The Inner Revolution is Here: Self-Awareness as Radically Disruptive
Self-awareness is not easy. I’m tempted to say that it’s especially difficult to be self aware in the Digital Age, but such claims always smack of hyperbole (“you kids with your fancy Internet, you’ll never know what it’s like to sit alone with your own thoughts”). “Okay Boomer” memes aside — all problems feel particular to us because we’re the ones experiencing them.
It’s easy to make social media the “bad guy” here. And while social media deserves some of the blame for feeding us “curated” lives that trigger FOMO and the toxic social comparisons that make us depressed, this isn’t the complete picture. I’m sure peasants, for instance, working the land of feudal lords also struggled with social comparison and depression.
For those of us living in the 21st century, 24/7 access to social media and all things digital might exaggerate the influence of the external world, but this isn’t what makes self-awareness especially difficult.
There are better reasons explaining why we humans shy away from self-awareness. I want to explore these reasons as well as ways to overcome these obstacles because I see self-awareness as the highest form of rebellion and we could all benefit from starting an inner revolution.
Obstacles to Self-Awareness
The obstacles to self-awareness fall into two categories: obstacles related to human nature and obstacles related to the systems we operate in. The inner revolution starts with recognizing these obstacles and consciously working to overcome them.
First, let’s look at the obstacles related to human nature:
1. Self-awareness doesn’t feel good. If you turn inward and look deep, there’s a good possibility that you won’t like what you see. One of the coping mechanisms we rely on is distracting ourselves from anything that doesn’t feel good. So when I realize I don’t like myself very much, I turn away and cling to my latest distraction. It could be drug and alcohol abuse, getting lost in social media, gaming, or watching Netflix, sex — almost anything external can distract us from looking within.
The antidote: Self-awareness needs to be BFFs with self-acceptance. When we can confidently look at our flaws and say to ourselves, “yep, I’m human too,” we no longer need to lean on these coping mechanisms and avoid self-awareness. But this requires self-acceptance. Self-awareness is the crack in the surface, but self-acceptance is the quartz in the middle of the geode.
2. From an evolutionary standpoint, turning inward might not seem beneficial. In a hunter-gatherer society, it pays to look outside of yourself, not only because you need to be alert to external dangers (like sabertooth tigers), but also because your survival depends on fitting in with your tribe.
In our society, fitting in matters too. The threats have evolved along with us and may be less urgent than those our ancestors had to worry about, but humans remain social by nature. Too often we associate self-awareness with being aloof or a loner, which is a real turnoff.
The antidote: Consider the distinction organizational psychologist, Tasha Eurich, makes in her brilliant book on self-awareness called Insight. She says self-awareness has both an internal and an external component. Those who are truly self aware both understand who they are and how others see them. It’s through strengthening both skills that we deepen relationships with others.
Next, let’s look at the obstacles related to the systems we operate in.
3. Our Capitalist society equates vulnerability with weakness. Vulnerability results from deep self-awareness. In certain circles, we’re starting to hear more praise for vulnerability (Brene Brown is at the forefront of this movement). But especially in male-dominated work spaces and in industries where hustling is a badge of honor, the default assumption is that vulnerability (and by association, self-awareness) is a sign of weakness.
Consider why we feel the need to post “curated” versions of our lives on social media and why, even when we know we’re getting a filtered version of the truth, we still play the social comparison game, which makes us feel sh*ty. It’s because we have internalized the external, Capitalist values of wealth, status, and competition.
The antidote: Come up with a list of your own values. Forget about what’s important to your parents, your partner, and your employer for a moment. What is most important to YOU? The next time you feel that urge to compare yourself to someone else, acknowledge that part of you and thank her for all that she has enabled you to achieve. Then, let go of that feeling and compare your behavior with your values.
4. The stigma around mental health is a huge obstacle to self-awareness. Related to the previous point about vulnerability being equated with weakness, when we admit to struggling with mental health, consciously or unconsciously, too many still see this as a personal failing. So again, we employ defense mechanisms to avoid checking in with our mental health or we hide the fact that we see a therapist or take medication for our anxiety.
The anxiety and depression we experience are related to the systems we operate within. Anxiety is baked into our lives in ways we can only truly begin to unravel through self-awareness. But until we are ready to have a transparent and public conversation around mental health, facing our own mental health challenges will feel like an act of rebellion.
The antidote: Examine your mental health through journaling or some other self-awareness activity. Talk openly about your mental health with your friends. Avoid passing judgment on others and keep safe lines of communication open. Shift your perspective from seeing mental health as an individual issue to seeing it as a collective issue.
5. The polarization of our society creates classes of winners and losers. America is the home of the free and the land of the brave. But too often we allow ourselves to be shackled in order to eek out a slightly bigger piece of the pie than our neighbors. Systems of oppression continue to force those who identify as BIPOC to swim with weights on.
We all respond to injustice in different ways. Some respond by taking power from others thinking it makes them more free. Others respond by finding power in giving (i.e., being infected by what Emily Nagoski calls “Human Giver Syndrome”). Both groups avoid self-awareness: the former because they are successful without it and the latter because thinking about others takes up all the mental space in their brains.
The antidote: Those of us with privilege need to publicly acknowledge that injustice for one is injustice for all. We need to examine the ways in which we ourselves are the oppressors and the ways in which we might be oppressed. Ultimately, we need to find a way to free ourselves from even the shackles we have willingly put on.
As Albert Camus says, “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Absolute liberation requires self-awareness. In other words, freedom lies on the other side of overcoming the obstacles related to human nature and the obstacles related to the systems we operate in.
Self-awareness is not easy. Sure, limiting social media might make it easier, but overcoming the obstacles above will take more than leaving Facebook and meditating every day. Self-awareness is an act of rebellion and the revolution is here. Will you be a part of it?
Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out your writer type with her Writer Profile Quiz.