Do you know who you are? Probably not.

Card image cap

I’m sorry to inform you that you probably don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. You probably think you are self-aware without the slightest doubt. A surprising study found that self-awareness is rarer than generally believed. The researchers estimated that only 10-15% of people met their criteria for self-awareness.

socrates quote know thyselfMy for your psyche...know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves ― Socrates

Often, we go through days on a kind of “autopilot” hardly aware of why we behave as we do. Does that mean that we are not self-aware? The mirror test is an early and commonly referenced attempt to determine self-awareness in animals. The test is simple: when viewing itself in a mirror does the animal recognize the reflected image as itself rather than another animal. Very few species have passed this test.

Humans pass the mirror test successfully recognizing themselves in a mirror starting from the ages of 6-12 months. Adult chimpanzees and orangutans have passed while most other primates fail. In my own totally unscientific experiments, I have caught my cat hissing at her reflection proving that she is napping through life not self-aware. Pigeons and dolphins pass while dogs fail. Recently, scientists have observed the first self-aware fish.

What I really want to know is would the terminator pass the mirror test? terminator self-aware mirror test

The mirror test has been criticized as too simplistic for considering self-awareness as something you either have or do not. Self-awareness is spectrum. There is no specific instant when a human child suddenly becomes self-aware like Skynet.

In this article we explore what self-awareness really is, why it matters, and most importantly how to improve it. We suggest that you read this article first, but if you rather just take our self-awareness questionnaire here you go. Otherwise, let’s begin with trying to answer what is self-awareness.

What Does Being Self-Aware Mean?

Self-awareness is an elusive concept. Everyone has an intuitive idea of what it is, but we don’t know exactly where it comes from or how to measure it. Philosophers have pondered the concept since time immemorial. Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, thought
lao tzu quoteAt the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want. ― Lao Tzu
Carl Jung, the founder of analytic psychology, wrote
carl jung quoteYour visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. ― C.G. Jung
Abraham Maslow, creator of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, said
abraham maslow quote maslows hierarchy of needsIt isn't normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement. ― Abraham Harold Maslow
While many a philosopher contemplated self-awareness, it was not until 1972 that a formal theory of self-awareness first emerged with the work of Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund. They state
When we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.

Let’s dissect this. At any given moment, you can focus your attention on your surroundings or internally on yourself. When your attention is concentrated on yourself, you compare your behavior to internal standards of correctness. These standards define what you believe is the correct way to behave, feel, and think. Alignment between your standards and behavior you may feel pride, contentment, and satisfaction.

However, when you evaluate yourself against your standards you may not always like what you find. A conflict between your standards and behavior can result in feelings of shame, disappointment, and dissatisfaction.

Have you ever wanted to apologize to someone? Unless you are psychopath you have. Whether it was apologizing to someone for adding too much salt to the soup or crashing your car into their house, those were situations where you didn’t live up to your standards.

These negative feelings arising from a mental conflict are to be eliminated or avoided. On one hand, you could change your behavior to eliminate the difference between your actions and ideals. On the other hand, you could avoid the conflict by completely avoiding self-evaluation entirely. Maybe self-awareness isn’t so great after all.

Over the following 50 years since the inception of self-awareness theory, researchers have explored various definitions of self-awareness and gained a better understanding of the causes and consequences of self-awareness. Studies have demonstrated that there are multiple aspects of self-awareness.
  • Mindfulness: “being in the moment” Attention to and awareness of the present moment without seeking to analyze the experience.
  • Rumination: “beating yourself up” Obsessively thinking the same negative thoughts over and over. It can be dangerous mental loop that impairs the ability to process emotions and deepens depression.
  • Self-consciousness: “everyone is looking at me” The unpleasant feeling of being hyper aware of even the smallest aspects of yourself. It is connected to feelings of embarrassment leading to a low self-esteem.
  • Self-reflection: “the unexamined life is not worth living” Taking the time to give serious thought to your motivations and actions. It is the process of analyzing why you are the way you are.
  • Insight: “know thyself” The level of understanding one has of their own desires, motivations, and attributes.
  • Self-regulation: “chill out” This is how we monitor and manage our emotions and behaviors to produce positive outcomes.
  • Goal-directed behavior: “just do it” The ability to make good decisions to consistently progress toward a pre-defined goal. It relies on two major capabilities: 1) the ability to predict the consequences of one’s actions and 2) to choose between options based on how much each contributes to the goal.
As you can see, self-awareness theory has been enhanced, but there is no single simple definition. It remains a controversial theory. Our inner worlds are complex and not easily defined or measured. Despite this, across research studies, four dimensions of self-awareness have emerged,
  1. Reflective self-development: development of continuous attention to the self, with a focus on conscious, reflective, and balanced learning.
  2. Acceptance: a positive self-image and confidence as well as a deeper understanding of others.
  3. Proactive at work: the impact of self-awareness in the workplace and represents an objective and proactive approach to dealing with work.
  4. Emotional Costs: the potential negative emotional impacts of being more aware of oneself, such as guilt, fear, vulnerability, and despair.
These are the four dimensions used in our online self-awareness questionnaire designed to reveal opportunities for personal growth. For simplicity, each dimension is split into two options. Reflecting (R) or Neglecting (N) Accepting (A) or Misunderstanding (M) Proactive (P) or Inactive (I) Costs (C) or Satisfaction (S) self-awareness questionnaire box Your self-awareness type can be expressed as a 4-letter code. Not all types are equal. The options in red are opportunities to improve yourself by trying the solutions we recommend near the end of this article. Now that we understand what self-awareness means, it is time to examine why it is so important.

Why does self-awareness matter?

Self-awareness is recognized as important for general well-being, mental health, and day-to-day functioning. Studies have shown that when people are more self-aware, they have higher self-esteem and higher levels of overall happiness. Beware, though, that an honest self-evaluation is not easy.

We tend to glorify our successes. We often overestimate our skills and abilities. We may harmfully berate ourselves for failures. And most of us have dealt with a colleague who when given feedback gets defensive, makes excuses, or blames everyone except themselves. We need to be self-aware to take the good with the bad, not dwell on failures, and improve ourselves.

Let’s see what researchers have identified as the major positive impacts of self-awareness:
  • Perspective-taking: recognize that your perspective is different from another’s perspective. Promotes empathetic responses to the plight of others.
  • Self-Control: living in social groups brings many benefits but also has responsibility of expectations of conduct. Greater self-awareness can reduce antisocial impulses such as cheating, stealing, and lying.
  • Creative Achievement: Self-awareness allows people to critique their ideas, evaluate works-in-progress, and judge completed works, fostering creativity.
  • Pride and High Self-esteem: Attributing the self as the cause of successfully meeting one’s standards is a source of positive feelings of pride leading to high self-esteem.
  • Improved decision making: High self-awareness is a strong predictor of success. We all have unique strengths and weaknesses, but many people are largely unaware of them. A self-aware person pinpoints where they need to improve, knows when an opportunity is a good fit for them, and makes decisions better aligned with their goals and desires.
  • Stronger relationships: Individuals with a high ability to foster and maintain healthy, mutually beneficial relationships have greater levels of self-awareness.
  • Better communication: If our audience does not understand then we communicated nothing. We might as well be talking to a brick wall. The audience provides critical feedback on how effectively we are communicating, and empathy is our ability to understand the emotional states of others. One cannot recognize the emotional states of others without first understanding those emotions in ourselves, in other words, self-awareness.

So far, we have focused on the positive aspects of self-awareness but that is not the whole story. There is a dark side to self-awareness a bit like finding out Darth Vader is your father. When we don’t have a clear understanding of ourselves, we alienate and frustrate those around us. If we don’t know our desires and what motivates us, we make bad decisions.

the dark side of self-awareness

Even worse, a vast amount of research has connected self-awareness to negative outcomes such as depression, suicide, and dysfunction. It’s no surprise that failing to live up to one’s own standards can lead to feelings, such as, guilt, regret, despair, and hopelessness. It is not hopeless, there are solutions, for example, journaling that we will discuss in more detail later.

Self-awareness is a double-edged sword. Rollo May labeled our capacity for self-awareness as “the human dilemma.” The dilemma arises out of our capacity to experience ourselves as both the subject of our lives and as an object in the world. To see ourselves as the author of our own story or a thing in someone else’s story. When we self-evaluate, we look at ourselves as objects. We are reminded that we have flaws, that outsides forces can control and manipulate us constraining our self-determination.

Models of how self-awareness negatively impacts mental health often starts with blaming ourselves when our actions fall short of our expectations. For highly self-aware people this tendency to be self-critical is amplified. People can become stuck in loop of self-criticism. It may feel like this obsessive thinking is beneficial, but it is a nasty trick that our minds play on us. In some cases, it leads to attempts to escape the cycle by reducing self-awareness and its resulting self-criticism. Desperate people searching for an exit may resort to self-destructive behaviors including binge eating, alcohol, drugs, and self-harm.

We have self-centered minds which get us into plenty of trouble. If we do not come to understand the error in the way we think, our self-awareness, which is our greatest blessing, is also our downfall. Joko Beck

Self-awareness also contributes to anxiety disorders. One study estimated that at some point in their lives 12.1% of the population in the United States will suffer from an anxiety disorder. It seems that self-awareness can be one’s greatest friend and worst enemy. While self-awareness has negative aspects, its benefits are equally important.

What are we to do? Should we hide our head in the sand and avoid any sort of self-evaluation or self-reflection?

The good news is self-awareness is not a fixed character trait but can be practiced. The double-edged sword can be wielded to ground yourself in the moment, understand yourself better, make better choices, and improve virtually all aspects of your life. Self-awareness is a skill that can be cultivated and improved through practice of journaling, mindfulness, goal setting, and listening.

We can harness the benefits while mitigating the undesirable costs. Research suggests that the benefits and negative aspects of self-awareness are balanced when people have reasonable standards and when they are optimistic about meeting their standards.

Self-awareness is a trait - or maybe 'practice' is the more accurate way to put it - that everyone can always improve at. It is part emotional intelligence, part perceptiveness, part critical thinking. It means knowing your weaknesses, of course, but it also means knowing your strengths and what motivates you. Neil Blumenthal
Do you have the courage and curiosity to take our self-awareness questionnaire? The questionnaire assesses your self-awareness in a framework that exposes insights into yourself. It may inspire you to think about aspects of your life and yourself that you have not yet examined. Try it! The first step on the path to improving your self-awareness is taking our questionnaire. Once you have insight into your self-awareness strengths and weaknesses, the next section highlights some ways to begin to improve yourself.

How to Improve Self-Awareness

Think of the process of self-exploration like space exploration only much cheaper. There is much you don’t know and that is what makes it so interesting. Improving your self-awareness requires time, attention, and focus. It isn’t easy, but the benefits are worth the effort.
  1. Practice Journaling
    In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are. Barack Obama
    The benefit of writing in a journal is that helps you to identify, clarify, and discover yourself. It matters less what you write in your journal as long as you are writing. Whether you write in a stream of consciousness or bulleted lists, you are positively expanding your self-awareness. A diary is a private, safe place to let your mind roam free and reveal what contemplation may not. Writing can break the insidious loop of self-destructive thoughts. There are many more benefits of keeping a diary too many to list here.
  2. Practice Goal Setting Goals are critical for you to reach your aspirations. Before you can set the most appropriate goals, you must determine what your aspirations are. The goal setting process forces you to set your focus and define what success means to you. Experiments show that participation in a goal setting exercise fosters self-awareness resulting in sounder decision making.
  3. Practice Mindfulness Mindfulness is being fully present moment rather than absorbed in contemplating the future or rehashing the past. It is the opposite of the swirling thoughts that often fill our minds. Meditation is a common mindfulness technique that doesn’t require anything more than a quiet comfortable place to sit and a few minutes of uninterrupted time. It is a mental training practice that typically involves a breathing practice and teaches you to empty your mind of racing thoughts to calm both body and mind.
  4. Practice Listening - Feedback is a gift Most people believe they are self-aware but rarely seek feedback to test whether they actually are. It takes courage to ask others for their opinion of you and it’s even harder to listen. Ask a loving critic who have your best interests at heart and the fortitude to be honest. Try to be resilient and listen to their constructive criticism rather than responding defensively. Carefully consider what they say mentally noting what surprises you and what rings true. When you journal or reflect on the conversation later, examine whether a criticism does not appear to be true or you have some self-improvement to work on. Don’t solely rely on the opinions of one person. The objectivity of others in the workplace is a valuable source of feedback. Many organizations already have processes for employees to give and feedback. If these processes are lacking or missing, seek out candid feedback from managers, peers, and employees. Analyses show that the most successful leaders were the ones that became more self-aware through seeking frequent critical feedback.

What’s Next?

Take the questionnaire if you haven't already. Sign up to Memairy today and discover the mental health and wellbeing benefits of journaling!