THE BLOG

Cultivating Self-Awareness

06/25/2013 12:38 am ET | Updated Aug 24, 2013

Awareness is what makes humans unique from all other species. No other species, as far as we are aware, has the same degree of awareness that humans are capable of, and it's what drives us to delve into our minds and into outer space. Self-awareness is a tremendous tool for helping us understand ourselves and be at peace with who we are. So many issues we face in our lives, from stress, relationship problems, angst, negative perceptions, our moods, our behavior can all be seen and understood more clearly through the prism of self-awareness.

As a coach, I help shift my clients' behaviors or perceptions by starting with awareness. For instance, a client of mine often reacts (in what he feels is inappropriately) angrily in work or personal situations. He feels this is out of character with his own perception as a nice guy who is level-headed and even lovable. To be able to get to the root of his anger he had to become aware of his triggers and what they mean. Inappropriate anger often means we are reacting to old wounds as well as to current threats. By becoming more self-aware in the moments just before being triggered, my client was able to slow down his rapid-fire response and create more choice for himself instead of shooting from the hip.

Awareness begins with a concept known as Theory of Mind. The theory suggests that not only is a human aware of him or herself, but we are aware that other humans are aware of us and of themselves too. In a ground-breaking theory, Ajit Varki and Danny Brower postulate in Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind that human ability to create deceptions, false beliefs and live in denial has been a powerful force in human evolution. Theory of mind gives us just enough awareness to lie, cheat, steal, be in denial, and create irrational beliefs. In other words, it gives us just enough awareness to misbehave and get ourselves in trouble.

Awareness is a powerful tool. When used the right way it will undo much of the harm we create by lying or creating false beliefs. Much of our behavior stems from unconscious beliefs or patterns. As long as our behaviors remain unconscious, we are a slave to them. Without an objective awareness of our unconscious desires or behavior we are powerless to alter them, even when they cause us pain again and again. Self-awareness helps us cut through our own bullshit like a knife. For instance, we say we want to be healthy and live a long life but our behavior might be the total opposite. Awareness is seeing the truth about our behavior, not listening to our excuses or accepting denials. A keener understanding of our behavior is the first step in changing our behavior.

Awareness comes in many forms and levels, and for all we know, each of us has a unique experience of it. For instance, some people experience it through mindfulness, which creates a heightened sense of being. Someone who is mindful may experience sensations inside and outside the body and mind more powerfully than others. I do know that awareness can be taught, it can be learned, it can be discovered, but I'm not sure that it can ever be arrived at. In other words, it's a gradual unpeeling where you never get to the core. There is always something lurking behind current revelations. No one can ever be supremely aware, just more aware than others or more aware than she was yesterday.

If self-awareness is so crucial to our health, happiness, sense of self worth, our emotions and our behavior, how do we get it? Like all things in therapy, it starts with a feeling that something isn't right. Say you made a decision that might make sense rationally, yet you feel like a pit has opened up in your stomach. The disconnect or a gap between your mind and your body is the first clue there's something's wrong. Try to understand that feeling in your gut. Have you felt it before? How does it make you feel? As for the decision, deconstruct your thought process. Have you made decisions before that have produced the same reaction in you? By pulling on the ends of the spaghetti, you may gradually untangle the jumble of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that created the confusion. Filtering through our own stuff is a difficult job. We can see other people's inconsistencies and strange behavior easier than we can our own, so having a trusted friend or a professional for feedback makes the process much faster and easier.

Cultivating self-awareness requires the following qualities to be successful:

  1. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves. Without honesty we will be easily fooled by our own self-deceptions.
  2. We need to be focused on the issue at hand. Without focus we will quickly lose the thread.
  3. We need to be determined to see this through. Persistence will win in the end.
  4. We need to have perspective lest we blow small issues out of proportion.
  5. We need to be observant and vigilant. I liken it to reserving a part of my mind that looks over my shoulder and watches me.
  6. Curiosity helps keep us free from judgment. The point isn't to judge ourselves but to just notice and bear witness as objectively as possible.
  7. Rather than analyze our actions, which tends to play into the machinations of our mind, we need to lead with our feelings.

The results of your efforts at becoming more self-aware build authenticity within you. Self awareness leads to self confidence by building on knowledge of who you are. You won't experience as many anguished decisions or the feeling of being pulled in two directions quite as often. You will be able to see other people's unconscious behavior and so help them if you don't become a pain in the ass. Self-awareness helps create an inventory of your unconscious behaviors and desires. When all your behaviors are totally integrated into your personality you have achieved a state of being comfortable in your own skin.

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