What is self-awareness, and why is it important?

April 21, 2021 - 17 min read

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What is self-awareness?

Two states of self-awareness

Why is self-awareness important?

Benefits of self-awareness:

What's the self-awareness gap?

How do I know if I'm a self-aware person?

How to become a more self-aware person

How to become a more self-aware person

Do you want to be happier, have more influence, be a better decision-maker, and be a more effective leader? Self-awareness, then, is the most important muscle you need to develop. It's what will keep you on target to be the best version of yourself and the best leader you can be.

What is self-awareness?

Psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund proposed this definition:

"Self-awareness is the ability to focus on yourself and how your actions, thoughts, or emotions do or don't align with your internal standards. If you're highly self-aware, you can objectively evaluate yourself, manage your emotions, align your behavior with your values, and understand correctly how others perceive you."

Put simply, those who are highly self-aware can interpret their actions, feelings, and thoughts objectively. 

It’s a rare skill, as many of us spiral into emotion-driven interpretations of our circumstances. Developing self-awareness is important because it allows leaders to assess their growth and effectiveness and change course when necessary.

Two states of self-awareness

There are two distinct kinds of self-awareness, public and private.

Public self-awareness: Being aware of how we can appear to others. Because of this consciousness, we are more likely to adhere to social norms and behave in ways that are socially acceptable.

While there are benefits to this type of awareness, there is also the danger of tipping into self-consciousness. Those who are especially high in this trait may spend too much time worrying about what others think of them. 

Private self-awareness: Being able to notice and reflect on one’s internal state. Those who have private self-awareness are introspective, approaching their feelings and reactions with curiosity.

For example, you may notice yourself tensing up as you are preparing for an important meeting. Noticing the physical sensations and correctly attributing them to your anxiety about the meeting would be an example of private self-awareness.

When self-awareness tips into self-consciousness, we are reluctant to share certain aspects of ourselves. We develop a persona that lacks authenticity.

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Why is self-awareness important?

The Eurich group has researched the nature of self-awareness. Their research indicates that when we look inward, we can clarify our values, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses. We are able to recognize the effect that we have on others. Eurich's research finds that people with self-awareness are happier and have better relationships. They also experience a sense of personal and social control as well as higher job satisfaction.

When we look outward, we understand how people view us. People who are aware of how people see them are more likely to be empathetic to people with different perspectives. Leaders whose self-perception matches others' perceptions are more likely to empower, include, and recognize others.

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Benefits of self-awareness:

  • It gives us the power to influence outcomes
  • It helps us to become better decision-makers It gives us more self-confidence — so, as a result, we communicate with clarity and intention
  • It allows us to understand things from multiple perspectives
  • It frees us from our assumptions and biases
  • It helps us build better relationships
  • It gives us a greater ability to regulate our emotions
  • It decreases stress
  • It makes us happier
 

What's the self-awareness gap?

Self-awareness is a staple in contemporary leadership jargon. Although many leaders will brag about how self-aware they are, only 10 to 15 percent of the population fit the criteria.

Many of us grew up with the message that you should not show your emotions, so we attempt to ignore or suppress them. With negative emotions, that doesn't go very well for us. We either internalize them (resulting in anger, resentment, depression, and resignation) or we externalize them and blame, discount, or bully others.

Lack of self-awareness can be a significant handicap in leadership. A study conducted by Adam D. Galinsky and colleagues at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management found that often, as executives climb the corporate ladder, they become more self-assured and confident. On the downside, they tend to become more self-absorbed and less likely to consider the perspectives of others. 

In a separate study, Canadian researchers looked at brain activity in people who are in positions of power. They found physiological evidence to conclude that as power increases, the ability to empathize with others decreases. They become less able to consider the needs and perspectives of others. Fundamentally these leaders don't think they need to change and instead require change from everyone else.

How do I know if I'm a self-aware person?

Don't despair if you don't make the 10-15 percent self-awareness cut. If you want to know how self-aware you are, the iNLP Center has 12 multiple-choice questions that will tell you the level of your self-awareness and what you can do to improve it. The assessment is research-based and developed by Mike Bundrant, neuro-linguistic trainer and life coach. 

The Values in Action Inventory of Strengths (VIA-IS) is a great tool for you to use to identify your dominant strengths and is free on the VIA website. It measures your answers across six broad categories with a total of 24 strengths. Take the assessment, and you'll generate a report identifying your top 5 strengths and how to begin to optimize them.

How to become a more self-aware person

Envision yourself

Visualize the best version of yourself. "Ideal selves reflect our hopes, dreams, aspirations, and speak to our skills, abilities, achievements, and accomplishments that we wish to attain.” (Higgins, 1987; Markus & Nurius, 1986.) As you lean into your strengths to become the better version of yourself, you can use this idealized self to keep moving in the right direction and not be distracted by setbacks and other obstacles.

Ask the “what” questions

At the core of self-awareness is the ability to self-reflect. However, the Eurich group contends that most people are going about reflection in the wrong way. The trouble is, we ask ourselves the wrong questions. In our attempt to resolve internal conflict, we ask, "Why?" Yet there’s no way to answer that question since we don’t have access to our unconscious. Instead, we make up answers that may not be accurate.

The danger of the "why" question is that it sends us down the rabbit hole of our negative thoughts. We focus on our weaknesses and insecurities. Consider Amy, a new junior executive who has difficulty speaking up at meetings. She may explain her experience to herself by thinking, "I don't speak up at meetings because I fall too low in the corporate food chain. No one's going to listen to me."

Asking the "what question" puts us into the objective and open space of considering all the factors influencing a particular outcome. For example, instead of “Why don't I speak up at meetings?” we could ask: 

  • "What were the interpersonal dynamics in the room?" 
  • "What was I experiencing in my body at the time?" 
  • "What happened that caused me to go into my old story of not being good enough?” 
  • “What can I do to overcome my fear of speaking up?" 

This kind of introspection allows us to look at behaviors and beliefs for what they are. With self-awareness, we can examine old patterns and stories that do not serve us, and then we can move on. Asking the right questions empowers us to make different choices that bring different results.

Amy decides to make a plan because now she understands that she has a chance at overcoming her problem. 

  • She's going to find out more about the content and goals of an upcoming meeting to become more confident in how she can contribute. 
  • Rather than being consumed by imagining what others are thinking about her, she'll actively listen for cues to ask meaningful questions that move the conversation forward. 
  • With a heightened awareness of the cues her body is giving her signaling fear and anxiety, she’ll name the emotion at the moment and choose not to be overwhelmed by it — one giant step to self-awareness.

Use your brain

The amygdala, also called the primitive brain, was the first part of the brain to develop in humans. It functioned as a kind of radar signaling the need to run away or fight back. That part of the brain is skilled at anticipating danger and reacts before we can even name a negative emotion. Our heart races, our stomach tightens, and our neck muscles tense up. 

Your body's reaction is a tripwire signaling the pre-frontal cortex to register or name a negative emotion. If you bring awareness to your physical state, you can, at the moment, recognize the emotion as it is happening. Becoming skillful at this rewires your brain. 

Naming your feelings is critical in decision-making. When we let our feelings overwhelm us, we can make bad decisions with unintended consequences. Naming your emotions allows us to take a "third-person" perspective to stand back and more objectively evaluate what's going on.

Let's bring this home with an example. You, a self-aware person, are having a conversation with someone and receiving some negative feedback. Your heart starts to race, and you're feeling threatened. You say to yourself, "I feel like this person is attacking me." But, before you cry or go ballistic, you stop yourself and hear the person out. You discover that this person had at least one good point and start up a different conversation, one that is mutually satisfying and productive.

Ask others about their perception of you

Now that you've discovered that feedback doesn't have to be scary, ask other people how they perceive you in certain situations. Getting specific will help to give you the most concrete feedback. Get brave and ask them how they would like to see you behave.

Exercise: Pick out a scenario(s) you would like to receive feedback on and list them.

Make two columns.  

Column A: How I see myself

Column B: How others see me

In Column A make a list of words to describe your attitude and behaviors at the time.

Then, ask your feedback partner to do the same and record those responses in Column B.

Look out for discrepancies. You may have some blind spots that need attending.

Keep a journal

Journalling is a great way to pay attention to what's going on in your private and public self. It will also help you to recognize patterns that either serve you or not. You may use these prompts:

  1. What did I do well today?
  2. What challenge did I face?
  3. What was I feeling?
  4. How did I respond? In retrospect, would I have responded differently?
  5. What strengths did I use to keep me focused on the best version of myself?
  6. What is my intention for tomorrow?

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice. It helps you be aware of what's going on in your mind, body, and environment. Meditation is one of a few practices that you can insert into your daily life, and practicing mindfulness is a wonderful tool for developing greater self-control. 

The road to self-awareness is a journey. The most self-aware people see themselves on a quest to mastery rather than at a particular destination. As you move forward in developing your self-awareness, ask yourself regularly, “How will you move toward the best version of yourself today?”

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Published April 21, 2021

Meredith Betz

Betterup Fellow Coach, M.S.Ed, M.S.O.D.

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