Our thoughts impact our actions, which, in turn, impact the outcomes. Our responses to those outcomes form our beliefs, which feed back into our thinking.
Depending on whether our thoughts are positive or negative, it’s a virtuous or vicious cycle. At its center of this cycle lies self-awareness.
The term self-awareness means different things to different people. To some, it’s the ability to monitor their thoughts. Others think of it as a temporary state of self-consciousness. Yet others see it as the difference between their self-image and external image.
To summarize all these views, self-awareness is the ability to know who we are, how others see us, and how we fit in the world.
- Are confident and creative, and take better decisions.
- Report higher satisfaction in their jobs and relationships.
- Feel less anxious, stressed and depressed.
- Are more likely to do the right thing in a given situation.
This makes self-awareness a coveted skill. And like every coveted skill—driving, listening, empathizing—people overvalue how good they are at it. Research by Tasha Eurich showed that while 95% of people think they’re self-aware, less than fifteen percent of people exhibit the trait in the true sense.
Here are 4 behaviors that set self-aware people apart from the rest.
Everyone observes and reflects on daily events and their own behavior. What separates self-aware people from the rest is how they do it.
The conventional way to reflect on an event is to ask why: Why did I lose my cool today? Why did the project get delayed? Why did my partner not tell me that he loves me today?
The real answers to such questions take time to become visible. For instance, you probably lost your cool because your blood sugar level was low. Your project got delayed because you struggled with a specific task in it. Your partner didn’t say the three magic words today because he’s feeling low.
But in the quest for immediate answers, people invent ones that feel true but are wrong. I’m not a good team player. I suck at my work. My partner doesn’t love me anymore.
In the process, they criticize themselves. And since the world is a mirror of ourselves, they end up criticizing the world.
“[O]ur judgments are seldom free from bias. We tend to pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value… and force our thoughts to conform to our initial explanations. Thinking about yourself isn’t related to knowing yourself.” — Tasha Eurich
Self-aware people ask what instead of asking why, according to Eurich. What can I do to control my emotions? What can I do to improve my performance? What can I do to make my partner feel better?
Such a mindset makes them seek answers outside rather than getting stuck in their own heads. They choose curiosity over fear while seeing the world and themselves. As a result, they become aware of their strengths and shortcomings.
Takeaway: Ask what instead of why while reflecting on events. Asking questions that begin with What will improve your awareness of the world and yourself.
2. Talking to Loving Critics
The Johari Window, a framework that helps people understand their relationship with themselves and others better, has a quadrant called Blind Spots. It comprises of traits that others perceive about us but we don’t.
This quadrant is integral to self-awareness. Discovering our blind spots means we must rely on others’ opinions. But there’s a fine line between what others think of us and what we assume they think of us. Self-aware people excel at walking this line.
Most people commit the blunder that Marcus Aurelius found amusing:
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.”
An over-reliance on others’ opinions means you cannot separate the wheat from the chaff. You assume the worthless to be valuable and form faulty opinions of yourself. Until a time comes when you don’t know who you are. Anxiety, depression, and poor health become unwelcome companions on this journey.
But self-aware people seek feedback from loving critics. According to Eurich, these are people who have your best interest at heart, yet will tell you things you need to hear… even if you don’t want to.
Self-aware people also bounce surprising feedback they get off other loving critics to avoid overreacting or overcorrecting themselves based on a single person’s opinion.
Takeaway: Find your tribe of trustworthy people who want what’s best for you, not what they think is best for you. Seek their feedback. Pass it through filters to separate the signal from the noise. Absorb what’s valuable, reject what’s worthless, add what’s essentially yours, and you’ll discover your authentic self.
3. Tearing Off Labels
Our aversion to ambiguity makes us stick labels on everything. Relationships, work, hobbies, and ourselves. As time goes by, these labels dictate our identity.
People do not always learn from experience, nor does expertise help people weed out false information. Likewise, the more power leaders hold, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities.
In other words, experience and designations make us rigid and close-minded and weaken our self-awareness.
It makes logical sense too. Experience makes people complacent. They avoid questioning their assumptions and seeking challenging evidence. And they extend the same biases to their knowledge of themselves.
Self-aware people remain mindful of this trap. They accept that their beliefs and personalities are not carved in stone, but are as malleable as clay. Such a mindset helps them absorb and process new information.
They might live in the same place for their entire lives. But it doesn’t mean they remain the same. They keep upgrading their view of the world and themselves.
“The only true voyage would be not to travel through a hundred different lands with the same pair of eyes, but to see the same land through a hundred different pairs of eyes.” — Marcel Proust
Takeaway: Don’t lock yourself in a room that nobody can enter or exit. Don’t plaster the walls with labels. Walk through open doors into larger rooms and discover new answers.
4. Encouraging Self-Doubt
“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” — Charles Bukowski
In a world where everyone’s falling over each other to show off their smartness, the people filled with doubts are a tiny minority. That’s probably Eurich’s research showed that less than fifteen percent of people are genuinely self-aware.
This sounds contrary to conventional wisdom which dictates that people should ooze confidence in every move. But like in most cases, conventional wisdom is safe but wrong here.
Doubts are good, according to tennis star Rafael Nadal. Even after winning 20 Grand Slam titles, he has plenty of them. He sees people who don’t have doubts as arrogant or devoid of intelligence.
Most people don’t just avoid doubts; they drown it. But self-aware people pay attention to it.
They work despite doubt, embodying the true meaning of courage. In doing so, they learn what they’re capable of, how they act when their backs are against the wall, and how resilient they are. All this feeds into their self-awareness.
Takeaway: Make space for doubts in your life. But don’t let them stop you. Work to overcome them and prove yourself to the only person who matters: you. Become worthy to face bigger challenges. The tougher the challenges you overcome, the more meaningful your life becomes.
Self-awareness helps you understand who you are, how others see you, and how you fit in the world.
To build it:
- Become self-curious, not self-critical.
- Seek and filter feedback from loving critics.
- Rip labels off and keep a beginner’s mind.
- Use self-doubt to evolve as a person.
Achieving self-awareness is not easy, nor is it a one-time affair. It’s a constant game of killing fear with curiosity and being blunt with yourself. But the rewards of each tiny victory are sweeter than your favorite chocolate.
It’s good to face your fears, to let out the person you’re trying hard to repress. Become your own best friend and you won’t need to run away from yourself.