Is it possible to be yourself...yet not know yourself?
At face value, that question seems like a contradiction. After all, we live in our bodies. Who would have better insight into our thoughts, motivations, and desires than ourselves?
As a therapist, I have a different perspective. I often see intelligent, insightful, and motivated people who struggle with self-awareness.
The truth is, we can easily go through an entire day without turning our attention inwards. It's completely possible for thoughts, emotions, and desires to pass through us and impact the world without any self-evaluation.
To develop self-awareness, we have to interrupt this passive process!
In this post we will:
Discuss what self-awareness is and why it's important
Provide tips for developing your own sense of self-awareness
Let's get into it.
What Is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness is paying attention to the way we think, feel, and behave.
This might look like:
Understanding our default responses to situations
Looking for patterns in our thinking, behaviour, and how we perceive what happens to us in life
Taking time to sit with and understand our emotions, especially the uncomfortable or scary ones
We tend to take self-awareness for granted when in fact, developing self-awareness is an active, not passive, process.
Being a therapist has taught me one thing for sure: we can't assume that we understand everything about our behaviours, motivations, and impact on others simply because we are the ones behind the scenes.
Sometimes we need another perspective to get in touch with our introspective side (i.e. therapy). However, there are also many things we can do to work on building self-awareness on our own.
Let's talk about why this is a worthwhile endeavour.
Why Is Self-Awareness Important?
Self-awareness is an important aspect of emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize, understand, manage and use our emotions in a constructive way. Take a moment to appreciate the power of emotional intelligence. There is really no area of life where having a strong sense of emotional intelligence would be wasted!
We can use emotional intelligence to be better leaders, deepen relationships, manage conflict, empathize with others, turn our dreams into reality, and ultimately lead more fulfilling lives.
However, without being aware of our emotions in the first place and how they affect our thoughts and behaviours we can't truly develop emotional intelligence.
Here are a few other areas you might see the value of developing a strong sense of self-awareness:
Better Relationships (Romantic or Otherwise)
Our ability to strengthen relationships begins with looking inwards. When we understand our own triggers and what we want from the relationship, we can communicate what we want from our partners, family, friends, and colleagues.
We are also able to recognize and reign in default behaviours like getting defensive during arguments, or withdrawing from important conversations.
Have you ever started a sentence and just hoped you would figure out the point you're making along the way? This is what it's like to communicate your needs when you don't understand them yourself!
When we understand ourselves, we can communicate more clearly, assertively, and also easily respect the needs and wishes of others.
A common root of procrastination is a fear of failure and other forms of self-sabotage- not necessarily a lack of commitment and effort! Improving self-awareness can help us recognize and eliminate those emotional barriers to productivity that hold us back.
Better Control Over Moods
Self-awareness involves tuning into the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. When we understand the way these interact and effect each other, we have more control over our experience of the world.
Understanding where the feelings are coming from is an important step in learning how to regulate them!
5 Ways To Improve Your Self-Awareness
In many ways, therapy is an exercise in increasing self-awareness. As I mentioned earlier, it's very easy to breeze through our lives without any reflection.
To counteract this tendency, you'll notice that each of the suggestions below involves deliberate and often slow contemplation.
Let's slow down, and figure it out together.
1. Draw A Timeline Of Your Life
I love this one! We found this suggestion on Nick Wignall's blog. The whole point of this is to contemplate your life from a 'zoomed out' perspective.
Here is how it works:
Take a blank sheet of paper and draw a line through the middle
Now mark the important events of your life, big or small. Take care to note the things that YOU deem important, as well as what you have been told by others (i.e. major childhood events)
Look back at your timeline and observe if anything surprises you or if you perceive any of the events differently when seeing them represented this way
This activity allows us to put the events of our lives in context. This encourages different perspectives and even realizations about events we have thought about countless times (i.e. of course I was acting out, my parents were fighting and my cousin moved away that summer).
2. Clarify Your Values
Most of us don't spend time activity thinking about our values and aspirations in life. This leaves us chasing fulfilment and satisfaction in life when we are not even sure what this looks like for us!
Clarifying our values allows to understand what truly matters to us (and not just what society or our families dictate as valuable.
Make time every month- block it out on your calendar- to sit down and think/write about your values. This way, you are meeting circumstances with your values in hand, rather than making them up along the way or moulding them to suit the situation.
What would make me happy?
Is there something I feel called to do?
What do I believe is the purpose of life (where does it lead, why are we here)?
What values and characteristics can I embody to lead a life I am truly proud of?
3. Ask Trusted Friends To Be An Honest Mirror
Asking for genuine feedback is never easy because it requires vulnerability.
Why put yourself through this? Sometimes we need to know how we are coming across to others. For example, many people who respond defensively do not realize they doing this and how it works to shut down effective communication. Our most default reactions are not always apparent to us, yet they reveal a lot about how we understand and interact with the world.
The people we trust and respect are in a unique position to offer honest and constructive feedback. Try and choose someone you have a great rapport or relationship with and start off easy- giving feedback can be as intimidating as receiving it!
4. Pay Attention To What You Avoid (And Why)
What is the one thing you will go to any lengths to avoid? Is it failure, childhood memories, or a particular emotion (i.e. distress, sadness, guilt, even happiness)?
There are experiences and emotions we will go to long (and often harmful) lengths to avoid. Avoidance behaviours tend to have a numbing or freezing effect- they prevent us from feeling or re-living that emotion or experience.
Identifying your avoidance behaviour can lead to noticing the feelings you can't stand to experience.
For example, say you binge Netflix for hours every night. Next time you are settling down to do this, pause (literally) and get curious about WHAT you are not thinking about or not doing. Perhaps you are not working on an assignment because you need to do well and feel scared you will fail...so you don't start. Or maybe you are feeling lonely and need to get lost in other stories to avoid feeling this emotion.
Getting to the root of our avoidance behaviours can be painful and distressing. Go slow and ask for support if you need it!
5. Notice What Sets You Off
This one requires us to put lay down arms- it won't work if we are defensive or proud!
Notice what qualities about other people get under your skin. This can be things that cause you to have mean or hurtful thoughts, or just stuff that truly irritates you.
Here's the truth bomb: What bothers us about other people is often rooted in something we dislike about ourselves or feel ashamed of
For example, if you find someone's loud and boisterous nature annoying, there's a possibility you wish you had the level of confidence and lack of self-consciousness to express yourself this way.
Before You Go...
Often, the very last thing we want to do is look within ourselves. Putting the pieces together can be a scary thing when we are not entirely sure what the end result will be. However, keep in mind that we all have the ability to observe ourselves with a loving eye. Wanting to be more self-aware is synonymous with wanting to wanting to live well.
I want to assure you of this: every single one of us has something we don't know about ourselves that can change the way we live our lives.
That, to me, is incredibly exciting. Not knowing everything about yourself makes life more interesting, as long as you are willing to fill in the gaps along the way.
What has your self-awareness journey been like? I would love to hear about the big and small moments that have helped you grow more in tune with yourself.
That’s all for me! If you have any questions about this topic, feel free to send me an email. Or book an appointment with anyone from WellNest’s awesome team! You can also book a free phone consult at anytime.
Until next time!
Mental Health Content Specialist
Hala Shamsi is a Social Worker and Mental Health Content Specialist at WellNest Psychotherapy Services. She is always deep in the middle of an internet spiral to bring you fresh insights into the world of mental wellness.
Is there a topic you want to see covered in this blog? Feel free to reach out at the email above to let her know!