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From ancient civilizations to the modern day, the importance of self-awareness been emphasised across religions and cultures. It’s widely accepted that the better I know myself, the better I will be able to understand myself and the more capable I will be of developing myself. Read any self-help book, and the author will probably emphasise the importance of self-awareness. But what does self-awareness mean? And how can you improve it? The term itself needs to be defined and personally understood before it can be of any practical use.
I’ll start by saying that what self-awareness is not, by describing the biggest trap that people frequently fall into when attempting to become self-aware: the trap of thinking about yourself and other people. Self-awareness is not often achieved by devoting endless hours to thinking about self and others. That is because when we think about ourselves and others, we tend to do so from the perspective of (a) beliefs that we already hold about ourselves and others, and (b) the ways in which we routinely unconsciously respond to our experiences.
So if self-awareness isn’t about our thinking, what is it? In my experience, self-awareness can be summed up in the following sentence:
To be self-aware means to be aware of our personal beliefs and our responses to our experiences.
If that sounds confusing, think of it like this: when you think, feel or act in a given situation, you are responding not to the situation itself, but to your perception of the situation. Your perception can be described as the way in which you respond to the situation in the light of what you notice about it, based upon your assumptions about the situation, which in turn are based on your beliefs about yourself and the world.
For example, remember the last time you had a conversation with someone significant to you and remember what happened, what was said, etc. Remember everything about it.
Now, slow it down. Take the time to notice:
1.What were your emotions at the time?
2.What were your physical feelings? (e.g. tense/relaxed/etc).
3.How were you behaving?
4.How where they behaving?
5.What were you thinking?
6.What did you say?
7.What were your intentions?
8.What did you imagine their intentions were?
Don’t try to analyse your responses to these questions, just mentally or on paper make a note of them. In so doing, you will gain some self-awareness around the conversation. Note that self-awareness is not the same as self-analysis. Self-awareness is simply being aware of what is, rather than what it means.
Often, meaning reveals itself naturally as the result of being self-aware. We don’t have to force it, it just comes. This may seem counter-intuitive to received wisdom, but now stop and look back at your answers to the seven questions above. What do you notice about yourself now, having answered them? My guess is that if you have answered the questions honestly and without analysis, simply remembering and describing what is, then you will have arrived perhaps in some small way, at a new and different understanding of yourself.
In future articles, I will expand upon the subject of self-awareness and the process of meaning-making that arises from it.
1st February 2016