Self-awareness is linked to greater well-being, and anyone can improve it with the right techniques. Here’s how to get started.
At some point between ages 1 and 3, human babies begin to develop a sense of self-awareness. They start to see themselves as separate from their parents, recognize their own name, and use pronouns like “I” and “me.”
Self-awareness — the ability to focus attention on ourselves and to self-evaluate — continues to develop and advance throughout our lifetime. It ultimately allows us to understand ourselves and to connect to the world around us.
Many of us could benefit from getting to know ourselves a little better — even when we think we know all there is to know. In fact, we can continue to develop self-awareness throughout our entire lifetime.
Self-awareness involves the ability to see ourselves clearly, recognize how others see us, and understand how we fit into society and the world.
Those who have higher self-awareness also tend to be more proactive in a work environment and display better communication skills.
Anyone can develop more self-awareness. It simply takes willingness and a little practice.
Here are seven tips that can get you started:
- Keep a daily journal.
- Seek feedback from others.
- Identify your values.
- Read fiction.
- Practice gratitude.
- Examine your knee-jerk emotional reactions.
- Practice mindfulness meditation.
1. Keep a daily journal
Journaling each day can help you better understand your emotions and encourage regular reflection. At the end of every day, try to write down any memorable events.
You could start by answering the following questions:
- What happened today?
- What was meaningful about my day?
- What were the best and worst moments of my day?
- What were my dominant emotions today?
- Did I experience conflict today?
- What could I have done better today?
- How do I think I made someone feel today?
In addition to writing in your journal, it can also be helpful to read your old journal entries every so often, so you can see how you’ve changed and developed.
2. Seek feedback from others
Find a trusted friend or family member and ask them to give you some honest feedback.
You can tell them that you’re trying to develop greater self-awareness and that you would appreciate honest answers to your questions (not answers that just make you feel better).
You might ask your loved one questions like:
- What’s my greatest strength?
- What’s something I could improve on?
- What dynamic do I bring to a social situation?
- Am I someone you often choose to go to for either advice or comfort?
- When am I at my best?
- What do you think my values are in my relationships and at work?
- Do I have strengths in one context that may be a weakness in another (and vis versa)?
Remember: The key to making this a productive conversation is to try to avoid becoming defensive. As much as you can, listen to what they’re saying and try to absorb this new information.
You may also want to consider how their answers match up with what you think about yourself.
3. Clarify your personal values
One of the most important elements of self-awareness is understanding why you do what you do.
Understanding the root of your behaviors and actions requires knowing your personal values. If you realize that your choices aren’t in line with your values, that may be a sign of a lack of self-awareness.
In other words, self-awareness means living a life that’s intentional and thoughtful. Identifying your personal values plays a major role in being able to achieve this goal. In order to discover your values, you may want to:
- Make a list of all your values and then try to categorize them and narrow them down to the ones that are most important to you.
- Reflect on which values you consistently live by and which ones you sometimes stray from.
- Find philosophies and quotes that resonate with you.
- Consider what you focus your energy on and whether there are aspects of your life you want to focus more (or less) energy on.
4. Read fiction
Reading fiction allows us to walk in the shoes of others, which can help us develop empathy and social skills. A 2006 study found that people who read literary fiction scored better on empathy and social acumen tests.
The next time you have a little free time, consider picking up a popular novel.
5. Practice gratitude
Every morning, think of one thing in your life that you are appreciative of.
This could be a specific person, your health, a job, a pet, the trees, or anything that’s special to you. Think of this person or thing and take a moment to experience gratitude in your heart. You could also keep a running list of the things that you’re grateful for in a journal.
Practicing gratitude can help you develop a deeper awareness of your connection to the world around you. It’s also helpful in understanding what’s most important to you.
6. Examine your knee-jerk reactions
If something suddenly makes you angry or upset, instead of reacting, take a deep breath and allow yourself to consider what might be underneath your emotional response.
Consider what specifically is causing you to want to react and what you can do to help the situation instead of escalating it.
Additionally, when you’re in a more relaxed state, try reflecting on whether:
- there are specific situations that make you feel particularly emotional
- there are people you consistently have conflict with (do you know why?)
- you can identify your emotional triggers
- you feel confident regulating your emotions before reacting
- you consider other people’s perspectives besides your own
7. Practice mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation, which has its roots in Buddhist philosophy, can help you stay in the present moment and perceive yourself in a healthier way.
Mindfulness meditation involves two aspects, attention and acceptance:
- Attention allows you to stay in the present moment and direct your awareness to your breath or other sensations in your body.
- Acceptance involves observing any feelings, thoughts, or sensations without judgment.
Research from 2012 shows that mindfulness helps us develop self-awareness, self-regulation, and a positive relationship with ourselves and others. This connection extends beyond our self-focused needs and improves our empathy.
Evidence suggests that only a small minority of people are sufficiently self-aware.
For instance, researcher and organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich found in her 2018 study on self-awareness that, of the people who identify as self-aware, only 10 to 15 percent fit the criteria of self-awareness.
Eurich breaks down the criteria of self-awareness into two distinct categories: internal and external self-awareness.
Internal self-awareness means you are clear on who you are and what your values are. This sense of self is consistent with how you think, react, and treat others.
External self-awareness, in contrast, is when you have a clear sense of how others perceive you. Without external self-awareness, you may be focused on your appearance to the point where you disregard what actually matters to you in order to maintain this image.
Instead, having both internal and external self-awareness includes:
- knowing who you are and what you want to accomplish
- understanding how your behavior impacts others
- seeking out opinions that differ from your own
Self-awareness is one of the core components of emotional intelligence. People with low emotional intelligence tend to have a difficult time understanding their own emotions. They may have frequent outbursts of emotions or be unable to identify how they feel.
Here are some of the main signs of a lack of self-awareness:
- Not holding yourself accountable. You may praise yourself when things go well but tend to make excuses or blame others when things go wrong.
- Being dismissive of others. You may dismiss others when they question your beliefs. A
2018 studyfound that people with more radical beliefs displayed less insight into the correctness of their ideas and failed to take into account any contrary evidence.
- Having difficulty regulating emotions. You may have a hard time identifying and managing your emotions.
- Not thinking through actions. You may not be able to explain the reasons for your actions, and you may often act impulsively.
- Feeling apathetic. You may find it difficult to empathize with others and to listen to other people’s experiences.
- Judging others. You may make judgments of others without knowing the facts based on your own perceptions and opinions.
Self-awareness allows us to see ourselves more clearly, better understand how others see us, and appreciate our connection to others and how we fit into this world.
Anyone can improve their self-awareness. It just takes a little practice and open-mindedness. If you’re unsure where to start, speaking with a mental health counselor may be a good option for you.