What are the benefits of self-awareness and how can we develop it?
We hear that we need to develop self-awareness to manage stress and to create positive relationships. But why is it so important? Research demonstrates that self-aware people are more balanced, confident, maintain positive relationships, and have a greater sense of achievement (Eurich, 2017). Being self-aware is an element of emotional intelligence (Mayer et al., 2008). As we become aware of our thoughts and feelings, we can understand and manage them, enabling us to have positive communications, empathise with others, and identify what matters most to us.
Self-awareness is having a good understanding of what motivates us, understanding our behaviour and feelings. It allows us to have better control over our emotions and our behaviour. This knowledge enables us to make changes, develop new habits and learn new skills. It also allows us to be more accepting of our vulnerabilities so that once we acknowledge them, we can decide to build our skills and strengthen our resilience.
We can be internally self-aware – that is, we are aware of our thoughts and feelings, and we can be externally self-aware – when we are aware of other people and how they view us.Research shows that, although many of us do self-introspection to learn about ourselves, it is not helpful to start with the question “Why?”. This question focuses our attention on our emotions or behaviours, but in doing so, we start to rationalise why we feel (or do) a certain way. It can inadvertently create a loop of negative thoughts lowering our mood, including self-critical thoughts. However, there could be several explanations for our behaviour. Instead, it is best to ask the question, “What?”. It directs our attention to exploring details of what is happening to tap into our problem-solving skills (Eurich, 2017).
We tend to ask ourselves, “Why is this happening to me?” to try to understand what is going on. However, we are more likely to find explanations such as “because I am not capable, or I must have done something wrong.” For example, when negative events happen we may wonder why we are unlucky. These thoughts are likely to trigger further negative thoughts and lower our confidence. We often look for logic to understand what we cannot control, but many things happen randomly without any particularly logic.
Instead, if we ask, “What happened?” With this question we can redirect our attention to the whole experience, notice different aspects of to learn from in, and identify what we can do differently to move forwards.
Being self-aware allows us to notice our thoughts and feelings and recognise when we need to redirect our attention to explore possible solutions and prevent getting stuck. At other times, we will notice that there are factors we cannot control, so we need to find a way to deal with the reality of the situation. It does not mean that we are giving up, but saving energy when we can do something constructive. In the meantime, we can adjust our attitude to manage the situation and prepare for when we can make a different choice.
Many people have commented they have felt more tired during the pandemic. It is not surprising as we have all had to adjust to many changes such as adapting to working at home and spending a lot of time online. We need the energy to do this work that requires more effort to maintain our concentration. We need the strength to manage feelings such as frustration and disappointment. Also, we have to manage the uncertainty of how the pandemic will unfold and what we will be able to do once we come out of lockdown.
When we are tired, it is harder to persevere with our efforts. Our brain monitors our energy level and will calculate how much energy we can spend. It will prioritise essential body functions, and once we have more energy, we can allocate it to other energy-intensive tasks ((Feldman Barrett, 2020).
Increasing self-awareness enables us to learn from experience. The more we know about ourselves the more we are able to recognise what would help to make progress and be open to making changes. Applying the information to make adjustments enables us to improve and gradually master the skills we want to develop. Furthermore, having a good understanding of ourselves enables us to empathise with others to understand other people’s behaviour.
Self-awareness increases our ability to receive feedback as information that can help to make improvements. We can identify people who are thinking about our best interests to give us feedback and discuss alternative ways to move forwards.
Being self-aware means that we are more realistic about our abilities, recognising our strengths and vulnerabilities so we are better able to deal with the feedback provided.
Unplug: we need to dedicate time away from screens, and create the opportunity to be on our own for a while. Learning to be comfortable in our company is necessary to learn about our feelings and what is important, away from distractions. it also helps to ground ourselves.
Practice mindfulness: This exercise involves noticing what is happening now—being fully present with all our senses, noticing sounds, smells, images, thoughts and feelings. It means being open to the experience without resistance or avoidance (Gilbert & Choden, 2013)
Dedicating some time, even if it is only for a few minutes, will enable us to develop our ability to focus our attention on what is happening. When noticing distracting thoughts – it is best to acknowledge them and then let them go. They are thoughts, not facts. When going through difficult times, we tend to get immersed in painful thoughts or avoid them. Mindfulness enables us to experience reality without getting caught up in the negative thoughts. It allows us to regulate our emotions to respond in a new way to manage the situation. Practising being mindful regularly will strengthen our ability to regulate emotions and reduce tension.
Take time to reflect: Research shows that writing down our thoughts in a notebook is an effective technique to process thoughts and feelings. Asking ourselves, “what is happening?” To focus our attention to understand the whole situation without self-judgment. It helps to clarify ideas and to understand feelings (Pennebaker, 2018).
Practice listening: We usually think we are good listeners; however, often, we can be more focused on our list of things to do that we miss information. Or, we make assumptions about what others are saying and miss important details.
Taking time to pay attention to the other person and what they are saying will help to understand and communicate well. Summarising your understanding, checking with others what they have understood and clarifying meanings will prevent misunderstandings and strengthen relationships.
Practice self-compassion: It involves treating ourselves in the way we would treat our best friend when going through a difficult time. We could say that we turn our inner critic into our inner ally. When we are aware of our difficulties and respond to ourselves with kindness and compassion, we can make changes. It means that we acknowledge that we can make mistakes, like all human beings, and we practice self-acceptance, allowing us to identify what we can do to move forwards.
When we recognise that we are interconnected with other human beings who also experience life events and challenges, we can better understand ourselves and others around us. Learning to accept ourselves and our imperfections strengthens our resilience to deal with challenges. (Neff, 2011).
Eurich, T. (2017) Insight. How to succeed by seeing yourself clearly. London: Pan Macmillan.
Feldman Barrett, L. (2020) Seven and a half lessons about the brain. London: Pan Macmillan.
Gilbert, P. & Choden, (2013) Mindful compassion. Using the power of mindfulness and compassion to transform our lives. Great Britain: Robinson
Mayer, J.D., Salovey, P, & Caruso, D.R. Emotional intelligence. New ability or eclectic traits?
American Psychologist, September 2008, Vol 63, No 6, pp503-517.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Pennebaker, J.W. Expressive writing in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological science. March 2018, Vol 13, No 2, pp 226-229.