What is self-awareness? And how can you cultivate it?

We tend to think we're self aware, but we're not. Here's how to get better at it.
Illustration of man looking into a handheld mirror as he own reflection escapes the mirror.
When we see something we don’t immediately like in ourselves, our first reaction could be to defend ourselves from it, which is partly why self-awareness is so challenging.Gabriel Alcala / for NBC News
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By Nicole Spector

Let’s time travel for a moment back to say, the year 1100.

We’re sitting at our wooden bench with our goose quill composing a list of traits we deem to be indisputably good in a friend, lover, colleague or family member.

What are some things we might put on this old-timey list? Probably words like “kind,” “loyal,” “generous” and “patient,” to name but a few.

Now let’s return to the present day. We’re sitting (or standing) at our desk typing up that very list. We’d probably jot down the same virtues we’d have scribbled down in 1100, but we might add some relatively new concepts.

On my list, I would certainly add “self-aware” as a quality of a person I’d want in my life — and a person I’d want to be.

But what precisely does it mean to be self-aware? How did self-awareness emerge as a venerable trait and how do you cultivate it?

‘Self-awareness’ centers on recognizing and managing our emotions

“The term self-awareness can likely be traced back to Freud and Jung, but in the modern parlance, I think it arrived back on the radar around the time Daniel Goleman published 'Emotional Intelligence' nearly two decades back,” says John Duffy, a clinical psychologist and author.

“In effect, self-awareness is the recognition of one's own emotional state at any given point in time,” Duffy says. “The argument suggests that we are, far too often, wholly unaware of the emotional state we are currently in, and the degree to which that state influences our behavior and thought process. To the degree that we can manage our emotional states, we are better able to manage these other elements of our lives as well.”

Amy McManus, a marriage and family therapist adds that “self-awareness is [also] the ability to look at your own words and actions from a perspective outside of yourself; to see yourself as others see you.”

In this sense, we can see how self-awareness is a way of introspection that doesn’t shut the world out, but rather brings it in for assessment against one’s own feelings and behaviors. It entails, as Katie Krimer, a licensed clinical social worker describes it, “meta-cognition: the ability to think about thinking [and] implies the ability to recognize ourselves as we see ourselves, but also to understand how others may see us based on what we know about human behavior.”

We tend to think we’re self-aware — when we’re not

I can’t count how many times I’ve dismissed people (namely, ex-boyfriends) by declaring them “not self-aware.” I say this like I’m positively teeming with this meta-cognitive ability.

I might be wrong about just how self-aware I am; many of us are.

“Social scientists have discovered that people often grossly overestimate their level of self-awareness,” says Tara Well, associate professor of psychology at Barnard College.

Krimer adds that many people “feel that they know and understand themselves much better than they actually do. They may even have avoided building self-awareness because it involves looking at oneself as honestly as possible, and this can often invoke feelings of shame that can be difficult to handle.”

Self-awareness is a vital skill in a fulfilling life

In any case, self-awareness is an important practice to develop.

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“In the past, [lack of self-awareness] might have been written off as a benign human quirk, but as our world becomes increasingly complex, the need for self-awareness is growing to paramount importance,” says Well. “Self-awareness may be the most vital skill we have to navigate our future challenges.”

Duffy adds that “if you can manage your own emotions, you are more than likely able to exert an impact on the emotional vibe of a family, a work situation, or a social encounter. All of that is to say, self-awareness can be incredibly useful in driving a more aware, fulfilled life.”

Here are some tips to cultivate self-awareness

If you want to cultivate or enhance self-awareness, here’s what mental health experts recommend:

1. Be curious about who you are

“To be self-aware, a person needs to be curious about themselves,” says Ana Jovanovic, psychologist and life coach at Parenting Pod. “Our minds and bodies are territories for which we yet need road maps. Every person has some roads they do not wish to take, and some roads they feel are worth exploring. How far you’ll go in your journey of understanding yourself depends on what you’re ready to explore and experience.”

2. Let your walls down

When we see something we don’t immediately like in ourselves, our first reaction could be to defend ourselves from it, which is partly why self-awareness is so challenging.

Try to let go of judgment and the instinctual urge to protect yourself.

“You become self-aware through a willingness to let go of defensiveness, and an openness to seeing yourself in a way that is different from what you have always assumed,” says McManus. “Often this means you have to be willing to see yourself in a less-than-positive light.”

3. Look in the mirror — literally

“In my own research, I teach people to use mirrors as a meditation tool that increases their self-awareness,” says Well. “When people first look at themselves, they are often very critical. I teach them how to shift their perspective and use their reflection for deeper self-awareness. They learn to track their attention and emotions and gain new insights into how their thoughts are affecting them in real time — this sort of mimics face-to-face conversations that involve deep listening and being fully present with another person.”

4. Keep a journal and note what triggers positive feelings

“Journaling is a great way to start this process of being mindful,” says Celeste Viciere, a licensed mental health clinician. “As you are journaling, pay attention to your day. Ask yourself how you feel. If there are negative feelings associated with the day, think about what triggers may have caused them to bubble up. For any positive feelings, think about what may have triggered you to feel happy.”

5. Substitute some screen time with people time

“The average amount of time we spend alone gazing at our screens now surpasses our time in face-to-face contact,” says Well. “Science tells us that we need reflections to develop our sense of self in relation to others. As we spend more time alone and on our devices, we miss this essential human mirroring. The symptoms of lack of mirroring are becoming more apparent in our society: increases in anxiety, lack of empathy and intense self-objectification (as in the selfie craze). There’s a call — if not an urgent cry — for greater self-awareness and reflection.”

6. Ask others how they see you

Not only should we build out our face-to-face social actions, but also use a portion of this time to learn about how our loved ones perceive us.

“Talk to your closest loved ones and be courageous enough to ask how they perceive you in various situations,” says Krimer. “Getting perspective on how you behave or come off in certain situations can help us bring into our awareness something that was previously invisible to us. Therapy is great for this, too.”

7. Angry at someone? Take the ‘third-person’ perspective

Ultimately the benefits of self-awareness are to serve not only you in emotional management, but also to serve your relationships.

Michal Strahilevitz, a consumer psychologist and marketing professor at St. Mary's College of California, speaks to the importance of catching yourself when a situation or person agitates you.

“If you catch yourself raising your voice, you may feel justified due to being upset,” says Strahilevitz. “However, for the person with you (second person), the experience will be quite different. Trying to imagine yourself in that person's place will improve self awareness, reduce defensiveness, and quite possibly improve your relationship with that person as well. Third person is particularly effective for people who are overly self-critical or who trend to be self-destructive. What would you advise if you were a caring friend watching your behavior? That would be taking a third person perspective.”

8. Keep checking in with yourself (and a list of feelings)

“Clinically, the most effective method for the development of self-awareness is a pause and brief check-in with oneself: ‘How am I feeling right now? What do I think might be driving that feeling?’” says Duffy. “This may seem absurdly simple, but in practice, my clients find it to be quite difficult. Many need to carry a list of possible emotions with them as they begin this exercise, as the pat answers (‘I feel fine.’; ‘I feel bad.’; ‘I feel angry.’) are not particularly rich or productive.”

9. Keep learning — the journey never ends

While this article hopefully helps with pointers, there is a trove of wonderful material out there that can be of guidance in your ever-evolving journey towards self-awareness.

"Read and learn about the psychology and practices of self-awareness," recommends Krimer. "Get excited about gaining the knowledge that will in turn teach you about yourself. There are so many incredible psych books and workbooks that encourage the cultivation of our self-awareness. School of Life is a terrific company that publishes books and other novelty card sets that help explain in a very direct, clear and smart way, the importance of building self knowledge and the impacts this has on everything else in our life."

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