Self-awareness has been identified as the foundation for success, happiness, healthy relationships, and personal health by philosophers, neuroscientists, artists, athletes, business people, and so many more. But what is self-awareness? What are the essential elements of self-awareness? And why does it actually matter? These questions, explored formally and informally for hundreds of years, continue to guide our thinking today. In general, self-awareness is acknowledged to be a foundational skill, a personality attribute, and an asset that helps us experience our lives and lead others.
French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes, wrote in the 17th century one of the most famous declarations of self-awareness—“I think, therefore I am.” Since then, scholars, researchers, artists, psychologists, and other philosophers have been writing, studying, and debating the question of whether to know oneself is primarily a cognitive activity, as Descartes asserts. Descartes believed that the mind and body are completely separate, and the only path to self-awareness is thinking and knowing in an intellectual sense. Baruch Spinoza, another 17th century philosopher, questioned Descartes’ statement, arguing for self-knowledge being centrally focused on affect (i.e., our emotions). In other words, Spinoza said that to know ourselves requires insight and understanding of what we think as well as what we feel. This debate has carried on through the centuries to today. Modern day neuroscientists have asserted that self-awareness comes from how we understand and think about ourselves in the context of our emotions and feelings. Antonio Damasio, as an example, writes in Descartes’ Error (1994) how neuroscience demonstrates that our feelings and thoughts are innately wired together, so our path to self-awareness and self-understanding requires us to connect our thinking with our emotions and feelings.
We develop our self-awareness most fully by exploring what we think about ourselves and by considering what we believe others think about us. William Froming, Rex Walker, Kevin Lopyan, and Tasha Eurich described in their article “Public and Private Self-Awareness: When Personal Attitudes Conflict With Societal Expectations” (1982) how we create the deepest levels of self-understanding through two different sources of insight: private, or internal, and public, or external. Our private self-awareness comes down to what we believe to be true about ourselves based on how we reflect on and know our own personal attitudes, beliefs, values, ideas, etc. Our public self-awareness is based on what we believe others perceive about us and how we think we either fit or do not fit with societal standards, norms, and expectations.
So why does self-awareness matter? In articles written by psychologists Paul Silvia and Maureen O’Brien (“Self-Awareness and Constructive Functioning: Revisiting ‘the Human Dilemma,’” 2004), Courtney Ackerman (“What Is Self-Awareness and Why Is It Important?”, 2020) and Anna Sutton, Helen Williams, and Christopher Allinson (“A Longitudinal, Mixed-Method Evaluation of Self-Awareness Training in the Workplace,” 2015) have identified the following benefits of increased self-awareness:
- Improved mental health in terms of our satisfaction, self-confidence, self-esteem, and happiness;
- Lower sensitivity to rejection;
- Increased open-mindedness;
- A clearer sense of our strengths and limitations;
- Enhanced communication ability;
- Higher levels of achievement in school and work; and
- A greater sense of empowerment.
As Ralph Ellison said in his classic book, Invisible Man, “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
There is an important connection between increased self-awareness and self-efficacy, or the belief in your abilities and capacity. With increased self-awareness comes greater self-efficacy. In the context of leadership, Paige Haber-Curran, Rosanna Miguel, Scott Allen, and Marcy Levy Shankman wrote in “College Women’s Leadership Self-Efficacy: An Examination Through the Framework of Emotionally Intelligent Leadership” (2018) that self-efficacy is a contributing factor for effective leadership, especially in young adults and women. In some ways, you can understand this as a self-fulfilling prophecy—when we believe we can be effective in leadership, then we are more effective.
The challenge with self-awareness, however, is it can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Self-awareness is not something that you can simply check off the to-do list. To be self-aware means a commitment to constant reflection, self-appraisal, self-understanding, and self-development. This is hard work. Looking in the mirror and learning to accept yourself, “warts and all,” can be incredibly challenging. For many people, this is a lifelong challenge or even struggle. The good news is that if one is willing to embark on the journey, the rewards and accomplishments encountered along with the challenges and difficulties will pay off. This reflects the complexities in our lives. Embracing the challenge of increasing our self-awareness means we can achieve more, deepen our relationships, explore opportunities more authentically, and develop our capacity. Just know that this isn’t an easy adventure. But with the right tools and mindset, enhancing our self-awareness is a lifelong journey well worth taking.