We sometimes also worry that we might also be one of those people.
Building self-awareness alleviates that worry and provides a solid foundation for any personal development we want to do as we strive to be better people.
We’re going to look at what self-awareness is, and then we’ll review some practical tips that will help you to be more self-aware.
- What is self-awareness?
- How to be more self-aware
- What are the benefits of improving your self-awareness?
- Common questions
Self-awareness is about seeing and understanding yourself. Self-aware people understand their own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, and they recognize the impact these can have on themselves and on the people around them.
Having self-awareness means developing your ability to pay attention to your internal world and the effect you have on others. Really self-aware people are constantly checking in with themselves and asking questions.
Improving your self-awareness means learning new skills and building new habits. Here are some simple, practical activities and tools to be more self-aware every day.
Developing self-awareness needs a lot of self-reflection. You’ll need to spend time thinking about your thoughts, feelings, reactions, and interpretations of events. Writing these down can help.
Writing means putting words around your experiences. Even if you struggle to find the right words, simply trying can provide insight.
For example, you might write:
“Felt kinda awful today when Helena was telling me about her new flat. I’m not sure why. I don’t think I was jealous, but I had some of those same feelings. Maybe wishing I’d got my life in order a bit sooner? I don’t know if I regret my life choices, but I just wish things were a little easier. Maybe I just resent that things have been so hard? Maybe I feel a little bit abandoned.”
Trying to find the right words can help you to explore ideas and feelings you hadn’t thought about before.
Keeping a reflective journal also lets you look back at your feelings over time. This can help you to identify things you didn’t realize made you unhappy and thought patterns you might not otherwise notice. It can also help you to identify things that reliably make you happier or more relaxed.
Honesty is essential if you’re going to get the most out of reflective writing. Remember that no one else is going to read what you’ve written.
Mindfulness and meditation can be incredible tools for improving your self-awareness. They help you take a step back and pay attention to your inner world. This might be through focusing on your breathing, your senses, or even trying to think of nothing at all.
Try not to focus on improving your self-awareness while meditating or practicing mindfulness. Really engage with being in the moment rather than trying to think, analyze, and problem-solve.
Self-reflection and rumination are very similar, but only self-reflection improves your self-awareness in a healthy way.
Self-reflection is looking at past events without getting caught up in them. It helps you to process those feelings and learn with the benefit of hindsight. Self-reflection brings physical and mental health benefits and can help you cope with stressful or traumatic events.
Rumination is when you get stuck thinking about negative experiences over and over. You might find yourself going over the same experiences over and over again, almost re-living them. Rumination is associated with lower mood and poorer mental and physical health.
Studies suggest that creating emotional distance and focusing on why you felt a particular way (rather than focusing on what you felt) makes it easier for you to reflect thoughtfully without rumination.
Try to create emotional distance by “taking a few steps back” and thinking of the person involved as “another you.”
In our articles about getting to know people, we talk about the importance of being curious about others. Building self-awareness is getting to know yourself; you need to be curious.
Try asking questions about the things that are important to you, including your beliefs and values. It can be tough to know what to ask, so here are some examples to help you get started.
- What am I really proud of in my life?
- What would I like to go back in time and change?
- What made me happy as a child, and would that make me happy now?
- What word would I most like others to use to describe me?
- What word would I be most unhappy about others using to describe me?
- What is my most unconventional/unpopular opinion, and why do I hold it?
- What would I change about myself if I could?
- What wouldn’t I change about myself under any circumstances?
- What couldn’t I change about myself and still be ‘me’?
- What values are most important to me?
When you answer these questions, you can also ask why you feel that way.
Many of us are taught to think about others before ourselves. As adults, we can then be uncomfortable being the center of attention… even our own attention.
To cultivate self-awareness, you need to be able to pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings without feeling self-conscious or self-centered. This might not happen straight away.
Try to accept feeling uncomfortable as just another part of your personality to understand. Over time you’ll probably find the discomfort fades.
You can learn a lot about the world from reading fiction, but you can also learn about yourself.
More than TV or movies, good books offer a deep insight into a character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences. As you read more, you become used to thinking about people’s internal worlds. This is developing the same techniques you need to understand yourself.
You can also learn from how you respond to particular types of books, events, or characters. If you have a strong reaction to something you read, try asking yourself, “What do I see about myself or my life in this?”
Being self-aware requires looking at things as they are, not as we’d like them to be. Building your self-awareness means having to look closely at the parts of yourself that you might not like or things you do that you’re not proud of.
Try to remember that being self-aware doesn’t mean beating yourself up. It’s about thinking about all parts of yourself with compassion and trying to understand rather than judge.
Judging yourself can lead to cycles of shame, which makes you want to avoid some topics. This makes it harder to grow your self-awareness. Finding ways to explore things you find uncomfortable without judgment is essential for great self-awareness.
Tip: Ask for help from a qualified therapist
If you know (or suspect) that there are things you are struggling to think about clearly, it might be helpful to talk to a qualified therapist or counselor. Therapists are trained to create a judgment-free space where you feel safe enough to explore difficult topics.
Improving your self-awareness isn’t something you are going to achieve overnight. It will take time. As you build your self-awareness, you’ll find more layers of yourself to understand.
Try not to let that discourage you. Self-awareness is a journey. Rather than worrying about how much more there is to learn, be proud of how much you are learning about yourself every day.
It can be helpful to think of self-awareness as a self-care habit (like brushing your teeth) rather than as a task you’re trying to complete.
Not all of our feelings will be comfortable. Being self-aware often means being able to live with an uncomfortable feeling for long enough to understand what’s going on.
When you encounter an uncomfortable or “bad” feeling, try not to push it away. Remind yourself that studies show pushing thoughts or emotions away often makes them stronger.
Instead, try taking a deep breath and paying attention to what’s going on in your mind and body.
It might be too much to sit with uncomfortable feelings for an indefinite period, especially to start with. Try setting a time limit. You might start aiming for 30 seconds and then increase it as you learn that you can handle discomfort.
Being self-aware means being able to see beyond our own worldview and preconceptions. This can take practice. The more you try to understand how things look to someone else, the easier it can be to recognize inaccurate beliefs about yourself.
Try to move beyond your social “bubble.” Look for news sources that represent an alternative viewpoint to your own. Listen to opinions you disagree with and work to understand why they think that.
Often, we find ourselves creating counterarguments while listening to people we disagree with. Resist this by asking questions aimed at understanding the other person.
As you get used to seeing the world from different perspectives, it can be easier to understand your own actions.
Building self-awareness means creating a habit of checking in on your thoughts and feelings regularly. Try setting aside time to pay attention to what’s going on for you. You don’t need a long meditation session. Two minutes spent thinking about your internal world can help.
To help create new habits, link moments of reflection with well-established routines. For example, you might spend a few minutes reflecting as you drink your morning coffee and again just before bed. Some people like to reflect on their day just before bed, but others find that it can make it hard to sleep. Find the pattern that works best for you.
As well as regular check-in habits, you can also practice checking in with yourself at random throughout your day.
Creating self-awareness doesn’t have to be a solo activity. Understanding how others view you can give you context and an external perspective.
Asking for feedback can be scary. Make it easier on yourself by asking people you trust deeply and who have your best interests at heart. Remember that you’re discovering how they see you, not who you are. Just because someone else sees you a particular way doesn’t make it true.
If you do receive feedback you’re unhappy with, try to accept it gracefully. Be honest that it wasn’t what you wanted to hear, but tell them you’re grateful for their honesty and will think about it. Avoid the temptation to argue or explain.
Once you’ve received feedback, reflect on it. Think about how it feels as well as whether it’s accurate.
Self-awareness means learning about yourself, but research can still be helpful.
There are loads of psychological principles around attachment styles, emotional defenses, and ways of interacting that can be really helpful to understand.
Here are some resources to get you started.
- Cognitive distortions
- Attachment styles
- Emotional defense mechanisms/coping strategies
- Attribution theory
- Lists of feelings
Lots of people take personality tests to help them understand themselves. There are some benefits to these tests, but it is worth being careful.
One popular test is the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory. Although many people use it and see themselves in their ‘type’, it doesn’t have an especially good reputation amongst psychologists, academics, and other professionals.
Try not to let these tests define you. Even supporters of MBTI warn that “the more people are encouraged to think that they “are” the letters which emerge in the short-hand description of their type, the more trouble is likely to brew in the unconscious.”
You might learn more about yourself from how you feel about the descriptions than you do from the results themselves. For example, you might have a strong reaction to being described as “impulsive” or “extroverted”, which might tell you something about your values.
If you are looking for a good personality test, try the VIA character survey. It ranks different character strengths based on how important they are in your life. There is a paid analysis, but the free ranking can still give you lots to think about.
Self-awareness isn’t just about what you do. It’s also about why. Understanding “why” can help you look for patterns in the difficulties in your life. If you find yourself facing the same problem repeatedly, try to understand the root cause of the problem.
It can help to realize that everything we do gives us something, even if it causes problems further down the line. For example, you might get annoyed at yourself for procrastinating because it means you have to rush to get things done by a deadline. When you ask why you procrastinate, you might see that it helps you avoid the stress of starting a task.
Asking why is key to helping you raise your self-awareness. It’s also the first step in finding better coping strategies.
You might already have experienced times when your body was telling you something you hadn’t noticed. Maybe you had neck pain and headaches months before you realized you were stressed at work, or you got butterflies in your stomach when talking to someone before you realized you had feelings for them.
Listening to your body can build self-awareness by getting in touch with feelings that haven’t reached consciousness yet. If you notice a physical sensation, such as tense muscles or an elevated heart rate, be curious as to what might have caused it.
As you improve your self-awareness, try to include all aspects of your life. It’s easy to focus on who we are right now (the present), without thinking about how we got here (the past) or who we would like to be (the future).
How you incorporate this into your self-awareness journey is up to you. Some people like to draw a timeline of their life. You can mark significant events and give different types of events different colors or symbols. You can extend this timeline to include things you would like in the future, even if you don’t want to give specific dates.
We can learn a lot about ourselves from what annoys us. Try looking at things that frustrate you and asking yourself where that is coming from.
For example, you might be frustrated that your partner doesn’t put dishes in the dishwasher. The mess itself might annoy you, which tells you that you place a high value on the space around you. You might feel like they’re assuming you’ll do it. If that’s why you’re unhappy, you probably put a high value on respect and/or fairness.
Sometimes, you might realize that things you dislike about others are things you secretly worry about in yourself, or things you’ve worked hard to stop yourself from doing. For example, you might dislike people being late because you feel guilty that you also struggle with punctuality.
Examining things we dislike to learn more about ourselves can have the nice side-effect of making us less frustrated about the thing itself.
Self-awareness can also mean questioning values we don’t realize we hold.
We all inherit values from our families and our cultural norms. Some may be so deeply embedded that we don’t realize that we have them, for example, being polite.
Many of these values will be helpful in your life, but some can make you unhappy or cause problems in your life. For example, you may say yes to things you don’t want to do because you have to “be polite.”
These kinds of values can also be problematic if you spend time with people from a different culture. If you’ve inherited a belief in the value of marriage, you might feel judgemental of couples who don’t agree.
Questioning your inherited values doesn’t have to mean changing them. Realizing that they’re your values can help you realize that they don’t have to be universal, and you can decide how to apply them.
No matter how self-aware you are, you can almost always improve. Here are some of the biggest benefits of increasing your self-awareness.
Great relationships (with family and friends, as well as with a significant other) rely on both sides getting their needs met. This is why communication is so important; we need to let the other person know what our needs are. Without the self-awareness to recognize our needs, however, communication skills aren’t enough.
Great self-awareness lets us know what our needs are and why we need those things. For example, you might explain to your partner that you need to spend more time alone. Obviously, they need to respect that but explaining why can be helpful.
For example, you might say:
“I need more time alone because I need to be selfish now and again. When we’re together, I’m always thinking about your feelings as well as mine. I’d really like to only have to think about what I want sometimes.”
They might then also encourage you to make “selfish” choices sometimes, even when you’re together.
Being more self-aware can help you deal with strong emotions without being overwhelmed.
You might notice earlier that you are getting annoyed by a conversation, so you change the subject and avoid an argument. You can also develop better self-management of your emotions, meaning that you feel able to deal with your emotions in a healthy and appropriate way.
The more you understand yourself and your priorities, the more productive you’re likely to be. This is true both personally and professionally. Self-awareness helps you to understand why you procrastinate and how to motivate yourself and lets you predict potential obstacles.
Great self-awareness can also help you to overcome self-sabotage behaviors, such as perfectionism or drinking too much.
Good self-awareness can help you distinguish between “wants” and “needs,” making it easier to focus on fulfilling long-term goals rather than short-term fixes. Understanding your needs lets you make good decisions.
Self-awareness can allow pre-emptive reflection. For example, employers want to know how you deal with emotional situations at work. Most people haven’t thought about this in advance. They have to react in the moment, so they just do the best they can. Self-aware people will have spent their time thinking about how they cope with it and whether this is the right decision to make.
Self-awareness can build self-esteem and self-confidence. It gives you an accurate assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and gives you the information you need to change things that you don’t like. There’s a lot of overlap in the techniques we use to gain self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-confidence.
Some jobs require a high degree of self-awareness. These include social work, nursing, counseling, and education. These are jobs that require being in social situations with vulnerable people who might need support, meaning that great socio-emotional intelligence is essential.
Lots of other employers are looking for employees with high self-awareness as well. It’s an important “soft skill” for anyone wanting a leadership role within their workplace. Professional development courses often focus on how to boost self-awareness.
The most common cause of low self-awareness is being afraid. We might be afraid of what we will find out about ourselves or that we won’t like what we see when we look at ourselves honestly. Lots of people are also unaware of their own lack of self-awareness.
Not being self-aware means that you have misconceptions about yourself, your thoughts, and your behavior. You may not understand the effect you have on others. This can make it harder to form relationships or work on personal development.
Self-awareness is a combination of habits, techniques, and courage. Having good self-awareness means habitually using techniques to understand your internal world and having the courage to respond honestly to what you see.
Children become self-aware (i.e., they understand that they are separate from other people) in stages over the first 4-5 years of life. This includes being able to recognize images of themselves in mirrors and learning that they can have knowledge others don’t have.