What Is Self-Awareness Exactly, and How to Tell If You Have It
Self-awareness. It seems like a good thing. But ask someone to define what, exactly, it means, and you'll likely be met with crickets.
Just because you might not be able to accurately define the personal skill, doesn't mean "self-awareness" is unimportant. Not only can self-awareness be explained, but it can also be cultivated in order to improve the overall quality of your life, big time.
Read on for an explanation of what self-awareness is, how to know if you have self-awareness, as well as tips for sharpening your own self-awareness in order to improve your relationships and general well-being.
What Is Self-Awareness?
The definition of self-awareness is an individual's awareness of their own personality, according to Merriam Webster. But self-awareness is more than just whether or not an individual is funny and knows it, or non-empathetic and aware of that shortcoming, according to psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, L.C.S.W., founder of Anchor Therapy LLC.
True self-awareness involves being able to name not only your general personality and demeanor but also what you're thinking and feeling in real-time, she says. "It's also an awareness of how you're acting in a given moment (or moments) and how others are perceiving you and those actions," she says.
In essence, self-awareness is the ability to know yourself as well as recognize your impact on other people.
Why Self-Awareness Is So Important
Point blank, people with self-awareness are happier than those who don't have it.
First starters, people who are self-aware have better relationships of all kinds. "People who have self-awareness are aware of how those around them feel," explains Glashow. And when someone is attuned to others' emotions, they can adjust their actions to better support those individuals' emotional well-being. Or, simply have enough insight to ask about how they're feeling.
Naturally, most people want to date, be-friend, or work for someone like this. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, people who are self-aware make better bosses and have more satisfied employees, and therefore have more profitable companies. Meaning, it literally pays to be self-aware.
Need more proof about what the opposite kind of person can do to your well-being? Just think about your worst first date, ever. Or, your worst boss ever. Or, the one person who irks you most in the world. Whether a right swipe, superior, or rando, odds are this person lacked self-awareness. As it goes, people without self-awareness are generally not gracious or good at receiving feedback or criticism, nor are they typically open to hearing alternate viewpoints, according to Glashow.
People with self-awareness also have better relationships with themselves, she says. "Because when you're in tune with how you feel, you can adjust your actions if you're feeling something negative," she explains.
Further, self-awareness is the foundation you need to be able to work on yourself. "It's only when you are mindful of who you are that you can take steps toward who you want to be," she notes. This should make sense intuitively: If you don't know where you're coming from, or where you have "weaknesses," then you can't possibly try to improve upon them. (Related: Self-Work Is Not About Trying to Be Perfect)
How to Tell If You're Self-Aware
Sorry folks, but there's not a multiple-choice test you can take to find out how self-aware you really are — but there's a good chance you could stand to improve. Apparently, 95 percent of people think that they're self-aware, but only 10-15 percent actually are, according to Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., organizational psychologist and researcher, in her TEDx Talk on the subject.
"There aren't any self-awareness tests or quizzes someone can take," says Glashow. So to get a better sense of where you land on the self-awareness spectrum, she recommends taking a moment to reflect on some of your feelings, thoughts, and experiences.
Ask yourself the following questions. You may find it useful to jot the answers down in a notebook:
- What are three adjectives that describe how you're currently feeling?
- What are you thinking about right now?
- What were you thinking about the last time you drove or walked somewhere?
- What kind of day do you think the last waitress, barista, or convenience store clerk you interacted with was having?
- What kind of first impression do you think you recently made on someone new?
- What do you think the first few non-physical attributes somebody notices about you are?
"If you're able to answer these kinds of questions objectively [in a way that is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions], then you're self-aware — or at least practicing self-awareness at that moment," she says. If, however, you feel yourself getting defensive while trying to answer these questions, or have a hard time landing on a response, your self-awareness may be in its infancy or need some elbow grease. (IDYCK, self-compassion is a really important skill, too.)
How to Cultivate Self-Awareness
Good news: Self-awareness isn't an innate character trait that you either have or don't. On the contrary, self-awareness is a skill-set that most people can learn and improve upon. "But it takes hard work," says Glashow. It takes a combination of mindfulness, a commitment to self-reflection, and willpower.
Worth noting: Narcissists and people with narcissistic personality traits will have an extremely hard time being truly self-aware. "For these people, it is almost impossible to perceive how others see them," she says. (Related: Signs And Symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder)
For everyone else, here's how to learn to be more self-aware.
1. Keep asking the tough questions.
Consider taking a screenshot of the above questions, or bookmarking the link. "[Those] are the kinds of questions you can continue to ask yourself in certain moments as a way to improve your level of self-awareness," says Glashow.
You can make up your own set of questions, too. As a general rule, "what" questions are much more effective at building self-awareness than "why" questions, according to Eurich's TEDx Talk. "Why" questions tend to promote negative thought spirals because most people don't have access to the motives they're looking for; "what" questions, on the other hand, are shown to promote objectivity, and help people think forward (as opposed to backward). (Related: 75 Journal Prompts for Self-Reflection)
2. Begin a mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword, but it really is a powerful practice. Mindfulness is a person's awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of who they are, as defined by the Clinical Psychological Review.
There are a number of ways to develop mindfulness, including:
Glashow's recommendation: Spend at least 10 minutes a day doing one of these mindfulness activities. Longer, if you're really committed. (See More: How to Practice Mindful Meditation Anywhere)
3. Go to therapy.
A therapist is a professional who is trained in helping you become more self-aware. Just as you'd hire a piano teacher if you want to learn to play piano, why not hire a therapist to help increase your self-awareness IQ?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, a therapeutic approach emphasizing how changing your thoughts can change your emotions, can be particularly powerful for developing self-awareness, according to research sponsored by the American Counseling Association. (To get started, check out this guide on how to find the best mental health professional for you.)
4. Practice listening.
Listening is a skillset that self-aware people have lots of, according to the American Society for Public Administration. FTR: Listening isn't synonymous with hearing. More than just letting sounds go into your ears, listening involves actually digesting what someone is saying emotionally and mentally.
Practice listening during your next convo with someone by making eye contact, nodding your head during appropriate moments, making noises of encouragement, and asking appropriate follow-up questions. (Related: The Best Self-Growth Books for Changing Your Life and Perspective)
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