Self-awareness is paying attention to yourself and learning what makes you tick. It’s looking in the mirror and seeing yourself clearly, without judgment or expectation.
It’s a powerful tool.
When you recognize what you’re doing, thinking, and experiencing at any moment, you get to decide how to respond.
Do you want to continue down this particular path?
Do you want to rest right where you are?
Or, do you want to get off the current path and take a different one?
In other words, you don’t have to be driven by unseen forces; you can regain a sense of control over your own life by making choices about how you move through the world.
It’s a continuum.
I like to think about self-awareness in three ways:
- Retroactive self-awareness is being able to look back on an experience and reflect on what you were doing, what you were thinking, and how you were feeling after it has already happened. This can give you invaluable information about your reactions to certain situations, people, or events.
- In-the-moment self-awareness is catching yourself in the here-and-now of an experience. You might say to yourself: “I notice how I’m acting, thinking, or feeling right now.” This kind of awareness allows you to pause and decide how you’d like to move forward. You may not be able to change what’s already occurred, but you do get to choose what you do next. When people use the term “mindfulness,” they are often referring to this in-the-moment self-awareness.
- Proactive self-awareness is the ability to imagine the situations that will trigger familiar patterns of behavior, thought, and feeling and prepare for them ahead of time. You could call this “coping ahead,” or planning how you will handle certain situations before you’re in the middle of them.
It takes time and practice.
You live in a world that keeps you constantly moving from one thing to the next. You have to-do lists to complete, people to care for, and expectations to fulfill. It’s difficult to prioritize yourself, let alone spend quality time getting to know yourself better. When you do take the time, however, you’ll find it gets easier and more familiar with each attempt. With practice, you’ll develop a kind of “muscle memory,” where your mind and body settle in and say “aah, I know what this is, I’ve done this before, and I can do it again.”
It can take many forms.
Observing yourself and your experiences is the cornerstone of self-awareness. You can enter into this world of observation however you prefer.
Physical practices like yoga and tai chi use specific bodily movements paired with breath work to teach you to get into your body and slow down your mind. Mindfulness activities ask you to sit, watch, and allow your experience to unfold, with the occasional resetting of your focus. Meditation is a specific form of mindfulness.
Think of times when you are really focused on what you’re doing. When are you fully engaged and not caught up in the past or the future? Perhaps you’re exploring your creativity, working out, playing with your pet, spending time with loved ones, or enjoying a performance. Ask yourself: what am I noticing right now? This is the practice of self-awareness.
If you are interested in exploring and growing your self-awareness, consider individual therapy to give yourself the space to tune in and gain important feedback about what you’re going through.
In addition, here are a few online/mobile resources you can use to learn more about cultivating self-awareness on your own.