This is a blog in “The skill of living a fulfilling and happy life” series of blog posts. Check out the link above for a summary as well as links to the other posts in the series.
Self-awareness is where the road to a fulfilling and happy life starts. Without a high-degree of it, you will not be able to identify what is truly the cause of your behaviours, reactions or problems and what is just your mind playing games with you. Without it you will be stuck fixing the symptoms, rather than the root cause, and you will not be able to create long lasting change in your life that really aligns with your values and your personality.
Before I continue talking about self-awareness I first want to take some time to talk about the distinction between it and being self-conscious. Being self-conscious has a negative connotation in our society. Self-consciousness comes from a place of nervousness and anxiety. It comes from a place of your ego. Self-awareness on the other hand is the process of being aware of your ego and observing it as an outsider, detached from the emotion. My dear friend Habibi has a beautifully poetic post about the difference between the two.
Self-awareness is a process by which you learn about yourself and that is the important bit in learning the skill of living a happy and fulfilling life. What self-awareness allows you to do is notice things about yourself and act on them in a positive way without judgement. It’s being aware of the motivations behind your actions, the causes behind your emotions, the beliefs behind your self-sabotaging actions or the triggers to emotional responses. Being aware of yourself is being present with yourself so that you can address what is going on with you right now and act in the present rather then letting your baggage dictate your reactions. It’s being in tune with your inner self. Being aware is also what puts you in the present. Why is that important? Lao Tzu said it brilliantly:
If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
If you are at peace you are living in the present.
Self-awareness is an act of slowing down in your body, in your mind, in your emotions and in your spirit. It’s the act of letting there be space so that repressed beliefs, traumas, thoughts and emotions can emerge. It is a practice of questioning yourself: “Why did I react the way I did? Why did I make this decision? Why is this important to me?”. In this way you can act in life from your present state, rather than going through life on autopilot, that is faulty and is still flying on the old route.
When you slow down and cast your mind inwards you can start noticing what your values are; what your drivers are; what your conditionings and patterns are; what self-sabotaging behaviour you engage in; what habits you have that might be limiting your own progress.
One important aspect of self-awareness to note is that it is an ever evolving skill. In that sense our own minds are like onions — there are layers upon layers of it. Once you become aware of one aspect of yourself you will peel away another layer to uncover something else that is equally as fascinating. And the more you uncover those layers the closer you get to your own core and to your own source of power and happiness. It is an endlessly fascinating journey that I am still travelling myself and will probably continue to travel until the day I die.
Sometimes on your journey of self-discovery you might come across unpleasant parts, be it trauma, or a particular habit you find difficult to break, or a trait that you didn’t realise you’ve had. Sometimes you might just get stuck and can’t seem to find a way out on your own. This is absolutely part of the process and it requires you to get help from others — usually in the form of either therapy, coaching, mentoring or group work. There are a lot of resources available out there that can help you on your path and you will most likely need to engage in some or all of the above mentioned kinds of support. Learning when to seek out help is also a very important part of the process and one where awareness also helps.
So how do you develop your awareness of self? The easiest way to do it by yourself is to practice meditation or mindfulness. One exercise that I used to do myself was to comment on what was happening to me as it was happening to me. It is very important to do so without judgement. For example, if I was on my way to a meeting and there was a delay on my journey, I would get upset and stressed. In those moments I would just acknowledge to myself that I am feeling stressed. I wouldn’t do anything with that acknowledgement, I would just say to myself: “I am stressed.”. Funny thing is just by admitting that to myself somehow I became less stressed. At first this is hard to do, as when you are in the midst of a reaction to an event it can be very difficult to distance yourself from the reaction and look at it as an outsider; but the more you practice, the easier it will become.
Another way of practicing awareness is by taking a moment in your day, any random moment will do, where you connect with yourself, breathe and notice. At first, just take a couple of deep breaths, focusing on the sensations in your body, especially your chest and your nostrils, as the air comes in and out of you. Notice how your body is feeling. Are there any aches or pains? Are you comfortable? What are the thoughts that are running through your head? What is the environment around you like? What are some of the sounds or smells around you? This is a very easy practice to do, it requires very little time but it allows you to train your self-awareness muscle.
Another great way to practice this particular skill is with good old-fashioned journaling. There are a lot of resources on how to do journaling; here is an example. The important part is that you journal about things you wouldn’t necessarily tell other people and to maintain a curiosity about yourself.
If you want to practice right now, tell me one thing that you notice about your inner world right this moment.