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What’s Self-Awareness? And How You Can Improve It

Learn about what's self-awareness and how you can improve it.

If you’re always wondered “What’s self-awareness?”, you’re in the right place – let me get you started.

Be honest – how well do you know yourself? No, really. I’m not talking about things like your favorite color, food, or even exercise in the gym. Instead, I’m talking about big-picture (like, massive) things like where you want to see yourself in the future. 

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? 10? What do you ultimately wish to accomplish in life? 

Is your mind drawing a blank? Don’t worry; you’re probably not alone. In today’s society that’s fixated on a ‘go, go, go’ mentality, slowing down and taking a breather from our crazy lives for self-examination isn’t always the easiest thing to do. 

But even though it’s not easy, you should still give practicing self-awareness a shot.

Gaining more in-depth insights into your thoughts, feelings, and sensations can prove to be immensely helpful – both physically and mentally. 

Let’s explore. 

What’s self-awareness? 

First, though, what’s self-awareness – exactly? 

Well, in effect, self-awareness is a skill that involves you paying attention to the way you think, feel, and behave at any point in time. 

To be more specific, self-awareness entails (1, 2, 3, 4):

  • Looking for patterns in the way you tend to think about and make sense of the world around you
  • Understanding your emotions and moods (even the difficult, uncomfortable ones)
  • Paying attention to how you tend to act in certain situations (e.g. default responses, habits, and tendencies)

That said, the practice of self-awareness is not all internally-focused. 

There’s also external-focused self-awareness, which is your understanding of how other people view you, based on those same factors listed above (5). 

Summary

What’s self-awareness? Well, in short, self-awareness is the ability to see yourself (personality, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, etc.) clearly and objectively to:

  • Understand who you are
  • How others perceive you
  • How you fit into the world around you

Identify yourself in the 4 self-awareness archetypes

It’s easy to assume that being proficient in internal self-awareness would mean that you’re also a master at external self-awareness – but that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

Research suggests that there is virtually no relationship between the two. 

As a result, there are 4 self-awareness archetypes, each with a different set of opportunities to improve. The following is adapted from Harvard Business Review’s leadership archetypes (6).

There are 4 self-awareness archetypes adapted from Harvard Business Review's leadership archetypes.
  • Introspectors (High internal, low external)
    • You’re clear on who you are but don’t challenge your views or seek feedback from others. 
  • Aware (High internal, high external)
    • You’re clear on who you are, what you want to accomplish and seek others’ opinions on yourself. 
  • Seekers (Low internal, low external)
    • You don’t yet know who you are, what you wish to accomplish, and how others view you. 
  • Pleasers (Low internal, high external)
    • You can be so focused trying to appear a certain way to others that you could be overlooking what truly matters to you. 

Summary

There are 4 self-awareness archetypes:

  • Introspectors: High internal, low external self-awareness
  • Aware: High internal, high external self-awareness (you want to be here!)
  • Seekers: Low internal, low external self-awareness 
  • Pleasers: Low internal, high external self-awareness

Examples of self-awareness in real-life

Okay, you must have had enough with the boring theories. It’s time to see how the practice of self-awareness translates into real-life. 

Below are 2 examples of how self-awareness can help you (as it relates to fitness, specifically):

  • Exercise execution: Let’s assume that you struggle with the hip thrusts. You notice that you always feel it more in the hamstrings than in the glutes. As a result, you engage in self-evaluation to determine why and how to improve. You promptly realize that it’s because of your feet placement; it’s too far in front. To fix this, you decide to correct your feet placement and have a certified personal trainer view your form – so you make the booty gains you deserve. 
  • Weight loss: Let’s say you’re struggling to lose weight effectively. You think you’re doing everything right – staying in a calorie deficit, doing cardio 5 times a week, and getting enough sleep. So, what gives? Eventually, you admit to yourself that you may not be doing everything right after all. You engage the help of a personal trainer and nutritionist, who both determine that you’re under-counting your calories and doing way too much cardio. And finally – after the necessary adjustments, you reach your goal weight.  

Benefits of self-awareness

The above 2 examples help show what self-awareness can look like. And what it can do for you when you tap into it. 

Without self-awareness, you would have seen more growth in your hamstrings than your glutes and in the latter, you might have never reached your weight goals. 

But guess what? The above is just a preview of what self-awareness can do for you. 

Research shows that there are many benefits to practicing self-awareness – that extend far beyond helping you achieve your fitness goals. Let’s take a closer look at some of them. 

Encourages positive self-development 

Self-awareness encourages positive self-development by helping you understand what you want, need and desire.

Positive change is incredibly difficult in and of itself. 

Now, imagine attempting it without understanding who you truly are and what you want in life? Nearly impossible, right? It’s almost like trying to get fitter – without defining what ‘fit’ means to you (e.g. getting stronger? 6 packs? Running 5 km without stopping?). 

Self-awareness enables you to understand what it is that you want, need, and desire. It enables you to unlock valuable insights about yourself that can help you chart out a path to positive behavior change (7). 

While it does require some work, being self-aware will help you grow quicker as a person – and thrive in life. 

Allows you to define happiness on your own terms

When do you experience the most joy? Who do you most enjoy spending time with? What accomplishments are you most proud of and why?

These questions may seem cliché (and a little cringe-worthy), but they hold a lot of value.

By recognizing the things that make you – not your parents, friends, or others – happy, you can apply your knowledge to future goals and endeavors (7). 

For instance, if working out always lifts your spirits, take the time to break out a sweat more often. 

Or, if you feel most accomplished after breaking your PBs in the gym, start to take more initiative in learning how to get stronger. You could even join powerlifting communities if that’s your thing. 

Leads to better decision-making

When it comes to making significant life decisions, your loved ones (e.g. parents, friends, and relatives) will naturally have opinions. 

However, self-awareness can help you make decisions based on fully understanding what you want from life. And on what is right or wrong for you. 

Self-awareness allows you to make choices based on your beliefs – without letting other people’s (well-meaning but typically ill-suited) input sway you (8). 

Plus, by following your gut feel, you’ll naturally feel better about the choices you’ve made and be extremely motivated to succeed. You know, prove the haters wrong and all that good stuff? 

Builds better social connections with others

Having greater empathy allows you to build better relationships with others.

In general, if you’re able to understand yourself (i.e. have high self-awareness), you’ll be able to understand others as well. That’s because self-awareness promotes empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (9). 

This then creates space for improved listening and compassionate response to others. And with this, you’ll be able to build better, more authentic relationships with others. 

Remember: the need to be understood and have our feelings validated is a universal one. So, practicing self-awareness will take you far in life – be it professionally or personally. 

Boosts self-control

Practicing self-awareness can help you better focus on what’s most important to you: your big-picture goals. And, thus, boosts self-control (10).

Let’s take the following scenario as an example.

Your part-time job is slowly, but surely, sucking you dry, and by the time 5pm rolls around, all you can think about is retreating to the bedroom with a glass of red wine. Meal-prepping and going to the gym would be at the very bottom of your to-do list.  

But here’s the thing. Your big-picture goal is to – ultimately – inspire women around the world with your fitness journey. 

The part-time job in question? It helps you pay the bills while you work toward your dream. Preparing your own meals and working out? Those are what you need to do to have results to show for.

Keeping your overall life goal in mind gives your daily tasks meaning. 

It helps remind you that these mundane tasks serve as the stepping stones toward accomplishing your life goals – and living your life to your fullest potential. 

As a result, you’ll have a more positive attitude toward your current obligations. Thus – becoming happier on a day-to-day basis. 

Summary

Increasing your self-awareness can bring about many benefits:

  • Encourages positive self-development: Self-awareness helps you unlock valuable insights (previously unavailable to yourself) about yourself that can help you grow.
  • Allows you to define happiness on your terms: Self-awareness helps you discover what you truly want out of life. 
  • Leads to better decision-making: Having self-awareness allows you to make decisions that serve your overarching life goals. 
  • Builds better social connections: Self-awareness promotes empathy, which creates space for authentic social connections. 
  • Boosts self-control: Practicing self-awareness reminds you of the significance of even the most mundane tasks (e.g. the money you make from your part-time job goes toward funding your dreams).

You’re likely not as self-aware as you think

Overestimating your level of self-awareness can happen as it is an uncomfortable process of taking personal responsibility.

Ready for some bluntness? Okay, here it is.

The chances are high that you’re grossly overestimating your level of self-awareness (11). You might have classified yourself under the category of ‘Aware’ – when, in fact, you could be a ‘Pleaser’ or a ‘Seeker.’ 

That’s because practicing self-awareness typically requires you to do many uncomfortable things: slow down, adopt a mindset of curiosity, and take personal responsibility. 

Take, for instance, questioning yourself on why you’ve been short on sleep lately (even though you know just how important sleep is!) 

Is it really because you’ve been too busy? Or is it because you’ve spent the large majority of your nights mindlessly scrolling through Netflix, Facebook, and Instagram? This process can lead to feelings of discomfort, vulnerability, defensiveness, and even irritation.  

But by now, the benefits of practicing self-awareness should be pretty clear. The insights, breakthroughs, and self-improvements you would gain far outweigh any discomfort you experience. 

Summary

The truth is that you’re likely not as self-aware as you think you are. You probably believe more than a few things about yourself that are false. Thankfully, though, self-awareness is a skill – the more you practice it, the better you’ll be at it.

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Activities that can help cultivate your self-awareness 

This then begs the question: “What’s the secret to increasing my self-awareness?” Well, there’s no magic formula. Thankfully, there are many activities that can help you build and increase self-awareness. 

Let’s explore the 4, which have proven to be most effective. 

Meditation

Meditation helps you find self-awareness by giving you the space and time to connect with your innermost thoughts and feelings.

Ah, meditation. 

While meditation is strongly associated with many different religious teachings (e.g. Buddhism and Hinduism), the meaning of meditation has changed a little in today’s world. 

Meditation is now more about altering consciousness, finding awareness, and achieving peace – instead of enhancing faith (although, you could still meditate for that reason if you wish). And so because of this, meditation is perfect for increasing your self-awareness (12, 13, 14). 

But of course, here comes the all-important question: how do you meditate? 

Do you just sit in silence … and bask in your innermost thoughts and feelings? Well, the truth is, that’s basically it. But if you’re someone who’s never been able to sit still without your mind going at 120 km/h, consider trying out guided meditations. 

There are plenty of meditation apps (e.g. Headspace and Calm are my favorites) that’ll guide you through the process. All you’ll need to do is close your eyes, stay focused on your breathing, and follow instructions. 

Don’t worry if you get distracted; with perseverance and continued meditation, you’ll be able to stay self-aware for more extended periods. 

When you think about it, learning to meditate is just like exercising a muscle you’ve never worked before. It’ll take a couple of tries before you feel comfortable with what you’re doing. But just know that more self-aware and calmer days are ahead of you.  

Yoga 

When you think of yoga, the first thought that crosses your mind is bound to be a physical practice associated with stress relief and fitness. Along with cute, bright sports bras and leggings (of course!)

But here’s something you might not be aware of. 

At its core, yoga is meant to help you become aware of your thoughts and emotional patterns so you can stop identifying with them (15, 16, 17, 18). 

The yoga mat is meant to serve as a sacred place for self-awareness and exploration. And typically, the classic focus of awareness in yoga is cultivated in asana (poses) practice. Take any yoga class, and you’ll most likely hear the phrase ‘focus on the breath’. 

You’ll be told to ‘flow with your breath’. To ‘be in your breath’. 

And this (i.e. breathwork) gives you the chance to observe and notice your thoughts and external stimuli – without passing judgments on them. In turn, deepening your self-awareness. 

Journaling 

Constructive journaling lets you get in touch with your thoughts and feelings, helping you improve self-awareness in the process.

If you find it challenging to be mindful of your thoughts during meditation or yoga, a better alternative for you may be journaling. 

It’s where you detail all your thoughts and feelings (including your struggles and fears) without judgment or punishment. 

I know what you’re thinking … “Isn’t this just a diary? I used to do that back in high school – and it didn’t help.” Well, that’s likely because you didn’t manage to engage in constructive journaling. (Be honest – were all your entries about your crush?)

How to ensure your journaling is constructive 

Research shows that just doing a ‘brain dump’ of words on the page doesn’t do much for your mental health. Instead, to reap the most benefits from this cathartic activity, keep the acronym, ‘WRITE,’ in mind while journaling:

  • W: What do you want to write about? Think about all the things that are going on in your life, your current thoughts, feelings, aspirations, and fears … give it a name and then start writing.
  • R: Review or reflect on it. Take a few moments to calm your breath – especially if you’re becoming agitated. Try to start sentences with ‘I’ statements, so you feel in control (e.g. ‘I feel…’, ‘I want…’, ‘I think…’)
  • I: Investigate your thoughts and feelings. If you feel that you have ran out of things to write, take a moment to refocus. Read over what you have written so far, and continue. 
  • T: Time yourself. You can start with just 5 minutes every morning if you wish. And once the time is up, you can stop journaling.
  • E: Exit strategically and with self-awareness. Make sure you leave enough time for yourself to reflect on everything you’ve written. Then, use the last few seconds (or minutes) to sum up your takeaway and write down any action steps you’d like to take next. 

Benefits of journaling 

A ton of evidence exists to show that journaling effectively helps people identify and accept their emotions, manage their anxiety and stress levels, and even ease the symptoms of mental illness. 

That’s because journaling can help you (19, 20, 21, 22):

  • Prioritize problems, fears, and concerns
  • Track day-to-day mood fluctuations so you can recognize triggers – and learn ways to control them better
  • Identify negative thoughts and behaviors
  • Set aside time for positive self-talk 

Ultimately, journaling helps you quickly get in touch with your thoughts and feelings. And, in turn, enables you to know yourself better (i.e. enhance your self-awareness!) 

Walking in nature 

If you’re like most people, you’d spend your work days indoors under fluorescent lights and in front of computers – then go to bed basking in the glow of television screens. 

We don’t spend much time outdoors anymore. And that’s a real pity. 

Research has consistently shown that humans need to spend time in natural environments to enhance physical and mental health (23). 

And one of the specific benefits that most relate to this article is that spending time in nature can improve your ability to focus (23, 24). Which, you know, is beneficial whenever you engage in mindful activities like meditation, journaling, and yoga. 

Now, of course, if you do take a walk in nature … be sure to go without the distraction of electronic devices! 

You’re not going to hear your thoughts with songs like ‘WAP’ blasting through your earphones. So – no music. 

Tune in to the sounds of nature. Also, observe the sync of your breath and footsteps. Notice the in-out pattern of your breathing without trying to change it. Once you’re aware of your breathing, start paying attention to your bodily sensations like:

  • How does it feel to place your feet on the ground?
  • Can you hear the crunch of leaves beneath your feet?
  • How does your upper body move along with your lower body?

The more you practice becoming present with your body, the easier it will be to become self-aware of your thoughts. Give it a go the next time you head outdoors! 

Summary

There are many activities you can do that’ll help increase your self-awareness. A list of the most effective ones are as follows:

  • Meditation: Helps quiet your mind. If you’ve never meditated before, there are plenty of free resources (e.g. mobile apps like Calm and Headspace) to help get you started.
  • Yoga: Helps you become aware of your thoughts and emotional patterns during asana (poses) practice. You’re also meant to focus on your bodily sensations and breathing pattern while on the mat. 
  • Journaling: Helps you track your feelings, thoughts, and emotions, so you can start to identify patterns and gain insights about yourself. To reap the most benefits, be sure to prioritize solutions (i.e. actionable steps), instead of emotions. 
  • Walking in nature: Helps increase a sense of self-awareness, especially since you feel like you don’t have to put on a social front. Just make sure to go without the distraction of your electronic devices!

Tips for improving self-awareness

If you’ve been running on ‘autopilot’ for many years of your life (maybe even all of it!), it’s not going to be easy to become self-aware suddenly. It’s going to take a lot of time and practice. 

That said, here are a few tips that’ll hopefully make your journey a little easier. 

Be clear about your intentions

Set out clear intentions so you have a clear direction to work towards.

To become self-aware, you do need some idea about what is important to you. And what you hope to accomplish. 

It may not be necessary (yet) to know the exact steps for accomplishing your goals, but you need to have an idea of your general direction.

For instance:

  • ‘I intend to own a business in (whatever field)’
  • ‘I intend to give up alcohol for the sake of my mental health’
  • ‘I intend to be self-sufficient by (whatever age)’

Keep your intentions in mind. Remind yourself of your intentions whenever possible. Write it down, set it as your handphone wallpaper – whatever gets you thinking about it and taking the steps toward achieving your goals. 

Prepare a list of questions

Actively setting aside time to be self-reflective, but often finding that your mind draws a blank? Then keep the following questions in mind. These are one of the best questions to help jumpstart the process:

  • Am I using my time wisely?
  • Am I living true to myself?
  • What worries me most about the future?
  • What am I really scared of?
  • If not now, then when?
  • What am I doing about the things that matter most in my life?
  • What have I given up on?
  • How will I live, knowing I will die?
  • Does it really matter what others think about me?
  • To what degree have I actually controlled the course of my life?

Let go of your inhibitions

Let go of your inhibitions so you're able to take positive steps to address the problems you are facing.

It’s only human nature – when you see something you don’t immediately like about yourself, your first reaction would be to defend yourself from it (i.e. denial). And that’s also one of the reasons why self-awareness is so challenging. 

But it’s important to remember that the catalyst for growth is never denial. 

Instead, it’s acknowledgement, followed by positive steps taken to solve the issues on hand. So, whenever you’re practicing self-awareness, be sure to let go of judgment. Let go of the instinctual urge to protect yourself. 

For example, if you’re always lacking workout motivation, avoid attributing blame immediately. Instead, learn to be objective and honest.

Be willing to see yourself in a less-than-positive way – then make sure you do something about it.  

Schedule time to practice self-awareness

‘Don’t have time’ to practice self-awareness? Well, guess what? You don’t really need to spend an hour being self-aware. 

Even a short 5-minute session will do wonders. 

If you can spend hours on ASOS hunting down the perfect leggings, you can certainly spare 5 minutes to work towards a better version of yourself. If it makes it easier for you, try scheduling your reflection time – and commit to it. 

Put it down in your Google calendar if you have to. Let your social circle know. 

And if you find yourself trying to skip it or avoid it? Reflect on it! 

Don’t get bogged down by emotions

You’re bound to experience all sorts of negative emotions – anger, sadness, disappointment, etc.– when practicing self-awareness. The important thing is for you to avoid ruminating on these emotions (25, 26, 27). 

Instead, you should acknowledge that you are indeed experiencing said emotion. For example: “I am feeling angry.”

Then, take the time to evaluate if this emotion is serving you or not. You’ll often find that these emotions are useful. And if they aren’t, replace them with actual behaviors that will bring you the emotions you would like to experience. 

For instance, if you’re angry atyour partner because of a quarrel, what are you going to do about it? Apologize? Call for a discussion? Make sure you take actionable steps to solve the issues.  

Ask others how they see you 

Hoping to better yourself? Learn what’s self-awareness and how it could benefit you. Tips for improving self-awareness included.

As mentioned earlier, self-awareness is not all internal. You also need to learn how others (e.g. your loved ones) perceive you. 

So, make an effort to talk to your closest loved ones. 

Be courageous enough to ask how they view you in various situations. Some of their answers may surprise you. Getting these varied perspectives on how you behave or come off in different situations can help bring a sense of awareness previously unavailable to you. 

If you feel particularly vulnerable about this, therapy (with a licensed therapist) can be a viable option. 

Summary

The following tips may make your self-awareness journey easier:

  • Be clear about your intentions: Keep what is important to you close to heart. Live a life full of purpose. 
  • Prepare a list of questions: Keep a list of questions (i.e. prompts) in mind to kickstart the process. 
  • Let go of your inhibitions: Recognize that the process of getting to know yourself may not always be pleasant. But stick to it, and you’ll find there is much to gain from being uncomfortable and truthful with yourself.
  • Schedule time to practice: Self-awareness is a skill. The more you practice, the better you get at it. So, make time for it. No excuses!
  • Don’t get bogged down by emotions: Always focus on solutions. What are you going to do about the issues at hand? Do not ruminate on negative emotions; just accept them and move on. Recognize that these emotions do not serve you.
  • Ask others for feedback: You cannot be truly self-aware until you also understand how others perceive you. So, be courageous and ask for feedback!

Unlock the power of self-awareness and transform yourself

Self-awareness is a journey, not an endpoint. And while this journey brings with it plenty of challenges, the benefits are immense and lasting.

It is, without a doubt, a journey worth embarking on.

And, of course, this article is only meant to get you started on improving your self-awareness. 

There is a trove of valuable information out there that can guide you as you grow, flourish, and become more in-tuned with yourself. So, keep reading, learning and practicing. 

Stay committed to the process and you would find yourself better equipped to tackle negative emotions and behaviors. You might even learn to replace them with healthier emotional patterns that enable you to thrive in everything you do. Pretty worthwhile, don’t you think?

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