Think of the least self-aware person you know.
Got someone in mind? Okay, good.
I don’t know about your person, but mine is a mess. They are always several drinks ahead of the curve. Sloppily leaking profanity, misdirected flirtation, and incoherent alternative facts. Self-regulating with the competency of a toddler. Behaving every way, except intentionally.
And that damning picture they posted on social media. That one will hurt for a while.
Sometimes the simplest way to understand something is to know what it’s not. So now that we’re clear on that…
Self-awareness is our ability to engage in reflective awareness.
It pulls back the curtain on the self so you can accurately perceive your thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Your strengths and weaknesses. It shows you how your own sausage is made.
We all have self-awareness, at least to some degree.
It’s an ability that came as default with your operating machine. But there’s also a huge self-awareness spectrum, from your drunken-disaster ex to your overly self-controlled colleague.
If you’re self-aware, you probably already know it because you’re self-aware enough to know you’re self-aware. You are more likely to be viewed as controlled, intentional, and good at self-regulation, which is your ability to stop after two glasses of wine or go to the gym when it’s raining.
Not a skill we all have.
At face value, self-awareness sounds like it should be a superpower.
High self-awareness is linked with stronger relationships, better careers, and other markers of success that sell lots of self-help books. You’re in touch with your body and emotions! You lead with intelligence and empathy! You make generally appropriate life decisions!
But highly self-aware people also have a devil on their shoulder.
You see, when self-aware individuals are in environments with situational cues that remind them of themselves, they turn their attention away from the environment and into the self.
The more you pay attention to the self, the more you realize all the junk happening inside of it: “Dear God, why is my heart is beating so fast? I’m feeling so off today. Am I blushing? My date thinks I’m annoying. My stomach hurts. Why am I always worrying? I forgot deodorant. I’m hungry.”
This starts a cycle of comparing the current self with the ideal-self.
Which is a crappy competition, because there’s a 99% chance you’re not currently your ideal-self. Cue a self-awareness induced crisis.
There are several unique and rarely discussed stressful situations that the self-aware person finds themselves in:
1. Being by yourself is either enlightening or frightening.
Take a self-aware person, force them to spend time alone, and you will get one of two responses. They will either return from the mountain tops feeling inspired and ready to take on the world. Or they will return hopeless and ready to go to bed.
Time alone lets the self-aware person go further down the rabbit hole of self. It can be hard to predict how these deep dives will end, but self-aware anxiety usually comes when you feel furthest from your ideal-self when you temporarily lose touch or stop doing things that align you with your inner thoughts, emotions, and motivations.
This reaction is particularly strong for self-aware individuals. They are hyper-aware of who they currently are and where they want to be. And this can stir up a good deal of cognitive dissonance. Either way, time alone is bound to produce a powerful response.
2. Spending time in your body is either blissful or stressful.
The self-aware person comes out of the gym in a high or a funk. They leave yoga with a radiant glow or with bags under their eyes, like they’ve seen a ghost, passively threatening to assault you with their mat.
Exercise is an embodied practice. By necessity, the attention must align with all the stuff happening in the body. For the self-aware person, this can be a freaky experience. Because they feel everything as it comes up and out.
So yes, it can be stressful getting into the body: feeling aches, working out tiny traumas, releasing stored emotions. But embodying your inner-self is super powerful. Use your tuning fork abilities and let everything move through you. Use exercise as an opportunity to let that shit go.
3. Planning for the future is either inspiring or depressing.
Self-awareness shines a blazing spotlight on your motivations, strengths, and future goals. Planning for the future is a natural strength of the self-aware individual. We are all too familiar with the existential meditation, “What do I want to do with my life?”
This self-knowledge makes you feel empowered when you’re aligned with your strengths and vision for the future. However, this same self-knowledge lets you see your potential with complete and jarring honesty, which is not always a fun thing.
It’s important to remind yourself that self-awareness can act like a crystal ball. The ability to predict and plan for your future is an awesome gift. Take the good with the bad: know that self-awareness is always better than ignorance.
4. Spending time with others is either fulfilling or exhausting.
The self-aware person has a deeply intimate relationship with their own self. By definition, self-awareness is the act of looking inwards. Which is not always conducive to social or romantic relationships.
Time with others can be a funky gray-area. When self-aware individuals are tuned in and aligned with their ideal self, spending time with others can be effortlessly fulfilling. Carrying all of your self-knowledge into a relationship can produce profound dynamics. But trying to forge a relationship while the self is wrapped up in its own reflective awareness can be at best, messy, at worst, impossible.
Self-aware people should be patient with themselves during the days, weeks, months, or years of more difficult self-study. You can’t understand another person until you understand yourself. It’s okay to step back and give yourself time to do your own work.
So, to wrap up…
Self-awareness is ultimately a blessing. These are not stressors to be feared or avoided. They are a necessary part of being a conscious, awake, tuned-in person.
But the next time you feel a confusing contradictory response bubbling to the surface, know you’re not alone.
So spend time by yourself, time in your body, time planning for the future, and time with others. Reflect on the good and the bad. Process. Move on.
Be proud of your self-awareness. Embrace your superpower.