In 2018, I read an eye-opening article in the Harvard Business Review. “What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It)” was written by Tasha Eurich, who is an organizational psychologist and executive coach. The article cited a raft of research showing that people who see themselves clearly make better decisions, build better relationships, communicate better, and are even more confident and creative.
I took the article’s message to heart, which is why I spend so much time and energy promoting self-awareness on this site.
Two Dimensions of Self-Awareness
For Tasha Eurich, self-awareness is just not navel gazing. She says true self-awareness is a balance between two understandings. One understanding is the sum of your own values, motivations, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses. The other understanding is how that sum of values, motivations, aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses appear to the people around you. There is, of course, great tension between who you believe you are and who other people believe you are. The truly self-aware are those who can reconcile the two understandings and dissipate that tension.
Tasha Eurich’s insight about balancing internal and external self-awareness allowed her to consider how it affects performance in the workplace. For example, she found that both experience and power undermine self-awareness. The longer you live and the more powerful you become, the easier it is to insulate yourself from others’ views, and the greater the pressure on you to believe in an idealized version of yourself. Dramatists have been telling us for centuries there is no greater tragedy than the one that grows out of the human tendency to misunderstand yourself. Think about Oedipus Rex or King Lear.
A Stage Piled with Bodies
If you pay attention to the great tragedies, you will understand that the best you can hope for in a life lacking self-awareness is to go to your grave ignorant of the damage you have inflicted both on others and on your own prospects for self-actualization. The worst you can realize, on the other hand, is a stage piled with bodies before the curtain comes down.
So… If self-awareness is so important, how do you get it? Here’s my advice, based on Tasha Eurich’s article. Actually, maybe you should follow the link and read the article for yourself. It’s much better written than most scholarly articles, and it’s filled with stories and anecdotes that make it accessible and practical.
Three Rules for Building Self-Awareness
Nevertheless, my reading of the article suggests three rules for building self-awareness. First, always remember to look for the external dimension. Find people you can trust who will tell you honestly how the world sees you. Don’t yield to the temptation to look away when they do. Be fierce about facing it and reconciling it with your internal understanding. When there’s a difference between your internal and external understandings (and there almost always is), give a little more weight to the external view.
Second, when you are thinking about yourself and things you have done, don’t ask why. If you ask why you have behaved as you did, that’s just going to lead you into self-justification or worse, self-pity. Instead, ask what. That way, you’ll be asking how you might have acted differently, which is the first step to planning for a better outcome in the future.
Third, don’t make the mistake of ever thinking you have finally arrived. You’re a complex organism and it’s probably impossible to know yourself completely. But if you give up before you reach complete self-knowledge, you’re probably headed for the stage piled with bodies again. Becoming self-aware is a lifelong project. And it’s worth it. It won’t just help you find contentment. It will make you a more effective human being.
Photo: "Grace - Mirror" by phil41dean is licensed under CC BY 2.0