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How to Improve Self-Awareness

On a scale of 1 to 5, how self-aware are you?

If the answer is 5, congratulations!

Being highly self-aware implies that you have good leadership skills (Lipman 2013) and other soft skills that you need to succeed in the workplace (Guber 2015).

Now consider a world where you are a 1 on this scale. Would you respond to the above question accurately… or would you still say you’re a 5?

You Need (to Start Talking About) Self-Awareness

You’ve probably met a few people who go through life entirely oblivious of the effect they have on others. But if you were to ask them about it, they’d assure you that they’re perfectly self-aware (at worst, they’re just misunderstood).

We immediately run into the problem of how self-awareness is assessed, which is just a small part of what makes this trait difficult to talk about. Many things about self-awareness are subjective, which means that different people have different ideas about what it means, and discussions about it can get frustrating.

There’s another reason why you might be reluctant to talk about your self-awareness or lack thereof. It’s not fun to wonder if you have flaws you’re not aware of. It’s easier to avoid the topic altogether.

But you should know that truly self-aware people are more likely to be satisfied with their personal and professional relationships. They’re also more empathetic and likelier to be happy and successful in general (Eurich 2018).

If you start thinking and talking about it, you can improve your self-awareness levels. Let’s look at some nuances that could help you figure out your path.

Balance Your Internal and External Self-Awareness

There are two types of self-awareness, and you need both. They also have to be in sync.

The first kind is internal self-awareness, which refers to the way you understand your inner self. Questions that are relevant here include:

  • How well do you understand your values and motivators?
  • Do you know what you’re striving for?
  • Do you pay attention to how you react to certain situations?
  • How closely do you look at your impact on other people?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions, figuring them out is your first step.

Second, there’s external self-awareness, which is equally important. This describes the way you understand other people’s perceptions of you. For example, some questions you might ask are:

  • If the people around you had to guess what your values and ambitions are, do you think they’d guess correctly?
  • Have you looked into others’ opinions on the way you react to things?
  • Do you know how other people feel about your impact on their lives?

Developing external self-awareness is a complex process. You have to think about the way other people think about you. This may feel unfair and depressing, but to begin any kind of self-improvement, you have to be aware of what needs fixing.

Walk the Tightrope

People who are self-aware and successful understand themselves well. But they also understand that the way they come across won’t always match their internal life.

If you lack external self-awareness, you might find it difficult to fit in and cooperate with people. For example, you may see yourself as energetic, while others think you are aggressive.

If that’s the case, they can’t communicate with you the way you’d like them to. It is especially hard to be a good leader if you don’t really know how people see you (Monarth 2019).

On the other hand, you can’t rely solely on others’ perception of you. If you don’t have a clear idea of who you are, you may find yourself anxiously trying to please everyone.

A disbalance between internal and external self-awareness leads to uncomfortable self-consciousness (Well 2019). How do you resolve this problem?

In the short term, it’s best to focus your attention outwards when you’re in a social situation. Instead of thinking about yourself, start paying attention to the people you’re talking to. This will both improve your relationships and lay the foundation for increased self-awareness. It’ll also make interactions feel less stressful and awkward.

In the long term, you want to do some introspection. But this can’t happen in a vacuum — you need good feedback if you want to be more self-aware.

Get the Right Kind of Feedback

Again, to be truly self-aware, you need to know how people see you. Guesswork isn’t good enough, you need to reach out and ask.

There are two things you should keep in mind when asking and using feedback.

1. Learn how to recognize good feedback.

There is some value in knowing what others think of you even when they’re wrong about you. As mentioned above, external self-awareness means knowing the way you’re seen by everyone you interact with.

But to work on both your internal and external self-awareness, you want feedback from people who know you well but aren’t biased.

Here’s a great video explaining what that looks like:

Tasha Eurich is the biggest name in the world of workplace self-awareness. She explains that you need “loving critics” — people who have your best interests at heart, but they are also willing to be honest rather than always taking your side.

On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of only listening to the harshest critics. Some people simply dislike you for reasons of their own. They’re not any more objective than those who uncritically like everything you do.

2. Create an atmosphere where people won’t regret being honest.

Eurich also suggests giving people some context when asking for feedback. If you think there’s a specific shortcoming you should be working on, feel free to explain that’s what you’re most interested in.

People may find it easier to answer specific questions than to give you a general assessment. Asking for examples is helpful too.

Most importantly, never lash out at those giving you feedback.

Keep asking for feedback in various forms, and prove that you can take it well. People might not want to poison their relationships with you by being too honest, and it’s up to you to prove that that won’t happen.

The Problem with Higher Executives

In an interview, Eurich brings up an interesting, somewhat paradoxical truth about power and self-awareness (Lipman 2018).

Self-awareness makes us more successful. But being powerful and successful in your job may decrease your self-awareness.

The reason is very simple — as people advance in their workplace hierarchy, they stop receiving sincere feedback.

There’s no simple solution to this, except to keep building positive relationships with everyone you work with. If you’re in a position of power at work, you need to work extra hard to maintain your self-awareness.

Clear Your Mind of White Noise

Without clarity and mindfulness, there can be no self-awareness.

Life is full of ever-shifting worries and distractions. To do the introspection necessary to improve your self-awareness, you need to shut all of that out. You also need to maintain a sense of calm and humility when you get feedback that stings, and mindfulness can help with that too.

  • Don’t let temporary agitation warp the way you see yourself.

Generalizations can decrease your self-awareness, and they’re easy to fall into. For example, one failed presentation doesn’t mean you’re bad at public speaking, it just feels that way at the moment.

After you fail at something, give yourself time to react emotionally, then look back and learn from the experience without jumping to conclusions.

  • Write down who you are.

Introspection sometimes feels too ephemeral and it’s easy to get stuck in thought loops. But if you document your progress, you can maintain a sense of direction and keep working on yourself.

Write down your observations, and work on a list of your goals, values, strengths, and weaknesses. This list doesn’t have to be all-encompassing, and it’s a good idea to revisit it occasionally.

  • Deliberately work on improving your mindfulness.

Prioritize self-awareness above your day-to-day concerns. Put aside some time and mental energy to think about who you are and how you’re seen. There are numerous ways to become more mindful – you can try meditation, journaling, or self-reflection in front of a mirror.

You Can’t Rush Awareness

Even if you’re a 5 on the 1-to-5 scale from the beginning of this post, you can lose your grip on your self-awareness over time, like the higher execs mentioned above.

The truth is that improved self-awareness is a lifelong process rather than a destination. And the truth is that there’s no scale that can tell you that you’re self-aware enough now and you should stop thinking about it.

The quest for improved self-awareness can become a constant presence in your life. As you work at it, your relationships will flourish, and you’ll become better at the things you value the most.

“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”
― Aristotle

Additional Reading:

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