I don’t have children — but I’ve often heard parents telling their kids to “go to their room and think about their behaviour.” I wonder if it ever achieved anything towards the child’s awareness of what they did.
The more I practise and read about self-awareness, the more I run into this message: Introspection isn’t very helpful in acquiring accurate self-knowledge. The reason we think otherwise is that self-reflection gives us an impression that we understand ourselves better. Often, that’s just our minds playing tricks on us.
It’s not that introspection is a downright bad idea. It’s just that the way you do it often drives you away from the truth about yourself. But what can you do to avoid these mind traps and gain more accurate self-knowledge?
We Believe That We’re Self-Aware Even When We Aren’t
Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist who’s been researching self-awareness for years. One of the most astonishing things she discovered was that the vast majority of people believe they are self-aware when they really aren’t.
After surveying thousands of participants from around the world, Eurich and her team found that 95% of people claimed to be self-aware. In reality, only 15% actually were. This means that, as Eurich jokingly put it,
“80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.”
And it doesn’t end here. The researchers also found a negative correlation between introspection and self-awareness. You’d think that the more you reflect on your behaviour, thoughts and feelings, the more self-aware you become. But Eurich observed just the opposite. In the survey, the people who spent the most time thinking about themselves were also the ones who had the least accurate self-knowledge.
How is this possible?
Why Self-Reflection Is Ineffective
It turns out, our minds like to play tricks on us. You’ve probably heard of cognitive biases, such as the confirmation bias. Such tendencies of the mind explain why introspection can be so ineffective as a way to nurture self-awareness.
When we try to get to the root of our motives or behaviours, we’re often looking for answers that we simply don’t have access to. We can’t find the real reason why we feel the way we feel or believe what we believe. That’s because a big chunk of those answers is buried deep in our unconscious.
However, your mind doesn’t like admitting that it doesn’t know something. Instead, it prefers to construct explanations based on the information it has — even if this information is insufficient. Consequently, it may suggest ‘insights’ about your behaviour that seem true — but they really aren’t.
“For example,” writes Tasha Eurich, “after an uncharacteristic outburst at an employee, a new manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because she isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a bad case of low blood sugar.”
These kinds of insights are shaped in alignment with what you believe about yourself. This is confirmation bias at play — your mind is doing its best to come up with explanations that are coherent with what it already knows.
Or… with what it thinks it knows. If your core beliefs about yourself are misguided, then the ‘insights’ resulting from introspection are likely to just deepen the mistaken self-image. This doesn’t bring you any closer to accurate self-knowledge.
There’s Another Way to Self-Awareness
Tasha Eurich says that it’s still possible to introspect in a way that nurtures self-awareness. To do that, the simplest way is to replace “why” questions with “what” questions. If you’re interested in this, I explore it in more depth here.
However, there are other ways to develop accurate self-awareness. These are based on acquiring feedback from the outside world.
To fully understand the value of feedback, it helps to realize that self-awareness isn’t one, unambiguous truth. Rather, it’s a combination of two things: your own perceptions (the way you see your feelings, thoughts, behaviours) and the way other people see you. Tasha Eurich calls the former “internal self-awareness” and the latter, “external self-awareness.”
Researchers found that, strangely, the two aren’t correlated. It’s entirely possible to have high internal awareness and lack the external one, or vice versa. However, to call yourself truly self-aware, you need both.
One way to find the overlap between them is to seek constructive, honest feedback.
The Art of Seeking Accurate Feedback
The best leaders know that asking for feedback is a useful way to foster self-awareness. That’s because, if done correctly, it allows them to confront their internal perceptions with how other people see them. The result is accurate self-knowledge that they’d be unlikely to acquire on their own.
For example, it is a known phenomenon that people in high leadership positions tend to overestimate their strengths while overlooking weaknesses. That’s because their default environment reinforces their superior self-image.
The best leaders, however, seek to counteract this tendency. They learned to ask good questions and create conditions in which others feel safe to give them honest feedback. They also don’t believe that feedback blindly. They cross-check it with more people to see if what they heard says something about them — or rather, the person delivering the feedback.
As a result, they get a deep insight into their social environment’s perception of themselves. When they confront that with refined internal awareness, they construct the most accurate self-image possible.
Learn to Balance Internal and External Self-Awareness
To become highly self-aware, chances are you’ll have to go beyond introspection. If you look closely, you’ll realize that introspection often exaggerates your mind’s cognitive biases. This may drive you away from an accurate image of yourself.
To improve the efficiency of self-reflection, you may find it useful to ask different kinds of questions. What usually helps is replacing the ‘why’ questions with ‘what’ questions. However, even this may not be enough.
One of the best ways to surpass your biases is to go out and look for self-awareness as you interact with people. This may involve explicitly asking for feedback or exploring other ways of understanding how others see you. This way, you can confront your internal self-awareness with your external presence in the world.
As you do that, it helps to remember that your self-knowledge isn’t one truth. It often depends on who’s looking — and each observer can bring valuable insight that will change the way you see yourself forever.