Self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly. In other words, to understand ourselves, recognize how others see us, and know how we fit within the world we live. How we behave, feel, and are seen by others happens through our thoughts, emotions, stress, and beliefs.
Interestingly, knowing ourselves places us in a position of power and control. Although we may not always like what we see in ourselves, we have the absolute ability to change it.
There are numerous studies that show self-aware individuals are more fulfilled, happier, creative, higher performers, and more confident. Sounds great, what is not to like here?
Notwithstanding the studies, research published in Insight by Organizational psychologist, Tasha Eurich, found that 95% of individuals believe they are self-aware, however, a mere 10-15% of individuals are truly self-aware. A sizeable performance gap by any measure!
So how do we change the unhelpful narrative so many individuals have about themselves and tap into more of the desired things in life?
Our inner narrative and introspection
Going within ourselves to reflect and gain some insight into who and what we are is undoubtedly valuable as a step towards self-awareness. That said, thinking about behaviours, beliefs, and emotions is not the same as knowing ourselves. Let me explain.
Research shows that when we think about why, such as why does Matt react so strongly when Jon says: “You need to be more proactive in assessing business risks!”, or why is Isabelle so opposed to the idea of removing someone’s citizenship because of a misguided decision they made as a teenager, ironically, we move away from self-awareness.
Our unconscious mind
There are a few reasons individuals lack self-awareness. The easiest one to understand is that we struggle to tap into our unconscious motives, beliefs, and feelings. The same motives, beliefs, and feelings from moments in the past are usually inextricably linked to our reactions today. So, to bring meaning for ourselves, we tend to create a narrative that feels “true” but is often misguided or just plain untrue. This narrative then becomes “our truth” when in fact it is anything but true. We just aren’t consciously aware of it. So much so in fact, that we can go on to deny the truth even when it’s shown to us.
Our recent experiences
The second common reason relates to the proximity of an experience. For example, if Hamid leaves the dishes on the counter instead of putting them in the dishwasher on Monday (let’s say a rare occurrence) and he forgets to do it again on Wednesday – the reaction from his partner, Josée, is more likely be “You are leaving the dishes out yet again, you always do!”. Contrast that with the contextualized Hamid has left out the dishes merely twice in two years. Recency or proximity of the experience influences our perception of the behaviour because it is fresh in our minds.
These little niggles can then amplify into larger distorted thoughts such as “the relationship with Hamid is not going so well.”
So how do we tackle this tendency?
Developing true self-awareness
At its simplest, we need to stop asking ourselves “why….” and start asking ourselves “what….” questions.
Let me illustrate. Imagine Lisa receiving a poor performance evaluation rating during the year-end annual appraisal process. Her mind races to “why doesn’t my manager, Sally, rate me highly? I work my socks off for the team!” In this approach, Lisa may create a narrative for herself of alternative facts. She may start to think Sally is clueless (yes, this must be it). Or, Sally is herself incompetent. Or, perhaps Sally just has it in for Lisa. This self-developed narrative ultimately clouds the truth and moves Lisa further away from self-awareness. It effectively keeps her “trapped in the past”. What if the first question instead was: “what do I need to do differently so Sally can see that I am the best person for this role?”
This allows Lisa to identify the future actions necessary to create a positive performance outcome:
- To focus on what truly matters,
- to be clear about the actions needed, and
- to invest energy in activities that will pay off in the end.
So, “what…” questions allow us to move forward through a better understanding of ourselves and how others see us.
Instead of trying to boil the ocean, get specific and tangible. For example, if you dislike your job right now, list the various jobs you’ve held over the years (paid or volunteer) and identify what you enjoyed most about them. What themes and patterns emerge?
Self-awareness is about being in control of our behaviours, emotions, stress, and feelings. We can do that when we are clear about what went well in our day, what we might do differently tomorrow (or next time), or perhaps knowing who we need to tap on the shoulder for help with something specific.
The self-awareness journey may not always be easy, but it is well worth the effort to live a happier and more fulfilled life!
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Cartoon credit: Connie J. Sun