A reader asks:
I’m a reasonably intelligent and fairly successful person, but I’ve been told many times that I need to work on being more self-aware. Usually it’s managers or romantic partners saying this. It doesn’t seem to me that I’m especially lacking in self-awareness, but I do get this feedback consistently. Idk… I want to be open to making changes if I need to but I also don’t want to start labeling myself and making big changes just because people tell me I should. Any advice for thinking through this?
Let me start with a little praise and encouragement: I think the way you’ve framed this dilemma and your approach so far is right on; that is, you’re being honest about the feedback and evidence you’ve received, but you’re not just accepting it blindly, and what’s more, you’re trying to think carefully about it before jumping right into doing something.
The next thing I’d say is that self-awareness, like “health” or “kindness” is something everyone can always benefit from being better at. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your self-awareness, but just because you have room for improvement doesn’t mean you have a deficit. Mother Teresa could have been kinder, but all the evidence suggests she was a pretty kind person. Similarly, whether you could improve your self-awareness is a different question than whether you need to because of a significant deficit.
Now, the simplest way to gauge whether you’ve got a problematic deficit in self-awareness would be to ask yourself whether your lack of self-awareness is significantly interfering with your life. It sounds like this doesn’t necessarily seem to be the case from your perspective, but perhaps it is from other people’s. So how do you know if they’re correct or not?
Well, it’s tough, but I wouldn’t put a ton of stock into other people’s assessments of your self-awareness unless at least three conditions were present:
- They know you well.
- They’re smart.
- They genuinely care about you.
If you have multiple people in your life who meet those criteria and are telling you that you need to work on your self-awareness, I’d probably assume they’re correct.
But there’s one more possibility worth considering: Regardless of what other people are saying, how do you know whether your assessment of your own self-awareness is accurate or not?
This is a very tricky question without knowing a lot more detail about you and your life. That being said, one way almost anyone can start to think more clearly about their own self-awareness is to break self-awareness down into specific elements of self-awareness and then examine each of those individually.
What follows are a handful of core elements of self-awareness. And I would say that the degree to which you consistently consider and reflect on these will go a long way toward telling you how much self-awareness you have.
If you want, think about this like a little quiz and answer each question as: “Rarely” “Sometimes” or “Often.” If you’ve got lots of sometimes and oftens, I’d say you’re in good shape. But if you start to see more than a few rarelys you might have some work to do.
Nick’s Quick Self-Awareness Assessment
- I think about my self-talk and how it impacts my mood and behavior.
- I reflect on and update my expectations, both for myself and others.
- I am conscious of my core beliefs and revise them when necessary.
- I consider my emotions carefully.
- I’m attuned to my body and how it feels.
- I notice and think about my impulses, cravings, and desires.
- I reflect on my personal values.
- I try to understand how other people think and feel.
- I am thoughtful about how my actions might impact other people.
- I am curious about myself.
Keep in mind, this isn’t meant to be anything close to a comprehensive or rigorous assessment of self-awareness. But I think it’s a lot easier to think about self-awareness and how self-aware you are when you consider specific components of self-awareness rather than self-awareness as a high-level concept.
Finally, while I’m sure there are more, you can reverse engineer my little quiz above into 10 or so of what I consider to be core objects of self-awareness:
- Core beliefs
- Body sensations
- Theory of mind
- Social actions
If you’re at least semi-frequently considering the above, you’re probably doing pretty well in terms of self-awareness.
But if you have a few of these that you rarely if ever think about, not only does that suggest you have room for improvement with self-awareness, but it does something much more helpful: It shows you what aspects of self-awareness you need to work on specifically.