One thing I have learned over the years is that the best and easiest way to improve my life, my sense of self and the lives of the people around me is to practice self-awareness. When we actively engage in our self-development and learn how to become accountable and responsible for our own thoughts, emotions, and behavior a powerful mental shift occurs. The simplest way to do this is by asking yourself thought-provoking questions.
When you are on the journey of self-discovery it isn’t pretty. You have to dig deep and come face to face with many of your own fears and insecurities. The only way an exercise like this works is if you are open and honest with yourself because self-reflection is the cornerstone of self-development. Learning about your “true self” and “who you really are” requires a little homework. However, the more work you do the greater the reward.
When you truly know what makes you happy or how you respond to different experiences and what triggers certain reactions –you are given the opportunity and freedom to change things about yourself, so you can create the life you want. Remember there are no right or wrong answers, this is about you and exploring yourself better so you know how and what changes need to be made to make your life more meaningful.
What Is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness is the capacity for self-reflection. To consciously know and understand your own character, feelings, needs, values, and desires. Being able to monitor the person you are, and recognizing that you are an individual separate from your environment and from other people is the foundation of self-awareness.
Self-awareness is linked to emotional intelligence, which is the ability to monitor your own emotions and the emotions of others. To label emotions correctly and use this information to guide your thoughts and behavior.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― Carl Jung
Daniel Goleman a psychologist known as the “guru” of emotional intelligence described self-awareness as having three parts.
- Emotional Awareness, which is the ability to recognize our emotions and the impact they have over us.
2. Accurate self-assessment, a deep understanding of one’s strengths, weaknesses, inner resources, and limits.
3. Self-confidence, the final area of self-awareness which highlights the importance of having a strong sense of self-worth.
The questions I will discuss below are structured in such a way that you will start to question how you respond to certain experiences. The exercise raises self-awareness because you will look at aspects of yourself that you may not have focused on before. Ultimately, I hope you will begin to identify patterns that are not necessarily healthy or constructive but through your own self-reflection will become better equipped to make the necessary changes.
Self-awareness goes beyond an analytical assessment of one’s self. Accurate self-reflection is the capacity to explore who we are with a non-judgmental lens. My hope is that you do not start to compartmentalize your thoughts and feelings as “good” or “bad”, rather try to reflect on your experiences by learning from them. Be open to how and what you feel with gentle curiosity and self-compassionate understanding. Take a step back from judgment.
When you start thinking “I should or shouldn’t think/feel this way” you become reactive rather than responsive. Instead, become an observer to your thoughts and feelings and rather respond like this, “I feel angry, so what does this tell me about myself and what can I learn from this experience?”
Why Is Self-Awareness Important?
Self-awareness is an important skill for emotional intelligence. Emotional Intelligence refers to the ability to process, understand and regulate emotions accurately and effectively, within ourselves and in connection to others. When we learn to understand ourselves deeply, not only do we become accepting of who we are, but we can consciously and successfully manage our thoughts, emotions, and behavior.
Self-aware people connect with others easily, have healthy personal and social relationships, are compassionate and find it easier to deal with stress and anxiety. Additionally, the more emotionally intelligent you are the easier it becomes to achieve happiness and a positive outlook on life. These qualities then filter down into many other areas of life and increase motivation, improve decision-making skills and ultimately influence vocational and personal success.
Why do we lack self-awareness?
Self-awareness may be one of the most important skills essential for personal development. However, I find people struggle with developing this ability, why is that? According to an article I read on positive psychology program people struggle to be present in the here and now and are unable to observe themselves and the things going on around and inside of them. Basically, we don’t know how to be mindful.
People find it easier to function on autopilot and are unaware of how and what they are doing and feeling at any given moment. More importantly, we get stuck in our own cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is a thinking error which allows us to create our own subjective social reality based on our existing beliefs about ourselves and the world. So, we do not always see things as they truly are. Unfortunately, this distorted way of thinking has profound negative consequences and can push us away from rational thinking.
Cognitive Bias Examples
When you practice self-awareness one of the questions you can ask yourself is where your beliefs and opinions come from? Often we believe that our convictions are rational and logical, based on our experience and analysis of information available to us. However, we often fall prey to something called confirmation bias.
For argument’s sake, let’s say you believe women are bad drivers. You will deliberately read articles or pay attention to evidence that supports this belief. Maybe, you took a drive today and saw a woman driving slowly in the fast lane, automatically this experience will support your view. However, according to scientific evidence women may not be bad drivers after all. If you don’t seek out objective facts, you will continue to interpret information that only supports your existing beliefs and miss out on information that may be contradictory.
“It is an acknowledged fact that we perceive errors in the work of others more readily than in our own.”― Leonardo da Vinci
Another example of cognitive bias is our tendency to believe that our initial judgment and impression of another person is correct. We believe we can sum up another person’s character based on their appearance. For example, if you see a disheveled man standing in the foyer of your office block you may think he is unsuccessful and not bright. Or think about how you react to military men? Often people believe that men in the military are strong, confident and have a great sense of pride. While many do, often people may feel uncomfortable when meeting a military man who doesn’t show these traits at all.
So with all this in mind, how do we develop self-awareness? If we are cognizant of our psychological tendencies and we aim to seek out feedback and develop a holistic view our ourselves and others we will cultivate self-awareness. To make it easier for you, however, I am going to outline some important things to note below.
How Do You Increase Self-Awareness?
As with any skill, self-awareness must be developed, this is done in the right environment and with consistent practice. In order to foster an environment conducive to developing self-awareness, we need to take certain factors into account, and these are:
1. The brain
Self-awareness happens in our conscious (thoughts), subconscious (emotions) and unconscious (instincts) areas of the brain. In order to develop self-awareness, we need to strengthen the connection between all of these areas. This can be done with the below self-awareness activities.
Before you begin to attempt the below activities and develop your self-awareness skills it is important to center and ground yourself. This can be done by bringing your attention to the present moment.
Once you are grounded practice mindful meditation and develop your observational skills. Observational meditation encourages you to monitor your thoughts, feelings, and behavior with objectivity. This is an open and non-judgmental exercise of viewing the world as an impartial witness.
Self-awareness activities are designed to help you identify your thoughts, emotions, attitudes, beliefs, and behavior. When practiced consistently and regularly, and with an open mind many positive changes will occur. Try all or one of these exercises, for best results, start small, practicing only 10 minutes a day and then when you are more comfortable work your way up.
In my opinion, journalling is one of the most powerful self-development tools at your disposal. It is easy to get lost in the self-help culture of today. There are thousands of books, YouTube videos, and blogs created in this niche, telling you how and what you need to do to improve your life. Hey, I am one of them. While most of us offer valuable advice, we often neglect to highlight that “YOU” are the most important person on this journey. “YOU” hold all the answers and “YOU” are the only person who can critically evaluate your own life.
Journalling offers us each a unique space to reflect, analyze and learn from ourselves. No one knows you better than you do. So use this knowledge to its full advantage. If you would like to start journalling or find some journalling inspiration take a look at my blog post here.
2. Create a personal manifesto
A personal manifesto is a declaration of your core beliefs and values, the specific ideas you stand for and a plan for how you want to live your life. This manifesto functions both as a roadmap for your life, as well as a motivational statement of principles you want to live by. Keep your manifesto somewhere you can see it and be reminded of your priorities.
Self-awareness requires you to pause and reflect. Mindful meditation offers us the space to reconnect to our true selves. It is a common misconception that meditation asks us to always “clear the mind” or “empty our head”. Mindful meditation encourages you to concentrate on the present moment, focusing on your breath, observing your thoughts and feelings and then making space to let them go.
Meditation can be used to observe your thoughts, you do not engage with them or judge them. When you observe your thoughts and feelings through meditation it is useful to consciously acknowledge and label them (Oh, I feel irritated right now, is this useful to me or not or oh, I can feel the beat of my heart in my chest) and then let them drift away. When you engage in this type of meditation it raises awareness to the type of things you think about and can be helpful to identify certain habitual patterns and behavior. Once you have labeled the thought or feeling simply let it go, and come back to the breath.
4. Get outside of your comfort zone
One of the best ways to learn about yourself is to put yourself in a situation you’re not comfortable in. Step out of your comfort zone, take risks and try new things. These do not have to big changes, for some people simply starting a meditation practice is out of their norm.
5. Talk to a friend
A close and open friend or family member can be one of the most valuable resources in your life. We are all fearful of what others think about us and we all have blind spots, but it is important to see the bigger picture of ourselves. When you have an honest conversation with someone you respect and trust it is a wonderful way to gain a different perspective. Next time you have a discussion or argument with someone ask for feedback. Get curious about how others perceive you, how they think about your response and behavior. When you do this you will learn more about yourself and others.
6. Tell the story of your life to yourself
What would your autobiography look like right now? Think about the person you are and what you have accomplished up until now? Who have you hurt and what mistakes have you made? Are you happy with your story or would you like to make some changes?
7. Read more
Reading a good book is something I really enjoy, and believe it or not it can expand the mind and make you think differently. Another interesting exercise is to read books that challenge your thinking or inspire you. Take it a step further and listen to an audiobook, pause it after every chapter and get curious about what you have been listening to.
I used to hate admitting when I was wrong, I am very stubborn like that. However, the moment I decided to acknowledge and own my mistakes was the moment my relationship with others and myself changed for the better.
Apologizing is a great self-reflection tool. It has helped me become more mindful of my behavior and to become more comfortable with conflict. As a result, I actually argue a lot less with my loved ones and rather have healthy constructive discussions instead.
9. Learn to label emotions
I have written an article where I stressed the importance of labeling your emotions. When we label our emotions we reduce their impact giving us space for thought and introspection.
10. The 3 “why’s”
Before making any big decision ask yourself “why” three times.
- I want to quit my job.
- Why do I want to quit my job?
- I want to quit because I am always frustrated, bored and demotivated.
- Why am I always frustrated, bored and demotivated?
- My work is not challenging and exciting anymore?
- Why is it not challenging anymore?
- Because I have outgrown my level at work.
When we ask ourselves the three whys, it allows us to explore issues more deeply. This is an example that really happened to me. When I realized I had outgrown my work, I was able to go to my manager and I applied for a higher more challenging position. Guess what? I got it!
11. Record your ABC’s
The ABC model is used to discover and get rid of irrational beliefs.
- A – Activating event (Trigger).
- B – Belief you form about the event.
- C- Consequences that follow, usually emotions and feelings.
An example: A – Your partner doesn’t pick up the phone. B – He/She doesn’t want to talk to me because I annoy them. C- I am a terrible partner, and I feel less worthy.
A – Your partner doesn’t pick up the phone. B- He/she is busy right now. C – Maybe they having fun and you will call again later. Now you feel calmer and you can practice empathy.
12. Notice your self-talk
What you say to yourself on a daily basis will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. How you talk to yourself and about yourself will affect how you view yourself and how others view you. We are so quick to praise others and find it easier to criticize ourselves. Stop it!
13. Take a solo trip
Spend a day, a weekend or a month away alone. Try and become comfortable in your own company and in your own head. Better yet, move away from any noise pollution and go out in nature, leave your phone and computer at home and just be with yourself.
14. Try out a retreat
Retreats offer a space for people to cut off, detox and relax. It is a way we can withdraw from life in a healthy and deliberate manner. Often retreats are designed to be calming and relaxing, they offer an opportunity for individuals to connect with like-minded people and usually inspire creativity. There are many different types of retreats, whether you want to physically detox and clear the body of toxins to feel refreshed and more clear or a mental detox to make you feel lighter, more present and inspired.
15. Take a personality test
When you know your personality type it will help you to understand why you are different or similar to others. It can help you manage your time and energy better and help you to recognize your emotions and behaviors.
16. Write your own eulogy
Similar to writing your own autobiography, writing a eulogy can help give you more motivation and purpose in your life in the here and now. When writing the eulogy think of the below questions. When you have the answers, adjust your life to fit with your beliefs.
- How do I want people to speak of me?
- What should I be remembered for?
- What kind of person will people think I was when I am gone?
17. Write out your most important tasks each night
Often people feel overwhelmed by their to-do lists each day. If we do not plan accordingly certain tasks get left out or we focus on the easier items over the more difficult. This can lead to a lot of stress down the line.
If we get into the habit of writing out our most important tasks each night and prioritize our to-do list, we can easily do something each day that will help us make consistent progress towards our goals.
This is something I personally do every night. Not only does it help me to plan and lower my anxiety for the next day but it also gives me a little goal I can accomplish each day. When I complete the tasks I always feel a sense of pride and motivation.
18. Get moving
Do not underestimate the power of health and fitness when it comes to personal development. No matter what you do try and exercise, whether you do yoga, take a walk, swim, paddle, or hike just get moving.
19. Ask questions about yourself
There is no better tool for self-awareness than asking yourself difficult and challenging questions. You do not have to answer all these questions at once. Take your time and try to reflect on one question per day or week. Remember this is a life long exercise, and the answers to the questions can change as you grow and go through life.
I add a reflective question to my journal entry each day and take some time to answer it. When I struggle with a question I ask a close friend or my partner to help me answer it. What do they think about me in a given situation?
With each question, I urge you to reflect upon how you manage life, how you respond and notice what feelings come up for you during the exercise?
Be HONEST and TRUTHFUL. THIS IS FOR YOU and ONLY YOU!
1. How do you respond when you don’t get what you want?
2. How do you deal with negative and unfavorable people?
3. How much self-control do you have with things that you know are bad for you, but tend to indulge in any way?
4. How do you deal with inconvenient life situations?
5. How do you respond to situations that you have no control over?
6. How do you deal with negativity in your life?
7. How do you deal with challenges and obstacles in your life?
8. How do you respond when plans change or plans get canceled?
9. How do you deal with change in general?
10. How do you deal with stressful situations?
11. How do you respond to situations that force you to get out of your comfort zone?
12. How do you deal with rejection?
13. How do you deal with being misunderstood?
14. How motivated are you to change your life for the better?
15. How much do you follow through on what you say?
16. How do you deal with emotional pain?
17. How do you respond when someone judges you?
18. How do you respond when you make a mistake or fail at something?
19. How do you deal with other people’s mistakes and unpleasant behavior?
20. How do you deal with uncertainty or the unknown?
21. How do you deal with people who have hurt you in the past?
22. How do you respond to challenges and hardships that happen in your life?
23. How do you spend your free time, what do you do for fun?
24. How do you respond to new ideas and new opportunities?
25. How do you respond to someone who is different from you or whose values and beliefs you don’t agree with or understand?
26. How do you respond to bad news?
27. How do you deal with the hate and suffering in the world? How do you respond to poor and homeless people?
28. How do you recharge and replenish your energy?
29. How much do you prioritize spending time and energy on yourself and your passions?
30. How fulfilling is your life?
“Without self-awareness, we are as babies in the cradles.” – Virginia Woolf
31. What does your ideal intimate relationship look like?
32. What is your biggest dream or goal?
33. What is getting in the way of you achieving your dreams?
34. What is one thing you can start doing now to achieve your goal?
35. What personality trait do you admire about yourself? What is one character trait you want to work on?
36. What is your biggest “What if” at the moment?
37. What relaxes you? How can you start doing more of it?
38. What makes you happy? how can you start doing more of that?
39. What makes you sad? Is there something you can do today to manage this better?
40. What makes you angry? How can you avoid getting into situations that make you angry?
The journey of self-discovery is a challenging one and we may never fully understand ourselves. However, I believe the more we explore, question and learn about ourselves the more meaningful our life becomes. With an open mind and accepting nature, anything is possible. As we create opportunities for self-awareness we move toward living an extraordinary life and who doesn’t want that?