Self-awareness is a tricky thing to learn. In my unscientific experience, everyone has a level of self-awareness about themselves which stops at a certain point. Without consistent attention, the only way to understand yourself better often comes from interventions from others.
This is not a good way to learn, because it normally results in some emotional harm for yourself or for others. It will happen – as humans we are not perfect and are prone to constant mistake – but whatever we can do to mitigate this and learn about ourselves unilaterally the better.
When it comes to self-awareness, there are two key aspects which must be kept in mind:
- Self-awareness is not about self-criticism.
I won’t get into a debate about nature vs nurture now, but everyone was shaped by things outside of their control both due to their DNA and their environment. It is therefore unfair to criticise yourself for character traits or habits that are outside of your control, particularly when they came from particularly bad experiences in childhood. Once recognised, however, it is then within your power to do something. That’s not to say it will suddenly be a quick fix (in fact, due to it being something from childhood, it will normally take a long time to change). But not to at least be on the path to fixing it is wrong.
2. Self-awareness is not about overthinking
The issue with being too aware of yourself is that you overthink every decision, or every act. This will either cause you to take no action, to take the wrong action, or to be too late in taking the right action. It will also cause you a lot of grief and a loss of confidence as you try to understand yourself in an unnecessarily deep way. Humans are complicated for sure, but overthinking is not the cure for overcoming your bad habits because your trying to change the way your brain thinks. Taking on entirely new habits and modes of thinking requires an open mind, and that’s what will cause you to overthink. Both because you don’t necessarily know what you are doing, and because your brain fears new experiences, overthinking is something you’ll battle with. Knowing that it will happen, just let it wash over you (easier said than done) and carry on with the plan you made beforehand.
With that in mind, here’s my recommended steps for realising what your bad habits are:
- Work out what good characteristic you want to develop. Depending on where you are in your life, this will vary wildly. Something either social (making new friends) or something skill based (getting to a moderate-level knowledge of a language) are classic ideas, but base it under what you’re trying to develop yourself into
- Talk yourself out of it – let all those voices in your head tell you why you can’t do it. Make a note of all of those reasons down
- Now do the opposite – list all the reasons why you have what it takes to complete the task you’ve given yourself. Depending on your level of self-confidence and the complexity of the task, this may take a length of time. Give yourself the time do it properly.
- Systematically go through each of the negatives and try to figure out which ones are actually true, and which ones are false and just your brain being afraid of new actions. Use your positive list to help out here
- For those which you say are true, now come up with a set of actions for each that would prove them untrue. You may need to start very granular – if you think you’re a bit of a grumpy arsehole, then going to party with nobody you know is not a good start. But smiling and wishing good morning to people as you walk through town is a good start, and will begin the process of changing the beliefs you hold about yourself
- Of course, it’s just not about new habits – you need to get rid of the bad ones too. Refer to my previous article for advice on this
Over time, you’ll develop a more nuanced understanding of yourself. It’s also really important to know where some of these characteristics of yourself developed from. You may be able to recognise it yourself, but here also is where a psychiatrist can be a great help. It’s very important that you don’t misdiagnose where your approach to life has come through, and certainly that you don’t blame others if they turn out to be the source. You’re trying to rid yourself of bad behaviours, not create new ones.
My personal reckoning came when I had been working in my first job for about two years. Without realising it, I had become a massive arsehole – I was constantly stressed, aggressive to colleagues, friends and family, but also internally massively struggling and hating myself. I pinned the blame on everyone else around me, but that didn’t cure anything.
Luckily, someone new joined the team – someone who didn’t take my shit, but also didn’t leave me to just be an arsehole. He told me straight and it changed my whole outlook. I built a way out of the job, fixed friendships, fixed my self-confidence and am in a completely different place in my life now two years on. I wish I had the self-awareness at that point to have recognised what was happening to me before I got to that point, but as I said earlier none of us are perfect.
I am going to use the next article to start talking about how you can work out a bit of a rough idea of who you want to be, so you can start removing those bad habits that prevent you from getting there.