“Each relationship you have with another person reflects the relationship you have with yourself.”

~Alice Deville

Self Awareness

By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling

“Seeking happiness outside ourselves is like waiting for sunshine in a cave facing north.”
~Tibetan saying

Self-awareness is vital to personal freedom and contentment. Paradoxically, a self aware person will understand this but an un-self aware person may not. How self aware are you?

Many people live an unhappy, painful or destructive life – unnecessarily. Somewhere in their mind is a collection of beliefs that they are helpless against the forces in their world or they are just less deserving than others. Outside of the true inequities such as prejudice; ignorance; the various ‘isms’; and living in war-torn or oppressive states most of us here in North America have a great deal of choices and power. The only thing preventing our happiness is our lack of consciousness of ourselves and our belief system. This ‘lack’ becomes a psychological prison.

“Knowing others is wisdom,
knowing yourself is enlightenment.”
~ Lao Tzu

First off, let us not confuse self-awareness with self-criticism. Criticism isn’t insight. At best you could say that you know what you dislike about yourself. There are some people who can recite a plethora of mental health acronyms like symbols on the periodic table. Diagnoses were intended as a tool for planning treatment, not a sentence. Merely labeling yourself in some way, even if it is diagnostically correct, is not self awareness. It’s like knowing my name is Cindy and introducing myself as such and believing that is all there is to me. It’s an incomplete idea that only describes the title – not the book. Understanding the cause and result of those so-called weaknesses and making conscious choices around them is greater awareness. Carl Rogers (one of the founders of the humanistic approach in psychology) believed that diagnosis is detrimental because it tends to pull people away from an internal and subjective way of experiencing themselves and instead encourages an objective and external conception of themselves.

What is self-awareness?

“The word intimacy comes from a Latin root that means innermost.”
~ Susan Wittig Albert

In its essence it is the knowing of what we do, think and feel; the choices we make and how these things impact us and the world around us. It is consciousness and an exploration of the unconscious. It is the ability to see oneself holistically. It is awareness of our own individuality.

The dark side of unaware-ness

It can be difficult to see ourselves. We see and have our beliefs about the world around us but we can be sightless to our own role in that world. It is hard for us to see our own self – especially in the dark places of our subconscious we don’t even know are there. As Ayn Rand said, ‘we see the world as we are’. And it is so true. How can we see anything else? It might seem impossible to see the world or yourself any other way than the one you possess now. Self-awareness can be akin to trying to determine your own eye colour by simply looking out of your eyes.

There are those who have made themselves into a series of reactive behaviour patterns: deciding to go against the grain of their upbringing rather than choose a path of their own. They live the life of a perpetual rebel. They eat junk food, smoke, and live recklessly all to make a point of living against something rather than choosing their own life and living for something. Alternatively, they may never drink or smoke or live recklessly but for the same rebellious reasons. They don’t carve out an existence of their own choosing. Good for you if you challenge rules but then what? A man felt he was entitled to a raise to keep on par with the wages of a more senior coworker who he believed was doing inferior work. The supervisor didn’t oblige so this man decided to also do sub-par work from then on. What possible good can come of this? This individual was clearly not aware of the choice he was making and its impact on his future. Sure he wanted to protest and feel empowered so he took action… but was it productive for him? Was it leading to a better career? Improved satisfaction at work? A good reputation? Or even to get the raise he sought? Often people don’t see how our incessant patterns and choices are keeping us mired in difficult places.

“You can live a lifetime and, at the end of it, know more about other people than you know about yourself.”
~Beryl Markham 

Consider how many people are forever living with misery or bitterness: hanging on to some deep rooted resentment at the world, family, work, the boss, their bodies, or even their own life. Underneath there may be a profound sense of powerlessness holding them prisoner. To regain a sense of power, albeit false, they blame some outside source and relinquish themselves of all responsibility for change. The consequences? No change. No personal empowerment.

I am worthless. I don’t fit in. I’m strange. Nobody cares about me. People will only hurt me – they can’t be trusted. I’m unattractive. I’m too old. I’m crazy. I’m broken. My feelings are wrong – I shouldn’t talk about them. I don’t make enough money. I don’t know what to say. If people found out who I really was they’d hate me. To a certain degree we all experience a little of these from time to time. It is argued that this is innately part of the human experience. Many of us have these messages bubbling on the back burner of our mind and live our lives accordingly – guarded, hurt, masked, distant, defended, afraid, anxious, fluctuating between being too close and too far, never speaking our hearts, disingenuous, feeling alone and ashamed. It doesn’t need to be this way. You can raise these messages to your awareness and challenge them. Or you can stay the same. It’s a choice you make.

The perpetual procrastinator, the relentless perfectionist, the emotionally detached, the fearful recluse, the critical judge, the shameless discriminator, the vile hater, the disdainful belittler, the helpless addict, the demanding controller, the unaccountable liar, the ever evasive, the disrespectful intruder, the hurtful gossip, the closed denier, the hapless victim, the lazily uninformed, the unnecessarily stuck, the childishly immature, the callously insensitive, the hurtfully cruel, the petty thief, the aggressively vengeful, the distrustfully paranoid, the violently angry, the blameless blamer, the selfish manipulator … etc. etc. etc. You can probably think of a few to add to this list. The self-effacing, self aware people can see how they may have embodied these roles in their lifetime. It’s the unaware who exemplify these roles and are sadly oblivious to the associated misery and impact on the world around them.

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
~Virginia Woolf

There are many well-intended, but not self-aware, individuals who also cause harm involuntarily. These are the folks who do not express themselves openly for fear of hurting others and only end up doubly hurting people who have later found out their true feelings. They leave a trail of jilted friends, lovers, and coworkers. There are the over-caretaking friends who spread themselves too thinly, trying to please everybody but instead letting down everyone. They are the ones who say yes when they mean no and when discovered find themselves surrounded by fuming, angry people who feel disrespected, hurt, and distrusted. They issue saccharine compliments and false reassurances which break and burn bridges in many relationships all the while wondering, “Why?” they’ve been so ‘nice’! They avoid confrontations and try to keep the peace at any cost which results in the stagnancy and eventual death of many associations. There is no flow of exchange, no genuine expression and no respect for anyone’s ability to deal with challenging interactions. Relationships tend to wither and die or the well-intended are often consumed with depression or anxieties. The life of a people-pleaser is not a rewarding one.

The emotionally disconnected, personally unaccountable or perpetual blamers are a pretty common group of unaware individuals. At its extreme, such people bring about great pain to the lives of others. No matter how much we protest, flail, raise a raucous, kick and scream, they will not relent or respond or offer us softness or a wee bit of give. They are the unapologetic, hidden coffee table corners in the dark of night waiting to crush our tender little toes.

How do you become self aware?

Talking to friends or professionals can help reveal things you might not have seen. Self awareness requires knowledge which can be obtained from books, teachers, guides, and coaches – anyone who helps others. Reflect on feedback to see if it is possible and fits in with your value system or sense of self.
Test your beliefs for reality. You can take action to help yourself and change negative, limiting mindsets. Journal about them: the act of putting thoughts to paper sometimes elicits logic or even cathartic release. Journaling about yourself, your thoughts, feelings and reflections on why you feel and behave as you do can shed light on who you are.

Self awareness means seeing oneself very clearly. It means becoming aware of the choices and consequences you are choosing every second of every day. It means becoming aware that you have the ability to make these choices deliberately and with consciousness.

“Each relationship you have with
another person reflects the relationship
you have with yourself.”
~Alice Deville

Self-awareness is not found in television, video games, the internet, drinking or drugs. It is not found in leading a life of bitterness, resentment and resistance – which is more like catching an angry bee in a cup with no where to let it go. What choices are you making and where are those choices taking you?
I think a great deal of “mid-life crisis” is about times when people do “wake up” and look around them and question their entire life: What have I done? Where am I going? What do I have to show for my life? What about family? Money? Future? Who am I? What gives me meaning? What gives me joy? What am I interested in? What kind of people do I choose for friends and what does that say about me? Sometimes a ‘life crisis’ can be a great catalyst for positive change.

How would people describe you as a friend, lover, coworker, leader, or citizen? Are you a dreamer? What habits do you have that get in your way? What is holding you back from changing them? Are you waiting to be rescued or for someone else to solve your problems? Are you aware of your own assumptions and tendencies?

Review what is important to you in life. Do you do things for love or money? What do you value and respect in yourself and others? Are you choosing your own values? Do you live by those? Do they only apply to others or you? Are you living your life in accordance with those values? Do you have double standards? Are you living your life to have material goods or happiness? Or both? What makes you content? Do you seek that as a staple in your life? Do you believe you deserve these things? Why or why not? What kind of legacy are you leaving?

Why shouldn’t you be self-aware?

“The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness.”
~(the character) Annie Savoy in the film Bull Durham

Knowing yourself sometimes means admitting things that you have to change. You may not want to change because it’s hard and sometimes painful. Sometimes it seems easier to just excuse ourselves from personal accountability. Self awareness requires courage and honesty.

Why should you be self aware?

“He who finds himself, loses his misery.”
~Matthew Arnold

The more self aware you are the more you realize why you feel what you feel and behave as you behave. When you’re self aware, you make choices that are in line with your true self and make you happier.

The more self aware you are the freer and better able you are to accept or change things about yourself. Self understanding gives you the freedom to choose the life you want. The less self aware you are, the more susceptible you are to outside forces or subconscious beliefs to shape your life. It is a prerequisite for effective communication and interpersonal relations, as well as for developing empathy for others. With self-awareness, we know what we want and what we don’t want – and from that, there is a greater likelihood of achieving happiness and, dare I say, becoming a better person.

“Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness.”
~James Thurber 

If you wish to copy this material to other publications please ask for permission by writing cindy@mycounsellor.ca.
Thanks for your friendship.

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