Cultivating Self-Awareness In A Selfie World

Black and white photo with female covering her face with a gray block with a white question mark on it.

What does it mean to be self-aware? Is it about being confident in who you are? Is your sense of self aligned with others’ perceptions of who you are? Or do you find yourself coming to blows with someone who tells you that you’re full of yourself, hot-headed, impatient, etc., because you KNOW they’re wrong (damn straight!) How does self-awareness develop? Do bicultural or bilingual people have different self-awareness frames? Why is self-awareness important?

Rule #4 of the Ten Rules focuses on the idea that we experience similar – often negative – challenges until we become aware and change our perception and behavior (for example, dating the same type of person that won’t commit, experiencing similar issues with coworkers or bosses no matter how many times you switch jobs, etc.). As one of the lessons in Rule #4, awareness is about being attuned to your behavior and surroundings.

It’s about understanding how you view yourself in relation to others (internal), and how others view you (external). It’s being conscious of your behavior, and attempting to fix negative ones that lead to unhealthy patterns because according to Rule #4, “something within you keeps drawing you to the same kind of person or issue.” Once you recognize that you’re on a hamster wheel – dealing with the same issues or coming across the same types of people, you might ask yourself: “Why does this shit always happen to me?” But when you check your ego and look inward, you’ll recognize that it’s not really THEM, it’s YOU (sorry to be so blunt…but I’m really trying to help).

So when the lightbulb goes off and you’re willing to dig deeper to put an end to unhealthy patterns, you should be proud because not a lot of people are willing to do this in order to change their perspective and circumstances for the better. You don’t necessarily need years of therapy to figure this out. There are strategies to turn you into a self-aware badass, but it starts with examining your unhealthy patterns. So let’s explore what psychologists and others have to say about self-awareness.

In The Beginning

The notion of “know thyself” dates back to the ancient Greeks, stated as “know thy measure” in the works of Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle. For Avicenna, the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era, “our awareness of ourselves is our very existence” (deep stuff). Among others, William James, the father of Western psychology, discussed the processes of self-awareness in his seminal work (The Principles of Psychology), stating that the “whole internal equilibrium shifts with every pulse of change” (the only constant is change…we change…things change). According to Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, people lack self-awareness because our behaviors are the result of unconscious forces, and that the best we can do is explain our behaviors away…without much understanding of their root causes.

Man holding his face in his hands with wires hanging from it and from the opening in his face.

In 1972, a unified theory of self-awareness was developed by two Western psychologists, who proposed that “when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves” (similar to what I said earlier but in more sophisticated terms). Since then, the literature on self-awareness and its related terms (insight, self-consciousness, mindfulness, introspection, self-reflection) have expanded, to include self-awareness in emerging computational systems (a topic we will not be discussing here). Also, let’s not forget the popularity of emotional intelligence (EI), with self-awareness identified as its key component. Basically, to be emotionally intelligent is to possess a high level of self-awareness (EI is another topic I’ll hold off discussing here because I intend to write a post about it…yay!).

The Science of Self-Awareness

Without getting too caught up in the intricacies of self-awareness in the academic world, just know that a shitload of research has been conducted (check out this piece if you’re curious, or this one by an academic who believes that there’s too much research out there without much consensus). And not only that, but the academic research also focuses on different types of self-awareness, which isn’t worth detailing here because it doesn’t have much practical relevance (so I’ll spare you).

In terms of when self-awareness develops, researchers estimate that it’s after the first year of a child’s life (visual self-awareness…a child sees him-/herself in a mirror). The added component of emotions and thinking about the self in relation to others is said to develop around the second year of life. There’s also an interesting distinction made between the levels of consciousness.

The four levels of awareness include unconsciousness where you’re unaware of the information you’re processing (being nonresponsive to self and environment). This doesn’t mean you’re in a comatose state, it’s an extension of Freud’s idea (about not knowing the root causes of your behavior), and includes being unaware of how much THAT information about yourself, others, and your environment influences you without you having a clue. Then there’s consciousness where you’re aware of external stimuli, or things outside yourself such as your environment (but you’re probably not at your most introspective at this level).

A mask with zipper unzipped halfway.

This is followed by the third level, self-awareness, which I think we’ve covered (no?!?!). Finally, there’s meta-self-awareness where you’re self-aware and aware that all of your attention is focused on you (no, this doesn’t make you a narcissist…it’s usually a fleeting state…unless it’s all you do, then you might have issues to work out). The meta-self-awareness level makes me think of the selfie phenomenon that’s plagued our existence (am I right?!?!). Or what some refer to as the cult of self, where everyone thinks they’re special and unique and feel the need to constantly blast it across their social media platforms.

FYI: I’m not against selfies, but when someone takes dozens of photos a day and posts them to their social media accounts, it’s hard not to wonder whether they’re obsessed with themselves or whether they think of anyone else other than themselves (jus’ sayin’). Not judging…just observing.

The Emotional Cost of Self-Awareness

Some researchers believe that most of us aren’t self-aware because as a species, this evolutionary milestone has led to NOT thinking about what’s going on around us, allowing us to operate on autopilot, or what’s referred to as a wandering mind. Some agree that self-awareness doesn’t always lead to affective well-being, but that this depends on the strategy employed to achieve self-awareness. If it’s reflective (I made a mistake and what I did was not good, but now I know better), then affective well-being can be achieved; but not if it’s ruminative (why do I always do stupid things?).

The Mindful Self

As a case in point that you can be self-aware and engage in mindfulness, a few researchers have come up with the concept of the mindful self, a “mindfulness-enlightened self-view and attitude developed by internalizing and integrating the essence of Buddhist psychology into one’s self-system.” Some examples include being able to view yourself and others from a more objective perspective, practicing non-attachment, and viewing the self as changeable.

This stands in contrast to Western psychological views of the self as a “definable…entity with particular characteristics, universal needs, and…predictable developmental thrusts.” So basically, according to the view of the mindful self, the reason why you suffer is because of your inability to practice nonattachment (speaks to our consumerism…materialism…the notion that those with the most stuff are the coolest), and your idea of an “independent, permanent self” (seeing yourself as a unique, separate entity…disconnected from those less-special others).

If you practice meditation and mindfulness, then you’ve already incorporated Buddhist philosophy into your life. And while meditation and mindfulness have become all the rage, it can be challenging to practice initially unless you’re dedicated. But most people give up because it takes time to work up to actually quieting your mind (it’s been a challenge for me). Also, if you’re a part of Western society where individualistic values are the norm (my post on forgiveness discusses some of this), nonattachment might be hard to practice. I can understand non-attachment to material things (cars, homes, jewelry, etc.) because, after all, you can’t take it with you when you die (like the Egyptians did), but nonattachment to the people and animals you love?!?! This is a tough one for me.

I’m skittish about getting another dog since putting down our last one (Zeus) 14 years ago because the thought of having to do so is still painful. So like it or not, some of the practices that come with meditation and mindfulness are difficult to internalize (there, I said it!). You’re a product of the society you’re a part of and undoing most of the conditioning and socializing can be a challenge (but not impossible!).

The Generalized Other

A display of mannequin heads of various colors on a wall.

The sociologist George H. Mead was instrumental in expanding psychology’s definition of self and self-awareness from introspection (internal) to a more sociological one or within a social context (external). After all, we’re social beings and don’t operate in a vacuum (unless you’re living in a cabin in the woods without any interaction with others…but you wouldn’t be able to survive as a baby to get to the point where you’ve now become an island unto yourself).

For Mead, the generalized other developed over the lifespan through interactions with others. In this “game” (life) you’re “required to learn not only responses of specific others but behaviors associated with every position on the field.” When these are internalized, you come to see yourself as part of the game – a “system of organized actions.” Does this mean that we play various roles depending on who we’re playing the game with? Yes. Your roles and sense of self vary as a part of a family (parent, sibling), workgroup (boss colleague), or in a relationship (husband, wife). Those who are bilingual “possess two different…‘selves’ which are language-specific…” (as a bilingual, I can attest to this).

Regardless, we’re not pretending or putting on a show; it’s just that certain characteristics are more salient depending on the social context. For example, at work, you might be more subdued and cooperative. At home, you might be more assertive and less-guarded, and with friends, you might be the life of the party – the first to chug down alcohol like prohibition is looming and sing like a pop star while dancing on the bar. Now if you do that at work, you’d probably have to look for another job. And if you treat your significant other like a child, you’ll probably be sleeping on the couch (more often).

Benefits of Self-Awareness

As with gratitude and forgiveness, self-awareness has a number of benefits. Reflective self-awareness is associated with positive psychological adjustment and better self-knowledge, which leads to more productive self-regulation and psychological well-being. Self-awareness increases your ability to take responsibility for your actions and help control anti-social tendencies. It also helps cultivate self-compassion, and increases the ability to engage in perspective-taking, and results in sympathy and compassion for others.

Monkey staring into a mirror.

Self-awareness also increases self-esteem when achievement is attributed to internal factors (I’m competent and work very hard). But if you attribute your failures to internal factors (I’m stupid, I can’t do anything right), or your successes to external factors (The task was easy, I got lucky), then you have to develop confidence in your abilities. On the flip side, if you attribute your failures to external factors (It’s not my fault, they made me mad and I had to punch them…the system is rigged so that’s why I failed), then you need to cultivate self-awareness and learn to take responsibility for your part in whatever goes awry.

It may surprise most people who know me, but I used to attribute my successes to lucky breaks and kindness from others (God loves me! The stars are aligned!). It took some time to see that – while luck might play a role – my achievements are the result of persistence, hard work, and intellect (if I may so). Similarly, when it comes to failures, my first instinct was to go inward and identify my deficiencies (I’m not that smart, I must have pissed off God…). But the more I engage in productive self-awareness, perspective-taking, and not making assumptions nor taking things personally, the more I’ve been able to handle failures and settle misunderstandings with others productively.

In reference to how well you know yourself and how others see you, these may be aligned, or differ starkly. And when there’s a big delta between these two it often leads to negative patterns, requiring us to turn inward to figure out what’s pulling those people and circumstances into our world. The willingness to look inward and cultivate self-awareness isn’t easy, but in so doing, it may help you understand what makes you tick and provide you with a realistic view of how others see you.

Strategies To Cultivate Self-Awareness

Self-awareness has been called the meta-skill of the 21st century, with those in professional sectors incorporating it into training in an effort to produce more self-aware business leaders and worker bees. And whether it’s in the boardroom, clinical setting, or classroom, there are a variety of ways to increase self-awareness. Before examining strategies, you have to assess the roadblocks that might be preventing you from digging deeper. These can be mental (thoughts about yourself and others), emotional (feelings about yourself and others), and/or behavioral (your responses).  

Identify your roadblocks. I’ve provided some tools to help you understand your mental, emotional, and behavioral roadblocks. Reviewing these will help you uncover some of the underlying issues that have led to unhealthy patterns. Beyond these questionnaires, you might find it helpful to seek counseling, especially if you’ve experienced trauma or were raised in a dysfunctional home where issues weren’t addressed and unhealthy patterns still exist.

Roadblocks

We generally carry our dysfunctional ways of relating to others into adulthood. As an informal method of identifying your roadblocks, you can start by simply identifying several healthy and unhealthy mental, emotional, and behavioral responses or reactions, and ask one or two trusted family members or friends to provide you feedback about these dimensions.

For example, my healthy mental reactions are skepticism, focused concentration, and an assessment of alternatives (just to see what else is possible). My unhealthy mental reactions are inactivity, decreased concentration, and defeatism. My healthy emotional reactions are joy, gratitude, and surprise. My unhealthy emotional reactions are frustration, sadness, and fear. Lastly, my healthy behavioral responses include showing compassion, being social, and doing nice things for others. My unhealthy behavioral reactions are isolation, sleep disturbances, and abnormal eating habits. (Get the picture?!?! Now you try it.).    

Once you’ve done some work on identifying your roadblocks, you can move on to considering the following strategies that are part and parcel to increasing self-awareness.

Self-awareness questions. Of all the assessment tools on the internet, I found this one to be quite comprehensive, focusing on social, emotional, spiritual/ethical, financial, and career-oriented questions to help you understand yourself better in various contexts. There are a lot of questions, and I urge you to take the time to answer the ones that are relevant to you. Self-discovery requires work, and yes, what you put in is what you’ll get back. Also, for those of you who struggle with self-compassion, this tool will help you assess how compassionate you are toward yourself.

Listening. Are you a good listener? No, I mean are you an engaged listener who’s not thinking about what you’re going to say next as the person you’re conversing with is speaking? (During graduate studies, I had to take an entire course on listening…true story). Turns out, we’re not as great at listening as we think. I bring this up to highlight the need to really hear people when they’re telling you something about how they see you that you may not agree with. If someone says you’re hot-headed, but you disagree and explain your behavior as being caused by someone’s stupidity, then you’re attributing your behavior to external forces and not taking responsibility.

Two tin cans on a string, depicting a telephone.

This is what I meant when I said earlier that if your sense of self and how others view you differ starkly, maybe it’s because you’re not HEARING what they’re saying, or you don’t want to accept it because it’s too painful! If you’re interested in assessing your active listening skills, take this test (I like this assessment because it calculates your score and gives you substantive feedback). And if you’re interested in exploring the art of listening further, here’s an article that lists a dozen different types of listening with detailed explanations.

Self-reflection. How much time, if at all, do you spend reflecting on who you are, what makes you tick, and why that interaction with so-and-so was so awkward? Or do you just operate on autopilot and become uncomfortable when someone (significant other, friend, co-worker) says they want to talk? In order to hone your self-awareness skills, you need to spend time reflecting. I’m not talking about navel-gazing, more like solution-focused introspection.

Journaling is one way to self-reflect. You can focus on a specific aspect of your life (relationships, career, life goals, etc.) and identify what motivates you to be around certain people or to pursue certain goals (start a business). You don’t have to dissect every aspect of your life all the time. But when unhealthy patterns arise (enough to bother you), journaling will help you identify your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. If it’s a hassle, then lists may work better.

For instance, if you keep running into the same issues with bosses and co-workers (no matter the job), you can jot down the issue (what happened), your actions, their actions, and the outcome. Chances are you’ll notice patterns, and while it may be true that you just don’t have the best of luck with bosses and co-workers, most likely, your actions are contributing factors. This is when it’s important to go inward and ask yourself if there’s a lesson or two that you’re supposed to be learning in order to shift your perception and approach (What am I supposed to learn here?!?! Patience, humility, acceptance, etc.?).

And if you’re stumped, ask a trusted friend or loved one who has your best interests at heart. But be careful here because while those who care for you can provide much-needed constructive feedback to help you achieve healthier patterns, don’t rely solely on the feedback of others. Intuitively, you know what you need to do to align your values with your behaviors (and vice versa).

At the end of the day, your willingness to become the best version of yourself (a self-aware badass), maintain healthy boundaries, and establish healthier patterns of relating are in your own hands. Lastly, it’s a process and not something that’s accomplished overnight. So be patient and kind to yourself. Happy exploring!

Love, peace, and blessings,

FN

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