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Self-awareness: My Experience on Path to Better Me
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Development of my self-awareness, zimmer's principles of self-awareness, works cited.
- Carver, C. S., & Scheier, M. F. (2018). Self-Awareness. In Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(2), 239-242.
- Davis, M. H. (2018). Empathy, Perspective Taking, and Self-Awareness: The Link to Leadership. In Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 731.
- Duhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House.
- Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Basic Books.
- Goleman, D. (2012). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam.
- Maslow, A. H. (2013). Toward a Psychology of Being. Martino Fine Books.
- Riggio, R. E. (2018). Introduction to Industrial/Organizational Psychology (8th ed.). Pearson.
- Tolle, E. (2004). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library.
- Vohs, K. D., & Baumeister, R. F. (Eds.). (2011). Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
- Zimmer, E. (Speaker). (2010). Erik Zimmer: "Gamify Your Life" [TED Talk]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/erik_zimmer_gamify_your_life
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Reflecting for self-awareness
A collection of reflective activities and questions for developing self-awareness .
This page covers:
Self-awareness: learning about yourself to improve
- Some traits are stable, others change frequently
- Challenging your answers to remain reflective
- Links to example activities and approaches for self-awareness
The purpose of reflection is to improve practice and become informed in our decisions. Generally, we want to become more able and effective in what we are doing. A lot of reflection is done to make more sense of particular experiences – critical experiences, disorienting dilemmas – however reflection can also start with the want to develop better understanding of ourselves.
This doesn’t necessarily have to start with an experience, but rather a reflective question. To answer this type of question, we will often use experiences as evidence or support.
By learning about ourselves, our motives, and our assumptions, we can develop a toolkit of knowledge and abilities that we can draw on to help ourselves preform to the best of our ability.
Some traits remain stable, others change frequently
Aspects of ourselves like strengths, weaknesses, and values often tend to be fairly consistent over time. That said, they do change naturally and, of course, with awareness we can start consciously targeting these elements, for example by building reflective habits and goals. However, sometimes we might also want to be aware of things that vary faster such as our mood, or how we feel about something particular.
The questions and activities you can access from this page will help with awareness of both more stable traits such as strengths and weaknesses, and traits that vary more rapidly. They include simple check-in questions we can ask ourselves in the moment, and get us to think slightly differently about a problem.
Challenge your answers to remain reflective
One very important aspect of these types of activities and questions is that they lend themselves well to reflection, but don’t necessarily require a reflective approach. Therefore, to remain reflective it is important that you challenge your initial instincts and look for evidence – ask yourself ‘How do I know?’ and ‘Why?’ regularly.
Example activities and approaches for self-awareness
There are many ways to build self-awareness. The activities and questions available below are not exhaustive, but give you a place to start when trying to increase your self-awareness.
Strengths and weaknesses
Goal setting, writing letters to your future and past selves, items for self-awareness.
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What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)
- Tasha Eurich
Although most people believe that they are self-aware, true self-awareness is a rare quality. In this piece, the author describes a recent large-scale investigation that shed light on some of the biggest roadblocks, myths, and truths about what self-awareness really is — and what it takes to cultivate it. Specifically, the study found that there are actually two distinct types of self-awareness, that experience and power can hinder self-awareness, and that introspection doesn’t always make you more self-aware. Understanding these key points can help leaders learn to see themselves more clearly.
It’s not just about introspection.
Self-awareness seems to have become the latest management buzzword — and for good reason. Research suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we are more confident and more creative . We make sounder decisions , build stronger relationships , and communicate more effectively . We’re less likely to lie, cheat, and steal . We are better workers who get more promotions . And we’re more-effective leaders with more-satisfied employees and more-profitable companies .
As an organizational psychologist and executive coach, I’ve had a ringside seat to the power of leadership self-awareness for nearly 15 years. I’ve also seen how attainable this skill is. Yet, when I first began to delve into the research on self-awareness, I was surprised by the striking gap between the science and the practice of self-awareness. All things considered, we knew surprisingly little about improving this critical skill.
About Our Research
The major components of our research included:
- Analyzing the results of nearly 800 existing scientific studies to understand how previous researchers defined self-awareness, unearth themes and trends, and identify the limitations of these investigations.
- Surveying thousands of people across countries and industries to explore the relationship between self-awareness and several key attitudes and behaviors, like job satisfaction, empathy, happiness, and stress. We also surveyed those who knew these people well to determine the relationship between self and other ratings of self-awareness.
- Developing and validating a seven-factor, multi-rater assessment of self-awareness , because our review of the research didn’t identify any strong, well-validated, comprehensive measures.
- Conducting in-depth interviews with 50 people who’d dramatically improved their self-awareness to learn about the key actions that helped them get there, as well as their beliefs and practices. Our interviewees included entrepreneurs, professionals, executives, and even a Fortune 10 CEO. To be included in our study, participants had to clear four hurdles: 1) They had to see themselves as highly self-aware, which we measured using our validated assessment; 2) using that same assessment, someone who knew them well had to agree; 3) they had to believe they’d experienced an upward trend of self-awareness over the course of their life (each participant was asked to recall their level of self-awareness at different stages of their life up until the age they were currently (e.g., early adulthood: ages 19–24, adulthood: ages 25–34, midlife: ages 35–49, mature adulthood: ages 50–80); and 4) the person rating them had to agree with the participants’ recollections.
- Surveying hundreds of managers and their employees to learn more about the relationship between leadership self-awareness and employee attitudes like commitment, leadership effectiveness, and job satisfaction.
Coauthors on this work are: Haley M. Woznyj, Longwood University; Phoenix Van Wagoner, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado; Eric D. Heggestad, University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Apryl Brodersen, Metropolitan State University of Denver. We want to thank Dr. Stefanie Johnson for her contributions to our study as well.
Four years ago, my team of researchers and I embarked on a large-scale scientific study of self-awareness. In 10 separate investigations with nearly 5,000 participants, we examined what self-awareness really is, why we need it, and how we can increase it. (We are currently writing up our results for submission to an academic journal.)
Our research revealed many surprising roadblocks, myths, and truths about what self-awareness is and what it takes to improve it . We’ve found that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a truly rare quality: We estimate that only 10%–15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria. Three findings in particular stood out, and they are helping us develop practical guidance for how leaders can learn to see themselves more clearly.
[ 1 ] There Are Two Types of Self-Awareness
For the last 50 years, researchers have used varying definitions of self-awareness. For example, some see it as the ability to monitor our inner world, whereas others label it as a temporary state of self-consciousness . Still others describe it as the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us.
So before we could focus on how to improve self-awareness, we needed to synthesize these findings and create an overarching definition.
Across the studies we examined, two broad categories of self-awareness kept emerging. The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness , represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. We’ve found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression.
The second category, external self-awareness , means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.
It’s easy to assume that being high on one type of awareness would mean being high on the other. But our research has found virtually no relationship between them. As a result, we identify four leadership archetypes, each with a different set of opportunities to improve:
See more HBR charts in Data & Visuals
When it comes to internal and external self-awareness, it’s tempting to value one over the other. But leaders must actively work on both seeing themselves clearly and getting feedback to understand how others see them. The highly self-aware people we interviewed were actively focused on balancing the scale.
Take Jeremiah, a marketing manager. Early in his career, he focused primarily on internal self-awareness — for example, deciding to leave his career in accounting to pursue his passion for marketing. But when he had the chance to get candid feedback during a company training, he realized that he wasn’t focused enough on how he was showing up. Jeremiah has since placed an equal importance on both types of self-awareness, which he believes has helped him reach a new level of success and fulfillment.
The bottom line is that self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints. (If you’re interested in learning where you stand in each category, a free shortened version of our multi-rater self-awareness assessment is available here .)
[ 2 ] Experience and Power Hinder Self-Awareness
Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that people do not always learn from experience, that expertise does not help people root out false information , and that seeing ourselves as highly experienced can keep us from doing our homework, seeking disconfirming evidence, and questioning our assumptions.
And just as experience can lead to a false sense of confidence about our performance, it can also make us overconfident about our level of self-knowledge. For example, one study found that more-experienced managers were less accurate in assessing their leadership effectiveness compared with less experienced managers.
Similarly, the more power a leader holds, the more likely they are to overestimate their skills and abilities. One study of more than 3,600 leaders across a variety of roles and industries found that, relative to lower-level leaders, higher-level leaders more significantly overvalued their skills (compared with others’ perceptions). In fact, this pattern existed for 19 out of the 20 competencies the researchers measured, including emotional self-awareness, accurate self-assessment, empathy, trustworthiness, and leadership performance.
Even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10%—15% of the people we studied actually fit the criteria.
Researchers have proposed two primary explanations for this phenomenon. First, by virtue of their level, senior leaders simply have fewer people above them who can provide candid feedback. Second, the more power a leader wields, the less comfortable people will be to give them constructive feedback, for fear it will hurt their careers. Business professor James O’Toole has added that, as a leader’s power grows, their willingness to listen shrinks, either because they think they know more than their employees or because seeking feedback will come at a cost.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. One analysis showed that the most successful leaders, as rated by 360-degree reviews of leadership effectiveness, counteract this tendency by seeking frequent critical feedback (from bosses, peers, employees, their board, and so on). They become more self-aware in the process and come to be seen as more effective by others.
Likewise, in our interviews, we found that people who improved their external self-awareness did so by seeking out feedback from loving critics — that is, people who have their best interests in mind and are willing to tell them the truth. To ensure they don’t overreact or overcorrect based on one person’s opinion, they also gut-check difficult or surprising feedback with others.
[ 3 ] Introspection Doesn’t Always Improve Self-Awareness
It is also widely assumed that introspection — examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — improves self-awareness. After all, what better way to know ourselves than by reflecting on why we are the way we are?
Yet one of the most surprising findings of our research is that people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being. Other research has shown similar patterns.
The problem with introspection isn’t that it is categorically ineffective — it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly. To understand this, let’s look at arguably the most common introspective question: “Why?” We ask this when trying to understand our emotions ( Why do I like employee A so much more than employee B? ), or our behavior ( Why did I fly off the handle with that employee? ), or our attitudes ( Why am I so against this deal? ).
As it turns out, “why” is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong. For example, after an uncharacteristic outburst at an employee, a new manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because she isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a bad case of low blood sugar.
Consequently, the problem with asking why isn’t just how wrong we are, but how confident we are that we are right. The human mind rarely operates in a rational fashion, and our judgments are seldom free from bias. We tend to pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value, we ignore contradictory evidence, and we force our thoughts to conform to our initial explanations.
The problem with introspection isn’t that it is ineffective—it’s that most people are doing it incorrectly.
Another negative consequence of asking why — especially when trying to explain an undesired outcome — is that it invites unproductive negative thoughts. In our research, we’ve found that people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns. For example, if an employee who receives a bad performance review asks Why did I get such a bad rating? , they’re likely to land on an explanation focused on their fears, shortcomings, or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. (For this reason, frequent self-analyzers are more depressed and anxious and experience poorer well-being .)
So if why isn’t the right introspective question, is there a better one? My research team scoured hundreds of pages of interview transcripts with highly self-aware people to see if they approached introspection differently. Indeed, there was a clear pattern: Although the word “why” appeared fewer than 150 times, the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.
Therefore, to increase productive self-insight and decrease unproductive rumination, we should ask what , not why . “What” questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.
For example, consider Jose, an entertainment industry veteran we interviewed, who hated his job. Where many would have gotten stuck thinking “Why do I feel so terrible?,” he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” He realized that he’d never be happy in that career, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling one in wealth management.
Similarly, Robin, a customer service leader who was new to her job, needed to understand a piece of negative feedback she’d gotten from an employee. Instead of asking “Why did you say this about me?,” Robin inquired, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” This helped them move to solutions rather than focusing on the unproductive patterns of the past.
A final case is Paul, who told us about learning that the business he’d recently purchased was no longer profitable. At first, all he could ask himself was “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” But he quickly realized that he didn’t have the time or energy to beat himself up — he had to figure out what to do next. He started asking, “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?” He created a plan and was able to find creative ways to do as much good for others as possible while winding down the business. When all that was over, he challenged himself to articulate what he learned from the experience — his answer both helped him avoid similar mistakes in the future and helped others learn from them, too.
These qualitative findings have been bolstered by others’ quantitative research. In one study , psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann gave a group of undergraduates negative feedback on a test of their “sociability, likability and interestingness.” Some were given time to think about why they were the kind of person they were, while others were asked to think about what kind of person they were. When the researchers had them evaluate the accuracy of the feedback, the “why” students spent their energy rationalizing and denying what they’d learned, and the “what” students were more open to this new information and how they might learn from it. Hixon and Swann’s rather bold conclusion was that “Thinking about why one is the way one is may be no better than not thinking about one’s self at all.”
All of this brings us to conclude: Leaders who focus on building both internal and external self-awareness , who seek honest feedback from loving critics, and who ask what instead of why can learn to see themselves more clearly — and reap the many rewards that increased self-knowledge delivers. And no matter how much progress we make, there’s always more to learn. That’s one of the things that makes the journey to self-awareness so exciting.
- TE Tasha Eurich , PhD, is an organizational psychologist, researcher, and New York Times bestselling author. She is the principal of The Eurich Group, a boutique executive development firm that helps companies — from startups to the Fortune 100 — succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams. Her newest book, Insight , delves into the connection between self-awareness and success in the workplace.
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What Is Self-Awareness?
Development, Types, and How to Improve
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.
- How to Improve
Frequently asked questions.
Self-awareness is your ability to perceive and understand the things that make you who you are as an individual, including your personality, actions, values, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts. Essentially, it is a psychological state in which the self becomes the focus of attention .
While self-awareness is central to who you are, it is not something you are acutely focused on at every moment of every day. Instead, self-awareness becomes woven into the fabric of who you are and emerges at different points depending on the situation and your personality .
It is one of the first components of the self-concept to emerge. People are not born completely self-aware. Yet evidence suggests that infants do have a rudimentary sense of self-awareness.
Infants possess the awareness that they are separate beings from others, which is evidenced by behaviors such as the rooting reflex in which an infant searches for a nipple when something brushes against their face. Researchers have also found that even newborns are able to differentiate between self- and non-self touch.
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Studies have demonstrated that a more complex sense of self-awareness emerges around one year of age and becomes much more developed by approximately 18 months of age. Researchers Lewis and Brooks-Gunn performed studies looking at how self-awareness develops.
The researchers applied a red dot to an infant's nose and then held the child up to a mirror. Children who recognized themselves in the mirror would reach for their own noses rather than the reflection in the mirror, which indicated that they had at least some level of self-awareness.
Lewis and Brooks-Gunn found that almost no children under one year of age would reach for their own nose rather than the reflection in the mirror.
About 25% of the infants between 15 and 18 months reached for their own noses while about 70% of those between 21 and 24 months did so.
It is important to note that the Lewis and Brooks-Gunn study only indicates an infant's visual self-awareness; children might actually possess other forms of self-awareness even at this early point in life. For example, researchers Lewis, Sullivan, Stanger, and Weiss suggested that expressing emotions involves self-awareness as well as an ability to think about oneself in relation to other people.
Researchers have proposed that an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex located in the frontal lobe region plays an important role in developing self-awareness. Studies have also used brain imaging to show that this region becomes activated in adults who are self-aware.
The Lewis and Brooks-Gunn experiment suggests that self-awareness begins to emerge in children around the age of 18 months, an age that coincides with the rapid growth of spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex.
However, one study found that a patient retained self-awareness even with extensive damage to areas of the brain including the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.
This suggests that these areas of the brain are not required for most aspects of self-awareness and that awareness may instead arise from interactions distributed among brain networks.
Levels of Self-Awareness
So how exactly do children become aware of themselves as separate beings? One major theory of self-awareness, introduced by developmental psychologist Philippe Rochat, suggests that there are five levels of self-awareness. Children progress through these stages between birth and approximately age 4 or 5:
- Differentiation : A baby begins to acknowledge their own reflection. They may detect there is something different or special about looking at their reflection.
- Situation : A baby begins to recognize their own reflection, being, and movements as separate from those around them.
- Identification : This is the stage during which a child fully knows that it is their own reflection in a mirror. They know, "This is me ."
- Permanence : They have a complete sense of themselves and can identify themselves in pictures or videos, even as their appearance changes.
- Self-consciousness : A child adapts a third-person point of view of themselves; they become aware of the idea that others perceive them in certain ways. This may result in feelings such as pride or shame.
Types of Self-Awareness
Psychologists often break self-awareness down into two different types, either public or private.
This type emerges when people are aware of how they appear to others. Public self-awareness typically emerges in situations when people are at the center of attention.
This type of self-awareness often compels people to adhere to social norms . When we are aware that we are being watched and evaluated, we often try to behave in ways that are socially acceptable and desirable.
Public self-awareness can also lead to evaluation anxiety in which people become distressed, anxious, or worried about how they are perceived by others.
Public Self-Awareness Examples
You may experience public self-awareness in the workplace, when you're giving a big presentation. Or, you may experience it when telling a story to a group of friends.
This type happens when people become aware of some aspects of themselves, but only in a private way. For example, seeing your face in the mirror is a type of private self-awareness.
Private Self-Awareness Examples
Feeling your stomach lurch when you realize you forgot to study for an important test or feeling your heart flutter when you see someone you are attracted to are also examples of private self-awareness.
How to Improve Your Self-Awareness
So how do you grow self-awareness? There are many ways you can practice being present with yourself and your emotions, which, in turn, can help improve your self-awareness.
Meditation can be an especially useful practice because you don't have to worry about changing anything—simply noticing what happens during a meditation can bring greater awareness of your thoughts and feelings.
Maybe you notice that you hold tension in your body by clenching your jaw, for instance, or that you tend to worry so much about the future that it's hard to be in the present moment. This is all valuable information that can help you get to know yourself and your tendencies.
Journaling is a practice in self-reflection that can help you notice the ways in which you tend to think and behave, and even which areas in your life you may wish to improve. It can be a therapeutic way to gain insight into your life events and relationships.
During therapy—such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a therapist works with you to address negative thought patterns or behaviors.
By understanding the underlying cause of your negative thoughts, for instance, you're in a more advantageous position to change them and use healthy coping mechanisms instead.
Develop Your Emotional Intelligence
Self-awareness and emotional intelligence (EQ) go hand in hand. EQ refers to a person's ability to perceive their own emotions as well as the emotions of other people. Someone with a high EQ is able to effectively respond to emotions with empathy and compassion.
Of course, no one is perfect, and EQ is a skill like any other. But by learning to express your own emotions in a healthy way, and practicing active listening in your relationships, you're contributing to the expansion of your own self-awareness as well.
Sometimes, people can become overly self-aware and veer into what is known as self-consciousness. Have you ever felt like everyone was watching you, judging your actions, and waiting to see what you will do next? This heightened state of self-awareness can leave you feeling awkward and nervous in some instances.
In a lot of cases, these feelings of self-consciousness are only temporary and arise in situations when we are "in the spotlight." For some people, however, excessive self-consciousness can reflect a chronic condition such as social anxiety disorder .
While self-awareness plays a critical role in how we understand ourselves and how we relate to others and the world, excessive self-consciousness can result in challenges such as anxiety and stress .
If you struggle with self-consciousness, discuss your symptoms with a doctor or mental health professional to learn more about what you can do to cope with these feelings.
Being self-aware is all about having an understanding of your own thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, and actions. It means that you understand who you are, what you want, how you feel, and why you do the things that you do.
There are many different ways to think about self-awareness, but four keys that are often mentioned included mindfulness, self-compassion, reflection, and feedback.
Mindfulness allows people to become more aware of themselves in the present, while compassion allows them to do so without passing judgment on themselves. Reflection and feedback allow people to take what they have learned and improve themselves in order to achieve their goals and reach their full potential.
The five elements of self-awarenesses are:
- Consciousness : This means being aware of your internal experiences, including your emotions and thoughts.
- Self-knowledge : This element is focused on your understanding of who you are, including your beliefs, values, and motivations.
- Emotional intelligence : This element is focused on the ability to understand and manage emotions.
- Self-acceptance : This aspect is centered on accepting who you are and showing yourself compassion and kindness.
- Self-reflection : This element of self-awareness involves being able to think deeply about your feelings, thoughts, and goals in order to gain an even better understanding of who you are and your place in the world.
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Sutton A. Measuring the effects of self-awareness: Construction of the self-awareness outcomes questionnaire . Eur J Psychol . 2016;12(4):645-658. doi:10.5964/ejop.v12i4.1178
Xiao Q, Yue C, He W, Yu JY. The mindful self: A mindfulness-enlightened self-view . Front Psychol . 2017;8:1752. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01752
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."
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