4 Habits of Truly Self-Aware People

If you want to find happiness, find yourself first

Nick Wignall
Jan 11 · 7 min read
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Photo by Anastasia Shuraeva from Pexels

Most people think of self-awareness as a personality trait—something you either have or don’t. But the truth is there’s a lot we can do to become more self-aware…

Self-awareness is cultivated through positive habits.

If you can learn to implement them in your own life, self-awareness won’t be far behind.

1. Get curious about your own mind

Self-aware people tend to be curious about their own minds and how they work. They often think about their thoughts and thinking patterns.

Technically, this is called meta-cognition. It means you are aware of the fact that you’re thinking things and able to assess the quality and usefulness of that thinking.

For example, people often say things like:

I just got so worried and I couldn’t stop thinking of all the bad things that might happen. And before I knew it, I was in the middle of a panic attack.

In reality, worry is something you do, not something that happens to you. It’s a habitual pattern of thinking that leads to tremendous anxiety and stress. But without the habit of thinking about your thinking, it feels like something that just happens to you.

On the other hand, if you have the habit of thinking about your thinking, you’d notice that worry is actually an activity and something you do, however habitual. And as a result, it’s something you can, with practice, not do — or at least not do nearly so much of.

When you’re curious about your thoughts, it’s a lot easier to work with them instead of fighting against them.

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

― Carl Jung

2. Ask for feedback (and take it well)

People who are genuinely self-aware have the humility to understand that they can’t always see themselves objectively. And that often the best way to be more objective about yourself is through the lens of other people.

The trick here is that there is no trick:

If you want to see yourself through other people’s eyes you must ask.

It’s that simple.

  • Do you frequently get into conflict at work? Identify a co-worker whom you respect and ask for their honest opinion about the situation.
  • Does your spouse keep telling you that you don’t listen? Ask some else in your life you’re close to (parent, best friend, mentor) whether you can come across as not listening well.
  • Or maybe the situation is more general: Maybe you just feel a little dissatisfied with your life and suspect that it has something to do with you but you can’t put your finger on it. Look for someone in your life who knows you well and ask them if they see any patterns or tendencies that could be a cause.

What gets in the way of most of us asking for feedback is that we’re afraid of getting bad news.

The most direct way through this fear is to ask yourself straight-up:

Would I rather have a small but intense blast of criticism now or years and decades of nagging self-doubt and underhanded criticism that comes from avoiding facing my shortcomings?

But even if you steel yourself and decide to ask for honest feedback, you have to be ready to take it well.

Taking feedback well means managing your defensiveness.

No matter how self-aware you think you are, getting criticism always hurts. And anytime we get hurt , we tend to do one of two things: fight or flee. Either we try to overwhelm our own painful feeling by making the other person look bad (fight) or we dismiss their feedback out of hand as invalid (flee).

In either case, we’re doing ourselves a double disservice:

  1. You’re not really thinking about and absorbing the feedback. And if you’re not doing that, well, what’s the point!
  2. When you get defensive, you teach other people that you can’t take criticism well. This means that in the future when there’s a piece of feedback you really need, people in your life are more likely to either withhold that feedback or lie and say something to make you feel better because they’re afraid of you getting defensive.

One of the best ways to improve your self-awareness is to get objective feedback from other people. But in order to do this, you must be willing to tolerate the discomfort of receiving criticism and work to avoid defensiveness at all costs.

“You can’t achieve excellence in life if you fear opinion.”

Janna Cachola

3. Observe your emotions without judgment

I’m always surprised at how judgmental people are with themselves, especially for something they have no direct control over — their emotions.

It doesn’t make any sense to pass moral judgment on something you can’t control. This is why in the legal system no one gets sent to prison for feeling really angry; you only get convicted and punished if you act on that feeling in a way that harms others. You can’t control your emotions, only your actions.

So we all know intellectually that judging ourselves for how we feel doesn’t make any sense. And yet, we still do it constantly:

  • We tell ourselves we’re bad for feeling angry.
  • We criticize ourselves for feeling anxious instead of confident.
  • We judge ourselves as weak because we feel sad and hopeless instead of optimistic.

You wouldn’t judge other people for having brown hair, green eyes, or an alcoholic father because none of those thing are under their control. So why are you judging yourself for how you feel when it’s not something you can control?!

But being judgmental of your own emotions doesn’t just not make sense, it obscures your self-awareness.

If you’re constantly judging your emotions you won’t have any energy left to understand them.

The solution is to learn to observe your emotions and notice them without passing judgment on them.

Good scientists know that before you start creating theories and running experiments, it’s important to carefully observe things. Similarly, before you rush to start judging yourself for how you feel, try observing those feelings instead.

The best way to get started with this is to practice labeling your emotions with simple, plain language.

Anytime you feel upset, instead of avoiding the feeling or glossing over it with vague language like “I’m stressed” or “I’m overwhelmed,” try describing how you feel like a child would:

  • I’m angry.
  • I feel afraid.
  • I’m sad.
  • I feel guilty.
  • I’m lonely.
  • I feel proud of myself.

When you get in the habit of describing your emotions in plain, ordinary language — rather than intellectualizing them — you’ll find that you have a clearer insight into those emotions and how to respond to them in a healthy way.

“You’ve been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”

Louise Hay

4. Be realistic with your expectations

The trouble with expectations is that we assume they’re doing one job when really they’re doing a very different one.

See, most people assume that expectations are a way to foster growth and achievement:

  • Having high expectations for our employees encourages them to work hard and do high-quality work.
  • Having high expectations for our children academically encourages them to do well in school and be successful at work.
  • And of course, setting great expectations for ourselves leads to personal growth and self-improvement.

But most of the time, we’re actually using high expectations as a way to soothe our own anxieties and insecurities.

Here’s how it works:

  • Most people hate uncertainty. The idea that their kids won’t be successful and happy, for example, fills them with anxiety and dread.
  • But, because they can’t actually control their kid’s academic success, they settle for the next best thing: expecting those things to happen.
  • When you create an expectation in your head — which is really just you imagining the thing you want to be true — it temporarily alleviates some of that anxiety and uncertainty. It makes you feel just a little more in control and a little more certain that things will go well.
  • But in reality, your expectations are merely fictions you’ve spun up in your own mind. And often, they’re not based on much evidence. Which means, these expectations are likely to be violated frequently — the result being a lot of stress and frustration on your part. And what’s more, it interferes with your ability to really understand yourself, especially your anxieties and insecurties.

Expectations are often unconscious defense mechanisms we use to alleviate anxiety.

Not only is this a recipe for chronic stress and disappointment on your part, but it’s also a form of denial. And you can’t be self-aware if you’re living in denial.

Expectations have their place. But they very easily run wild and start impairing your self-awareness if you’re not careful.

If you want to be more self-aware, get in the habit of checking in on your expectations and making sure they aren’t too far outside of reality.

“The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.”

Michel de Montaigne

All You Need to Know

You can cultivate greater self-awareness by committing to positive habits:

  • Get curious about your own mind
  • Ask for feedback (and take it well)
  • Observe your emotions without judgment
  • Be realistic with your expectations

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