How to build self-awareness The foundation of an examined life

To become more effective and what we do, we have to improve constantly.

That’s why athletes have coaches. That’s why Malcolm Gladwell says we need 10,000 of deliberate practice to master something.

We can’t just engage in mindless repetition, reinforcing ineffective habits. We need an active mechanism to provide us constructive feedback.

What if life also had a similar rule? What if we only got better at life through deliberate practice?

The importance of self-awareness

Unfortunately, we don’t have coaches and mentors following us around pointing out our blind spots. Luckily, we do have one person who’s always with us – ourselves. We can train ourselves to become self-aware.

Self-awareness is so important that Daniel Goleman considers it the foundation of emotional intelligence. A Harvard Business School professor also found that self-awareness was the essence of leadership.

Each moment can be filled with personal learning, if only we were able to glean the lessons from our everyday experiences. That is the beginning of wisdom.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” – Carl Jung

Are you willing?

Building self-awareness first requires willingness to see the truth. Knowing ourselves is not always pretty. We’re not perfect. We may not want to acknowledge parts of ourselves. Perhaps we’re ashamed of being ignorant or selfish or jealous or petty or mean. So long as we hold on to that ideal image of ourselves, we can’t get to know who we really are.

Being willing to see the truth, no matter how the truth makes us feel, is therefore the first and most important step. That means letting go of our ego, letting go of our ideal self-image, and letting go of self-judgment. That means having the courage to be vulnerable.

How to build self-awareness

1. Examine how you see the world

“We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani

As the quote above suggests, we do not see things for what they are. We see the world through tinted lenses that reflect our own frameworks.

For example, the government announces that it will raise taxes to increase social welfare for the needy. What is your immediate response?

  • This is so unfair! Why should I help those lazy people?
  • Great, let’s give them a hand.
  • Whatever.

Three different responses to the same incident. Why? Because each of us has deep-seated beliefs that get triggered by external events. The events in themselves are neutral; we are the ones who give them meaning. We make things ‘good’ or ‘bad’, based on our personal biases.

What are some statements you believe to be true?

  • I must beat other people at all costs.
  • The world is safe and I am taken care of
  • Life is a crazy adventure!
  • I deserve to be loved
  • … and so on

Ask yourself how you see the world, and you will become aware of your own beliefs and frameworks. Frameworks are useful if they are accurate and reflect principles of how things operate. For example, the belief that I must keep trying until I succeed moves me forward (perseverance). If, however, I believe that nothing I do matters (resignation), then I am stuck. The belief keeps me where I am.

Our beliefs dictate how we interact with the world and how we live our lives. So it is helpful to examine our most fundamental frameworks about the world works, and ask ourselves whether these beliefs move us forward, move us backward, or keep us stuck.

2. Notice how you judge other people

“If you want to know what you think of yourself, then ask yourself what you think of others and you will find the answer.” – Jane Roberts

How we judge others is how we judge ourselves. So how do you judge other people?

  • Appearance
  • Social standing
  • Integrity
  • Competence
  • Creativity
  • Wealth
  • Influence
  • … etc

Nothing inherently wrong with judging people based on any of these criteria, but notice where it comes from. Is it beneficial to you? For example, if competing with others on these dimensions makes you feel insecure, then it might be unhealthy. If competing with others gives you inspiration to work harder without making you feel inferior, this is positive as it moves you forward.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with judging people and yourself as long the intention behind the judgment is positive or neutral. For example, managers judge their employees based on their competence so as to effectively reward and deploy manpower.

If your judgments of yourself and others weigh heavily on you, you may also wish to explore the deeper origin of the judgment and where it comes from. Perhaps you were once judged negatively and now you judge others to protect yourself.  Perhaps you’re trying to make yourself superior to others to bolster your own self-image.

How do you judge others, and why do you do so?

3. Notice how you do things

“The way we do anything is the way we do everything.” – Martha Beck

Microcosms exist not only in the world, but in our lives as well.

How you treat a small task (e.g. washing the dishes) is how you treat the big tasks too. That’s why at work, people have to prove themselves capable of handling a small area of responsibility, before being promoted to larger roles.

So, how do you wash the dishes?

Do you participate fully in the process, or rush through it wanting to get the job done? Do you wash dishes once they’re used, or let them pile up? All these are reflections of how you think and how you handle life in general.

Simply from observing yourself do things, you can observe whether your fundamental orientation towards work and life. Are you:

  • Meticulous / Careless
  • Conscientious / Lazy
  • Persevering / Resigned
  • Able to delay gratification / Succumbing to instant gratification

Do you have a forward orientation (moving you towards your goal), neutral orientation (keeping you stagnant), or a backward orientation (moving you away from your goal)? Once you get the hang of observing your own attitudes towards doing things, you can expand your awareness to other domains of your life.

How do you handle relationships?

How do you treat yourself?

4. Observe your own reactions

Any time you react emotionally to an event, you know you are being triggered.

For example, when someone comes to you with a problem, what is your immediate response:

  • Let me help you
  • Urgh, that sucks for you, too bad.
  • Oh no…. *hug*

And what is the accompanying feeling?

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Contempt
  • Happiness
  • Fear
  • Surprise

Each time you are triggered into having an emotional response to something, you get the chance to inquire into your nature – what triggers you, and why?

Again, nothing right or wrong with the triggers and your responses. It is simply a question of what moves you forward and what holds you back.

What to do once you become aware

Use the awareness to constantly surface problems and gaps to accelerate your growth and progress as you work on improving yourself. Once you are identify areas for improvement, you can do several things:

Modify your behaviour

If you become aware of a behaviour that’s relatively easy to change, you can exert your will to change. Simply catch yourself when you’re about to fall into a trap, and choose another course of action. For example, if you notice that you always give up on a task when you’re 90% there, then catch your own complacency and persevere the next time you’re at 90% on a task.

Find root causes

If you become aware of a persistent and deep-seated issue in your life (for example, fear of looking bad), that you have tried to resolve on your own but cannot, then pursuing some form of inner work – whether through coaching, meditation, or process work – would be helpful in loosening the hold of those issues on your life.

Although finding root causes and overcoming root causes of your issues may seem like the route of more resistance, it actually pays off more in the long term, because you gain true emotional freedom. Simply modifying your behaviour through will or courage is possible, but it is a band-aid solution.

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