How to look, think, feel, and act with clarity and awareness

Imagine yourself playing a flight-sim style video game. But the airplane does not behave as you would expect. Occasionally it does not respond, and sometimes it overcorrects. Sometimes the enemy fires at you and a direct hit does no damage. In other cases, you are knocked out of the sky when it misses. Are you likely to keep playing?

On the other hand, what if the game is 100% responsive but at the end you realize you have been fighting the wrong army, and you have been 100% successful in inflicting damage on your own forces? For whatever reason, you were unaware. Neither of those games would be fun.

In real life, lack of awareness doesn't just make life less fun. It can lead to tragedy.

I am having great difficulty living with the sorrow of this accident, since I am a loving father and can only imagine the horror this has brought you. - Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles

Col. Hayles wrote this message to the parents of a young man who was killed when he pulled the trigger on his AH-64A Apache gunship during the Gulf War in 1991. Hayles and the young man both served in the same army, making this death particularly poignant. At the time he was unaware that, as a result of the strong desert winds, his helicopter had drifted away from the enemy targets and that the armored vehicles in his sights were actually his fellow soldiers.

I share this merely to emphasize, as an extreme example, how devastating lack of self-awareness can be. Col. Hayles wasn't only unaware of his physical circumstances, but he had a reputation for overconfidence that he was also likely unaware of.

This is the second in a series of articles discussing self-awareness. In the first article, the meaning of self-awareness as well as its benefits and related concepts were explained. In short, self-awareness does more than prevent regrets such as those of Col. Hayles. It also helps us make better decisions, reach our goals, and stay in control of our lives. 

This article discusses concrete ways to develop and maintain self-awareness. Let's review a few points:

  • There are two types of self-awareness: internal and external
    • Internal self-awareness involves knowing who you are, including your values and how you behave in different situations.
    • External self-awareness means understanding how other people see you.
  • Self-awareness is closely related to having a strong grasp of reality in general. 

These principles will become evident as we go over the following ways of developing self-awareness.

Pay attention

Obviously, this is the first step in awareness. We must understand, however, that everything we think about ourselves is based on a mental model we have constructed. With this mental model, we can navigate the world effectively without having to constantly check our assumptions. For example, stretch your hand out in front of you. Close your eyes, and then touch your nose. This was probably easy for you since you have a mental model of your body in space.

However, the map is not the territory. Just as every map leaves out details by necessity, our mental models of ourselves contain omissions and errors. With the recognition of this fact, we can progressively improve the quality of our mental map, and by doing so, we become self-aware.

The next step is curiosity. “To be self-aware, a person needs to be curious about themselves,” as Ana Jovanovic, psychologist and life coach at Parenting Pod, puts it.

Curiosity will move us to be mindful of what we observe, without interference from ego. Those who value curiosity and self-awareness will be interested to learn about their own mental and emotional blind spots. Discovering a weakness or a failed belief becomes an opportunity for growth, not a liability. As a result, our perceptions become more in line with reality.

Curiosity, in turn, moves us to ask questions. For instance, why did I lose my temper? Why do I feel so bad in certain situations? And what kind of person am I striving to be?

As a next step, we determine how to identify and measure our thoughts, feelings, and actions. A person prone to sudden temper outbursts can learn to notice their own clenched teeth, for example, or a rapid heartbeat, before it gets out of control.Fishbane, M. D. (2016). The neurobiology of relationships. In T. L. Sexton & J. Lebow (Eds.), Handbook of family therapy (pp. 48–65). Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group

We can continue to develop our self-awareness skills by thinking like scientists. Observation allows us to test hypotheses and make predictions. The key to success is finding easy and consistent ways to collect observations. The more accurately we are able to measure our observations, the more confident we can be in our conclusions. In a later section, we'll look at specific ways to do this.

Be realistic

This includes recognizing that:

  • Life does not owe me any special privileges.
  • Although I can't realize all my dreams, I can continue to grow wiser. 
  • There will always be more things that I don't know than those that I do know.
  • My listening skills are probably not as good as I think.

Honesty and realism go hand in hand. I will not hide my preferences if I am being honest. While I won't insist on them all the time, I will stand up for my needs when necessary. In the same vein, I will take responsibility for my actions, even those I'm not proud of.

According to Amy McManus, a marriage and family therapist:

You become self-aware through a willingness to let go of defensiveness and an openness to seeing yourself in a way that is different from what you have always assumed. Often this means you have to be willing to see yourself in a less-than-positive light.

Control your emotions

The last article highlighted the connection between self-awareness and emotional intelligence. John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author, identifies self-awareness as "the recognition of one's own emotional state at any given point in time."

Self-aware people:

  • Say what they mean.
  • Are able to laugh at themselves.
  • Don't try to numb their emotions or escape from them.
  • Take the time to understand their feelings and express them openly.
  • Avoid getting defensive.
  • Don't hesitate to apologize.

You can greatly increase your emotional self-awareness by following the tips in this article and the articles it links to.

Here are a few quick tips: 

  • The more often we can ask ourselves, "How am I feeling right now? ", and analyze the circumstances surrounding our feelings, the sooner we will begin to gain a better understanding and control over our emotions.
  • The same holds true for analyzing situations that lead to emotional reactions.
  • Many people dislike criticism and find it hard to accept. However, criticism is gold. How often are people willing to give us useful feedback? When we realize that only a small percentage of information that would benefit us is shared with us, we'll be more inclined to mine critical feedback for useful information rather than getting defensive.

Think things through

A self-aware person understands:

  • How they tend to think.
  • How they best absorb information.
  • Their values.
  • Their strengths and weaknesses.

Ask "What?", not "Why?"

According to self-awareness expert Tasha Eurich, When looking for underlying causes, there are several pitfalls to be aware of:

  • The reasons for our actions are usually complex and hard to understand, but our minds are drawn to simplistic explanations.
  • Rather than a rational assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, our perceived explanations often focus on our fears, shortcomings, or insecurities.
  • When we think like this, we tend to rationalize and deny what we've learned.

It is more productive, instead, to ask, "What?":

  • What did I do well?
  • What could I have done better?
  • In what ways did I contribute to the outcome?
  • If I were a caring friend watching my behavior, what advice would I give?
  • To do a better job in the future, what steps should I take?

In the end, we become more open to new information and how we might learn from it. As a result, we are able to move forward and find solutions, rather than focusing on unproductive patterns.

Charles Munger once said, “To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want. The world is not yet a crazy enough place to reward a whole bunch of undeserving people.” Niklas Göke suggests using this idea to create a "What?" question that can help us find our personal values:

What would the guy do who deserves everything I want?

Focus on others

People who are highly self-aware:

  • Listen more than they talk.
  • Are humble.
  • Consider the impact of their words and actions on others.
  • Carefully consider their words.
  • Pay attention to others instead of themselves.
  • Take into account others' opinions and look at things from different perspectives.

Get feedback

McManus defines self-awareness as "the ability to look at your own words and actions from a perspective outside of yourself; to see yourself as others see you."

How can we develop this ability? The main way is by asking them how they see us.

It takes courage to receive feedback graciously, the courage to let others have an advantage over us, at least temporarily. It also takes courage to ask for feedback. Actually, asking for anything requires courage. The person who provides the feedback should be rewarded by the fact that we accept it graciously, even if we do not agree with it. 

Eurich suggests that we only offer two possible responses to those who provide us with feedback:

  • "Thank you," or
  • "Tell me more."

She recommends executives ask 8-12 people for feedback each month: I was wondering if you could give me some feedback on how I performed with this goal in the past 30 days. The second question is, what do you think I should do in the next 30 days?

Göke suggests sending a message to the last person you spoke to and asking: "Hey, remember when we talked about X? Is there anything I can improve on?"

Use tools

We live in an era where technology can distract us from what is important, thereby reducing self-awareness. But it can also increase it. For instance, machines and devices can provide accurate feedback about our health. Blood pressure monitors, health trackers, and other such devices alert us to potential problems and help us make improvements. 

We can use technology in many ways to increase our self-awareness. One example is RescueTime, an app that informs the user how much time they spend on their devices and what they do with that time. By carefully analyzing such data, we can determine whether we are spending our time effectively and find ways to increase productivity and reduce distractions. Tracking your time, with or without a computer, can also be a useful tool.

Journaling is also closely related to time tracking, and I often recommend it. Productivity expert James Clear recommends asking, What did I do last week? How can I improve by just a little bit this week?

You can also use journaling to increase self-awareness in the following ways:

  • Describe your day, what you did, the reactions and feelings you experienced, and their consequences.
  • Include some of each. It is less effective to write about a single aspect, event, or emotion, than to tie them together.
  • Think about what does and doesn't work for you.
  • If you have a disagreement with someone else, try writing about the disagreement from the other person's point of view.
  • Divide your life into categories, such as business, health, and travel. Periodically summarize the progress you've made in each.
  • Make a habit of providing evidence of how you are living out your values.
  • Make decisions based on what you've learned and write about them.

Other tests, such as the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Satisfaction With Life Scale, can also help us understand ourselves better.

Learn from mistakes

Billy Joel sang that mistakes are the only thing you can truly call your own. Self-aware individuals know how valuable it is to learn from their failures. Instead of hiding their mistakes, they turn them into valuable learning experiences. They don't hesitate to apologize, realizing that acknowledging the mistake and making amends is the best way to follow up. Göke exemplified this with his personal experience:

I recently blamed my family for something that was actually my fault. Apologizing didn’t just clear the air and nurture these relationships, but in the following conversation, each member gave me valuable advice for how I could solve the real underlying problem.

My best wishes to you on your journey to self-awareness. Next week, we will look for answers to the questions I posed at the end of the last article.