Self-awareness is another one of those terms that gets thrown around quite a bit in the psychology world. So what exactly is it?

What is the meaning of self-awareness?

Self-awareness is a form of stepping back and observing your thoughts and feelings as they unfold. It can be as simple as noticing the emotions that you feel when you spend time with certain people or the thoughts that run through your head when you feel scared about trying something new. Or it can be a more complex, layered awareness of how your thoughts feed into your emotions, physical sensations and behaviours. For example, you might notice yourself feeling unmotivated about the day ahead. Your body might feel heavy and your energy low, which might lead you to lay in bed for longer than you intended, which then triggers off thoughts about how stuck you feel and how hard the day ahead is going to be.

Put simply, self-awareness is shining a light on the parts of your internal world that might otherwise get buried down, pushed aside or go unnoticed. Your “internal world” is just psycho-babble for your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and urges.

Awareness of these aspects of yourself is the first step to change and growth, which means self-awareness is a pathway to mental health awareness. After all, you can’t change what you don’t know about.

“There is nothing more important to true growth than realising you are not the voice of your mind – you are the one who hears it”. Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul.

Self-awareness takes courage

It’s brave and can often be confronting and uncomfortable. Sometimes you might even question why you decided this was a bright idea in the first place!

As the term suggests, at its core self-awareness involves shifting your attention away from what’s happening around you and onto yourself. So instead of focusing on what other people do and say – for example, “my partner doesn’t get it”, “my parents put too much pressure on me” or “my workplace is boring” – the emphasis is placed on how you think and feel. It’s a shift in focus from what’s happening around you, to what’s going on inside you.

You won’t always like what you find and that’s okay (and part of the point!)

You’ll discover new things about yourself when you step back and reflect. Some things you will like and some you won’t.

Living alongside our strengths, achievements and lighter side are our fears, inadequacies, regrets, failures and flaws. As you practise self-awareness you’re likely to tap into the more challenging, embarrassing, confusing and overwhelming parts of who you are. In fact, if you’re not occasionally thinking to yourself “wow, I wish I hadn’t done that” or “I really don’t like the way I spoke to that person then” you’re most likely hiding from some parts of yourself.

As you get to know these “darker” parts of yourself, your inner critic is likely to rise up and often a strong sense of shame can roll on in. The inner critic feeds off shame and can be a powerful force that shuts down our motivation to be self-aware. Learn more about the inner critic’s role.

Taking care of yourself is crucial

As you shine a light on parts of your internal world that feel uncomfy and confronting it’s absolutely essential that you counter this with self-care and self-compassion. Practising self-awareness without self-compassion is a recipe for feeling crappy about yourself. Remind yourself that self-awareness is not self-judgement. Honesty is key with self-awareness, but it seems to only be possible with a giant dose of self-compassion and self-care alongside.

It’s important to give some thought to how you will ground and calm yourself if you feel overwhelmed or unsettled by what you become aware of in this process. In fact, before embarking on the journey of self-awareness it’s usually a good idea to strengthen your skills in managing intense emotions. Find tips on managing the strong emotions that can come up here.

Contradictions are normal and human

One of the fascinating things about becoming more self-aware is realising how much contradiction exists within you. Your perspective on the world becomes less black and white. Suddenly you notice the grey that exists all around you.

For example, instead of only being in contact with all of the reasons that you love your parents, you might also find yourself being more honest about the parts of them that you struggle with and don’t like about them. Or you might notice yourself feeling excited and energised about an upcoming presentation at work, while also feeling scared and unmotivated. Initially you might feel guilty and confused when you notice yourself having such contradictory thoughts and feelings, but with time, this recognition actually seems to feel freeing.

Be aware of the part of you that doesn’t want to be self-aware

For most of us, there will be a part of us that pushes back against the idea of being more honest with yourself about you think and feel. This makes sense. Put simply, this is just our defence mechanisms in operation. This is our minds way of trying to protect us from getting in touch with things about ourselves that we don’t like, don’t want to admit to or that feel too painful or scary. Take your time with getting to know yourself in this way. Self-awareness is a lifelong practice and not something to be rushed and bulldozed through, particularly if you have a history of trauma. In fact, hurrying yourself through might lead you to pull back or even throw in the towel completely. Small, sustainable steps are key, and sometimes support and guidance from a professional is needed.

The role of self-awareness in therapy

The benefits of therapy are different for everyone. Regardless of the improvements and changes clients experience though, for most people increased self-awareness seems to be a core component of why therapy works, at least anecdotally. This makes sense because self-awareness is the launching pad for understanding ourselves and our relationships better, taking better care of our mental health and wellbeing, and living a life that feels fulfilling and expansive.

It’s an incredibly rewarding job, being a psychologist. One of the most satisfying moments in therapy is when a client starts to really feel into their self-awareness and use this knowledge to enhance their life. Self-awareness is one of those skills that seems to equip you for all of the challenges that lay ahead. It truly is a privilege to witness someone embracing all of the parts of who they are and to see the difference that this makes in their life. Self-awareness supports mental health awareness.

So how do you improve your self-awareness and mental health awareness?

This is a big question with an even bigger answer. The ways in which we can become more self-aware are endless. This post isn’t really a “how to” kind of post, it’s more an exploration of the concept of self-awareness, but some of the ways that we can enhance our self awareness are through journaling, meditation, mindfulness, breathing, speaking with people we trust, seeing a therapist, trying new things, through the arts, by paying attention to our dreams, through taking risks, by allowing ourselves to fail, by speaking up and by sitting in stillness.

A simple way to begin practising self-awareness is by regularly checking and asking yourself:

  • What am I feeling in my body right now?
  • What thoughts are running through my mind? What am I saying to myself?
  • What emotions are around?
  • What am I wanting to do or what am I doing as a consequence of how I think and feel?

Of course, it goes without saying that self-awareness and mental health awareness are not the sole ingredients for change and growth. There are many other factors needed for us to shift some of the challenges and ongoing patterns in our lives, but self-awareness seems to be the essential first step on this important path.

In the words of one of the great therapists, Carl Rogers, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change”.

Image from Erik Brolin via Unsplash.