In my previous post, I shared data that suggest most of us overestimate our self-awareness. When I say “most,” I mean 95% think they’ve got it, while only 10-15% actually do. That’s a problem because being in touch with ourselves is associated with positive outcomes that range from improved self-regulation, enhanced mood, greater creativity, better relationships, and higher achievement.
Those are things worth investing in. But if you want to bolster your self-awareness, where can you start? First, it’s essential to understand the components of self-awareness.
Your Inner World
The first dimension, which can be described as internal self-awareness, describes how clearly you understand your own thoughts, values, aspirations, and triggers. It’s about being in touch with your inner world. Research suggests that the more internally self-aware you are, the higher your job satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness, and the lower your anxiety, stress, and depression.
The Outer World
The second dimension is external self-awareness. It’s about understanding how other people perceive you. Being externally self-aware means appreciating the impression you make on the world. Studies show that increased external self-awareness is associated with greater empathy, productive conflict, and better decision-making. That’s probably why externally self-aware leaders have better relationships with their employees and enhanced ratings of effectiveness overall.
Interestingly, a large body of research has found no relationship between internal and external self-awareness. You can have one without the other!
How to Improve Your Self-awareness
So, if self-awareness is good for you and the people around you, it sounds like something worth investing in, right? Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how.
One obvious answer is that you become more self-aware (at least internally self-aware) by interrogating your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. That makes sense.
Except it doesn’t seem to work.
Worse than that, it seems to make things worse. At least it makes you less self-aware, less satisfied with your job, and less healthy overall. Whoops, that’s not good. We’re looking for self-help, not self-hurt.
How could introspection be so problematic? According to Tasha Eurich, whose book Insight is the go-to for those seeking the benefits of self-awareness, it turns out that most of us are doing it wrong. She argues that most of us introspect by asking why. “Why did I lash out at my coworker? Why am I acting defensively? Why did I accidentally hit reply all on my snarky response to Esther’s email???”
When you ask why, you tap into your conscious rationale for your behavior. Sadly, that conscious rationale has little to do with the subconscious reasons why you actually did the thing. Rather than accessing some profound truth, you’re concocting a logical-sounding story to explain your behavior. It might seem logical, but it’s probably not accurate.
The case against asking why is bolstered by the fact that it often triggers unproductive negative thoughts. You’re more likely to beat yourself up over your failures and shortcomings than to gain true insight into why you did what you did and how to do better next time.
Let’s agree to stop asking ourselves why we did what we did.
The better alternative to asking yourself why you did something is to ask a question about what was going on. For example, instead of asking, “Why did I lash out at my coworker,” you can ask, “What could I do differently to stay calm when I get feedback?”
The difference between asking yourself why versus what questions seems to correspond to the difference between two different forms of introspection: rumination versus reflection. Rumination, which is related to the Big Five personality trait of neuroticism, suggests a tendency to focus on negative self-perceptions.
On the other hand, reflection, which is correlated with the Big Five trait of openness, corresponds to a willingness to consider the facts more objectively. But one caveat: objectivity doesn’t work without self-compassion. Research by Anna Sutton suggests that you want to pair reflection with acceptance to get the positive effects of self-awareness without inadvertently unleashing self-doubt. If you want to learn more, I found a series of articles by Kelly Miller to be valuable.
Punchline: less rumination, more reflection, all with a heavy dose of compassion.
Does Keeping a Journal Work?
Here’s another counterintuitive finding—or at least another it depends on how you do it finding…
Journaling—the much-ballyhooed practice that I’m constantly beating myself up for not doing; well, it turns out it might not be so great after all. Research by Grant, Franklin, and Langford did not demonstrate increased insight in people who kept a journal, instead suggesting that perhaps journals were less about improving one’s insight and more about discharging negative emotions. Thus, journals might be more for ruminating on your problems rather than focusing on solutions.
Practices to Enhance Self-awareness
I know it’s a bit grim to start with all the things that don’t work, but I found the research so interesting that I couldn’t resist debunking a few strategies that seem like common sense but don’t have the backing of research.
Now let’s get to the good stuff. The following practices added to your day, week, or month will help you become more self-aware:
Enhancing Internal Self-awareness
What Not Why
Respond to challenges and uncomfortable situations by asking yourself questions that start with What. “What was happening in the situation?” “What could I say differently next time?” “What can I do to avoid being in a similar situation in the future?” As a side note, asking what questions rather than why questions is also valuable for having productive conflict with others. It’s such important advice that I made a snazzy little image you can make into a temporary wallpaper for your phone’s lock screen while you build the habit.
Tools Will Help
You can also use one of many psychometric tools to understand your motives and drivers better. I’m a fan of the Birkman® assessment, and over the years, it’s given me many new insights about myself—most of which I resisted, denied, and railed against before realizing that they are profoundly true and salient. The Birkman is just one; many other tools will help you access your interests, biases, needs, and motivations if you are open to learning something new about yourself.
We’ve talked about shifting from why to what; now, you can go one step further. There’s much to be gained by shifting your focus from what you think and feel to where and how you’re experiencing it. The idea of embodiment (the mind-body connection) is both ancient and cutting-edge.
I found this article by Willa Blyth Baker both instructive and accessible. If you want to be more self-aware, start listening to your body’s wisdom. I’ve found my early efforts here are allowing me to pick up on emotional reactions before they overwhelm me… much like a tsunami early warning system. Very valuable!
Enhancing External Self-awareness
Remember, you can be profoundly internally self-aware and clueless about how you impact those around you. I encourage you to supplement your internal self-awareness practice with these approaches, which will help you become more externally self-aware:
You probably get very little helpful feedback, so if you’re on a mission to increase your external self-awareness, you will have to draw it out of people. Make asking for growth-oriented feedback a habit. (It’s ok to tell them you’re working on your self-awareness so they have some context for why you’re asking these unconventional questions.) For example, try asking what your choices made people think and what they made them feel.
As you build rapport with people and they become accustomed to your appetite for feedback, encourage them to personalize their input more. “What impact did my behavior have on you?” “Did my choices have had an unintended impact that I might not be aware of?”
Building a feedback habit will likely take a while, but it’s worth it.
Over-strengths and Blind Spots
In addition to specific feedback about a particular situation, you can ask for more general impressions of your contributions. I’m always amazed at how much rich information comes from these four questions.
Send a few trusted colleagues a request to help you increase your self-awareness. Ask for feedback and examples for each of the following:
- my value (things I’m good at, particularly things you think I’m uniquely good at)
- my weaknesses (things I’m aware I’m not good at)
- my over-strengths (positive behaviors I use too intensely or in the wrong situation)
- my blind spots (issues and concerns you suspect I’m unaware of).
In my experience, you’ll learn that competencies you take for granted show up as strengths to your colleagues. (Hey, gaining self-awareness can be learning you’re more awesome than you thought!) You’ll discover that weaknesses that you acknowledge can be mitigated and don’t have to be career-limiting. You’ll learn you’re over-applying traits and behaviors that have become your defaults. You’ll discover that a few of your behaviors are making an unwanted impact that you had no clue about. I love these four questions. Give them a try with the people who are invested in your success.
Self-awareness leads to greater happiness and fulfillment, better relationships, and more creativity and productivity. But it doesn’t come easily. What will you do to get in touch with yourself?
Tasha Eurich is the guru on self-awareness. Check out her book, Insight, or some of her many articles on self-awareness, such as this one. What self-awareness really is and how to cultivate it
I found the self-awareness resources on PositivePsychology.com really useful, particularly those by Kelly Miller.