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The importance of self-awareness

Garima Srivastava

Think about describing yourself to another person without mentioning any external factors such as  friends or family. Concentrate solely on yourself, how you feel and behave, what your strengths and weakenesses are, what make you angry or what makes you happy. 

This exercise is about finding out how self-aware we are as individuals. Self-awareness (sometimes also referred to as self-knowledge or introspection) is about understanding your own needs, desires, failings, habits, and everything else that makes you the unique individual that you are. The more you know about yourself, the better you are at adapting to life's changes. When we have a better understanding of ourselves, we are able to experience ourselves as unique and separate individuals. This empowers us to make changes and build on our areas of strength, as well as identify areas where we would like to make improvements. Self-awareness is often the first step to setting goals.

Research shows that self-awareness is directly related to both emotional intelligence and success. It helps you create achievable goals because you can consider your strengths, weaknesses, and what drives you when you are setting goals. It allows you to guide yourself down the right path by choosing to pursue the opportunities that best fit your skillset, preferences and tendencies. It makes it easier to identify situations and people that hit our triggers and enables us to anticipate our own reactions. It allows us to make positive behavioral changes that can lead to greater personal and interpersonal success.

Self-knowledge is also considered an important quality for a mental helath professional.professionals deal with people from varied cultures, religions, languages, lifestyles, and value systems. In order to counsel effectively, a therapist must recognize his own value systems to be able to respect individuality. Good mental health practitioners will employ intervention beyond learned knowledge or acquired skills, by including themselves in their counseling practice, a task not easily accomplished.

What happens when a counselor is not self-aware? Without at least a minimal sense of self- awareness, it is easy for counselors to identify with the clients problems and imagine that they are similar to, or even the same as their own. The reverse of this situation is also possible. Without self-awareness, it is possible to imagine that everyone else has the same problems as they do. In this way, the counselor's own problems are projected onto the client. Being self-aware can enable the counselor to mark their ‘ego boundaries,’ and successfully discriminate between what belongs to them and what belongs to their clients. Secondly, self-awareness enables the counselor to make a ‘conscious use of the self’. Being self-aware can make the counselor feel empowered in delivering therapeutic interventions, as they will feel more conscious and thought of, rather than spontaneous and awkward.

Being aware of yourself also helps in identifying what your stressors are, so you can utilize the information to build effective coping mecahnisms. 

Every form of psychotherapy has methods to enhance awareness. Modern psychotherapy began with psychoanalysis, the talk therapy originated by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis employs free association to help people become aware of the thoughts and memories constantly emerging in a stream of consciousness. Psychoanalysts also interpret dreams to enhance awareness of the emotional context of experience that may otherwise escape observation. The current wave of cognitive therapies teach secular versions of Buddhist mindfulness practices. Enhanced mindfulness helps people increasingly act in accord with their values, instead of reacting with escape and avoidance behaviors that typically make problems worse. To improve self-observation, clients are taught mindfulness exercises such as watching the breath, moving the body with awareness and acknowledging experiences without filters of value judgement. The clients also fill out diary cards that record mood, thoughts, actions and emotional responses to difficult situations. The diary approach is central to early cognitive therapies, such as the Cognitive Behavioral(CBT), where the clients fill out automatic thought records, recording their inner responses to situations. They are then instructed to counter habitual assumptions, reducing the anxiety and depression generated by helpless and hopeless expectations. 

Some techniques that can help you, or your clients if you are a therapist, become more self-aware include: 

  • Journaling, where one reflects on one’s experiences by writing about them outside the therapy session. Such insights can make therapy more effective.
  • Bibliotherapy, including self-help books, especially those recommended by one’s therapist because they are particularly insightful and based on sound research.
  • Art therapies and sand trays, where one creates images or arranges figures and objects that bring the playful imagination of childhood into greater awareness for self-discovery and healing.
  • -based stress reduction (MBSR) as taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, which helps people manage physical and emotional pain.
  • Meditation classes, especially those teaching mindfulness meditation, or shamata (calm-abiding) and vipassana (insight) meditation.
  • Group therapies, where one’s self-awareness is enhanced by feedback from others and by hearing others’ similar experiences. One’s social interactions are also observed “live,” so the therapist and group can address them.

Being self-aware helps not just build a strong therapeutic relationship, but also helps a lay person make more imformed decisions, and contributes to one's overall wellbeing.

It is important to remember that self-awareness is an individual’s ability to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of one’s own character. Realizing this will enable one to take actions, and make choices and decisions that are consistent with their own abilities. It is important to put the time in – self-awareness is not learned in a book, but achieved through self-reflection by using what you have learned about yourself to inform decisions, behaviors, and interactions with other people.

Some guided questions to get you started: 

  • What are your strengths and weaknesses? List three of each. 
  • What do you value most?
  • Differentiate between what one can or cannot do by themselves.
  • What feelings are you more aware of experiencing, as compared to others?
  • What are your triggers (people and situations most likely to trigger negative or uncomfortable emotions)?
  • How do you respond under stress?
  • How do the different roles you play in your life make you feel (eg. sister, student, best friend, employee, athlete, etc.)?

References

  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). The effectiveness of psychotherapy: The Consumer Reports study. In American Psychologist, December 1995 Vol. 50, No. 12, pp. 965-974. Retrieved Dec. 16, 2008 fromhttp://tinyurl.com/dn3ofg
  • Christopher, J. C., Christopher, S. E., Dunnagan, T., & Schure, M. (2006). Teaching selfcare through mindfulness practices: The application of yoga, meditation, and Qigong to counselor training. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 46, 494-509. doi: 10.1177/0022167806290215
  • http://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/article_30.pdf

Dr Garima Srivastava is a Delhi-based clinical psychologist with a PhD from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.