Self-Awareness Primer: What It Is, How to Get It

Daniel Goleman has a new short article up about self-awareness. It’s good stuff, but as is the case with many books and articles about EQ, it tells us that self-awareness is important, and then leaves us short on exactly what it is and how to get it.


What It Is, And Why It’s Important

So here’s a short, practical definition of self-awareness. When you are self-aware, you are able to bring your attention to:

  • your thoughts
  • your emotions
  • your body

That’s it. The whole of it. I mean, I could spin it out to book length (god knows, I wouldn’t be the first one), but really, that’s it.

This is why it’s important:

You are in the midst of a conversation about a new feature. Let’s say you’re the engineering lead, and your conversation, which has turned into an argument, is with the product manager. She wants it in the next release. You think it’s a waste of resources. You are both now deep into a confrontation.

Without self-awareness, it’s likely that you’ll allow your emotion to take over your side of the conversation. Maybe you’ll yell. Maybe you’ll freeze and sulk. Whatever your response, it will be conditioned by deeply entrenched patterns of behavior you have developed from every relationship you’ve ever had going back to your parents. And it won’t help you or the product manager, or get anywhere nearer resolving the issue.

You will be reacting unconsciously. If the conversation is a bus, you are not a driver, co-driver or navigator. You are in the back seats, feeling uncomfortable.

If your self-awareness was turned on, you might be able to see:

  • your thoughts: “she’s an idiot”, “I’m always getting shot down”, “this company doesn’t value engineering judgement”. Are these true? You really have no idea — you’re just thinking them.
  • your emotions: frustration, with some fear going towards anger. Is this useful? No. But you have no control. You don’t even know it’s happening.
  • your body: chest is tight, face is clenched, arms are crossed hard. You think you are being intense and controlled. You look like you’re about to charge an oversized bear who has just wandered into your cave. It’s not helping your position.

If you could see those states, which are, in fact, your “self”, then you could perhaps start to take a conscious, careful and eventually wise course of action.


How To Get It

Pay attention. That’s the whole of how to become self-aware.

Our attention is one of our super-powers as humans. The situations, problems, issues, people and relationships we apply our attention to become more deeply understood, more intensely ours, more tractable. We become conscious of the realities of the object of our attention, and having become conscious, can apply that other wonder of our human brain — our logic, our ability to reason.

Paying attention is an act of discipline and will, and if self-awareness is knowledge of our thoughts, emotions and the body, then developing self-awareness is a matter of having the skill to direct our attention, our full attention, to those fundamentals of the self.

So how do we do that?

Answer: learn mindfulness meditation. It’s that direct. Mindfulness meditation is a multi-thousand year old discipline of directing and holding the attention so we see how our thoughts, emotions and bodily states ebb and flow, endlessly changing.

Yes, it helps make you calmer. But that’s not the point. It may make you more efficient, but that’s not the point. It will help you with decisions — not the point, either. The point is to develop the ability to focus a conscious, unwavering beam of attention on the reality of the present moment.

So find an app. Do an online course. Start with a very short “Dummies” article (it’s here). Go to a retreat. Establish a practice. Watch your thoughts, your emotions, your reactions to bodily states. Do it every day. Start with five minutes. Get up to twenty. Then thirty. Then do it every day for the rest of your life.

That’s how you develop self-awareness.

Mindfulness mediation is the straight-forward, rigorous way of developing self-awareness, which, as Goleman points out, is the foundation of Emotional Intelligence. (To be clear: Daniel Goleman is an advocate of mindfulness training, has been for decades, and has his own attention training course here. I’m just trying to be more straight-forward about bringing all this to, well, your attention).


Going Deeper

As you develop self-awareness of your thoughts, emotions and body over time, you will start to notice something interesting: patterns.

You will notice that you react to people and situations in predictable ways. But you react so fast, so incredibly fast, that until you started becoming self-aware you didn’t even know you were doing it.

Your thoughts, emotions and body will lock into a response before you have time to think — absolutely literally, the “lock” will occur before any awareness of the situation reaches your rational brain.

Some of these are trivial: you like to stand up when you drink tea. Or you always slouch, just a little, when your boss starts a meeting (something to do with your Mom? a little rebellion? I have no idea — your call). Some of these are more interesting: it took me about ten years in the tech business to realize that I tended to work for short, intense male founders with dark hair and huge ideas that they didn’t know how to realize. They would pontificate, and I would manage the work so it got done. Yes, I was rescuing my Dad, over and over. True story!

The more you see your patterns, the more you are free of them and the more you can approach your life consciously, as yourself.


Yeah But I Don’t Have Time.

Well you do, but I hear you, we live in fast times.

So here’s a short-cut to get you a little part of the way there. Next time you’re starting to get into a stressful situation (late night coding gone wrong, boss looking at you the wrong way in a meeting, starting to get frustrated in a conversation), do the following:

  • stop. For the love of God, stop. Stop talking, walking, coding, writing, just stop.
  • breath. Yeah, but like this: sit up straight, with your head reaching for the ceiling. Take a big, big breath — three seconds in. Roll your shoulders up and back, and exhale.
  • breath again. No, not like that, I mean slowly — three seconds in etc etc.
  • check what you’re thinking. Check if it’s true (“I’m an idiot” — true? not at all true? a bit true? check it out — the truth will set you free).
  • check what your body feels like — where is the tension? gone yet? breath some more.

That’ll get you going.

Meanwhile, yeah, find a mindfulness practice. It works.

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