“Self-awareness means the ability to monitor our inner world — our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness is one method for enhancing this essential capacity — it trains our attention to notice subtle, but important signals, and to see thoughts as they arise rather than just being swept away by them.” — Daniel Goleman
Daniel Goleman calls self-awareness the “keystone” of emotional intelligence. Without self-awareness, we cannot know what’s happening to ourselves, let alone manage relationships with others.
In the quote above, Goleman doesn’t mention mindfulness by accident. The qualities of mindfulness — such as equanimity and non-judgment — are inherent in self-awareness, too. It’s not enough to simply notice what’s happening in your inner world. What you do with the thoughts and feelings after you notice them also matters a great deal.
The moment you start judging your experience, you go from awareness to a story about how things should be. You start fighting reality instead of being aware of it.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at what self-awareness is and what purposes it serves. Goleman proposes that, on one hand, it is one of the four components comprising emotional intelligence. On the other, self-awareness itself is a conglomerate of these three competencies:
When you look at self-awareness as a composition of those three, it becomes obvious that you can’t live a fully satisfying life without it. In my experience, I found that each of those elements contributes to my well-being and the quality of my relationships.
When I become aware of my emotions without fighting them, I’m much better at accurately assessing my circumstances instead of engaging in drama. I’m also more compassionate towards others because I can read their emotions, too.
When I clearly recognize my strengths and weaknesses, I’m better at discerning which tasks I can take on and which would cost me too much. I can also set boundaries in my relationships exactly where they need to be.
Finally, when I have a healthy amount of confidence, I know how to best channel my energy and skills for the collective benefit. I’m also capable of offering my attention to other people — instead of demanding theirs.
Overall, I feel like the more self-aware I am, the better version of myself I become. How exactly does self-awareness achieve such a feat?
The notion that self-awareness is necessary to reach our full potential is further supported by the self-determination theory (SDT). Developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan, it is regarded as a “macro theory of human motivation and personality” which largely determines how psychologists look at personal growth and motivation today.
SDT recognizes that all humans have “inherent growth tendencies.” To foster these tendencies and create optimal circumstances for growth, any individual needs to have these three psychological needs met (the definitions below come from Courtney Ackerman’s article about SDT):
It’s interesting to note that that to fulfill all those needs, respective aspects of self-awareness as listed by Goleman are necessary:
To satisfy the basic psychological needs defined by SDT, self-awareness is crucial. We simply need it to function well in a society where most people are fighting to thrive, not survive.
So what are the tangible ways in which self-awareness enables you to thrive? Let’s look at a few examples before we dive into the practical part of this article.
“Our mind is extremely skillful at storing information about how we react to a certain event to form a blueprint of our emotional life. Such information often ends up conditioning our mind to react in a certain way as we encounter a similar event in the future. Self-awareness allows us to be conscious of this conditioning and preconceptions of the mind, which can form the foundation of freeing the mind from it.” — Jessie Zhu, at Positive Psychology
Because self-awareness allows you to recognize what’s going on in your mind, it gives you the possibility to not be defined by it. The process of accurately observing your own mind is necessary to satisfy the psychological needs described in the previous section.
Our culture still hasn’t fully appreciated the importance of self-awareness. Mainstream education is primarily focused on developing intellectual capacity to process growing amounts of information. “Knowing thyself” beyond the purely intellectual realm is not actively taught by most schools and parents.
Meanwhile, there’s growing evidence that self-awareness can positively impact many areas of your life. Here are just a few examples to wrap your head around what’s possible.
The world has become so complex that it’s increasingly hard to navigate it by analyzing information. To make good decisions, you often need to tap into other sources of knowledge. Self-awareness can give you access to such sources.
In this study by Scott Ridley and colleagues, the participants were divided into groups based on their level of metacognitive awareness (i.e. awareness of their cognitive process). Some people were asked to perform a goal-setting activity, and others, a “filler” one. In the end, everyone completed a novel decision-making task. As hypothesized, people who showed a tendency for higher metacognitive awareness performed better when making decisions.
In my experience, the more self-aware I am, the more my relationships benefit. The awareness of my emotions informs me about my current needs, which makes communicating them much easier. Accurate self-assessment and healthy confidence also proved critical many times when I needed to set boundaries or redefine my relationships.
Many studies point to a strong correlation between the level of self-awareness (or more generally, emotional intelligence) and relationship satisfaction. Here are a few examples:
It is widely recognized that self-awareness is one of the top leadership competencies.
When 75 members of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council were asked to name the most important competency in a leader, the top-rated one was self-awareness. Similarly, it is also one of the key competencies that Harvard Business School seeks in its MBA candidates.
In her research, Tasha Eurich found that the most successful leaders are those who actively seek to improve their self-awareness. They counteract the tendency to see themselves as more competent than they really are by seeking frequent critical feedback. According to Eurich, this helps them develop accurate self-assessment which is critical to good leadership.
When our self-awareness is low, we don’t pay much attention to our bodily sensations. As a result, we may overlook early cues that some aspect of our health is falling out of balance.
In her book Counterclockwise, Ellen Langer explains how increased mindfulness of the body allows us to take charge of our health. She points out that when we can’t feel what’s happening to us, we’re more inclined to transfer all the responsibility for our health to our doctor. While it’s true that a trained medical practitioner has certain information that you don’t, you also have access to the sensations from your body that nobody else can perceive.
As Langer put it:
“A diagnosis describes the averaged experiences of many individuals, but it may not speak to a single individual’s experience at any one moment. In the light of the inherent variability in our bodies, sensations and experiences, it is misleading to put one label on the myriad manifestations on any one diagnosis or to suggest that one label can sum up a person’s identity, condition, experiences or potential. As with other labels, diagnoses are best seen not as answers or explanations but as starting points to guide the asking of additional questions. (…)
Diagnoses aren’t unhelpful and I am by no means suggesting a hypervigilance that leads us to act like hypochondriacs. I am suggesting paying mindful attention to our bodies so that we notice small changes that can be dealt with before larger problems arise. Mindfulness is very different from vigilance. It is a soft awareness marked by an absence of mindless attention to any specific part of the body (…) that prevents us from experiencing our fuller selves.”
“To be mindfully engaged is the most natural, creative state we can be in.” — Ellen Langer
Inspired by Langer’s work, I came to the conclusion that self-awareness isn’t a special feat that can only be induced by formal practices like meditation. Although I meditate every day, I noticed I can also foster self-awareness through other experiences that everyone has access to.
The exercises I’m about to share with you are divided into two groups: interactions with people and interactions with nature. These are the two set-ups that I found to be the most inviting of self-awareness.
Some of these exercises emerged spontaneously as I learned about mindfulness, nature-inspired coaching, and relationships. I simply spotted things I read or heard about as they effortlessly emerged in my experience. Other exercises are more intentional practices that have been working for me for a while.
Since I started doing them I noticed that practicing self-awareness in this way can be more efficient than engaging in introspection. Tasha Eurich confirms this when recapping her research on self-awareness:
“One of the most surprising findings of our research 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. To understand this, let’s look at arguably the most common introspective question: “Why?” We ask this when trying to understand our emotions (Why do I like employee A so much more than employee B?), or our behavior (Why did I fly off the handle with that employee?), or our attitudes (Why am I so against this deal?).
As it turns out, “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. 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. For example, after an uncharacteristic outburst at an employee, a new manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because she isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a bad case of low blood sugar.
Consequently, the problem with asking why isn’t just how wrong we are, but how confident we are that we are right.”
Realizing how biased our minds can be when comes to introspection, it seems wise to counterbalance this by looking for self-awareness in the interactions with the outside world. That’s what I encourage you to do.
I sorted my exercises based on how they foster each of the three self-awareness competencies listed by Goleman. However, it doesn’t matter if you do all or just some of them. All the components of self-awareness are interconnected. Therefore, whenever you train one, your self-awareness benefits as a whole.
I recommend you simply try out the exercises that you feel drawn to and have fun with them. As Ellen Langer said, “People are at their most mindful when they are at play.”
The value relationships can add to your self-awareness is that other people see you differently than you see yourself. Tasha Eurich goes as far as saying that there are really two kinds of self-awareness: being aware of your internal experiences and being aware of how other people perceive you. None of them is more “true” than the other, and both can provide equally valuable information.
Interacting with others can enrich your understanding of who you are. Here are three ways to take advantage of that.
The emotions we tend to overlook the most are usually the difficult ones. To become more aware of them, you can start paying more attention to the difficult people in your life.
By “difficult,” I don’t mean “toxic.” Difficult people are those who don’t do anything purposefully hurtful, but they “push your buttons” just by the way they are. Think a co-worker whose notorious habits drive you mad or a friend who contradicts your opinions in a way that makes you feel dumb.
I’ve noticed that these people usually reflect a part of me that I’d prefer not to see. The reason their innocent behaviour triggers powerful emotions is that it forces me to confront something I’m not comfortable with.
A great example is my mom, whose recurring comments about me “wasting my life” in odd jobs used to drive me mad. It wasn’t because I was actually wasting my life, but because I had a lot of uncertainty about what life path to choose. I used to deny this uncertainty and pretended that I knew what I was doing. My mom’s comments showed me time and time again that this wasn’t the case.
How to do this in practice
Whenever you encounter someone who triggers you, acknowledge to yourself that the arising emotions are likely showing you something. Treat the person as a neutral messenger, instead of blaming them. To do that, you can place your attention on your breath to ground yourself in the present moment. Then, try to focus on the feelings, rather than the mental explanation your mind is producing.
In such situations, your mind is likely to tell you a story to protect your ego. If you believe it, you won’t learn. The lesson is usually best transmitted through the feeling aspect of your experience. Recognizing how you feel at the moment will expand your emotional awareness as a competency.
When it comes to defining our strengths and weaknesses, we’re often biased by the kind of self-image we hold. If you see yourself as shy or insecure, you’re likely to underestimate your strengths (and I know this from personal experience). On the other hand, researchers found that people in high leadership positions tend to underestimate their shortcomings because of their leader-identity.
One great way to counterbalance your self-assessment bias is to get out of your head and simply ask for feedback about your competency and performance. If you ask good questions with an open mind, you can improve the knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your understanding of how other people see you.
How to do this in practice
Here’s a handful of tips to keep in mind when asking for self-assessment feedback:
Increasing your confidence when interacting with others is very simple, but a lot of people get it wrong. We often assume that the way to feel more confident is by highlighting your achievements, competence, or even superiority. But this doesn’t work nearly as well as focusing on maximizing the other person’s position.
Susan Piver, a Buddhist practitioner and expert in mindful communication points out that “when you seek to maximize the other person’s position, thinking about them, giving them what they need, you suddenly take the seat of power.” It’s really that simple. When you highlight the other person’s achievements and competencies, you send a message (both to them and yourself) that you feel strong enough about your own position.
How to do this in practice
One thing to remember is not to force this approach when you’re experiencing self-doubt. When you maximize the other person’s position while you’re at your lowest, you’re likely to get lost in a victim mentality. The dynamics of power will become exaggerated and the effect will be the opposite of what you intended.
Instead, wait for a moment when you’re mood is at least neutral — and start strengthening your confidence from there.
The impact nature has on our cognitive abilities, mental health, and self-awareness became the subject of intense study in recent years. We already know that immersing ourselves in the natural surroundings can have beneficial effects on attentional capacity, stress levels, creativity and other functions of the brain. Enhanced self-awareness is a natural extension of these.
Part of why our self-awareness is clouded in daily life is an overwhelming amount of stimuli and distractions. This is what spending time in nature can relieve you from. Gentler sensory stimulation frees up the attentional capacity to look within.
On top of that, the company of nature is neutral. Unlike people, it doesn’t bring its own conditioning or reactivity into the equation. Therefore, you can be sure that what you experience in nature derives from the content of your own — not somebody else’s — mind.
The exercises below are based on what I learned about nature-inspired coaching while living and hiking in the French Alps with my mentor. The basic premise of nature-inspired coaching is that the proximity of nature stimulates a certain intelligence of the body which remains clouded when we live a typical city life. This intelligence, when awakened, can work wonders for self-awareness.
To try one or more of the exercises below, afford yourself a few undisturbed hours in natural surroundings. Preferably, go outside the city. If you can’t, a long walk in the park will also do. When you’re on your walk, leave your electronic devices behind (or at least switch them off!).
These exercises work best when you’re alone — but if you prefer to go with someone to ensure safety (like I did and will describe in a few moments) then, by all means, do it.
The emotional aspect of our experience is usually much richer than we realize. The emotions are already flowing through you all the time. Your task is to awaken sufficient sensitivity to notice them.
One definition of mindfulness proposed by Ellen Langer is that it’s simply a sensitivity to change. Our experience varies from moment to moment, yet we often behave as if it was constant.
When you’re alone in nature, you can awaken the sensitivity to your changing emotions by allowing yourself to fully be you. When no one sees you, you can do the things you never would in the presence of another person. Sing out loud. Examine the flowers and leaves around you. Cry out of awe or sadness. Dance like no one’s watching — because no one is.
By doing things just because you feel like doing them, you make your sensory perceptions more diverse. At the same time, you become like a child, free of judgment and curious to touch, smell, run, or swim just for the sake of it.
With a beginner’s mind and a lot of change in moment-to-moment experience, it will be easier for you to see how your emotions arise.
How to do this in practice
To enhance emotional awareness even further, you may do two things. As you interact with nature in an unrestrained manner, (1) pay attention to your breath or (2) talk to yourself out loud.
(1) Many spiritual traditions talk about the breath as a connection between mind and body. This connection is precisely where emotions arise. As you become conscious of your breath, you’ll be more connected to your body as a whole. This will help you notice that emotions are not only the mind’s construct. They each also have corresponding sensations that you can feel on a purely physical level (e.g. tingling in your stomach, heat building up in your chest).
(2) To talk to yourself out loud may sound like a strange idea at first. But I found it to be a sure way to create a more intimate relationship with myself. When I start verbalizing my inner experiences aloud, the emotional aspects of them usually become amplified. After a while of this kind of self-talk, I often feel like a major emotional blockage I’ve been holding to is released.
As I said before, nature can be a great mirror to reflect the tendencies of your own mind. That’s because nature doesn’t react to what you do. It always responds according to its ever-present, unchanging laws.
Identifying your strengths, weaknesses, and behaviour patterns becomes easier when you focus on the way you interact with the landscape. I noticed that the way I behave on a lone nature walk is often a metaphor for how I function in the world in general.
These observations will revolve around the decisions you make throughout your walk.
Ellen Langer says that making choices is one of the most natural ways to evoke mindfulness. When we’re faced with a choice, we must examine our options more closely. That’s because we need to gather enough information about each of those options to have something to base our choice on.
During your nature walk, you can use this to improve your self-assessment by focusing on how exactly you make choices. First of all, you’ll notice that you make them more often than you thought. Even the things that seem to happen automatically often involve a choice on your side.
These questions are just a few examples of what you can focus on:
When you look closely, you’ll realize that virtually every moment of your walk, you’re making a choice about doing or not doing something. Exploring what these choices are based on leads you to pinpoint your behavior patterns and character traits you weren’t aware of before.
For me, a big revelation was discovering the difference between how I go up and down a steep slope in the mountains. I realized that going up, my decisions were usually driven by curiosity and ambition. When I felt excited, I was more likely to take risks. Going down, however, I always became very careful as to where I placed my feet. Downhill, I always chose a safer path, even if it was longer.
When I noticed this, I understood that this pattern was also present in my life outside the mountain trail. I saw my tendency to take risky decisions on the spur of a moment, just because they excited me. However, when I needed to give something up, I usually did it hesitantly, going back and forth before I made a final decision.
To train self-confidence in nature is the most straightforward thing in the world. All you need is to make your walk into a suitable kind of challenge that will expand your idea of what’s possible.
Confidence grows when we manage to do something we didn’t think we were capable of. In nature, you can do this by planning a walk that is slightly longer than what you’re used to, or that leads through a considerable elevation or challenges you in some other way.
As you’ll experience discomfort in response to the challenge, you’ll notice that you always have a way of dealing with it. This varies from person to person. In response to tiredness, one person may choose to take a break, while another will push through using willpower. Whatever you do, at the end of the day you’ll be left with a sense of accomplishment and an everlasting memory of having made it!
When you recognize yourself for doing the difficult thing, an increase in confidence is just a natural consequence.
How to do this in practice
The thing to remember when planning your challenge is not to push yourself too much. According to Karl Rhonke, the co-founder of Project Adventure and a leader with decades of experience in outdoor education, personal challenges are most beneficial when they barely take us outside of our comfort zones.
Rhonke formulated a theory of three zones of experience — comfort, stretch, and panic. To grow self-confidence, the stretch zone is what you should aim for. Once you start bordering on the panic zone, you’ll most likely experience overwhelming stress, which contracts, rather than expands, your confidence.
One of the greatest challenges I remember from the mountains was doing a via ferrata with a friend. In that case, my way of ensuring that the challenge wasn’t too challenging was bringing along someone who knew how to rock climb. If it wasn’t for him, I would have most likely panicked and wouldn’t have completed the challenge.
Always make sure that you’re pushing yourself just enough — but not too much. This is how you ensure that you benefit from a challenge, not suffer from it.
As we’ve seen, self-awareness is one of the basic competencies to live a good life. However, you don’t have to meditate or engage in any other formal practice to nurture it. There are many events in your life that can naturally make you more self-aware.
As you cultivate emotional awareness, accurate self-assessment, and self-confidence, you’re not the only person who feels the difference. Everyone you come in contact with does, too. Working on self-awareness is one of these pursuits that benefit not just you, but your whole environment.
As you become more self-aware, your ability to understand your own experiences skyrockets. On the outside, this translates to better communication, setting healthier boundaries, using your full potential, and many other skillful behaviors. All of these directly impact other people.
At the same time, being self-aware is the most natural thing under the sun. You don’t even have to learn it. All you need is to activate it.
Even if, with time, you forget the exercises I gave you, don’t get bogged down by it. Once you practice a little and have the experience of increased self-awareness, you’ll start spontaneously coming back to it. You’ll learn to recreate the felt resonance, rather than the mental pathway of how to enter the present moment and look within.
Self-awareness will become something you instinctively look for, rather than something you have to force. When you find it, everything else starts falling into place.