Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

5 Practices to Improve Self-Awareness

close up image of a crystal

If you think you have high self-awareness, you’re probably wrong. A whopping 95% of people say they are self-aware. Still, ten research initiatives from the brilliant organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich found that only 10-15% of people actually are self-aware.

At first, this SHOCKED me as this seems like a surprisingly low number. When I think about low self-awareness, my brain quickly thinks of people who:

  • Are completely arrogant for seemingly no good reason. 
  • Say things with total disregard for other people’s feelings. 
  • Are in denial about how they come across to the world. 

But when I dug deeper, it became so apparent that, of course, very few of us have a solid level of self-awareness.

What is Self-Awareness, and What are the Benefits of Self-Awareness?

At Mary Nice Consulting, we explore concepts that help women become more successful AND fulfilled in their careers. Working to increase emotional intelligence is crucial because high emotional intelligence equates to higher job satisfaction, more upward trajectory, higher pay, and lower turnover. 

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a multidimensional concept, and self-awareness is at its core.

There are two parts to self-awareness: what you feel and the accurate understanding of how you are perceived.

  1. Internal self-awareness refers to awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It involves recognizing and understanding what you are thinking and feeling at any given moment and being able to label and describe these emotions accurately.
  2. External self-awareness refers to your awareness of how you are perceived by others and how your actions and behaviors are impacting others.

Very few people excel at both, and being “good” at one does not mean you are “good” at the other.

The higher our self-awareness, the more creative, confident, and successful we are. Our relationships are richer, our communication is more effective, and our leadership has a more significant impact.

Why Do So Few People Have High Self-Awareness?

Once you begin to connect how our brains function and how culture shapes us, it is no wonder that so few people have high self-awareness. 

Let’s unpack a few reasons why:

We are complex and multi-faceted.

At the most basic level, becoming self-aware means accepting that emotions are often complex and can involve a range of different feelings. Yet, we live in a world that loves things to be black and white. In a rush to try to put experiences into a box, we don’t give ourselves the space to feel many different emotions simultaneously. 

We are disconnected from our bodies.

We often have to tune into our bodies because, sometimes, emotions, feelings, and thoughts are subtle and aren’t immediately noticeable or obvious. It’s easy to miss these subtle instances because we live in a world where we have become disconnected from our bodies because of things like stress, anxiety, and trauma.

We move FAST.

Often, we don’t slow down enough to notice what we are feeling because we are either ready to move on to the next thing or are afraid of unpacking it too much. Our schedules are often packed so tightly that we never get the chance to take a breath and reflect on what we feel after an intense meeting or discussion.

We stay in please and perform mode.

For many of us, our first instinct is to do whatever is necessary to please other people. We want others to think a certain thing of us, so if we perform in a way that makes everyone else happy, we can, for a certain time, believe that we are happy. 

We are stressed.

When we live in a place of chronic stress, our brain’s prefrontal cortex isn’t firing on all cylinders making it more difficult to identify and process feelings appropriately.

We are allergic to discomfort.

We live in a consumer culture that promotes comfort and convenience as important values. Sitting with discomfort can feel antithetical to all that we have been conditioned to believe.

What Can Threaten Our Self-Awareness?

Developing self-awareness must be a deliberate effort because outside of the conditions above, some real threats can threaten our self-awareness, especially now.

  • Power and Experience – As you gain more power or experience, the research indicates that you become less self-aware. You most likely have fewer people around you who will speak up, and you have to rely less on your self-awareness to meet your needs. You can depend on your power and status for that. Power and experience can also lead to an inflated sense of your own abilities or importance, leading to a lack of openness to feedback. 
  • Remote or solitary work – A lack of face-to-face interaction can isolate some people and make it harder to gain valuable feedback that can drive self-awareness. 
  • Introspection – If you are prone to overthinking and self-criticism, introspection can backfire because you can lose sight of the bigger picture.

Five Practices to Improve Self Awareness

When I work with teams on building self-awareness, I focus on five practices that they can build around and encourage:

1. Become more emotionally literate

It isn’t easy to recognize how you are feeling and what you are thinking if you don’t know what emotions you are feeling. Naming emotions assists our brains in making sense of and moving through an emotion, leading to greater self-awareness and better decision-making. 

Distribute and actively reference a feelings wheel or mood meter to give yourself more options. 

The book, “Atlas of the Heart”, provides an excellent resource for distinguishing between feelings. 

2. Identify your thinking traps

Our brains are coherence machines, not truth-seeking machines. They go quickly to whatever is a default way of thinking because it takes the LEAST amount of energy. These common thinking traps by Dr. David Burns can be helpful to reference:

  • ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and-white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.
  • OVERGENERALIZATION: You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat
  • MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality becomes darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.
  • DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they “don’t count” for some reason or other. In this way, you can maintain a negative belief contradicted by your everyday experiences.
  • JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
  • MIND READING: You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don’t bother to check this out
  • FORTUNE TELLING: You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.
  • MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else’s achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or other fellow’s imperfections).
  • EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect how things really are: “I feel it; therefore, it must be true.”
  • SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with should and shouldn’t as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. “Musts” and “oughts” are also offenders. The emotional consequences are guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  • LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a loser.” When someone else’s behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him” “He doesn’t care.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

3. Adopt Habits that Help Your Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for higher cognitive functions such as planning, decision-making, and controlling impulses.

There are ongoing behavioral changes that can lead to a more active prefrontal cortex, like mindfulness, learning new things, PLAY!, getting enough sleep, and moving that can improve the function of your prefrontal cortex. 

When you’re in a bind, and SUPER stressed, deliberate breath can help:

  • Double-inhale, extended exhale – take a long inhale through your nose, then a quick inhale, and a long exhale out of your mouth. 
  • 4-7-8 breathing – breath in for four counts, hold for seven counts, and breath out for eight counts. 

4. Ask Yourself What, not Why

Introspection can be very valuable if you ask yourself helpful questions. In her research, Dr. Eurish found that why is surprisingly ineffective:

“As it turns out, ‘why’ is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives we’re searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true but are often wrong. For example, 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.”

What questions do a better job of helping us stay objective and future-focused.

5. Seek feedback

Ultimately, the best way to become more self-aware is to increase the feedback you get from trusted sources. 

  • Make the question specific and focused: Avoid broad, open-ended questions and instead ask about a specific behavior or situation.
  • Keep it objective: Avoid subjective or evaluative language and instead focus on observable behaviors or facts.
  • Make it actionable: Ask for suggestions or improvement recommendations, rather than just general feedback.
  • Avoid leading questions: Avoid wording the question in a way that could influence the response.

Here are some examples of effective feedback questions:

  • Could you provide some specific examples of what I did well in this project?
  • How could I have handled that situation differently?
  • What specific actions could I take to improve my performance in this area?
  • Could you provide some specific examples of how my behavior had a positive impact on the team?


Leave a comment