feelings in relation to our internal values and morals.

Basically, we look at our thoughts and say “does this align with who I think I am? Does this align with who I want to be?”

When we do this, we help shape our brains into the minds of a person we want to be. It’s a major element of self-improvement, as it helps us make sure we’re on the right track to achieve our goals.

Types of self-awareness

There are two types of self-awareness: awareness of actions and awareness of thoughts. Let’s take a look at how these two differ.

Self-awareness of actions

This is the first level of self-awareness, and it involves being aware of what you are physically doing.

Always tapping your foot when you’re impatient? Grabbing a snack when you’re anxious? Biting your nails all the time?

Self-awareness of our actions allows us to notice when we are performing these types of negative (or positive) behaviors. We can then understand if we have a problem, and begin to work to change it.

Once we’re conscious of something, it’s a lot easier to change it.

Self-awareness of thoughts

This is also called “self-awareness of feelings,” and it refers to us being in tune with what we are thinking and feeling at a given time.

This form of self-awareness usually comes after we master “self-awareness of actions,” as we can filter out our active distractions and focus on our emotions and thoughts themselves.

Once we have cleared our headspace enough, we start to realize that we may be feeling a variety of different negative emotions (anxiety, guilt, shame), that we have been covering up through our subconscious actions.

We can then examine these emotions through self-awareness in order to transform into a more positive headspace.

Are we passing the self-awareness test?

I’m not talking about the mirror test. I’m talking about our “self-evaluation.”

When we self-evaluate, we hold our actions and thoughts up to our own internal values.

Afterward, we ask “is this in line with who I want to be?”

There are only two answers. We are either in line with our values, or there is a disconnect.

If we are in line, that’s great! We feel a sense of pride, motivation, and accomplishment. When we live up to our own expectations, our sense of self-worth surges.

When there’s a disconnect, however, things get a little trickier.

We can respond by either:

  1. Changing ourselves to ensure that our actions/thoughts meet our standards
  2. We lower our standards

When we are self-aware and realize that we’ve come up short, one of the first, natural responses is to change ourselves — to do better next time.

Maybe it’s something as simple as you think “I am an active person,” but upon self-reflection, you realize you only ran 3 miles that entire week. You might decide “yikes, I need to exercise more next week to live up to my values.”

That’s an easy example of number one.

But what about number two? Lowering our standards? Isn’t that just admitting defeat?

Not necessarily. Many of us have impossibly high standards for ourselves that end up getting in our own way. Perfectionism, perhaps? Fear of failure?

Maybe you’re a writer, and your fear of failure is keeping you from submitting your manuscript because you’re “not a person who gets rejected.”

Lowering your standard in this case actually allows you to make progress. If you accept that you’re a “good writer” but not a “perfect writer,” then you’d be willing to send that book to a publisher.

You miss 100% of shots you don’t take!

Benefits of self-awareness

The benefits of self-awareness are numerous! When you know yourself, you really can improve yourself.

Here are some of the most important benefits of self-awareness:

Handle stress like a pro

When you’re self-aware, you intimately understand your emotional triggers, particularly what triggers your stress. When you know what stresses you out, you can work to actively avoid it.

And if you get stressed, you know how your body reacts, so you can redirect that stress energy into more positive ventures.

Become proactive

Self-awareness helps us shift from reactive to proactive. When we are more self-aware, we understand what things we want to accomplish in order to have our actions align with our values. This comprehension can give us motivation to finally knock those items off of our to-do list.

Be a better friend and leader

When we understand ourselves better, we understand how our actions affect others. We become self-aware as to how what we do affects another person.

As a friend or a romantic partner, this is critical. If we see that our sullen attitude brings our partner down, then we can take steps to change our sadness in order to lift our partner up.

If you’re a boss, self-awareness helps you see how your interactions with your employees really set the tone for office culture and productivity. A positive workplace starts at the top! Making positive changes to yourself will undoubtedly make positive changes in the workplace too!

Boost your skills

Picture this: your life goal is to climb Mount Everest. Awesome!

Now, a non-self-aware person might just think “I’m fit, I can handle it.” That person would be wrong. Hiking the world’s tallest mountain is not an easy feat, and is actually downright dangerous.

You need to be in peak physical condition to tackle such a summit.

A self-aware person, on the other hand, could easily see where they have shortcomings, and could then train to fix them.

When you’re self-aware, you know what you need to work on to achieve your goals.

Gain confidence

When you know yourself better, you understand what your strengths and weaknesses are. You finally can understand how talented you are in your line of work. When you discover where your talents lie, you can be more confident in taking on these tasks, and have more confidence in your final product.

Make better decisions

A self-aware person will make better decisions. Why? Because they intimately understand their own wants, needs, and values. They also understand how the outcome of a particular decision will align with their internal order. If you know yourself, you’ll better know how each decision will impact you, for better or worse.

Self-awareness in action

Theory is all great, but what does self-awareness look like when put into action?

What are some examples of self-awareness in everyday life?

While dating

Self-awareness in dating is critical, as a relationship is built upon the actions and connections between two people.

Maybe you’ve noticed that you’ve been fighting with your girlfriend a lot. Maybe you think that “she’s always picking on you.”

With some self-awareness, you can examine your own actions to see how you have been contributing to the problem. Maybe you haven’t been pulling your fair share around the house. When you see how your actions are contributing to a negative outcome, you can correct them!

At work

Self-awareness is an amazing tool to boost your performance at work.

Let’s say that you know you’re an amazing coder. But lately, your code has been coming in sloppy and late. What’s going on?

With self-awareness, you can look back and pinpoint the problem. Have you been staying up too late, which has been making you too sleepy? Or does work have a flexible start time and you’ve been coming in too late to finish up all your work?

Figure out where your bottleneck comes from, eliminate the issue, and watch your productivity skyrocket!

On your own

Self-awareness isn’t just about how you can help others. It’s about how you can help yourself. Do you always turn down opportunities because you’re afraid of failing?

With self-awareness, you can examine this pattern of avoidance to determine why you’re actually hiding from opportunity. Once you’ve come to terms with your real reason (fear of imperfection), you can actively work to fix this!

How do you increase self-awareness?

Increasing self-awareness is easier than it may sound. It usually only takes a few minutes each day.

The trick is sticking to it.

Give yourself space and time

The first step is to set aside a time and a place for you to work on yourself. You need to be free of distractions, other people, and other influences. This time is for you and you alone.

Take up journaling

Putting your thoughts into organized words is a great way to become self-aware of your consciousness. When you verbalize your thoughts and feelings, you can literally reflect on them almost instantly. Plus, you can return to your past thoughts and feelings to see how your mind has changed!

Be mindful

Mindfulness is getting a lot of traction these days, and for good reason! Mindfulness is the practice of recognizing, accepting, and understanding our inner thoughts and emotions.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean changing our thoughts, it just means being mindful of them.

In this sense, mindfulness allows the thoughts to not have an outsize influence on us. We simply acknowledge the thought and feeling, and then allow it to move through us.

Mindfulness is great for boosting self-awareness, as it comes with no preconceived notions or self-judgments. Instead, it is simply an acceptance of our current state of being.

Exercise

Exercise, from yoga to running to swimming to weightlifting, has long been known to be a major mood booster. In addition, it helps us become more self-aware, as our minds become increasingly attuned to what our body is feeling. Additionally, many runners and other cardio-heads swear by the “runner’s high,” a boost of endorphins that comes from intense cardio exercise. This “high” can allow us to become more in tune with our internal, emotional state.

Talking it out

Sometimes, to get an objective perspective on ourselves, we need an outsider to help us out. This might be a friend or it might end up being a therapist. What’s important, however, is that this person allows us to unburden ourselves without judgment. Then, that person can help us examine our choices in ways that we aren’t yet able to see. From this, we can then learn how to improve ourselves.

It’s like a kickstarter for becoming self-aware!

Can meditation help self-awareness?

There has long been a link between meditation and self-awareness.

Mindfulness is actually a form of meditation (there are two), where we simply relax and pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come through our minds.

The second form of meditation is called “focused” meditation and broadly refers to focusing on an outside object or concept in an attempt to calm the mind.

While both have a prominent role in reducing stress and improving mental health, mindfulness in particular is associated with becoming more self-aware.

Why?

Because mindfulness is all about paying attention to our internal feelings and thoughts. Once we pay attention to these, we can begin to identify where these thoughts originate, thus helping boost our self-awareness.

Is there a link between emotional intelligence and being self-aware?

Yes.

Emotional intelligence is a group of abilities that allows us to recognize and modify the emotions within ourselves and within others.

And a key component of emotional intelligence is self-awareness.

The five components of emotional intelligence are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Empathy
  4. Social Skills
  5. Motivation

When we look at these skills (such as motivation and empathy), we find that they’re all built on self-awareness. It is a bedrock of emotional intelligence.

Improving relationships with self-awareness

Self-awareness is a powerful tool for boosting any relationship. Here are a couple of tips to improve a relationship using self-awareness.

Be mindful with your loved one

Pay close attention to how you interact with your partner. Pay close attention to how they interact with you. When you understand how your actions and words affect a relationship, you can make steps to use positive actions to strengthen the relationship.

Talk things out regularly

It’s important to not shy away from tough conversations in relationships. Instead, you and your partner need to have frank conversations about where things stand, what problems you are having, and how you can solve them. When you objectively look at your own behavior, you become less defensive and more open to solving problems as a team.

Appreciate your time together and time apart

Live in the moment! When you’re together, savor every moment together. Appreciate the things you are doing, as a couple, in the present. When you’re solo, take time to appreciate the benefits of having some much-needed solitude.

Self-awareness in leadership

Great leaders must be self-aware. They must be self-aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, as well as aware of how others perceive them.

This second type of self-awareness is called “external self-awareness.” It’s a critical part of what makes up a successful leader.

Let’s pretend you’re a coach of a football team. It’s not enough to just be really good at designing plays and putting players through good workouts. You have to have your players believe in you too.

Your players need to see you as a competent leader. If they think you’re a crappy coach, no amount of play design will fix that.

Instead, you have to be aware of how your actions and words affect others’ perceptions of you. Once you understand that, you can change your actions in order to boost how they perceive you.

If you want to be a leader, you have to be inspiring. To be inspiring, you have to understand what your team values, and then adjust your actions accordingly. Self-awareness is key.

Children and self-awareness

It’s not just adults who benefit from self-awareness. Developing self-awareness in young minds is a critical component to helping kids become emotionally stable, happy, confident, and productive.

Meditation, exercise, and journaling all provide fantastic outlets for children and adolescents. Boosting their self-awareness leads to boosting their confidence, which ultimately will help them grow into well-developed adults.

Conclusion: self-awareness is critical

Self-awareness is a critical skill that allows us to reflect upon our skills and shortcomings.

I honestly didn’t understand exactly how powerful self-awareness was until I went looking.

But now I know that self-awareness is an amazing tool that helps me become the person I want to be.

We can view our own actions and thoughts in relation to our values in order to see where we have come up short. Once we have discovered these discrepancies, we can take active steps to improve ourselves to ultimately boost our productivity, our relationships, and our overall happiness.

It’s so much more than recognizing who I am in the mirror. It’s liking who I see each day in the mirror.

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Written by Justin Brown

I co-founded Ideapod, a digital media platform that provides commentary on the ideas shaping our lives. To see my latest work, follow me on Facebook.

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