As technology advances, the world prospers, and options become multiplied, many influential people have prescribed self-control and discipline as the key to long-term success and genuine happiness. However, few of them have highlighted that developing and maintaining self-control or discipline is impossible without sufficient self-awareness.
That’s why in this post, we will look deep into what self-awareness is, the types of self-awareness, the dangers of lacking it, the challenges in developing it, and finally, how you can develop it.
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. To be self-aware means to know what your strengths, weaknesses, and motivations are. It also means keeping track of your behaviour as it influences and is influenced by people, things, and circumstances around you.
From the definition above, it is clear metacognition – i.e, the ability or process of thinking about your own thinking – is necessary to exercise self-awareness.
In the song “U” from the album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar opens up about his struggles with depression and self-doubt, by addressing himself in the second person. In the first verse, he said, “I place blame on you still, place shame on you still. Feel like you ain’t shit, feel like you don’t feel”. This brutal honesty, and analysis of his shortcomings, mistakes, regrets, and pain continued throughout the song.
Of course, it was only an artistic depiction of what self-awareness looks like – in this case, awareness of limitations and imperfections. But, that is not to say self-awareness is the same as being hard on yourself. Self-awareness can lead to realising a lot of awesome things about yourself; such as your interests, flair, and passion.
Furthermore, someone who is self-aware will be able to tell
- when a conversation is inciting their anger, greed, lust, or some other emotion,
- when consuming a piece of content (texts, pictures, or videos) is enlightening, calming, triggering, unsettling, or distracting them,
- when a certain food or substance is energising, intoxicating, or debuffing them,
- when their emotions (like anxiety about death) are causing them unease, insomnia, or lack of appetite.
Self-awareness is like the driver of a car that can tell when the tires are losing traction, the brakes are failing, or the headlamps are fried and need replacement. That is, even though the vehicle is working (even though you are still living your life, going about your usual activities), self-awareness is what informs you to park and fix what might lead to disaster in the future.
“Self-awareness is the foundation of self-improvement.”– David Leonhardt
2 Main Types of self-awareness:
In her article, “The Danger of a Single Story” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explained how she was overwhelmed with shame after realising she had wrongly thought of the Mexicans as abject immigrants thanks to media depictions. She has also spoken openly about her own experiences with racism and sexism and has encouraged others to reflect on their own biases and assumptions. What is admirable is her ability to recognize her false assumptions, and how they might affect how she treated others. And that there demonstrates a high level of both internal and external self-awareness:
This involves understanding your values, beliefs, and personality traits. A high level of internal self-awareness enables you to have a clear sense of your strengths and weaknesses and also enables you to monitor and regulate your emotions and behaviour more effectively.
This involves understanding how other people perceive you. A high level of external self-awareness enables you to skillfully read social cues and also helps you to adjust your behavior in different social situations.
People who lack self-awareness do not know what is nudging them from within, and neither do they understand how they are nudging others around them. The saying, “hurt people hurt people” is often a reflection of this truth – when you fail to understand and control what is going on inside of you, you immediately fail to understand and control your actions.
(However, it’s important to note that self-awareness is a process of continuous introspection and discovery. This means, no one is ever fully aware of what’s nudging them. This calls for more caution and compassion.)
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5 Types of Self-awareness (Based on Aspects of Life Applied)
Self-awareness can also be differentiated based on the different aspects of our lives it applies to. Some of these include:
The awareness of your body and how it feels – your proportions, senses, movements, energy level, health, and so on.
The awareness of the specific emotions that emerge in your heart – sadness, joy, loneliness, anxiety, shame, lust, and so on.
The awareness of how others perceive you and how your behaviour influences that perception – respect, disdain, disgust, admiration, trust, and so on.
The awareness of your interests, values, passions, purpose, and place in the grand scheme of things.
And so on.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”– Jung, Carl Gustav
Dangers of Lack of Self-Awareness
Without self-awareness, we become like robots that can be programmed and reprogrammed to do the bidding of any programmer. The scary thing is that very large groups of people can be easily swayed by ideas, trends, or propaganda because they do not have self-awareness – they are not aware of how they are being influenced.
Furthermore, a lack of self-awareness can lead to
- Difficulty regulating emotions and reacting impulsively
- Conflicts with others and difficulty maintaining healthy relationships
- Ineffective communication with others
- Struggle to set realistic goals and failure to achieve them
- Repeating the same mistakes without learning from them
- Difficulty adapting to new situations
- Stagnation in personal and professional growth
- Increased risk of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Without self-awareness, you’re like a Lamborghini with an unconscious driver; and everyone and everything is trying to take you for a spin. They all want to control you by triggering, entertaining, or addicting you to act in the way they want. But with self-awareness, the driver gets awakened, and you get to decide where the car heads.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”– Jung, Carl Gustav
How self-awareness contributes to personal growth:
In the movie “Pinocchio“, we witness the story of a wooden puppet boy who dreamed of becoming a real boy (pretty much how we all have dreams and aspirations). At the beginning of the story, Pinocchio is naive, impulsive, and easily influenced by those around him; so much so that he needs to be assigned a conscience.
As expected, he was tricked by the devious fox and cat, who promised him wealth and fame but instead led him astray. However, with time, after getting into much trouble, Pinocchio began to develop greater self-awareness. He learned to recognize his strengths and weaknesses, the difference between right and wrong, and to understand the consequences of his actions.
This self-awareness enabled him to become more responsible, truthful, and accountable, which eventually helped him get out of trouble, fix his problems, and transform into a real boy.
This is no surprise since self-awareness enables self-regulation – which is the ability or process of intentionally choosing how to respond to thoughts and emotions. The result is that people who have self-awareness often pick just the right impulses and emotions to engage to achieve their goals.
In order words, self-awareness helps your personal development by
- Helping you set achievable goals: Self-awareness helps you identify your strengths and weaknesses, enabling you to set realistic and achievable goals. It also helps you understand your values and motivations, which enables you to prioritise and focus.
- Improving your decision-making ability: Self-awareness can help you make better decisions by providing you with a clear understanding of your emotions and thought patterns. It enables you to identify, and overcome any biases or limiting beliefs that may be affecting your decision-making process.
- Increasing your emotional intelligence: Self-awareness helps you recognize and regulate your emotions, leading to increased emotional intelligence. This in turn enables you to skillfully navigate complex social situations, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.
- Boosting your self-esteem: Self-awareness can improve self-esteem by helping you recognize and appreciate your strengths and achievements. Reflecting on your past successes, can boost your confidence and cement a positive self-image, leading to greater resilience in the face of challenges.
- Facilitating conflict resolution: Self-awareness helps you recognize your own biases and emotions, as well as the influence of your words and actions on others, which allows you to approach conflicts with caution, compassion, and understanding.
- Reducing/eliminating self-sabotaging behaviours: Self-awareness can also help you keep track of your negative or counterproductive behaviours. By understanding and recognizing patterns of behaviour that precede disaster, you can easily short-circuit it by avoiding or looking for a way to counter it.
And so on.
“If you know yourself, your strengths, your abilities, and your limitations, you can achieve anything.”– Katty Kay and Claire Shipman
What are the challenges of developing self-awareness?
Nelson Mandela was thrown in prison for 27 years for his anti-apartheid activism. Those years in imprisonment gave him time to reflect on his own biases and anger toward his oppressors. Eventually, he learned his biases, anger, and resentment only blinded him to his own shortcomings, so he learned to forgive and reconcile. When he later became the (first black) president of South Africa he worked to promote peace, unity, and equality.
Needless to say, developing self-awareness can be challenging, and some of the common obstacles that young adults may face include:
Distractions and busyness:
It can be easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life and neglect self-reflection. For example, if you work from 7 AM to 5 PM each day (as is typical for most Nigerians), there may be little or no room to reflect in-between the chores, meals, entertainment, events, interactions, and sleep that occupy the remaining hours.
Limited understanding of emotions:
Many young adults may not have a solid understanding of their emotions or how to regulate them. For example, many young people don’t understand what trauma, anxiety, or shame are, even though it may have scared and influenced their lives.
Lack of feedback:
If you don’t receive honest and constructive feedback from others, it can be difficult to see yourself objectively and gain self-awareness. For example, many ladies do not get accurate feedback about their behaviour but are rather praised for their looks, which makes them think many of their bad behaviours are okay.
Fear of self-discovery:
Some people may avoid self-reflection because they are afraid of what they may discover about themselves. For example, many guys may resist thinking about what their irresponsibility and negligence say about them, or how it affects the people in their lives. (Reading the lyrics of the song “U” by Kendrick will give you a glimpse of how much it could sting).
Resistance to change:
Many people avoid self-reflection because it can lead to uncomfortable realisations about their behaviour. For example, many people may not want to consider that violence, or stealing is toxic behaviour because it has always gotten them the results they want.
And so on.
“Self-awareness is the ability to take an honest look at your life without any attachment to it being right or wrong, good or bad.”– Debbie Ford
10 ways to develop self-awareness [with examples]
Self-awareness is not necessarily staying zen all the time. Many psychologists argue that even the most self-aware people are only intermittently self-aware, and generally speaking, people are more self-aware when in a public or evaluative context. That said, self-awareness is not always easy.
Nevertheless, here are some strategies that you can use to increase your self-awareness:
Mindfulness involves monitoring your thoughts, feelings, and sensations in the present moment without judgement. It requires you to pay attention to your emotions and impulses and the things around you that stir them.
For example, if you’re feeling anxious or stressed, mindfulness might involve taking a few deep breaths, noticing the physical sensations in your body, and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them.
Meditation on the other hand means allowing those emotions to bubble up and fizzle away without lingering on them. It is a way to practise detachment from your feelings and thoughts and learn how to choose what to focus on and act on.
For example, during meditation, you may notice your mind wandering to a negative thought or feeling. Rather than dwelling on it, you simply acknowledge it and let it pass, returning your focus to the present moment, your breath, or the object of focus (you’re using in your meditation).
Set aside time each day to reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Ask yourself questions like “What am I feeling right now?”, “Why am I feeling this way?”, “Why did I react that way?”.
For example, if you notice that you’re having trouble concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, and snapping at people you might reflect on whether you’re taking on too much, need a break, and need to set better boundaries for yourself.
Reflect on your experiences:
Take time to reflect on your past experiences, both positive and negative. Think about what you learned from those experiences and how they shaped you as a person. Some experiences might be difficult to face, but it is only by facing them that you can truly understand them and how they influence you.
For example, if you had a romantic partner who was emotionally distant, you might reflect on how that experience impacted your own emotional availability in future relationships.
Pay attention to other people’s behaviours that bother you:
By paying attention to behaviours you dislike in others, you can develop a heightened awareness of such behaviour within yourself.
For instance, let’s say you often find yourself getting frustrated with a coworker who is always seeking attention or taking credit for other people’s work. This behaviour might bother you because you value honesty and appreciation in your own work style. However, upon further reflection, you might realise that you sometimes engage in similar attention-seeking behaviours. This creates an avenue to start working on yourself.
Pay attention to feelings you avoid:
Negative emotions are often an attempt by your mind to bring your attention to a particularly important issue.
For instance, if you tend to feel anxious in social situations, paying attention to this negative emotion can help you understand why you feel this way. It could be due to a fear of rejection or a belief that you are not good enough. This realisation is by itself a level of self-awareness.
Seek honest feedback:
Ask friends, family members, or mentors for feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. Be open to constructive criticism and use it as an opportunity for growth.
For example, they might tell you that you tend to interrupt people or that you struggle to listen actively, and this new realisation will help you monitor that behaviour better.
Read high-quality books:
The best writers are skilled at scrutinising human nature. They can identify and label the subtle intricacies of thoughts, emotions, desires, and actions that often escape your notice amid the frenzied pace of daily life. By reading how they precisely describe characters and their behaviours, high-quality books can teach you how to apply the same level of scrutiny to yourself.
There are a lot of great authors and books that do this, but you can start by reading any of the works of Robert Greene (non-fiction), Chimamanda Adichie (fiction), or Jordan Peterson (non-fiction).
Go to new places:
When you visit new places, you naturally become more self-aware until you familiarise yourself with the place. Additionally, getting repeatedly exposed to new cultures, people, and experiences can broaden your perspective and challenge your assumptions about the world. This can lead to increased self-awareness and personal growth.
Write about your thoughts and feelings:
Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you gain insight into your emotions and thought patterns. Regular journaling or blogging can help you identify patterns in your behaviour and emotions over time. This was huge for me.
For instance, if you struggle with procrastination, journaling about the tasks that you put off and the reasons behind your avoidance can help you understand why you tend to procrastinate. You might discover that you’re avoiding certain tasks because they make you feel overwhelmed or because you’re afraid of failure. By recognizing these patterns, you can develop strategies to overcome them and become more productive. This process of writing down your life story can help you cultivate greater self-awareness and personal growth.
“Self-awareness is the first step in creating what you want and mastering your life. Where you focus your attention, your emotions, reactions, personality, and behavior determine where you go in life.”– Gary Zukav
Conclusion: Self-awareness over Self-control
“The more reflective you are, the more effective you are.”– Hall and Simeral
Back when I was in school, I had a female friend who I always fooled around with. There were a lot of ethical reasons not to continue, but I couldn’t stop. Multiple times I would say, “This is it, no more”. But, this didn’t stop. She also said the same but to no avail. We were hopelessly attracted to each other. And, it took me passing out drunk, and seeing a video of my drunk self spilling my feelings to know what was really going on inside my head all along. I loved and wanted her.
That was the first and last time I got drunk. But, it made me realise that sometimes, what we subconsciously seek is sometimes far removed from what we consciously seek or admit. The incident also made me realise that the only way to really stop it was to stay away from her. And, this is the reason when exes start calling and visiting, there is a high chance they are (or will) start sleeping with each other again. But I digress.
The point is, if you want to take back control of your life, developing self-awareness is much more effective than trying to practise self-control. This is because self-awareness coupled with self-regulation uproots the problem from its roots (reducing, or totally eliminating the need for self-control).
In a world overtaken by mass media, limbic capitalism, and consumer culture to mention a few, a whole lot of self-awareness is needed now more than ever to navigate life – to go from struggling with and reacting to these influences to acting on and leveraging them.
Truly, whether for good or bad, it takes self-awareness to live the life you want.
A Self-Help Writer And Editor Who Keeps It Simple (Yet Elegant)