4 ways to grow your self-awareness

written by Nikki Williamson

Discover how to develop and flex your self-awareness muscle

Credit: Franciele Cunha

Self-awareness is something you naturally begin to develop around your first birthday. But it isn’t a completely automatic process; rather, it’s something you need to consciously address the older you get. Busy lives, distractions and fear are often at the heart of why we neglect self-awareness — yet it’s really the only way forward if you want to build better relationships, achieve your goals and lead a contented life.

As a topic of both philosophical and later psychological study, self-awareness is about understanding who you are in a practical sense. That is, why do you do the things you do? Why do you behave in certain ways? Why do you struggle to begin the process of meeting your health or professional goals? Why can some people influence your moods so easily?

The answers lie within you and are based on a combination of genetics and environment — that is, the traits and vulnerabilities you’ve inherited as well as your experiences. No one is the same as you: no one can have your experiences or your combination of genes, not even siblings growing up in the same home. As such, you cannot look for explanations and solutions to who you are anywhere else. You are your best source of information — as long as you know how to look for it.

The science of knowing self

According to psychologists, self-awareness is a psychological state in which individuals are aware of their traits, feelings and behaviour. Yet self-awareness is more complicated than an admission of anger or frustration, an admission that you’re sociable or unsociable. Instead, it’s about unmasking whether anger is situational or something simmering continuously beneath the surface; if frustration is about not getting what you want from others or not being able to provide it for yourself; if your sociability is about being loved or your unsociability about being overly self-conscious. In short, generalisations are not what self-awareness is about.

To achieve self-awareness, then, you must look at what you do, your motives, what you think, how you react to certain events, people and situations and whether or not that needs managing or refining to allow you to achieve what you want from life. You must look at yourself from a perspective of distance, a perspective where you don’t view yourself through rose-coloured glasses but with honesty and a willingness to see yourself wholly — warts and all.

You cannot look for explanations and solutions to who you are anywhere else. You are your best source of information — as long as you know how to look for it.

How do you achieve this? Take your cue from mindfulness, a process that allows you to view yourself objectively and without judgement or defensiveness. Once you begin to become self-aware, you can then use other tools to manage what you find.

Achieving self-awareness is not an easy or necessarily pretty process. The truth about yourself may be discomforting or even distressing — yet no one is perfect and nor do they have to be. Self-awareness isn’t about becoming an ideal human being; instead, it’s about understanding self to better manage your flaws while harnessing your strengths.

It’s this that is the hardest aspect of self-awareness: acknowledging that you may not always behave in ways that are nurturing to self or others, acknowledging that you don’t always behave appropriately or say the right things. Without this acknowledgement, though, it’s impossible to make real changes to become the kind of person you wish to be.

It’s important to remember that the process of developing self-awareness isn’t about passing judgement. Nor is it about labels of good or bad. It’s simply about becoming aware. It’s about ensuring that what you do aligns with your values and ambitions; that you’re on the same page, internally and externally. When internal values don’t align with behaviour it’s necessary to work out why and then act to change it. If you don’t attend to this discrepancy, you live a half-life where you feel uncomfortable in your skin; where guilt, frustration, grief and emotional pain can too easily overwhelm you.

About those needs and goals

Self-awareness involves keen introspection but it’s not about self-absorption or overthinking everything you do and say. It’s simply about being aware of your needs and goals and working out what you can do to improve your chances of attaining them. Realising that what you’re doing isn’t correlating with what you want is half the battle; the other half requires you to rethink your actions so you can realign yourself to reflect more truly who you are and what you want to achieve.

Understanding who you are and why you do what you do is crucial for meeting personal goals such as developing and maintaining healthy intimate relationships. But self-awareness is not just about achieving emotional equilibrium. It’s also about opening a path toward practical achievements such as a better career, financial security, fitness and weight loss. Self-awareness affects every aspect of life so its importance is high — despite the fact most people operate on autopilot most of the time.

So how can you make the necessary changes toward introspection? How can you begin to make that journey into yourself?

A therapist or other nurturing relationship can help you to face your truths and deal with them in a carefully managed way but you can also take steps on your own. The most difficult aspect of self-awareness is that it exposes you — completely. Self-exposure is necessary if you want to live a more honest life but, for some, being exposed is too frightening even to contemplate. If you shy away from the idea of bringing others into your quest for self-awareness, it’s possible to begin the process in private.

What is the path toward self-knowledge? What do you need to know to begin? Let’s dig deeper.

How to uncover your blind spots

Everyone has blind spots: behaviours and attitudes that you fail to acknowledge, things about yourself that are known to others but not usually to you. Sometimes these blind spots reflect traits that can be harmful. For example, you may become defensive when criticised on any level; you may be judgemental or harsh in your observations of others. You may imagine you’re being thoughtful and helpful while others may see the behaviour as manipulative; you might think of yourself as passionate while others see you as narrow-minded.

These and other unhelpful traits are things people are often unaware of in themselves yet may harm that individual’s reputation, relationships and opportunities to achieve their goals and desires.

Self-awareness isn’t about becoming an ideal human being; instead, it’s about understanding self to better manage your flaws while harnessing your strengths.

You can also be blind to your strengths — again, things that are obvious to others but not to you. These are traits and skills that would see you achieve more if you harnessed them. For example, it may be that you can put people automatically at ease, that you’re perceptive or resilient. Perhaps you’re a quick thinker, able to problem-solve effectively and efficiently, or maybe you’re patient and good at detail.

These finer points are also something that self-awareness can unveil and, as with your less-appealing traits, can be analysed and managed through introspection and then action.

The “vanity block”

Author and psychologist Cordelia Fine has dubbed the “vain brain” that part of your thinking that protects you from the truth of yourself. She describes it as a defensive mechanism that the brain uses without conscious effort to shield individuals from their failings. It’s a self-serving bias that — despite evidence to the contrary — allows you to believe you’re not responsible for your mistakes or bad behaviour. It offers excuses that keep you from having to examine your motives, emotions and behaviours: it was someone else’s fault, it was circumstance, bad luck, illness, exhaustion.

Unfortunately, humans have a whole range of ways to protect themselves from the truth. In order to defeat these mechanisms, you need to know them, so here they are:

How do you learn to switch off these automatic defences in order to get a clear unfettered view of your worst and best self? Knowledge, as they say, is power and observation is the surest way to learn about others and, crucially, yourself.

So, if you observe when these mechanisms are triggered you can begin to analyse what you’re trying to protect yourself from. Do you rationalise your anger? Do you deny the hurt your words might have caused? Do you repress memories of a time when you behaved badly, blocking any chance of changing your future?

Observing your emotional responses

Thoughts and behaviours should be the main target of any attempts at self-awareness; however, it’s your understanding of the emotion that triggers your thoughts and behaviours that will give you a firm foundation to act upon.

What psychologists understand is that what you think, say and do stems from your emotional responses to your environment and that these emotional responses have been formed through past experience, cultural norms, values and interactions with your family, friends and peers. As such, self-awareness requires you to work backwards from what you can easily see of yourself — what you say and do — to what is less easy: what you think and what you feel.

When you do understand where your self-talk takes you, you can begin to use it as a coach when necessary, as a calming voice when required and as a guide to help you to view the world, others and yourself with less judgement.

Emotions are generally present before you consciously recognise them and can be sensed in a range of physiological changes such as butterflies in the tummy, spreading warmth or cold, trembling, clenching of muscles. It’s rare though to spend time acknowledging these signs. This means that, for those bodily changes that signify emotions like fear, anger, anxiety or resentment, it’s only through your words and actions that you realise you are indeed angry, frightened or anxious.

Emotional awareness, then, helps you to recognise what’s happening before you react so that you can identify your emotions, harness them and/or manage them. For example, if you can recognise when you’re becoming angry you can harness your anger so that it can be diffused or redirected into a benign action. Or you can learn to manage it so that you create habits in which anger is expressed in ways that don’t harm you or others via words or actions.

Likewise, if you recognise signs of anxiety you can identify them before they become overwhelming, either removing yourself temporarily from a situation or conversation or using techniques such as measured breathing to dampen your feelings to a manageable level.

How to become more emotionally aware

Listing to your self-talk

Self-talk goes on in your head most of the time with about 6000 thoughts flitting through your mind each day. Given the overwhelming number of thoughts, their impact on your mood and the way they can build on feelings is extraordinary. When you get into a train of negative thinking, for example, you can put yourself into a depressive mood, become short or snappy with others, become suspicious or unnecessarily judgemental.

In essence, where emotions trigger your thoughts, words and actions, your thoughts also have a feedback function, potentially making emotions more potent. Your thoughts, therefore, can have a huge impact on your wellbeing.

Self-awareness requires you to become familiar with your thought patterns, those that inspire or make you feel confident and those that bring you down. When you observe your own self-talk, you can determine where your thinking most often goes: to the negative or to the positive. That is, are you thinking positively or negatively about yourself or others or the situation you’re in? In observing your self-talk, you can analyse it, determine what is realistic, what is judgemental and what your patterns are.

When you do understand where your self-talk takes you, you can begin to use it as a coach when necessary, as a calming voice when required and as a guide to help you to view the world, others and yourself with less judgement. Changing your self-talk takes time and effort — but the rewards can be extraordinary.

The payoffs

If you want to achieve a better space for yourself in the world, it’s essential to be self-aware. All of the advice, training and self-help won’t work and can’t be useful if you don’t know how they apply to you and how you can make them work for you. Becoming self-aware doesn’t require you to diminish yourself by feeling disappointed or dejected when discovering those things about yourself that could be classified as weaknesses; rather, this knowledge will allow you to take control of these traits, your future and your goals to achieve your best.

Gaining self-awareness frees you from the bonds of guilt, frustration, hopelessness, ignorance and anguish by giving you the power to more consciously choose how you proceed in any given situation to get the best outcome for yourself and others. Enjoy the process.

4 ways to grow your self-awareness


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Nikki Williamson