Every day, you pursue self-improvement goals connected to your career, relationships or fitness. But I’m not sure whether the “goal approach” is equally useful for developing self-awareness.
I feel like the latter should be more of an exploration than work. That’s because you can’t plan the course of getting to know yourself.
Building a business or following an exercise routine is a much more predictable and linear endeavour. That’s where you can set goals and break them down into milestones and habits. It’s fairly straightforward to measure your progress and hold yourself accountable.
But with self-awareness, it’s a bit different. You can’t plan the path you’ll be walking because you can’t know what lies ahead. If something is beyond your current level of awareness, you can’t perceive it by definition.
That’s why it’s important to look at self-awareness as an open-ended discovery, rather than a goal. In my opinion, the best way to do that is by instilling simple practices which enable a framework for such discovery. That’s is what I want to share with you in this article: three straightforward ways to get to know yourself better.
Chances are, you’re no stranger to them. They’re called walking, writing and meditation.
The Self-Awareness Triad
Self-awareness can be described as one of the most important meta-skills of our times.
A meta-skill is, as Gustavo Razzetti put it,
“a master skill that magnifies and activates other skills. A meta-skill is a high order skill that allows you to engage with functional expertise more effectively. It’s a catalyst for learning and building new skills faster.”
Self-awareness fits this description perfectly. When you have it, you gain access to the landscape of your inner experience. This is essential to make good decisions in alignment with your true self. Isn’t this the basis for thriving in our infinitely complex and ambiguous world?
The problem is, your inner landscape may be vast to the point of overwhelming. When you go through what feels like a storm of sensations, thoughts and feelings, you may abandon the quest of self-awareness altogether. You stop paying attention because there’s simply too much to pay attention to.
That’s why I find it helpful to break self-awareness into these three aspects:
- The awareness of your physical body. It encompasses all the input from your senses: touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. These perceptions may be coming from outside of your body or from within it.
- The awareness of your mental processes. This means all your mind’s activity, including verbal thoughts, mental imagery, projections and programs through which you interact with the world.
- The awareness of your emotions. It starts with being conscious of your moment-to-moment feelings as they come and go. However, this part of self-awareness is also about perceiving longer-lasting emotional states — such as your moods or attitudes.
This deconstruction of self-awareness can help you notice more of what’s going on within. You don’t have to become aware of everything at once; you can focus on one aspect at a time.
The three aspects are, of course, connected and overlapping. This means that whenever you explore either of them, the other two also benefit. Because self-awareness is a conglomerate of your physical, mental and emotional perceptions, it increases even if you pay attention to just one of the elements.
On top of that, I found that the more relaxed I am, the more my self-awareness benefits. That’s why I believe in nurturing self-knowledge through simple activities which feel natural and effortless.
Below, I share with you three practices I like to use to expand my self-knowledge in a leisurely, non-pressured manner.
To Become Aware of Your Body, Walk
In our intellect-driven culture, we’re used to valuing “mind over matter.” However, your body is smarter than you may think. The matter that constitutes it has its own inherent wisdom, too.
Becoming more aware of your bodily sensations is one way to tap into this wisdom.
A Harvard psychologist and mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer said that “virtually all the world’s ills boil down to mindlessness.” When we’re oblivious to the subtle signals our bodies send, we often miss the early chance to notice that we’re falling out of balance. We may develop severe symptoms before we realize our health is deteriorating.
Preventing physical illness is just one among many reasons to nurture the awareness of your body. A great way to do it is by taking a walk — preferably in nature.
For the biggest benefits, I find it useful to go alone and without the distraction of electronic devices. I don’t put earplugs in so I can hear the sounds of the environment. When it’s just me and the natural world, I find myself more attuned to my body.
To begin this practice, you can observe the sync of your breath and walking. Simply notice the pattern of the in-breath and out-breath, without controlling it. Once you become aware of your breathing, start paying more attention to your steps.
How does it feel to place your feet on the ground, right foot, left foot and then right foot again? Can you feel the muscles in your legs working as you make the simple but steady effort of walking? What does your upper body do as you keep moving, one step after another?
From there, you can proceed to scan your whole body. Observe how it feels as you move rhythmically with the pace of your steps. Don’t rush that pace. Make your walk into a curious observation, rather than another workout to put into your fitness phone app.
When you become more present in your body, you may naturally notice thoughts popping into your mind. If you feel like it, you can experiment with another exercise to become more aware of this aspect of yourself.
To Become Aware of Your Thoughts, Write
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, a Buddhist nun who spent 12 years in a Tibetan cave, made an amusing observation:
“We do not know what a thought is, yet we’re thinking them all the time.”
Indeed, it’s hard to define thought. However, it may be even harder to become aware of all the thoughts arising in your mind throughout the day. The good news is that you don’t have to notice them all. To start with, it helps to identify those that appear regularly.
Over four years of my meditation practice, I noticed that certain thoughts have more impact on my life than others. These are the ones which are the most repetitive. They constitute my mental habits — i.e. the patterns in which my mind processes information.
Knowing your mental habits gives you an advantage because it shows how your thinking shapes your life. By the kind of self-talk you perpetuate, you determine the relationship with yourself. Through the beliefs you hold, you construct your unique version of reality.
Yet, these mental constructs aren’t real. Often, they only happen in your mind. And to get a more accurate image of what’s going on, there’s no other way but to notice your mind’s activity. Only then can you tell it apart from facts.
One efficient way to become more aware of your mental activity is by writing.
Writing allows you to record your thinking and look at it later from a different perspective. When you transpose your thoughts into the written word, you create a distance from which you can watch them as if they weren’t yours. This allows you to gain a better idea of what your mind does in your day-to-day life.
To make this practice as simple as possible, try stream-of-consciousness writing. The best time I found to do it is in the morning, as one of the first things after waking up. This ensures I can express my thoughts before receiving any input from the outside world. This way, the thoughts that come out are clearer and my own — rather than a reaction to someone or something.
If you want to try more advanced self-awareness writing activities, I recommend you Niklas Göke’s extensive post on the topic. He includes some really cool questions and exercises that allow you to go deep into self-knowledge.
Whatever you write, an important note here is that you should read what you wrote later. The act of writing already brings clarity, as it forces you to verbalize your thoughts. However, it’s the choice to read it afterwards that can give you those mindblowing insights.
Recently, I read my journal entry from six months ago — and I was stunned. I had no idea that I was thinking those kinds of thoughts back then. I found insights there about my family and myself that I thought came to me much later.
But it seems they had already been present before. I just wasn’t aware of them, even though they shone through my stream-of-consciousness writing.
As your awareness of your thoughts increases, you may notice some emotions coming to the surface, too. It that’s what you want to explore, here’s a way to do it:
Meditate on them.
To Become Aware of Your Emotions, Meditate
Emotions are the mysterious part of human experience that many people aren’t sure what to do with.
Some spiritual teachers see them simply as “energy in motion” and advise us to fully experience them. Psychologists suggest that painful emotions may be signs of some deep, unmet needs. From an evolutionary perspective, emotions are adaptive reactions which ensure we take necessary measures for self-preservation.
No matter how we understand their functions, emotions are undoubtedly powerful drivers of our behaviour. As much as we like to think we’re rational beings, there are many decisions we make based on emotional impulses.
If you doubt whether that’s the case, check out some techniques used by marketers. Often, their main job is to engineer emotions to drive customers into desired actions and purchases.
So how can you steer your life without getting hijacked by emotional storms? It’s not an easy pursuit, but it’s also not impossible. The first step to accomplish it is to become aware of the emotions you’re already having.
In our culture, we’re often discouraged from displaying and talking about emotions. We’re told that it’s not okay to feel angry, sad or anxious. When this message repeats over and over, we learn to not only hide the emotions from others. We also begin hiding them from ourselves.
Because of some sublime self-deception mechanisms, emotions may be harder to notice than our physical or mental perceptions. That’s why I find it helpful to explore them in a quiet meditation setting.
The two main points of this kind of meditation are to:
- minimize the input from the external world and to
- put your mind at rest.
When there are less physical sensations and thoughts, you can free up some attentional capacity to perceive your emotions more clearly.
I’m not going to include a detailed guide to meditation now. If you want to read one, I wrote an extensive tutorial on mindfulness meditation here. But regardless of the tradition in which you meditate, it’s useful to remember these key guidelines:
- Ensure a distraction-free, comfortable and safe environment where you can focus inward for as long as you decide.
- Use your breath to anchor yourself in the present moment. You won’t be able to feel your emotions if your attention is anywhere else than here and now.
- Be kind to yourself and allow all emotions to come. No matter if you feel a lot or nothing at all, remember that your experience is always valid.
Emotions may be the most challenging of the three components of self-awareness. More often than not, becoming emotionally aware requires you to feel the very discomfort that you’ve been trying to avoid. Much of developing emotional awareness is about leaping into this discomfort — one tiny step at a time.
However challenging, exploring your emotions is probably the most rewarding part of self-awareness. That’s because when you allow yourself to feel, you come as close as ever to the most authentic version of yourself.
Self-Awareness Is The Foundation Of Personal Growth
Knowing yourself isn’t another self-improvement goal. It isn’t something you can plan, measure or “work on.” Rather, it’s an exploration. It’s a process of building the healthiest and most authentic relationship with yourself.
I see this relationship as a starting point to anything else that you want to achieve in life. It’s a base in which all the other endeavours are rooted. Without knowing yourself sufficiently well, you’re unlikely to make the right decisions and set personally meaningful goals.
The people who don’t do enough self-discovery are usually those who wake up to quarter- or mid-life crises. Those crises manifest when they realize they’ve been living somebody else’s life. The ladder they’ve been climbing was leaning against the wrong wall all along.
When a realization like this comes, the way out usually leads through a period of intense self-exploration. But this doesn’t mean you have to wait for your world to crash before you start developing self-awareness.
You can start nurturing your relationship with yourself right this minute. I hope the simple practices of walking, writing and meditation can help you with that.