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“Who am I?” It’s a question many people have asked themselves at one time or another. 

If you have a good understanding of yourself, you are said to be self-aware. But what is self-awareness?

Self-Awareness Definition

Self-awareness was first defined by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund (1972) as our ability to focus attention on ourselves and then evaluate and compare our current behavior with our internal values and standards. 

“When we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.”

—Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund (1972)

Over the years, researchers have defined self-awareness in different ways—as a temporary state of self-consciousness, the ability to monitor our inner world, how we see ourselves vs. how others see us, etc. So, there really isn’t one definition for it but rather several distinct viewpoints.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the U.S., self-awareness is “self-focused attention or knowledge.”

Self-awareness means having a good knowledge and understanding of your feelings and character. So, self-aware people recognize their emotional state at any given time and how this influences their thoughts and behavior as compared to their internal standards. You can achieve this by constantly monitoring your thoughts, beliefs, emotions and stress. 

Self-awareness could also refer to our ability to look at our words and actions from the outside or how others see you. It could also be viewed as introspection or meta-cognition, the ability to think about thinking.

In marketing, one could argue that marketers are charged with a sort of “brand awareness” on a minute-by-minute basis. One wrong statement, print ad, Google ad or Facebook post and the brand dies. However, on the contrary, if a business has done a thorough inventory and has a keen grasp on who they are as a brand, it will continue to hold a strong position in the market, cultivating unlimited success moving forward.

Types of Self-Awareness

Psychology’s self-awareness theory distinguishes between two types of self-awareness: objective self-awareness and subjective self-awareness. 

  • Objective self-awareness happens when we compare our traits, attitudes and behavior with those of other people or other standards of social correctness. 
  • Subjective self-awareness, on the other hand, occurs when we observe and experience our own perceptions and behavior.

Other researchers classify self-awareness as internal self-awareness and external self-awareness. 

  • Internal self-awareness helps us clearly see our reactions (including thoughts, feelings and behaviors), values, aspirations, passions, fit with the environment and impact on others. 
  • External self-awareness helps us understand how other people view us based on the factors listed above

Benefits of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a vital skill necessary to navigate future challenges. Researchers have identified many ways how it can add value to our lives. 

Goal setting

When we understand ourselves better, we can recognize our strengths and build on them, or identify our weaknesses and change them. So, self-awareness becomes an essential first step to successfully set goals.

Self-esteem

Because we are aware of the kind of person we are and the values that we hold dear, self-awareness can contribute to improved self-esteem. Self-aware people are more confident in the choices and decisions that they make and more empowered in the path that they’ve chosen. 

Relationship building

Understanding our own thoughts, emotions and behaviors helps us understand others and empathize with them. Empathy helps us build better personal and professional relationships. 

Sounder decisions

Highly self-aware people are able to identify and determine if an opportunity is a good match for their personality and how to optimize their strengths to make things work. As such, self-awareness improves our judgment and becomes a good predictor of success.

Happiness 

The more self-aware a person is, the happier he/she is. This is because their actions are aligned with their ideals. Self-awareness also reduces our stress levels by helping us recognize which tasks don’t bring us joy.

Self-Awareness Myths

Despite the body of studies that researchers have published over the decades, we still don’t have a full understanding of self-awareness. Because of this, some misconceptions about the topic have popped up. Here are a couple of them.  

Experience and power facilitates self-awareness.

Experience leads to a false sense of confidence about our performance and self-knowledge. In one study, researchers found that the more experienced a manager was, the less accurate they were in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared to managers with less experience. 

Similarly, a more powerful leader is also more likely to overestimate their skills and abilities compared to others’ perceptions vs. a leader who holds less power. One study found this pattern to be true for 19 out of 20 competencies that the researchers measured, including empathy, leadership performance and trustworthiness.

This phenomenon could be explained by what Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee refer to as “CEO disease.” In the book “Primal Leadership,” they described CEO disease as “the information vacuum around a leader created when people withhold important (and usually unpleasant) information.” This means the higher you go up the corporate ladder, the fewer people will be able to provide you candid feedback. 

Introspection improves self-awareness.

Studies have shown that introspective people are less self-aware and report poor well-being and low job satisfaction. They are also more likely to be depressed and anxious.

Introspection, or the examination of the causes of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, isn’t ineffective per se, but the way most people are doing it is incorrect. Most people ask “why” instead of asking “what.” Asking “why” invites negative and unproductive thoughts because it encourages us to focus on coming up with reasons for past behavior or outcomes which are most likely biased and flawed. Meanwhile, asking “what” shifts our attention to objective and actionable insights that are focused on the future. 

How to Improve Your Self-Awareness

Most people believe they are self-aware, but studies have found that self-awareness is rare. Researchers estimate that only 10–15% of the people studied were truly self-aware. In other words, people grossly overestimate their level of self-awareness.

Even if that is the case, self-awareness isn’t a fixed trait, so, fortunately, we can practice and develop it. Here are a few tips: 

  • Conduct regular feedback analysis. Whenever you have an important decision to make, you can write down your motivations, thoughts and emotions during the decision-making process. Then check back a few months later to see if everything went according to plan, what went wrong, what motivated you, etc. 
  • Practice mindfulness. Focus on your thoughts without any judgment. Be aware of your thoughts and observe what triggers your emotions.
  • Keep a journal. Write down your thoughts or stream-of-consciousness ideas, tell your story or release your emotions on paper. You can write about your day, how you feel and what triggered those emotions.

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