Have you ever been told to “find yourself?” Years ago I thought this was a stupid concept. How can I find myself without being lost? Through my teens and into my 20’s I carried an artificial level of self-assurance. Oftentimes this fake confidence blew up in my face. Nonetheless, I was so self-absorbed by the notion I was proving my worth that I didn’t bother to notice. My artificial awareness evaporated after years of illicit substance abuse. Where did it get me? Stuck in a toxic codependent relationship, depressed, addicted, and lost. I’d spent so much time and energy trying to create this life, this image, of what I thought being a “successful adult” looked like that I never took the time to discover who I am. I was left with the terrifying realization that I had no idea who I was.
This is exactly the dilemma we mean to address in ODs first Pillar to Balance, Self-Awareness. Essentially this is the process of finding yourself. The effects are far reaching as it enables you to see how you most effectively work with others, as well as teaches you how to govern yourself. Perhaps most importantly, it allows you to diagram work that best works for you, so you can develop a lifestyle you enjoy. Why this isn’t a lesson we teach in schools is beyond me.
What is Self-Awareness
We know awareness is about the stuff you notice in the outside world, so we can look at self-awareness as what you notice on the inside. The psychological study of this concept began in 1972 with psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund. The two proposed that: “when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves.” In other words, it’s paramount to self-control. It’s your ability to recognize your feelings, behaviors, habits, thoughts, and reactions with the same level of accuracy as if you were observing another person. Another way to look at it is it’s like a 6th sense or your intuition. Stephen Warley defined it as, “focusing on the reality of your behavior and not on the story you tell yourself about yourself”.
Furthermore, self-awareness is about having a clear understanding of all the aspects to your personality from strengths and weaknesses to motivations and emotions. It allows us to understand the feelings and motives of others, how we’re being perceived, and the reasoning behind our own attitudes. The ability to do these things is key to knowing, or “finding ourselves”. By knowing who we are we find internal peace and can successfully manage our mental wellbeing. Self-awareness leads to living a life intentionally rather than passively.
Why is it so hard?
Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert found that humans spend nearly 50% of the time on auto pilot, unconscious of our feelings, with our minds wandering to a place outside the here and now. This is probably the greatest reason we’re not self-aware, we’re “not present” to observe ourselves.
When we aren’t self-aware we often fall victim to confirmation bias, the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation to one’s existing beliefs or theories. For example, if we have a strong dislike towards someone, then we are likely to interpret events- even ones where that particular person shows desirable characteristics- as an outlier to their identity as a “rotten human being”. The same can be said about ourselves, “I know I’m a good person, and good people don’t get addicted. Therefore, I can’t be an addict.” We have psychological tendencies to only acknowledge partial versions of ourselves and this form of bias is exactly what led to years of substance abuse for me.
When you know something, or think you know something, it’s natural to look for information to confirm this belief. Rather than constructively examining instances as autonomous, we use them to reinforce our present opinions. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize our motives and emotions separately from our identity. Part of what makes this so hard is we see ourselves through the same set prism we expect others to interpret who we are. Another reason this is a problem is because we have a duality to our understanding of events and circumstances. Too often in life we see these things as good or bad, happy or sad, and positive or negative without allowing ourselves to see them simply as they are through an unbiased lens.
How this ties in with addiction:
Addiction has an interesting relationship to self-awareness. I believe people generally have a reason for using drugs, and that addicts use for a multitude of reasons. These range from masking trauma, and mental illness, to just wanting to get high. For some (addicts) it becomes instinctive, or primal, whereas self-awareness requires reflection and thought.
This is part of the reason why delaying exposure to addictive substances until the age of twenty-one is so advisable. It’s because self-awareness is something we develop over time. When use starts at an early age our brain development (which includes self-awareness among other things) comes to a halt.
While addiction frequently starts as an attempt to find relief, addicts often lack self-awareness. The result of concede to our own bias. Biologically speaking the lowest amount of effort for the greatest reward equals a desirable outcome. This perpetuates the issue, which becomes further complicated by the fact that substances decrease the amount of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins (pleasure chemicals) our brain produces naturally. What ends up happening is the perception that a biological need is going unmet.
Your mind begins operating in a loop. The drive to satisfy this new perceived need supersedes other basic functions to live. The constant pursuit of satisfying a high, though habit forming, leads to an obsession. All of this makes sense when you think about our pursuit to fulfill needs. We obsess over breathing and sleeping, right? It’s difficult to manage our drive to satisfy a perceived need when we’re on auto pilot half the damn time.
Final Thoughts & Where to go From Here
Self-awareness doesn’t happen overnight, we develop it through a process. Perception is reality and by developing self-awareness you gain the ability to change your perception. Overcoming addiction requires ridding ourselves of flawed perceptions, breaking the cycle of obsessive thinking, and thinking critically. This is basically a superpower because changing your minds analysis affords you the opportunity to shift your emotions. Here are some ways you can work to improve your self-awareness.
Narrate your World
- How often do you go through life with your mind blank? Given that we spend 50 percent of our lives on autopilot it’s probably safe to assume we spend at least that much time devoid of thought. Make a conscious effort to change that. My personal favorite method to improving self-awareness is narrating my life in the world around me. What’s the purpose of self-awareness if we don’t use it? This helps you to identify your perception as well as your understanding of your environment, it forces you to look at yourself objectively, and it provides clarity to what should be your objectives in life. An added benefit of this is you’ll find it greatly improves your interactions with people because you’re actively thinking about the world around you.
- Tom Kuegler, in TheMission.org, writes, “letting thoughts run through our mind is one thing, but recording them is like stepping in wet concrete”. Forcing yourself to consciously think is a good place to start. However, when you’re ready for next level self-awareness start writing stuff down. What’s the point of journaling, what’s the point of writing down thoughts? For one, writing down thoughts forces us to work our imaginative abilities. More importantly it helps us to think, to rearrange, and reassess our lives. We need time to simply write out and think through our thoughts.
Take a Personality Test
- This might be earth shattering for some, I mean it in the nicest way possible, but the truth is you’re not all that unique. Honestly, that’s great news because taking a simple test can shed light on how you can increase self-awareness given your personality type. This Myers-Briggs test and this Predictive Index are good places to start. There are no right or wrong answers to these types of tests. Self awareness is about the ability to recognize the strengths and weaknesses in yourself. For example, I’m a perfectionist but that oftentimes means I’m too critical to get past start. Tests like the ones above will help shed light on aspects of your personality such as being overly self-critical.