To many of us, self-awareness is like a mythical unicorn:
Sometimes we catch fleeting glimpses of it. But as soon as we’ve spotted it, it vanishes into thin air.
What is this mysterious quality that we think we possess, but actually rarely do? Most importantly, WHY is self-awareness so important?
Being self-aware is an essential part of the spiritual journey. In fact, without this fundamental quality, there can be no hope of spiritual or psychological growth. Self-awareness is the very first stepping stone towards expanded consciousness and experiences such as:
- Deeper self-understanding
- More self-compassion
- Increased love for others
I’ll explore the many benefits later …
But in the meantime, let’s attempt to paint a picture of this magical and oh-so-sly unicorn.
Table of contents
Self-awareness is the ability to introspect and be aware of your own thoughts, feelings, impulses, physical sensations, and behaviors. At a basic level, self-awareness is the ability to pay attention to who you are and what makes you tick. At more complex levels, self-awareness involves developing an understanding of your deeper beliefs, inner wounds, mental and emotional defense mechanisms, and repressed unconscious material – also known as self-understanding.
So what’s the difference between self-understanding and self-awareness?
Quite simply, self-awareness is recognizing your inner landscape. On the other hand, self-understanding is using that self-awareness to figure out something about yourself. Do you see the subtle difference?
What about self-awareness and consciousness … are they the same thing?
No. They aren’t. The difference between humans and most animals is that humans possess both self-awareness and consciousness, while most animals only possess instinctual consciousness. According to one Scientific American article, “Consciousness is awareness of one’s body and one’s environment; self-awareness is recognition of that consciousness.” In other words, consciousness is an external focus, while self-awareness is an internal focus.
Intellectually understanding self-awareness is all fine and dandy. But let’s go to the next level. What does self-awareness actually look like in action? Here are some self-awareness examples:
Angela keeps falling into toxic relationships with unavailable men. Finally, after her fifth failed relationship she has a revelation, “some unhealed part of me is attracting these men into my life.” She has experienced a moment of self-awareness.
Daniel has a weight issue that has caused diabetes. After coming back from work each day he goes on a massive food binge. Suddenly, while cramming a jammy doughnut into his mouth he realizes, “I always binge eat after coming back from work. Work must really stress me out.” He has had a moment of self-awareness.
Patricia struggles to make genuine connections with others – she also has an addiction to talking about people behind their backs. In the middle of a conversation with her no-nonsense work partner, the conversations come to a halt. “Why are you always gossiping about other people, Patricia?” Suddenly, a lightbulb goes off within Patricia’s head and she realizes why she can’t make genuine friends. She has temporarily become self-aware.
Rahul can’t stand his father in law, but he isn’t aware of it. His wife wants him to go to a fancy dinner with her family, but he adamantly refuses. “You won’t go!? I can’t believe this!” screams Rahul’s wife as she storms out and slams the door. Rahul stands there quietly and suddenly realizes how much he dislikes his wife’s father. He has had a spark of self-awareness.
Jayla constantly gets into arguments with other people. She thinks it’s because others are out to get her, but she doesn’t realize how poor her communication skills are. After interrupting her sister for the twentieth time, her sister explodes. “Why do you keep fucking interrupting me, Jayla? Just let me TALK already. It’s no wonder you’re constantly arguing with everyone – they can’t stand talking to you! Show some damn respect and let other people talk for once.” Jayla bursts into tears, realizing the harsh truth behind her sister’s words. She has experienced self-awareness.
Lebron has been in the dating game for years, but still hasn’t found “the one.” In the middle of a bout of depression, he realizes he has only been chasing after the girls his parents approve of. He has experienced a moment of self-awareness. On the next date he goes on, he decides to listen to his instincts rather than the voices of his parents in his head. After a few more dates he finds his soulmate thanks to listening to his intuition. His life has changed thanks to self-awareness.
A few other examples of being self-aware include:
- Being aware of your genuine feelings and emotions
- Being aware of your beliefs
- Being aware of your prejudices and biases
- Being aware of the way you interact with others
- Being aware of your habits
- Being aware of how you wish to be perceived
- Being aware of your worst fears
- Being aware of inner conflicts
- Being aware of your goals and dreams
- Being aware of being aware (e.g. during meditation and contemplation)
Developing self-awareness is so important because without it we can easily become stuck in toxic patterns for years, even an entire lifetime (as many people do). Self-awareness is the very foundation of all emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth. A lack of self-awareness results in living an inauthentic and chaotic life that is driven by untamed impulses, unconscious habits, and unquestioned beliefs. To put it simply, self-awareness is so important because without it we become self-destructive.
How many times have you come across people who make the same mistakes, over and over again?
These people lack self-awareness.
How many times have you seen people thrive on drama and self-destructive behavior?
These people lack self-awareness.
What about those who inflict unspeakable violence upon others?
These people also lack self-awareness.
What about those who live most of their lives in boring, stagnant, and meaningless routines?
These people lack self-awareness.
Do you get the drift?
Give me any human problem and I will be able to trace it back to a lack of self-awareness.
It’s pretty tragic.
BUT, there is hope – and that is to make becoming self-aware a personal mission. When you become a model of self-awareness, others around you will also be positively influenced. Be the change you wish to see in the world (I know it’s cliche, but it’s very true guidance). Becoming self-aware is the number one thing you can do to make big shifts in your life. We’ll explore how to do that soon.
The ego (the identity or sense of self that you carry) is a tricky little bugger. In order to maintain an image of itself, it must sustain and defend anything that challenges its existence. Inevitably, this need to “keep up the image” involves a whole lot of sly self-deception, resistance, subversiveness, and even a blatant avoidance of reality. As one person on Quora provocatively observed, “In short, the ego is a bullshit factory, and that process prefers to be undisturbed and unobserved.”
However, we also must be thankful for our egos. Without having an ego, or a separate sense of self, we would be incapable of distinguishing ourselves from the oncoming truck that’s speeding towards us. Possessing an ego is a survival mechanism that helps us to ascertain what is ours vs. others – we absolutely need it to survive.
But there is a massive downside to having an ego (and you can read more about the ego’s shadow side here). The ego is diametrically opposed to self-awareness because being self-aware challenges, provokes, and sometimes even shatters the mask of the ego. I’ll give you a few examples why:
Example 1 – You’re having a fight with your partner for the fiftieth time that week. In a fit of rage, you smash your fist into the wall. “Why the hell did you do that you psycho!?!” your partner screams. “I’M NOT THE PSYCHO YOU PSYCHO! I INTENDED TO SMASH MY FIST THROUGH THAT WALL! I’M COMPLETELY FINE! WHY ARE YOU ACTING LIKE A PSYCHO!?!” After your partner ends the relationship, you suddenly realize that you had been projecting your issues onto them all along. You discover how much of an angry asshole you are and realize you’re to blame for the relationship breakdown. Ouch. That sting of self-awareness hurts like hell.
Example 2 – After scrolling through your social media stream you start to feel depressed and inadequate. Everyone else seems to have a better and more exciting life than you. You feel like a complete loser for the entire day. Suddenly, you have a lightbulb moment: you feel so horrible because you have low self-esteem. Immediately the thought of having low self-worth makes you feel like even more of a loser, so you suppress and ignore the insight.
I could probably write a few more pages of examples, but do you see what I mean? Self-awareness can often be too much for the ego to handle. (This is why it’s so important to practice self-awareness along with self-care and self-love.)
The next reason why self-awareness is so difficult is literally that it’s programmed into us to do most things on autopilot. According to this Psychology Today article we operate on autopilot around 50% of the time. Can you imagine how difficult life would be if you had to remember to breathe, scratch your head, walk, blink, drive your car, use your phone, speak, and so forth? Most of what we do is on autopilot for a good reason: it’s a much more efficient way to live! We have evolved to become terrifically time and energy efficient creatures. In order to preserve energy and survive, we need to learn how to do things quickly. Unfortunately, that means that a large percentage of our lives can be lived in robot-mode. Therefore, self-awareness is so difficult because our biological programming makes it hard for us to be mindful.
So why, you may wonder, should we even bother to develop self-awareness if our psychology and biology seem to be working against us? The answer is that fortunately, we are so much more than our minds and bodies – we also possess a heart and soul – and it is the emotional and transpersonal elements of our being that drives us towards self-awareness. Not only that but becoming self-aware literally transforms every aspect of our lives for the better. We’ll explore that next.
Developing self-awareness is one of the best paths you can ever take in this life. Here are some of the many benefits of self-awareness out there:
- You become more authentic and empowered to be yourself
- You develop a stronger connection with your intuition and inner wisdom
- Your relationships become more loving and peaceful
- You are more likely to discover your life purpose
- You’re able to overcome addictions more easily
- You become more self-supportive (rather than self-sabotaging)
- You feel more confident in social situations
- You’re able to change negative habits and mindsets
- You’re able to take care of your health much more effectively
- You live a more fulfilling life (that is based on your values, not others)
- You feel more connected to your Soul
- You feel more connected with existence
This is not an exhaustive list. There are WAY more benefits out there. But I just want to open a little door into the wondrous world of becoming self-aware.
Are you a self-aware person? Think about this question for a minute.
How conscious are you really of the many thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that you exhibit during the day? If you have a tendency to do any of the following, you lack self-awareness:
- You’re often unaware that your words or actions have hurt or offended another person (until they express it to you)
- You’re self-destructive and continue to make the same mistakes over and over again
- You have trouble identifying what exactly you are feeling or thinking
- You struggle to identify what your true needs or desires are
- You have a habit of behaving without thinking (i.e., you’re impulsive)
- You’re often surprised by people’s perception of you (as they don’t match how you see yourself)
Developing self-awareness is the foundation of all important life changes and deep inner work. The more self-aware we are, the more we can understand, accept, and love ourselves. And the more we love ourselves, the more we can love others. Can you see how this is all connected?
Go through the following self-awareness activities list and choose one practice that resonates with you. Try it out for one week and see how you feel. Then, repeat the process!
Your body is one of the most direct ways to connect with your emotions. If you tend to get lost in your head too much, practice scanning your body. Search for areas of tension or discomfort and ask, “What is happening here?” For instance, you might find yourself clenching your fists or jaw and realize that you’re feeling angry. You might have tense shoulders and realize that you’re “carrying the weight of the world” on your shoulders. Or you might even discover that a persistent physical issue you have is connected with a stressful place or person. Once you have become aware of the issue, you can then take steps to reduce your stress, anger or sadness.
Body armoring was a concept developed by psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and came to describe the process of storing traumatic experiences within the muscles of our bodies. ‘The issue is within the tissue’ in other words. If you have a certain part of your body that is frequently sore, stiff or full of pain, it is likely that there’s some kind of trapped or reinforced emotion stuck there. By paying attention to your body, you will be able to identify your type of body armoring. Read more about how to explore the emotions hidden in your muscle tension.
Yes, I know this initially sounds pretty damn scary. But it’s actually one of the most powerful self-awareness activities out there. A word of caution, though: unless you want to be roasted, it’s better to find a trusted friend, counselor, spiritual guide or coworker for this activity. You’ll want to ensure this person is close to you and feels comfortable with being honest. Then, ask them to reveal any weaknesses or unhelpful habits that you might possess. Remember that for this task you have to mentally prepare yourself. You don’t want to ask someone to do a favor for you and then tear out their throat in anger! Facing our flaws can be confronting and distressing to the ego. So ensure that you’re in a calm and centered space beforehand. Studies have shown that our coworkers can evaluate our strengths and weaknesses twice as more accurately than we can – they see things that we can’t or won’t see. The more people you seek out, the better. Make use of the insight others have in your life and use it to your advantage.
A simple but powerful way of becoming more self-aware is to listen to your self-talk. The best way that I’ve found of doing this is to stand right in front of the mirror staring at yourself. What insecurities or negative self-judgments arise? What are the dominant feelings you experience? Mirror work will give you a direct insight into how you perceive yourself, and therefore increase your self-awareness.
Reflect on your accomplishments and the things you’re proud of. What do you like about yourself? Get a journal and record all of your discoveries. The more aware you are of your strengths, the more you’ll be able to make self-aware decisions that are aligned with your authentic self.
It might seem unnecessary or even detrimental to explore your weaknesses, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “our strength grows out of our weaknesses.” Once you are able to face and own these darker parts of yourself, the more freedom and power you will paradoxically experience. My favorite way to explore weaknesses is by examining the shadow (read more about shadow work). To begin this process, make a habit of noticing whenever you experience strong emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, resentment, and fear. Ask, “what triggered these feelings?” You might even like to keep a shadow journal to record your discoveries so that you can track your journey of self-awareness.
Learn more about how to journal.
Our distractions tell us a great deal about our fears, impulses, and hidden desires. What unnecessary task takes up a lot of your time? Perhaps it might be watching TV, online shopping, snacking, masturbating, scrolling through Instagram, playing video games, gossiping with friends or even getting lost in daydreams. Distraction isn’t always a bad thing, but when we obsessively find ways of escaping reality, there’s a problem. Draw awareness to your distractions and you will be on the path to greater self-insight.
Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, whereas meditation is learning how to become aware of your thoughts. Together, they make a dynamic duo. Mindfulness helps to ground you in reality which increases self-awareness. Meditation, on the other hand, is a way in which you can become intimately acquainted with your mind and its processes. Both practices can be incorporated relatively effortlessly into your day. If you have five or ten minutes to spare, take time to drop into your body and senses. Here are some mindfulness exercises you may like to explore. I also recommend apps such as Calm to support your meditation practice.
Record all the things you loved and hated within your day (aka. the sunshine and shit!). Write down how you felt, what your plans are, and anything else you’d like to express. Journaling is a simple and powerful form of self-expression that is a wonderful way to enhance your self-awareness.
“I hate people who are judgmental” I once remember saying. My wise friend at the time turned around and retorted, “but aren’t you judging those people for being judgmental?” Oops. Yeah, it happens a lot. Most of us aren’t even aware that we are projecting a lot of our shit onto other people. Why? Because when we disown the parts we dislike about ourselves, it’s easier to live with ourselves. But the easy path is the lazy path. Self-growth isn’t always flowers and rainbows, and nor does it need to be. The reality is that if we want to become truly self-aware, we need to own our projections at some point or another. By reclaiming and embracing the denied, suppressed, and shunned aspects of ourselves, we feel more at peace with ourselves and those around us. This, of course, requires radical self-honesty. Do you have the guts to own your projections? Check out my article on psychological projection.
Self-awareness is a life-long process – there is no real ‘end’ point because we are constantly morphing and evolving. It would be pretty boring if self-awareness could be condensed into a five-day retreat! With this in mind, it’s important to have fun on the journey. There are so many intriguing ways to ‘peel back the layers’ of your psyche. This entire website, for example, has hundreds of articles which can help increase your self-awareness. I’ve also designed a hell of a lot of free psychological and spiritual tests, which you can find in our free tests section. So, in essence, have an insatiable thirst for self-knowledge. Go out there and watch lectures, attend workshops, and gain new skills. See life as a school and use every opportunity you can to increase your self-awareness and self-acceptance – it’s such a beautiful way to live life!
To close this article, I will end with some interesting perspectives on self-awareness. I hope these thoughts motivate and inspire you.
Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. – Aristotle
Self-awareness is a key to self-mastery. – Gretchen Rubin
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. ― C.G. Jung
Self-love is a good thing, but self-awareness is more important. You need to once in a while go “Uh, I’m kind of an asshole.” – Louis C. K.
Self-awareness involves deep personal honesty. It comes from asking and answering hard questions. – Stephen Covey
He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened. – Lao Tzu
The greatest of faults is to be conscious of none. – Thomas Carlyle
Awareness is the greatest agent for change. – Eckhart Tolle
Self-awareness is one of the rarest of human commodities. I don’t mean self-consciousness where you’re limiting and evaluating yourself. I mean being aware of your own patterns. – Tony Robbins
What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself. – Abraham Maslow
Self-awareness includes awareness of your mental realm, which encompasses your thoughts, feelings, energy, and emotions. – Deepak Chopra
I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion. – Billie Jean King
Self-awareness gives you the capacity to learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. It enables you to keep growing. – Lawrence Bossidy
Self-Awareness concerns knowing one’s internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions. – Daniel Goleman
Self-awareness is the ability to take an honest look at your life without any attachment to it being right or wrong, good or bad. – Debbie Ford
The unexamined life is not worth living. – Socrates
Self-awareness moves us beyond the old, well-worn pathways in the brain that support fixed, unconscious habits. – D. Chopra
Without self-awareness we are as babies in the cradles. – Virginia Woolf
In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part. – Nisargadatta Maharaj
Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize? – Marcus Aurelius
Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance. – Anthony de Mello
The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance. – Nathaniel Branden
As my awareness increases, my control over my own being increases. – William Schutz
Being self-aware is not the absence of mistakes, but the ability to learn and correct them. – Daniel Chidiac
Spiritual progress is born out of self-awareness. – Deborah King
The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently. – Pema Chödrön
Without awareness, we are not truly alive. – J. Bugental
There’s a mess inside you: You clean the outside. – The Dhammapada
Never become a slave to your own thinking and your own self. Understand that you are continuously changing. But, in which way you will change is your free will. – R. Papian
Self-awareness is the essential building block of inner transformation and spiritual awakening. Remember: without self-awareness, there can be no emotional, psychological or spiritual growth. Without self-awareness, we can’t experience the joy of living in healthy relationships, finding meaningful jobs, or even just enjoying day-to-day existence.
That’s how important self-awareness is. It truly is fundamental to EVERY aspect of life.
So tell me, what is your relationship with self-awareness like?
What was the most amazing and mind-blowing moment of self-awareness you have ever had?
I’d love to hear in the comments!