What Is Self-Awareness? The Complete Framework for Self-Discovery

what is self awareness

Self-awareness is such a complex idea. We all want to improve it, but many find it hard to unpack the concept. What does it mean to be self-aware?

Over the past few years, I’ve explored this question from many angles. At first, self-awareness seemed to be a primarily spiritual endeavor. I discovered that all my experiences, at any given moment, can be used as raw material for discovering my essence, i.e., that part of my consciousness that remains unchanging.

Even now when I write these words, I feel chills of excitement.

As I kept meditating and exploring other self-awareness techniques, I saw just how multidimensional the concept was. Some teachers I learned from saw self-awareness primarily as an “in the moment” experience. It was about the moment-to-moment monitoring of thoughts, emotions, and sensations — something akin to “internal mindfulness.”

Other experts — often people from the self-improvement and productivity space — spoke about self-awareness as more of a knowledge base or an extremely useful skill. In this context, to be self-aware often meant having a strong sense of self, as well as an overall awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses that matches how others see us.

As I learned about and practiced self-awareness, I inevitably experienced the Dunning-Krueger effect. First, I felt like I tapped into great wisdom and for a brief period wanted to evangelize everyone. But soon enough, it started getting to me how much I still didn’t know, especially since self-awareness is such a multidimensional and interdisciplinary topic. I felt like I could never grasp all the knowledge or speak about it in a coherent way.

I mostly felt this way until today; but in the meantime, I also figured out one more thing. At this point of my journey, I need a framework to conceptualize self-awareness. Even if it’s incomplete, imperfect, and disputable, at least it can serve as a reference point. And if it starts conversations and people point out the blind spots within that framework? Even better!

This article is an attempt to present my model of self-awareness as a house as clearly and comprehensively as possible. First, I’ll define self-awareness for our purposes here. Then, I’ll lay out the four “pillars” on which the self-awareness house stands.

I hope you’re ready for a deep dive. Once you emerge back to the surface, your understanding of self-awareness will never be the same.

The Three Layers of Self-Awareness

I understand self-awareness as a concept that has at least three layers to it. To define them, I got inspired by the three levels of conversation as framed in the Authentic Relating community: informational, personal, and relational.

An informational conversation is mostly about exchanging information for practical purposes, and it is usually devoid of emotional content. These are things like updating your boss on the project you’re in charge of, chit-chat with your neighbor, or discussing what to have for dinner with your partner. According to ART International, this is the most superficial level of relating, when we “we talk about things and their place in time and space, exchange news and facts, and report on our experiences moving through and living in the objective, scientifically measured world.”

The second level is personal conversation, which is more grounded in subjective experience. At this level, “we talk about how we feel about the content at the informational level.” This allows us to connect deeper with another person by showing more of who we are and how we experience life. Examples of a personal conversation could be telling your best friend how you feel about your recent breakup or expressing an opinion on a controversial topic.

Finally, the relational conversation is the level most of us don’t reach very often. At the same time, this is what unlocks the most profound level of connection. We enter a relational conversation when we bring our attention to the present moment and name what’s happening in the shared space, right here and now. ART International notes that “[a]nytime we invite another person into our present-moment lived experience exactly as it’s happening inside of us, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and seen and heard for who we really are. We’re not hiding, filtering, distracting, projecting, or doing anything else to manage how our internal experience is perceived by others.”

How do these three levels apply to self-awareness? Well, I do see self-awareness as a conversation you have with yourself.

 

On the first level, informational self-awareness is about becoming more conscious of your experience. You’re collecting information about yourself — such as noticing that you enjoy the company of one friend more than the other, that your thoughts are drifting away even though you’re trying to focus on work, that you feel angry, and so on. On this level, you’re becoming aware of the “dry facts” in your experience, without interpreting them.

On the second level, personal self-awareness allows you to develop an interpretation or reaction to what you observed on the informational one. This may mean different things, for example: feeling “secondary” emotions in response to primary ones (e.g., feeling embarrassed of your anger), analyzing your experiences (e.g., figuring out an optimal diet based on how you felt eating different types of food), spotting patterns in your behavior (“I realize I often try to end the conversation when my wife brings up this topic”). The crucial feature of this level of self-awareness is that you develop self-reflection in response to what you observe.

On the third level, relational self-awareness extends to the quality of your relationship with yourself. That’s when you typically discover your inner critic commenting on what you could have done better, as well as the inner nurturer that helps you accept and believe in yourself. As you observe these two voices over time — and they can be ever-more subtle! — you realize that how much attention you pay to each one determines your relationship with yourself.

On the relational level of self-awareness, you may sometimes feel like you’re two people. One lives your life out in the real world, interacting with your peers, contexts, experiences. The other “waits at home” to love, hate, judge, or accept the first one.

The overall journey of self-awareness is about experiencing all these three levels and, over time, seeing connections between what happens at each of them. For example, at the informational level, you may notice that your hands tend to shake and your face flushes at work. As you bring more attention to it, over time you realize that this tends to happen whenever one particular coworker is around. On a personal level, you realize that this is a pattern that transpires because you care about that particular person’s opinion. You don’t want to look bad in front of them — that’s why you get nervous and produce those physical symptoms. Further, at the level of the relationship with yourself, you may notice that you’re angry at yourself for this. You’d much rather be cool and not care about anyone else’s opinion. However, you may still consciously decide to forgive yourself for not being “perfect” and, whenever you observe this pattern with your colleague, welcome your feelings with as much self-compassion as you can muster.

Over time, observing patterns like the one above and exploring connections between them allows you to expand the “knowledge base” about yourself. Organically, you map out who you are, how you show up in the world, and what you can expect from yourself in terms of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Over time, this gives you a deeper understanding of why you are the way you are, which in turn invites more self-acceptance and compassion.

Since you’re here reading this article, I don’t feel like I have to explain the benefits of self-awareness to you. You probably know what they are and already experienced at least some of them. Even if you can’t name them, you intuitively know that more self-awareness leads to a better life.

It’s hard to give ready-made recipes for increasing self-awareness, as it’s very contextual and holds different meanings for different people. That’s why, instead of a recipe, I want to present you with a metaphor: Self-awareness as a house, and the four pillars this house needs to materialize.

This is a framework you can refer to, not a step-by-step tutorial. I hope that by simply knowing the framework, you’ll be able to apply it to your life in a way that’s aligned with your personal context.

Pillar 1: Raw Data About Your Inner World

Image of bricks for the self-awareness house

The house of self-awareness — however it looks for you at the moment — symbolizes your current state of knowledge about yourself. First, let’s look at the bricks from which the house is built. These are the raw data gathered by observing your subjective experience.

You can think of them as “data points” which, over time, compound to create the walls of the self-awareness house. You collect most of these data points at the informational level of self-awareness. They can include the following:

  • Thoughts and mental habits
  • Emotions
  • Physical sensations
  • Behaviors & habits
  • Relational dynamics

The caveat here is that you can only use these experiences as bricks when they’re consciously observed. For that, you need certain perceptual skills (more on this in a moment). These skills allow you to not just take stock of your experiences, but also connect them to other data, effectively adding new pieces to the house.

In other words: It’s often the relationships between those raw experiences — not just the content of the experiences themselves — that teach you the most. By putting them in a broader context, you can make sense of them rather than just see them as isolated, meaningless events.

For example, simply noticing that you have self-critical thoughts right now may not tell you much. It allows you to acknowledge the way you talk to yourself, sure — but how does that help, exactly? That’s where observing the context of these thoughts comes in handy. What triggered them? Is there a specific person whose presence induces those kinds of thoughts? Or is it something that happened to you at work?

Connecting these pieces may help you pinpoint what fuels your self-criticism. This, in turn, can provide helpful cues as to your self-beliefs and make you more aware of how you relate to yourself. It can also reveal patterns of behavior, which helps you notice where in your life you have been functioning on autopilot.

Pillar 2: The Sub-Skills of Self-Awareness

Image of the cement that binds the bricks

If we look at self-awareness as a competency, we can see that there are several sub-skills that contribute to it. These are the cognitive and perceptual abilities that allow you to deepen the understanding of your own experience.

I think of these as the cement that binds the bricks in your self-awareness house. Without the cement, you could have thousands of bricks (aka raw experiences of yourself), without being able to build anything from them. They’ll just lie around, unintelligible, and make you wonder: what do I make of all these?

Without the application of the self-awareness sub-skills, you may become overwhelmed with some of your internal experiences. Particularly, when these experiences are unpleasant — e.g., an unstoppable avalanche of ruminative thoughts when you lie in bed trying to fall asleep — you can feel threatened by them. However, the application of the self-awareness sub-skills (cement), gives those experiences their place in the structure of the house.

For example, when you apply mindfulness, you may observe that those ruminative thoughts usually appear after a hectic day at work. You can then make a connection between overworking and anxiety. From this perspective, it’s easier to stop believing those scary thoughts — and instead, see them simply as a consequence of how your day has unfolded. Because this informs you about a certain pattern of yours, it adds to the self-awareness house.

Here are some sub-skills that can act as the cement in your self-awareness house.

1. Perspective-taking

A big part of self-awareness is about being able to see yourself from multiple angles. This gives you a more accurate and richer experience of yourself.

It’s the same principle that applies to human vision. Because we have two eyes, not just one, we see any given object from two slightly different angles. When your brain combines these two perspectives, it creates a more accurate, 3D image of the object than if you were to view it with just one eye.

The same applies to self-awareness. It requires perspective-taking, i.e., the ability to notice that your experience can look different depending on what angle you look from. The more angles you try out, the more dimensions of yourself you’ll be able to see.

For example, imagine that you break down during a social gathering with your friends. Everyone sees you start sobbing and talking about how hard the pandemic has been on you, how you’re struggling to juggle childcare, professional life, and house chores. After the meeting, you experience a “vulnerability hangover” and start judging yourself for letting others see you in that state.

Shortly, a friend calls to say how much she appreciated you opening up about something that everyone feels these days. She adds that she really admired you for that. In this moment, you get a new perspective on your behavior. What you treated as a sign of weakness, someone else took as proof of strength.

When you realize there are different perspectives from which to see yourself, your outlook on life changes. A lot of your character traits, habits, and behaviors stop seeming so black-or-white. Over time, you may even realize that you can choose how you frame and interpret your experiences!

2. Mindfulness

In the context of self-awareness, mindfulness is the capacity to stay present long enough to see how your internal experience changes from moment to moment. At the core, it’s about how you manage your attention and where you direct it.

Mindfulness also allows you to observe your experience without immediately judging it. Or, even if you judge, at least you’re aware that you do — which means there’s a little bit of space between you and the judgment.

It’s hard to develop self-awareness without mindfulness. Remember what I said earlier about collecting the bricks for your self-awareness house? You’re only able to use those raw experiences when you consciously acknowledge them. For example, if you become nervous as someone gives you feedback, but you don’t notice that nervousness, you can’t use this experience to add to your self-awareness house. You aren’t present enough to realize what’s going on.

That’s why mindfulness is so helpful. It allows you to decide where you want to direct your attention (i.e., which aspect of your experience to observe) — and do it without getting distracted. It ensures you collect the bricks and keep building the house.

3. Felt-perception

I imagine that once upon a time, people were more tuned in to their bodies. But these days, most of us spend a lot of time in our heads thinking, planning, and analyzing. One consequence of it is that we lose our sensitivity to what happens on the physical level.

Some may call this sub-skill “body wisdom” or “mind-body connection.” I refer to it as felt-perception, inspired by Michael Brown’s terminology from The Presence Process. Felt-perception is the body sensitivity that allows you to notice subtle nuances of physical experiences.

This includes both physical symptoms of emotions — such as heat in your chest or “butterflies” in your stomach — as well as pain, feelings of warmth and cold, itches, tensions, nervous ticks, hiccups, and all the array of physical experiences. Most of us have this sub-skill developed just enough to perceive strong sensations. However, increasing self-awareness often requires us to notice subtle body cues that we may be oblivious to without deliberate training of felt-perception.

An example could be feeling how different foods land in your body. Just about any person would notice that they don’t feel well when they overeat, or that certain foods give them allergic reactions. These are quite strong physical cues. But someone who deliberately develops their felt-perception might be able to notice more. For example, what type of breakfast gives them the most energy during the day, or that they could use skipping a meal because of the ever-more subtle stomachache.

Felt-perception helps you listen to your body more closely and, through that, opens the door to another type of knowing. Your intellect enables understanding through analytical thinking. Your body, however, can give you clues about your experience you can’t access through thinking.

4. Vulnerability

While vulnerability can be described in many ways, let’s look at the definition by Brené Brown who’s probably the most popular vulnerability researcher in the world:

“The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our most accurate measure of courage.”

When you apply this definition to building self-awareness, a question may arise: Where is the emotional exposure or a sense of risk in getting to know yourself? Isn’t spending time observing yourself the safest pursuit in the world?

Well, it may be. But in our subjective experience, it doesn’t always feel like it is. That’s because, when you truly want to deepen your self-knowledge, it often requires letting go of your current self-image — and that can sometimes be quite scary.

Let’s say you think of yourself as a faithful wife that (among other things) means never fantasizing about anyone other than your partner. However, after some time in your new job, you realize that you’re magnetically drawn to one of your co-workers. And, it’s clearly more than just professional interest.

When you discover something in your experience that contradicts your self-image, you have two choices. First, you can ignore that new input and pretend it never happened. This forces you to lie to yourself. The other option is, you acknowledge it and become curious about what it can teach you about yourself. The latter requires applying vulnerability to your personal experience.

The sub-skill of vulnerability means that you’re ready to put your guard down for the sake of learning something new about yourself. It means you choose curiosity over the desire to protect your ego. This surely requires courage — just like being vulnerable with other people.

Pillar 3: Self-Awareness Practices

Image of tools needed to apply self-awareneness cement

I’ll keep this section shorter, as it’s pretty self-explanatory. The third pillar of self-awareness is about specific practices, formal or informal, that you deliberately use to learn about yourself.

In the metaphor of the house, these are the tools — such as a cement mixer or a trowel — that allow you to methodically apply the cement (sub-skills of self-awareness) to the bricks (your consciously noticed inner experiences).

Within your self-awareness practice, you train certain faculties of the mind in relation to specific parts of your experience. Because you do that with an intention, your self-discovery accelerates. You create something akin to lab conditions in your life, so you can examine parts of yourself through deliberately designed exercises and setups.

Additionally, different practices can be optimized for training specific sub-skills of self-awareness and/or working with particular kinds of raw experiences (for example, focusing mainly on physical sensations or thought patterns).

The list of self-awareness practices is the most open-ended one. Below, I’m including those that I personally experienced, but this is by no means an exhaustive list. I’ll add a link to one resource/website for each practice to get you started. However, I trust you can do your research and find out more about what interests you the most.

Pillar 4: The Different Styles of Self-Awareness

Image of the architectural design

Although many people share the dream of building a house, they may do so for different reasons. Of course, first and foremost, a house is a place to live. But whoever sets out to build one for themselves hopes it will make a specific difference in their life.

Based on those hopes, they choose an architectural project that matches their expectations.

Some want a house to experience more safety and stability. Others need more space to work. Others still want to use that new space to host parties and gatherings. Or, to be able to grow flowers and vegetables in the garden.

The intention behind building the house will influence its shape, size, distribution of space, etc. Overall, it will give the house a specific flavor or style.

The same applies to growing your self-awareness and the effects it has on your life. Depending on your intentions and motivation, you give your self-awareness journey a particular “style,” which means it influences some areas of your life more than others.

Your self-awareness style isn’t usually something you plan. Rather, it’s a natural extension of your general inclinations, motivations, and interests. It reflects that dimension of life in which you most want to grow — and that’s also where you’ll see the biggest benefits of self-awareness.

Please note that no style is better or more worthwhile than others — and it can change over time.

1. Spiritual self-awareness

Observing your inner experiences may lead to a profound realization: All of that is ever-changing. Because of that realization, you may start seeing the concept of self as something less solid than before. Especially when you’re spiritually inclined, it may strike you just how contextual and ephemeral your sense of self is.

You gradually learn to distinguish between that layer of your experience that’s in constant flux — and that which remains unchanged. The latter is consciousness, or “the witness” of your life experience. This part of you has been present for as long as you can remember. Investigating that part in contrast to your changing experience may leave you wondering what makes you, you.

With this often comes other big, existential questions about the nature of life: what it means to be human, what’s your purpose on the planet Earth, and so on.

The spiritual style of self-awareness is the hardest to convey in words. You recognize it when you experience it. If that’s your path, your journey of self-discovery may become a source of profound experiences that often defy the need for any religion.

2. Intellectual self-awareness

If you’re mostly concerned about the tangible, practical benefits of self-awareness, your approach is most likely the intellectual one.

As you build your self-awareness house, you likely pick those bricks that tell you something about your behavior patterns, your strengths and weaknesses, your blindspots, your core values, gifts you can offer to the world, etc. Your intention may be to uncover your life’s purpose, find your dream job, and become the best person you can possibly be.

Thanks to the intellectual style of self-awareness (as well as the emotional one), you can also observe and improve your relationships. When you gain a mental understanding of your needs and desires, it becomes easier to voice them to others. This enables you to make choices and pick environments that support the kind of relationships you want to have in your life.

3. Emotional self-awareness

Emotional self-awareness is where you tap into the relational level of self-knowledge — i.e., you start establishing a more conscious (and often, more compassionate) relationship with yourself.

Before you reach a certain level of emotional awareness, all you ever do with your emotions is manipulate them so that you can feel better. You have little appreciation of the value of the full spectrum of human emotions, and negative feelings may seem like something to avoid.

A compassionate relationship with yourself requires you to validate all your emotions and to stop fighting them. This implies a detached, non-judgmental awareness of your emotions — “feeling anger” instead of “being angry” — as well as a transformed attitude towards them. When you see all feelings as passing experiences, and not the definition of who you are, it’s much easier to find balance, resilience, and better mental health.

The main benefit of emotional self-awareness is being more at peace with yourself. This style is often developed by those who struggle with mental health and initially try self-awareness practices as means to make them feel better. Paradoxically, on the way, they may discover that there’s no need to modify the feelings — only one’s relationship with them.

4. Physical self-awareness

Developing physical self-awareness is mostly about getting in tune with your body and physical experiences. To build your house in this style, you’ll likely need a lot of the felt-perception cement to combine a lot of different bricks.

You’ll observe your bodily sensations and body language, but also the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that connect to them. This will help you develop an understanding of how different experiences are reflected in your body. You may also become aware of where you hold physical tensions that correspond to traumatic memories.

The difference physical self-awareness makes in your life is that it teaches you how to use and take care of your body in the best possible way. This includes experiential realizations around your body’s needs — such as rest, exercise, or diet — and a better idea of how to fulfill them. But that’s not all. Physical self-awareness also makes the mind-body connection more evident than ever.

One example can be realizing how your body language and the way you hold yourself influence the way you feel, think, and even, how you perceive yourself. A lot of us have heard of the benefits of adopting power poses or deepening the breath to calm your mind. When you gain physical self-awareness, these aren’t just theoretical concepts anymore. They become experiential knowledge.

You just know the mind-body connection to be true because you’re aware of it in your own life.

Build Your Self-Awareness House on Your Own Terms

I described all the pillars above to give you a general framework of self-awareness. Within this framework, it’s up to you how you approach your journey.

Self-awareness is contextual and subjective, and therefore it means something slightly different to everyone. There’s no right or wrong way to build it. You can explore different pillars of the house in your own way, and pick those kinds of bricks, cement, tools, and architectural design that make the most sense for you right now.

For example, if you suffer from a chronic health condition, you may decide that the raw experiences you’ll be exploring will center on your physical sensations, as well as your thoughts attached to them. Your tools of choice will be mindfulness meditation and breathwork, since you feel resistant to more mental practices, such as journaling or therapy.

Your current motivation for wanting to build self-awareness is centered around improving your well-being — both physical and emotional. Hence, those will most probably shape the style of your self-awareness house.

I like the metaphor of the house because it reveals how differently we can approach self-awareness. It also brings more possibilities and configurations in which to plan your self-discovery practices, both formal and casual ones. I’ve seen many people, including myself, approach self-awareness as another type of hard work. Unfortunately, that’s an almost sure way to kill your desire and curiosity to get to know yourself.

If there’s something in life that’s both tremendously important and fun, it’s the journey of self-awareness. To keep it fun, prioritize curiosity over what you think you “should” do to get to know yourself. Explore those experiences and practices that you feel naturally drawn towards. The rest will take care of itself.

In other words: Trade what you used to think of as an “optimal approach” to self-awareness for… a fun approach. And whenever you struggle to accept that fun can be a valid compass on your journey, remember Ellen Langer’s words:

“People are at their most mindful when they are at play.”

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