Inscribed above the entrance to the sacred 4th century Temple of Apollo was a famous Ancient Greek maxim: know thyself. It’s a phrase repeated by some of history’s wisest philosophers, from Plato, to Socrates, and Pythagoras. Why is self-awareness so important, it was the cornerstone of such an influential temple?
We think, we exist, so don’t we know ourselves by default? Surprisingly, one of the biggest studies into self-awareness discovered just 15 percent of people qualify as genuinely self-aware — despite 95 percent of people believing they are.
That’s because genuine self-awareness is an ongoing process of self-discovery. To know yourself requires reflection, introspection, and a willingness to explore your inner-world in an open-minded manner. Fortunately, there are skilled, practical ways to improve your self-awareness. This guide will explore the nature of self-awareness, before providing 7 practical, awareness-boosting tools.
What is the concept of self-awareness?
Self-awareness has been defined as “arguably the most fundamental issue in psychology.” It’s the ability to have a clear view of yourself, your inner processes, and the way you relate to the world. These inner processes include beliefs, worldviews, values, likes, dislikes, etc. In Learned Mindfulness, Dr. Frank John Ninivaggi defines self-awareness as:
Paying attention to oneself and consciously knowing one’s attitudes and dispositions. This mindful understanding comprises awareness of sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, the physical body, relationships with others, and how these interact.
To be aware of the self implies a level of detachment from these processes. You’ll find different explanations for this in Western and Eastern approaches to the mind. Mainstream psychology calls the ability to be aware of thoughts and the patterns behind them metacognition. In traditions such as Buddhism, awareness is the substance behind all phenomena.
Being self-aware: theory and objectivity
Although the Buddha taught self-awareness millennia ago, it rose to prominence in mainstream psychology in the 1970s thanks to work by social psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund. Their self-awareness theory is close to Eastern thought in the sense that it promotes the understanding of the ability for objective awareness of all internal phenomena. When you take this into consideration, it’s quite breathtaking: each of us has a special quality to objectively observe our own inner processes.
It makes sense that self-awareness is so powerful. Taking an objective view allows space for change. Rather than judge thoughts, feelings, or sensations, they’re simply seen. Then, any unskilful, unhelpful, or self-destructive processes can be challenged and transformed.
This is where ancient traditions go a step further, linking these levels of objective awareness beyond the individual, into the entire cosmos. The Buddhist view of interconnection arises from this space, as does Hinduism’s concept of Atman and Brahman, that the individual Self is indistinguishable from the whole.
What are the types of self-awareness? Internal vs. external
In her book, Insight, psychologist Dr. Tasha Eulrich studied 50 years of research and discovered that there are two different types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness. The first is what we’ve previously explored: insight into inner processes such as thoughts and feelings. The second is understanding how others perceive you, based on the same criteria.
Interestingly, Eulrich’s research has found no link between these two types. Someone with high internal self-awareness and low external self-awareness might be particularly introspective and rarely seek outside opinion or feedback. On the contrary, someone with high external self-awareness and low internal self-awareness is primed to be a people-pleaser, focusing more on how they’re perceived by others than understanding what’s going on inside.
Ranking high in both accounts is desirable: that’s what makes for the best leaders and has a positive impact on empathy and relationships. Not only that, it allows others to reflect blind spots, a quality that is essential in increasing self-awareness.
The difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness
There’s a difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness. Self-awareness is a skill that, when applied correctly, will have a positive impact on your life. When we think of being self-conscious, it’s usually an elevated focus on oneself, from a point of anxiety or introversion. But here’s the thing: it’s not a focus on yourself, but a focus on being focused on. Let me explain.
An example of this is what psychologists refer to as the spotlight effect. This is the tendency for people to overestimate how much other people notice about our own behavior, as if we are under a spotlight. So, when feeling self-conscious, someone is hyper-aware of how they’re being perceived. This is, unsurprisingly, enhanced in people with social anxiety.
Self-awareness, however, is an awareness of the inner processes from a non-judgemental place. It’s simply being aware of your inner world and doesn’t depend on the perception of others. Someone who has high levels of self-awareness might even become aware of when they’re feeling self-conscious and have the tools to refocus their attention elsewhere.
What are the benefits of self-awareness?
From ancient inscriptions to cutting-edge psychology, the benefits of self-awareness have been promoted across cultures and generations. Self-awareness is at the crux of personal development. Without being aware of your inner processes, how can you change, grow, or heal? Although the focus of self-awareness is on the self, it’s far from selfish, as its benefits also apply to the way you relate to others.
Studies into self-awareness have found a wealth of benefits, including:
- Increased confidence and self-esteem.
- Improved self-control.
- Higher levels of creativity.
- Better decision-making.
- An openness to new experiences.
- Challenging assumptions and beliefs.
Benefits of self-awareness and leadership
Eulrich’s research discovered that the best leaders are those willing to ask for and integrate feedback from others. Returning to the two types of self-awareness, this input allows for greater self-awareness towards flaws and shortcomings, as well as strengths, in the workplace. In employees, self-awareness has been linked to more frequent promotions and job satisfaction.
Other studies have demonstrated how successful organizational change is linked to leaders who have higher levels of self-awareness. Those with low self-awareness were more likely to be blind to the systemic structures and processes within a company, choosing instead to focus on individual, egoic needs. Leaders who implemented successful change had higher self-awareness and were better able to focus on the overall purpose.
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence
Self-awareness is the first of Daniel Goleman’s five components of emotional intelligence. One aspect of emotional intelligence involves noticing, labeling, and not being consumed by emotions and feelings. Self-awareness is crucial for this step, as well as forms of self-regulation (such as calming down when feeling overwhelmed) or self-evaluating (knowing strengths and weaknesses and setting the intention to change).
Self-awareness and relationships
Self-awareness benefits communication, too. “Self-awareness allows for listening that is free of assumptions and judgments that compromise healthy communication,” writes Conflict Resolution Expert Aldo Civoco, Ph.D. “Before we are able to listen deeply to others, we need to learn how to listen deeply to ourselves. It is this self-awareness that helps us to understand the other’s frame of reference.”
By having a clearer view of who we are, and where we’re coming from, we’re able to communicate from that place. Without self-awareness, communication may become dictated by ego, the desire to be heard, rather than the desire to understand. A study of over 12,000 participants linked self-awareness to relationship satisfaction, for reasons including:
- More comfort in expressing feelings and vulnerabilities.
- More awareness around emotions, which leads to putting conflict into perspective.
- Better conflict resolution.
- More flexibility in behavior and receptivity.
- Higher levels of compatibility due to awareness of values.
The companions of self-awareness
Before providing guidance on how to improve self-awareness, I want to briefly mention two qualities that save a lot of hardship along the way: self-compassion and non-judgment.
When exploring the self, and becoming increasingly conscious of your behavioral patterns, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, it’s easy to fall into a trap of self-rejection.
Blind spots are blind spots for a reason — they tend to be parts of ourselves, the shadow that we don’t want to fully explore. Self-awareness, when done with the willingness to genuinely explore who you are at the core, will uncover aspects that you don’t particularly like or you feel compelled to judge.
That’s why self-compassion is vital. It allows you to meet all parts of yourself with understanding, kindness, and care. Furthermore, non-judgment allows you to explore your inner landscape clearly and freely, with an open mind and curiosity. Because acceptance is essential for growth, non-judgment creates a forgiving and accepting container to explore.
How to improve self-awareness
Trace the source of self-awareness, as a practice and a skill, and you’ll end up with mindfulness. Taught by the Buddha over 2,000 years ago, mindfulness improves self-awareness by witnessing all thoughts, feelings, and sensations in a non-judgemental, objective manner. This practice is very much the same in modern times, and there’s no need to go down the spiritual route to benefit.
Curiosity is a core quality of mindfulness. All steps on the journey of improving self-awareness require a level of openness to experience. Keep in mind, 90 percent of people don’t qualify as self-aware, so there’s a high chance you know yourself much less than you think you do.
You’ll also be challenged by the ego’s tendency to deceive and misguide, from defensiveness to denial or projection. So constant vigilance is necessary. Initial pointers aside, here are 7 steps to improve your self-awareness. We’ll begin with the trinity of self-awareness: meditation, mindfulness, and journaling.
1. Start a meditation practice
Nothing boosts self-awareness like meditation. You can view meditation as a focused practice of leaning into the objective awareness we discussed earlier. In other words, meditation is the practice of becoming aware of awareness! Then, with a growing familiarity of awareness itself, you’re less likely to get caught up in the ever-changing nature of mind and body. According to Headspace, meditation trains two types of awareness: awareness on an object of focus and awareness without an object of focus.
Awareness of an object is what you will likely be familiar with. The object might commonly be the breath. The practice then is simple. You focus on the breath, notice when you get distracted and return your attention. Over time, this refines concentration in the mind and develops awareness.
Once you’re familiar with awareness, you can simply rest in this spacious, still quality, peaceful quality, returning your attention to awareness itself, without the need for an object of focus. Awareness without an object is more advanced. To put this in perspective, I spent the first six or seven years of dedicated, daily (mostly) practice with an object of focus before being able to rest in awareness itself.
2. Integrate mindfulness into your day-to-day
Self-awareness isn’t like physical exercise. It’s not that you spend your 20 minutes in the morning meditating, and you’re done. Every moment is meditation. Every moment offers the chance to be mindful and conscious of who you are being, and how you’re interacting with the world.
The principles of meditation — a non-judgemental awareness of everything unfolding in your direct experience — apply to all situations. In Buddhism, this is sometimes coined the double-pointed concentration. While in meditation you close your eyes and strip away the external to illuminate the internal, mindfulness brings awareness to the internal and external simultaneously.
Communication is a great example of the benefit of this. When you’re talking to someone, is your attention fully on them, or is it somewhere else? When my social anxiety was at its worst, I’d find that I was often carried away by self-conscious thoughts about how I may have said the wrong thing, for example, rather than being fully present in the conversation.
When listening, use the conversation as an anchor in the same way you’d focus on the breath. Every time you notice you become slightly distracted, return attention to the rhythm and flow of conversation. Learn more about mindfulness here.
3. Start a regular journal practice
Journaling is a great way to boost self-awareness. It’s part of the trinity of self-awareness because it allows for a dialogue to unfold on the page. Often, in journaling, you start to reveal elements of the unconscious. The words start to write themselves, and greater self-knowledge is the result.
Journaling is a broad tool. There are many ways to journal, from noting daily experiences to using tools such as cognitive reframing and challenging beliefs. For the purpose of self-awareness, journaling is one way of exploring your wants, needs, desires, and values.
Setting up a regular practice, such as 15 minutes spent writing after meditation, is one way of regularly connecting to yourself. This can involve expressing your emotions, reflecting on past experiences and what you can learn from them, or noticing trends and patterns in behaviors, thoughts, and beliefs.
4. Explore your blind spots
When learning to drive, one of the first things the instructor will teach is the blind spot — the area where, even with the use of mirrors and twisting your neck as far as humanly possible, remains unseen. In self-development, blind spots are the parts of ourselves that are unconscious. As Carl Jung said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” So this is a crucial step.
In Insight, Eulrich identifies asking for feedback as one way of exploring blind spots. A word of warning: this does require a decent level of emotional intelligence. What you hear might not land so well, so be prepared.
The phenomena of psychological projection can also be used to explore the inner workings of the psyche. What people, traits or behaviors do you respond strongly to in the external world? This gives insight into areas of yourself you’re denying, suppressing, or unable to accept, and offers a starting point for further inquiry.
5. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses
I’m pretty good at finding lightness in suffering. I can use humor as a skill, and throughout years of depression, I’d be able to use self-deprecation or the absurd to add a little levity into the heaviness of my experience. Equally, something I’ve had to work on is my tendency for feelings of entitlement or self-pity or my own sense of victimhood and injustice at the cruelty of the world.
I get super grumpy when I’m tired, and although this is improving, I’ve had to remind myself that I’m not as self-aware, or patient, in the evenings. Equally, I have an uncanny ability to learn from any experience, no matter how difficult or challenging. This has given me a great belief in my capacity to grow.
In short, these are strengths and weaknesses. Improving self-awareness means knowing what you’re working with. What are your triggers? When are you most likely to feel agitated? When are you most focused? What are your skills? What areas are you unskilled?
The further along the path of self-development, the more you’ll understand the unique traits you possess. This understanding then helps you build momentum. And, in turn, also informs the decisions you make in life. For example, I’m highly self-motivated yet can find regular social interactions challenging. Over time, I realized becoming a freelancer suited my tendency and maximized my potential.
6. Make time for self-reflection
While self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly, being able to self-reflect is the willingness to point your attention inward, and explore who it is you are and what you want from life. The difference I point out is that self-awareness is a mindset: it’s the approach I have to my inner workings at any given moment of time. Self-reflection is an activity, one done with intention.
The more attention is directed inward, the more truth is revealed. Over time, you begin to sink below the surface-level thoughts, into deeper parts of being. You’ll discover your core values, what is most meaningful to you, what you’d like to achieve, what you need more of, less of, etc.
For the full benefits, clear your schedule and set a deliberate time for self-reflection. You might begin small, with a few hours per week spent alone in nature. Or you might make a self-reflection retreat a regular part of your routine. This is a personal favorite of mine, and something I aim to schedule for a number of weekends throughout the year. Be sure to check out our piece on shadow work to learn even more about what it means to reflect on oneself.
7. Learn skilled introspection
Not all introspection is equal. Being introspective doesn’t necessarily lead to growth. I’ve always been introspective. For a long time, this introspection was an anxiety-inducing space of rumination and emptiness. Eulrich discovered that “people who scored high on self-reflection were more stressed, depressed and anxious, less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed, and they felt less in control of their lives.”
There’s a clear difference between self-reflection and insight. The latter is an intuitive understanding of who you are, not aimless rumination. Insight is linked to “stronger relationships, a clearer sense of purpose and greater well-being, self-acceptance and happiness.” They also felt more in control of their lives and were much more likely to experience rapid personal development.
Transforming this knowledge into a tool, Eulrich offers a solution with the What Not Why technique. This comes from an understanding that many people, when introspecting, ask themselves Why based questions. Why leads us to focus on problems, not solutions, because it focuses on the cause of issues. In Eulrich’s words:
Why questions can draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future. In addition to helping us gain insight, asking what instead of why can be used to help us better understand and manage our emotions.
This tool is incredibly useful when combined with your journaling practice.
The journey of self-awareness is absolutely worthwhile. Among an abundance of benefits, greater self-knowledge leads to more connection, purpose, better wellbeing, and improved relationships. Hopefully, having read this article, you’re beginning to understand just why the Ancient Greek maxim was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo.
Even more, hopefully, you now feel equipped with the tools and understanding to start a fruitful, and purposeful approach to introspection. As a final note, I’d like you to remember that, from this very moment until your last breath, you are the one person you’ll spend every waking moment with.
Why not learn about you as if you were someone else, all your dreams, desires, fears, tendencies, and traits? In exploring this in yourself, and becoming self-aware, whilst being curious, you may be surprised to uncover deep riches you never knew you had, skills you didn’t realize you possessed, and qualities that remind you of your own inherent beauty.
Take a look at our article on the wheel of emotions, and keep your self awareness journey moving.