Self-awareness is one of those fundamental capabilities that helps you achieve whatever it is that you are striving for. Self-awareness has been on my radar a lot recently. It has been a topic of recent workshops and I feel like it is the right time for me to bring more subtlety to my own self-awareness. Through doing my own retreats and semi-regular daily practice I have developed more self-awareness but without much thought as to exactly how I wish to be using it (the realisation of which is an achievement of self-awareness in itself!). What I have noticed in this current time of high pressure and responsibilities, is that self-awareness has been kicking in instinctively to help me look after myself – knowing when I need to not have that third coffee, when I need to cancel that plan and go to bed early or when I need to take a moment to observe my own thought patterns and check if stress is negatively influencing how I am perceiving situations.
As humans, we always have some level of self-awareness (and some other animals such as elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, apes and magpies!). Self-awareness is about learning to better understand what you feel, why you feel it and why you behave the way you do. It is not a uni-dimensional concept; you are not either self-aware or not, there are levels of increasing depth and subtlety. Self-awareness becomes a defining capability when you develop it to enough of an extent that you can use it intentionally.
It is impossible to change in a purposeful way if you are unclear on who you are presently.
Give this a go. Try describing yourself without mentioning the who your friends and family are, the various roles you play, your job, what you do etc, using only the inner qualities, thoughts, feelings and behaviours that make you who you are.
Self-awareness is fundamental to personal growth, self-control and emotional intelligence and hence crucial to success in any area of life.
The original framework for Emotional Intelligence posed by Daniel Goleman has self-awareness as one of the four pillars of emotional intelligence. Knowing your own tendencies allows you to predict and prepare for situations that may elicit emotional reactions. Self-awareness in the moment (being mindful of self) allows you to actively calm yourself or put in place strategies for self-control.
The value of self-control cannot be underestimated. Your ability to delay gratification and think “long-term” directly affects your ability to succeed personally and professionally. A famous longitudinal study on self-control was carried out in Dunedin, New Zealand. They took all children born in one year and tested their ability as preschoolers to resist temptation in the form of a marshmallow. They left the children alone in a room, telling them they could have the marshmallow but if they waited until the experimenter got back they could have two. The children were followed up as adults. They found that childhood self-control predicts success and failure in adult life in a number of measures such as financial wealth, relationships, physical health and drug dependence. The effect of self-control was above and beyond IQ and the socio-economic status of the family they grew up in.
Self-awareness is crucial to your most important goals. It enables you to make decisions that are not shaped by biases, assumptions or emotional reactions.
You can develop self-awareness with mindfulness practice. I recommend practicing both selective attention, where you focus on just one aspect of yourself, and open attention where you let whatever is arising inside come and then dissolve away. As you become aware of aspects of yourself, it is important that you accept those aspects simply as ‘what is’ rather than judging them as good or bad. Practicing being non-judgemental is an important part of the practice of mindfulness. Once you master that, it can become quite intriguing and entertaining observing yourself!
In the long run, the value really of self-awareness becomes exponential if you engage in reflection and enable second-order learning. “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.” But I guess that’s another blog post…