The Search for Self-Awareness

Gauging and growing self-awareness is extremely difficult to do, which I’ve written about before. But it’s the most important thing to do for greater overall happiness and fulfilment. Organisational psychologist and author Tasha Eurich describes self-awareness as the least understood but largest “meta skill of the 21st century”, and I have to agree.

Research shows that we are all pretty deluded about how self-aware we are, with around 99% of us believing we are self-aware, but the real number being closer to 10-15%. In other words, even on a good day, 80% are lying to ourselves about whether we are lying to ourselves!

Below are a few helpful distinctions on assessing and growing your self-awareness based on research Eurich carried out for her book, Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life.

The 2 Types of Self-Awareness

In reviewing the studies on self-awareness, Eurich identified two subsets of the skill:

Internal self-awareness – Refers to an inward understanding and clarity about passions, strengths and values – seeing ourselves clearly, basically. For people with a high internal self-awareness, introspection is their passionate hobby.

External self-awareness – This means understanding how others see us. Those with a high degree of this kind of self-awareness may fall into the category of being ‘pleasers’.

The two subsets are independent of eachother. Most of us are high on one, low on other.

One quick way to improve your self-awareness is to ask yourself “which of these have I been focusing on?” and “which can I improve?”

The 7 Facets of Self-Awareness

Here are 7 key areas in which we can have self-knowledge and awareness:

  • Understanding our values (for a guide to values-clarification, read this).
  • Having knowledge of passions, as well as the things we hate doing.
  • Knowing our aspirations and the types of experiences we want in life.
  • ‘Fit’ – having clarity about the type of environment and people that bring out the best in us.
  • Understanding our patterns (essentially our personality. I’d suggest you read this).
  • Knowing our reactions – momentary, plus our strengths and weaknesses.
  • Understanding our impact on other people.

Two things that distinguish the self-aware person

Eurich found that people assessed to have a high amount of self-awareness had these traits in common:

  • Belief in supreme importance in self-awareness.
  • Daily commitment to improving it.

Eurich describes such individuals as having a “braver but kinder” mindset.

The 3 forms of blindness

3 obstacles to becoming more self-aware:

  1. Knowledge blindness. Almost everyone overestimates the amount of knowledge that they have. Plus, research has shown that the more of expert we are on a subject, the worse this form of blindness tends to be. For self-awareness, it is important to hold on to the feeling like you haven’t figured everything out yet (although highly self-aware individuals pair their self-awareness with self-acceptance).
  2. Emotions blindness. We think we analyze our feelings objectively but in fact we are unduly influenced by what is going on in the moment. The solution is to never assume that you are correct.
  3. Behavior blindness. We can’t always see our own behaviour objectively.

Avoiding the ‘Cult of Self’

The so-called cult of self is the narcissism that is a lot more common now. We increase our narcissism, and fuel the cult of self, whenever we go on social media informing others about ourselves. Beleiving that we are unique, special and superior takes us away from clarity and self-awareness.

Eurich suggests that to fight the cult of self, spend less time talking about and advocating for yourself. Research has shown that those who think about themselves less are actually more self-aware.

The pitfalls of introspection

Surprisingly, research has also shown that the more we introspect, the less clearly we see ourselves. Frequent self-analyzers tend to be less self-aware.

Many people with good intentions who introspect do it in a way that make them less satisfied with their lives, more anxious and depressed.

Rumination is continuing to think the same thing with no new insight or information. In other words, logging hours thinking without making any progress. More self-aware people spend less time analyzing themselves and spent that time differently.

One simple trade to make is to focus less on “why”, more on “what”  Most of the time we cannot know why we do what we do, and it may not matter. The question of why often doesn’t lead us anywhere productive.

A better question to ask yourself is “what”. For example, what new thinking/habits can you cultivate in place of the behaviour that is making you unhappy. “What” helps us to unearth our potential and own our behaviour.

Examining our motives occasionally is useful. But have a bias towards action and “what” questions.

In terms of how much we need to delve into our pasts in order to understand ourselves in the present, experts say that the critical thing is that we make peace with the past. Beyond that, it may not be hugely useful to decipher what happened in the past.

Insight through journalling and the different types of journaller

Journalling can help anyone to improve their self-awareness. However true insight only happens when we process both our thoughts and our feelings, and most of us are more likely to focus on one than the other (I talk about this in my book).

Eurich says you tend to get three different types of journaller:

  • Emotional discharge  – those who just use their journals to blurt feelings.
  • Dispassionate analysis – those who journal to process thoughts.
  • People who journal to process emotions and use detached objective view to better understand situation. This is the winner for self-awareness. The “aha”s will be more meaningful and well-rounded.

3 self-aware questions to ask at the end of each day

Here are 3 questions that self-aware people from Eurich’s research tended to ask themselves often:

  • “What went well today?”
  • “What didn’t go so well?”
  • “How can I be smarter tomorrow?”

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