There are destinations we never reach, though we persevere on the journey. And there are books that are never finished, though the author continues to outline and edit. But what about the self – that perpetual, cradle-to-coffin quest that remains ever-elusive? Can we consciously “build” on it? And, if so, how can self-awareness be developed?
The irony of self-awareness is that it exceeds mere awareness.
At some point early in life, the child looks in the mirror and connects his reflection with the physical being standing before the glass.
This objective awareness is just that – objective. It doesn’t exude from evaluative processing or contemplation of experience. It has no moral relevance, no inspiration for behavioral modification.
And yet, awareness of the objective self is foundational to what comes after: the subjective self.
It’s here, where the mirror reflects inward, that self-awareness steps out on a lifetime journey. And, though there may be looking back, there can never be turning back.
Roy Baumeister describes the concept of self-awareness as:
Anticipating how others perceive you, evaluating yourself and your actions according to collective beliefs and values, and caring about how others evaluate you.
Even within the quiet containment of the individual self, self-awareness has profound social relevance. So much so that, as Carl Jung said, “There is no cure and no improving of the world that does not begin with the individual himself.”
We can easily vouch for the ongoing human effort to improve (or, in some cases, destroy) the world. It’s that intentional application of consciousness that separates us from creatures of pure instinct.
But not every “self” has the same level of awareness or the same merit of intention. The often glaring disparity is the maddening undercurrent of broken relationships and even wars.
If we are to have a better world – within ourselves, within our families, within our communities – we must ask and answer for ourselves this question: How can self-awareness be developed?
Here are a handful of tips to get you started on this most worthwhile journey.
· Look at yourself objectively.
Once you have launched your lifetime journey of the subjective self, looking at yourself objectively can feel unnatural, even risky.
It means stepping back from yourself enough that you can be “aware of your awareness.”
It means detaching from your ego – its insecurities, its fears, its pride – so you can observe and evaluate your thoughts and behaviors.
What’s working well? What’s not? Where and why are you succeeding, and where and why is your progress stalled?
What kinds of reactions and responses do you get from others? And how do you react and respond to others?
This ability to self-evaluate without sheltering your ego is an essential building block to integrity and leadership.
· Clear your brain space by journaling.
There’s something about writing things down that is both liberating and edifying.
By dumping your thoughts and musings onto paper, you free yourself of the need to keep them circulating in your active memory.
Also, if a thought, feeling, fear, idea, or goal makes it from your brain to your pen, it’s important enough to reflect on. Sometimes you need your unconscious mind to help your conscious mind stand up and take notice.
The other benefit of keeping a journal is that you free up that mental logjam so fresh thoughts and ideas can come in. Think of it as a process of getting unstuck and creating mental movement.
Change, after all, is just a form of movement. And how can self-awareness be developed without change?
· Practice daily reflection.
This practice is really the heart of all self-awareness work. It’s only by that journey inward that self-awareness evolves.
It’s easier said than done, obviously, especially in a fast-paced, demanding world. But start small and work your way up.
Create space for yourself to be reflective – a quiet room, a walk in nature.
Think about recent events and encounters in your life. What triggered you, inspired you, delighted you, upset you? How did you respond?
Did you respond out of your old, conditioned self or out of your evolving self?
Think about your goals. What have you settled for and why?
As you can see, reflection can take any number of paths.
And that’s the point – to bravely try the various paths and decide which you should tread again on your journey.
· Make a bucket list.
Dreaming and planning are essential elements of vital life. They keep you connected to both purpose and possibility.
Having bucket-list goals can give you a reason to get up in the morning. It can also indirectly shape your behaviors because the goals are your own, and therefore you are the only one who can work toward them.
Something as simple as planning a mini-vacation can be a revealing process of growth in self-awareness.
Perhaps you haven’t been conscious of saving money, but now you need money for your vacation. Suddenly you are in the position of having to examine your own habits and how they have held you back.
Creating a bucket list not only gives you experiences to anticipate but connects you to the thoughts and behaviors necessary to manifest them.
· Ask for and welcome feedback.
How can self-awareness be developed without a sense of who you are in relation to others?
Everything in life is about relationship – with yourself, with others, with nature, with God/the Universe/your higher Self. And it’s in this context that every “self” has the boundless opportunity to grow and ascend to new heights of being.
But this is also the context that puts the mirror right in front of your face.
The key to living a healthy social dynamic is being aware of your contributions to that dynamic and the nature of their influence.
Some of that awareness can and should be self-generated. But it takes great courage and a commitment to personal growth to seek out the perspectives and feedback of others.
Sometimes it’s the thoughtfully, genuinely communicated feedback of others that most effectively cuts through the veil of self-delusion, denial, and avoidance.
Like the unconscious mind dumping its thoughts into a journal like a cry for acknowledgment, honest feedback from others can be profoundly influencing.
The commitment to developing your self-awareness will have its natural ebbs and flows. But, once you realize how self-awareness can help you, you’ll begin to see it as the key to unlocking your best life.
And remember, self-awareness, like all the intangible treasures of life, is not a destination. It is, as Thoreau describes, an ongoing search, an ever-new acquaintance:
“Let me forever go in search of myself; never for a moment think that I have found myself; be as a stranger to myself, never a familiar, seeking acquaintance still.”
Henry David Thoreau