There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
– Anaïs Nin
This is not a feel-good, you are perfect-as-you-are kind of article.
This article is about getting real with yourself. You are human. Humans have flaws. The sooner you find out what yours are, the sooner you can work on improving them.
Becoming more self-aware – even when it is painful – has tremendous value and can absolutely change your life for the better.
There are two things humans are prone to doing, much to our detriment:
1) Not acknowledging and improving our weaknesses
2) Not acknowledging and developing our strengths
Knowing that you are a flawed being doesn’t mean you can’t be kind to yourself. After all, you love others – your family and friends – despite their flaws.
You can extend yourself the same courtesy.
Talk to yourself like you would someone you love. – Brene Brown
Most of us are harder on ourselves than we are on others. Socially, this makes some sense – I don’t think any of us want to live in a brutally honest world (the one presented in the thought-provoking film The Invention of Lying comes to mind), but we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by not being self-aware.
In this two-part feature, we will explore what self-awareness is, common obstacles to attaining it, how it can greatly improve your life, and how to cultivate it.
What is Self-Awareness?
“Self -awareness is having a clear perception of your personality, including strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions,” explains Pathway to Happiness. “Self-awareness allows you to understand other people, how they perceive you, your attitude and your responses to them in the moment.”
Psychology professor and writer Dr. Adrian Furnham describes self-awareness as “the accurate appraisal and understanding of your abilities and preferences and their implications for your behavior and their impact on others. It’s reality-testing; a calibration against the facts of life.”
Why is being self-aware important?
In the opening to the article What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It), organizational psychologist and executive coach Dr. Tasha Eurich summarizes the importance of self-awareness:
Self-awareness seems to have become the latest management buzzword — and for good reason. Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. We are better workers who get more promotions. And we’re more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies.
Dr. Eurich and her team of researchers conducted a large-scale scientific study on self-awareness and found that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality: they estimated that only 10%–15% of the people they studied actually fit the criteria.
I will briefly discuss what they discovered, but I recommend giving the entire article a read – it is quite informative.
There are three findings in particular that Dr. Eurich says stood out: the two types of self-awareness, how experience and power influence self-awareness, and how introspection affects self-awareness.
One: The research team identified two broad categories of self-awareness: Internal and External. Internal refers to “how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” External means “understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above.” Interestingly, the team found virtually no relationship between the two types – a person can be strong in one area and weak in the other. Both are valuable, and balance is important. If you’d like to see how you rank in each category, take Dr. Eurich’s test here: Insight Quiz
Two: Dr. Eurich and her team also discovered that having more experience and power can hinder self-awareness. It turns out, people do not always learn from experience, and that having expertise can lead to a false sense of confidence and competence. And, the more power a person has, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities.
Three: One of the more surprising findings of the study, Dr. Eurich says, “is that people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being. The problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective — it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong.”
How can we increase our self-awareness?
In this Ted Talk, Dr. Eurich explains how to increase your self-awareness with one simple fix. She’s an entertaining and eloquent speaker, so take the time to give this a listen (maybe more than once!).
For techniques and strategies to help you become more self-aware (and more successful, confident, and happy), check out Dr. Eurich’s book Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life.
Let’s explore some habits, personality traits, psychological biases, and errors in thinking that can prevent you from developing self-awareness.
Are you willing to admit when you are wrong?
And, are you willing to admit that you often aren’t willing to admit when you are wrong?
Self-love isn’t always so poetic; sometimes it’s a nice big triple back flip kick in the ass. You’ve got to call yourself on your own nonsense; on the incredibly efficient way you can be self-destructive. – Steve Maraboli
“More than we’d probably like to admit so many of our days are spent in a state of self-delusion, an internal monologue of justifying our actions, both good and bad. When we do something wrong, our evolutionary instincts kick in and we do anything we can to not acknowledge the obvious: sometimes, it’s all our fault,” writes Paul Jun of Motivated Mastery in the insightful article titled Why Self-Awareness Is the Secret Weapon for Habit Change.
Jun elaborates, and poses some interesting questions:
It is extremely difficult to humbly admit a shortcoming instead of fabricating a tale to mitigate the blow.
And there’s the crux of searching for self-awareness: Do we embrace the “ignorance is bliss” adage when a bright light shines on our flaws? Do we simply escape the reality of who are and let the tides of the day carry us adrift? Or we do face ourselves and move onward towards a path that allows us to reinvent ourselves to embrace our best, truest selves, regardless of how painful it may be at times?
Don’t let those who have fallen into a comfortable groove tell you that this is how life is supposed to be lived. Reflect on your shortcoming, understand the source of its weakness, observe your own contributions or lack thereof, and deeply internalize the lesson so that next time you can play a bigger role.
If you don’t know a problem exists, how can you fix it? If you are unhappy or unsatisfied with your life but are not aware of what YOU are doing to create the obstacles you are facing, you’ll remain stuck.
It is not what you are that holds you back. It is what you think you are not.
“Roman philosopher Epictetus once said that a good philosophy is, “Self-scrutiny applied with kindness.” You must learn to face yourself, to admit mistakes, to learn from them, and to let that awareness motivate and change you. Because frankly, who else is responsible for the quality of your life? Above all, you have to be compassionate with yourself because this change is a slow and steady process, a struggle to override old habits and to ultimately form new ones that define who you become,” Jun writes.
I’m reminded of a scene from the animated film The Lion King:
Learning from your past is important, but obsessing over it can be harmful.
You make mistakes, mistakes don’t make you. – Maxwell Maltz
Overthinking – or ruminating – is examining and reexamining negative emotions, thoughts, and memories. When people ruminate, they obsess about situations or life events. They get stuck in a mental rut, replaying those negative situations in their heads and agonizing over them.
Rumination is a toxic process that leads to negative self-talk such as, “It’s my own fault. Who would ever want me a friend?”
Ruminative thinking leads people to:
- Feel even more sad, anxious, angry, and depressed
- Think more negatively and pessimistically about themselves, their problems, and their future
- Use fewer effective problem-solving strategies
- Feel less motivation to act
- Have a reduced ability to concentrate
- Experience even more stress and more problems
Give yourself credit for recognizing that you made a mistake – many people don’t even get that far. And, instead of asking yourself WHY, ask WHAT, as Dr. Eurich recommends. Ask yourself WHAT you can learn from the experience and WHAT you can do differently next time, forgive yourself, and move forward.
Consider these inspiring words from the writer Neil Gaiman:
I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.
It’s been said that we have approximately 16,000 thoughts a day and 75 percent of them are negative. What you think about, you bring about, so focus on the positive.
Our errors, mistakes, failures, and sometimes even our humiliations, were necessary steps in the learning process. However, they were meant to be means to an end – and not an end in themselves. When they have served their purpose, they should be forgotten. If we consciously dwell on the error, or consciously feel guilty about the error and keep berating ourselves because of it, then – unwittingly – the error or failure itself becomes the “goal” that is consciously held in imagination and memory. – Maxwell Maltz
On the flip side, denial and avoidance are not productive either.
It is human nature to move toward pleasure and away from pain. Negative thoughts and emotions are unpleasant, so we often do things to avoid them. But avoidance can interfere with our lives in many ways. It can result in failed relationships (or staying in bad ones), loss of employment, depression, drug or alcohol abuse, and overall misery.
Problems aren’t going to go away because you deny they exist.
Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are. – Malcolm S. Forbes
Impostor Syndrome and how it hinders self-awareness and happiness
Dr. Eurich’s team found that people with a lot of experience or power can lack self-awareness and overestimate their skills and abilities. But, the opposite is true as well. There’s a phenomenon called impostor syndrome (or fraud syndrome) that describes people who are unable to internalize their accomplishments:
Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Impostor syndrome is known to be particularly common among high-achieving women, but some studies indicate that both genders may be affected in equal numbers.
Researchers believe that up to 70% of people have experienced impostor syndrome at some point, although it tends to be particularly common in high achieving, successful people.
More on impostor syndrome, from Feeling Like a Fraud? How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome:
Impostor syndrome differs somewhat from the concept of low self-esteem because there is a discrepancy between the actual achievement and the person’s feelings about the achievement that may not be present in low self-esteem. People who are generally insecure or have low self-esteem usually have a difficult time achieving success.
People who suffer from impostor syndrome tend to reflect and dwell upon extreme failure, mistakes, and negative feedback from others. If not addressed, impostor syndrome can limit exploration and the courage to try new experiences, for fear of exposing failure. It also can prevent a sufferer from enjoying the success they’ve worked so hard to achieve, because they are afraid they don’t really deserve it and it will be taken away.
The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism are often linked. Many “impostors” think every task they handle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help.
Becoming more self-aware can help you overcome impostor syndrome. Please acknowledge your accomplishments: there is nothing wrong with giving yourself credit when you do a good job on a project or have mastered a skill. Don’t attribute it to luck – accept that you played a major role in your success. You are willing to accept responsibility for your failures – so why not accept responsibility for your successes, too?
If thoughts of being a fraud invade your mind, consider this: that feeling actually indicates positive things about you. The reason?
Feelings of faking it are usually associated with intelligence, diligence, and, strangely enough – competence. In fact, the genuinely incompetent are the ones who tend to be the most confident. This phenomenon, called The Dunning-Kruger Effect, is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is. So, the fact that you sometimes doubt your competence is actually a positive attribute.
In Part 2 of this feature, we will discuss fear, cognitive biases, self-image, self-sabotage, and ways to develop self-awareness.
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