Two weeks ago, I wrote about Morita Therapy, the practice of allowing our emotions to live inside us without condition. Imagine our feelings are our body’s ecosystem—just like we can’t control nature, and we let the rain take its course, we also can’t control our emotions. Morita Therapy is based on the idea of acceptance. Instead of indulging, avoiding, or numbing our feelings, we should practice co-existing alongside them. Yes, by all means, we can and should feel our suffering, and continue living our lives, but we should not succumb to the pull of our sorrow or despair. This, I think, is a wonderful practice. At the same time, I do think it’s vital to also ask our feelings what they are trying to tell us and whether we can learn from them.
A lot of people claim to be self-aware, to be inclined toward self-improvement and self-exploration, all in a quest to grow. But what does that really mean to be self-aware? These are questions I’ve been considering these past few months. Someone I love recently asked me what I meant by “growth” and “self-awareness” and I sputtered to respond, not because I don’t know what these things mean for myself, but because I’ve never had to define them for anyone but me.
I pondered at length about what those ideas mean. Long ago, I learned that every bad pattern that shows up in my life, every sucky circumstance or occurrence that repeats itself and makes my life harder, has one thing in common: me. At some point in our lives (the earlier, the better) we (hopefully) learn to stop blaming others for our problems and start holding ourselves accountable for where we are, and how we got there.
We cannot always change our circumstances, we cannot control where we are from or how we were raised, but we can control, change and choose our responses. We can either grow ourselves up, or continue to blame others for failing to do that on our behalf and grow ourselves down. We can either face the neglect or abuse or sadness that was imprinted upon us in early life and learn how to integrate and process our trauma, or we can continue to remain unconscious, and live life repeating the very behaviors we blame others for visiting upon us.
When we don’t grow, we stay as the self of our childhood. We don’t mature or allow our beliefs, behaviors, or awareness to evolve. We don’t realize that we are trapped inside of a paradigm, a template of existence, that was designed and implemented by our caregivers. We are the result of the world in which we were raised. And we were raised by people who lacked professional training in the art of raising people. The only way to move away from childhood is to grow out of it, and we must do that willingly. We cannot be forced.
Many people are innately curious about a variety of topics and want to learn as much as they can. Yet, when it comes to their own behaviors and defenses, these same people can be mind-bogglingly incurious about the one subject they should know the most about—the realm of self. Specifically, their own selves.
It’s safer to figure out the motives and machinations behind the choices other people make, and rather terrifying to see your own reflection in the mirror of bad choices others have made. But if you don’t understand yourself, and aren’t driven to understand, then the depth you can know other people will be quite shallow. We cannot identify in others what we haven’t yet identified in ourselves. We may be able to spot the red flags in potential partners, despite not having identified our own red flags, but we cannot know what those red flags foretell when we have fallen short of investigating our own.
The tricky part about growth is that you can’t attempt it until you’re ready. In fact, you may find you have no desire to do so. But what happens if you keep losing what it is you want, and you’re still not ready to understand yourself enough to really know why this happens? You remain stuck. Fear of knowing can keep people stuck for years—and sometimes entire lifetimes.
The great news about being stuck is that it’s the best moment to force yourself to grow. The tricky part about getting unstuck is that you must ask for help. You cannot go it alone. I mean, you CAN, but you will never get unstuck if you only rely on the same mindset that got you stuck in the first place. It’s like trying to pull yourself out of the ocean while drowning.
There is no one way to ask for help. You don’t actually have to use your vocal cords. You can get on the internet and Google “Books to help me get unstuck”; “Affordable therapy near me”; “Online support groups for [fill in issue here].” You can go on Facebook and join a group of people struggling with the same issues. You can read novels. Authors of literary fiction are the finest observers of the human condition, they are Citizen Psychologists with boundless insights, and there is a lot to be gained from reading. The point is, you don’t have to get on the phone and verbally state: “I need help.” You need only to say that to yourself. When we are willing to ask for feedback, willing to truly listen, and—most importantly—willing to make the effort to integrate what we’re learning, only then are we actively making the effort to grow.
Years ago, I realized that the things that bothered me about other people were qualities that I didn’t like about myself. That discovery, while mortifying, has allowed me to work toward course-correcting. Part of that involves paying particular mind to the inverse—the way people react to and treat me. When I sense there is tension or irritation, I make a note and dissect it later to examine my behavior and assess what could have elicited such a response.
One of the most important things I’ve done to increase my self-awareness is to understand what my emotional pain points are. What “triggers” me? Why does it trigger me, what can I trace it back to, and what can I do to break the spell? In other words, as much as I can stand to, I go toward my emotion and try to feel what it wants me to know. And then, even harder than going toward the emotion: actually listening.
Self-awareness then, according to me—a non-expert—is the act of paying attention to the pattern and shape of our thoughts, actions, feelings, and beliefs. It’s the ability to identify and address the dysfunctional behaviors that are keeping us stuck, or holding us back. Every behavior has a pattern, but if we don’t know ours, we are condemned to repeat our mistakes, and we will never propel ourselves out of the cycle. Self-awareness is knowing what we personally value and believe, and living in congruence with those values and beliefs. Self-awareness is growing ourselves up in a more informed, customized, and skilled way than the people who raised us the first time.
When we don’t know why we do what we do, we keep doing it. This is fine if you’ve chosen the Sisyphean life path, but if you want to arrive somewhere and find love, have a family, build a career, and/or be an essential part of a thriving community, then you might want to start assessing the reality of your situation and asking yourself some basic yet vital, questions about how and why you are where you are, and what you can do to move yourself toward what you say you want for yourself.
Sometimes we say we want something but we make no effort to get it. When this happens, the question really becomes: Are we sure we really want what we say we want, and if so, why aren’t we doing anything to get it? When we ask ourselves these questions, we can begin to pinpoint the real issues. We say we want to be in a committed relationship, but we withhold the part of ourselves that would deliver on the commitment part we claim to want.
Growing requires the motivation to develop new skills, gain a more fluid mindset, and improve communication skills. If we find ourselves struggling with the same difficulties we’ve struggled with our entire lives, and do nothing to address this, we will never make any changes. When we choose to become more conscious, we will be better able to spot our mistakes and negative habits with an unbiased mind. If we don’t identify where we are weakest, we can never build the muscle to become stronger.
Personal growth is simply another way of saying self-knowledge. We read tons of books about historical figures, about politics, climate change, getting organized, streamlining our productivity, but so few of us actually pick up the books that will help us to understand our own behaviors, the bad habits we unconsciously repeat that are keeping us stuck in place, or provide us with the tools to get what it is we desire.
The reason we are where we are, even if we want to be elsewhere, or simply don’t want to be where we are, is because being stuck is serving us somehow. We’re secretly committed to our dysfunction. Our stuckness is reinforcing some deeply held beliefs we have about ourselves, and moving away from those beliefs means moving away from all we know, all that’s familiar, and so we’re afraid. Perhaps people treat us in a certain way based on our entrenched behavior, and even if we dislike the treatment, we fear losing something we know so well. But at some point, if we’re to truly realize the life we want for ourselves, we will have to revise the outdated model we’ve been following.
In my definition, everything I’ve outlined above equals growth. One thing leads to the next. Self-reflection and introspection lead to growth and self-awareness. Many psychologists would agree with much of what I’ve said above, but it turns out, introspection doesn’t actually lead to self-awareness, and nearly 80% of those who claim to possess awareness of self actually don’t.
In 2014, organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, an expert on how to build self-awareness, together with a team of researchers, embarked on a large-scale scientific study. They wanted to know what self-awareness really was, and whether there was a way to increase it. While the team’s interest was on leadership in the workplace, Eurich’s findings are helpful for anyone interested in increasing their self-awareness.
Along the way, Eurich’s team came across some interesting figures. “Our data reveals that 95 percent of people believe they are self-aware, but the real number is 12 to 15 percent,” Eurich says. “That means, on a good day, about 80 percent of people are lying about themselves—to themselves.”
Eurich discovered that there are two types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness (knowing your own values, strengths and weaknesses) and external self-awareness (knowing how other people see you). We need BOTH types of awareness to see ourselves clearly. A person can have high levels in one area and low in the other. People with high internal self-awareness can see with clarity how they fit into their environment, whether their reactions are appropriate or misguided, how their behavior and reactions impact others and where they are strongest and where they are weakest. People with high external self-awareness understand how people view them based on the elements listed above. Eurich’s research showed that people with high external self-awareness showed more empathy and were more skilled at taking in the perspectives of others. Highly self-aware people work hard to balance the scale between these two realms.
One very surprising thing Eurich’s team discovered was that introspection does not improve self-awareness. In fact, they found that introspects were less self-aware and had worse job satisfaction and a poor sense of well-being*
The explanation for why introspectors are less self-aware hinges on an incorrect method of introspection. When we are delving into our own personal issues, the most obvious and vital question we ask ourselves is why? Why does this always happen to me? Why can’t I figure this out? Why can’t I do anything right? Often when a person asks why, they get stuck on negative thoughts that lead to rumination, rendering the entire process unproductive. They get stuck on their failings instead of being able to assess themselves in a more balanced and objective way. Turns out that self-analyzers are also more depressed and anxious (Oh, hI!)
Her research shows that “self-awareness is the foundation for high performance, smart choices, and lasting relationships. It also shows that most people don’t see themselves as clearly as they could.”**
There are elements to self-growth that are critical. They include questioning your already concluded assumptions about yourself, and asking others for feedback. Of course, we don’t often like hearing anything about ourselves that might verge on criticism, but if we practice Morita Therapy and live with our discomfort while moving forward to get the information we need, we’ll have taken one of the first steps.
Eurich and her research team uncovered that the reason introspection doesn’t work is because we are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking ourselves “why” (an answer we can’t ever really know for sure), we should be asking “what.” What is a more objective framework to increase self-awareness.
Instead of asking why you are sad all the time, ask yourself what are the situations that make you feel sad and do they have anything in common? Instead of asking a question from inside the emotion, we change our position and ask the question from a more objective place. When we ask a question from a more objective place, it puts us in a more action-oriented mindset. It challenges us to create a plan and address the problem in a more concrete way.
Eurich suggests a low level of self-awareness can be assessed by whether we lack clarity about who we are and how we fit into the world, and if we don’t seek outside feedback from those we know best when things don’t go the way we think they should have gone. We live in a very self-focused society, and see ourselves less and less clearly.
If you feel stuck in life, or in love, or in friendship, or health, stop asking yourself why and begin to ask yourself what? What steps can you take, what patterns do you recognize, what behaviors aren’t serving you, what are the situations that make you feel terrible? What do all these things have in common? If we can be more solution oriented in our thinking and less self-focused, we can slowly increase our level of self-awareness and begin to see ourselves with the objective clarity that will make us better leaders, friends, partners, parents, teachers and citizens.
And you? Do you consider yourself self-aware? I sure did! Let me know in the comments! Until next week I am…
Podcast episodes with Tasha Eurich: