Self-awareness is probably one of those things where you have an idea of what it is, but if someone asked you to define it, you might stumble a bit to find the words.
Put simply, self-awareness is an understanding of who you are, what your strength and weakness is, how you got to be that way and how your presence and/or your behavior affect others. (You may also find this under "self-awareness theory" in your science textbook.)
Self-awareness also goes hand-in-hand with emotional intelligence; people who are more emotionally intelligent typically have higher levels of self-awareness. Perhaps more importantly, being self aware and understanding emotions are two traits that many employers look for when hiring and promoting.
I’ll be honest — there was a time in my life where I thought I was so self aware that I bragged about my self-awareness. I took pride in it. I was basically saying, in one of the most condescending ways possible, "I'm a better person than you." (Note: If you go around saying you’re self aware, my first question is going to be: do you really have self-awareness?)
The truth is, the reason I talked about my self-awareness so much was that I used it to hide from the truths about myself that made me uncomfortable.
Instead of being mindful about strength and weakness, processing my thoughts and examining my emotions' impact on others and the world around me, I told myself I was a good person. Instead of looking for what my mirror image actually was, I made it up in my brain and based my motivations on that. In my mind, I was the best human I could be, thanks to my self-awareness.
Little did I know that what I thought were my strengths were actually my weaknesses. Self-awareness is a journey, not a destination. To develop self awareness requires ongoing work. Here are some signs that you still have some work to do and that you may not be as self-aware as you think you are.
1. You micromanage.
Almost anyone who micromanages has a good reason as to why they do it. Perhaps you’re a perfectionist. Or maybe there’s a lot riding on a particular project and you can’t let it escape your attention. Or maybe you understand that your co-worker needs an extra push to complete assignments or a project.
These are all valid reasons. But you know what’s missing from them? An understanding of how your desire to take control affects the other person. Micromanaging has demoralizing effects on workers, team members and people in general. It signals you don’t trust the people you’re working with. It also gives you permission to make a lot of assumptions, serving to shirk your responsibility to actually take the time to do the work and communicate.
2. Nothing is ever your fault.
Speaking of avoiding responsibility, how often do you find yourself saying “Yes, but it's not my fault because (insert reason/excuse/context here)?"
It’s natural to want to give context to a situation, especially if you feel attacked or if something really wasn’t your fault. If you regularly respond to feedback or critiques with “yes, but…”, you’re most likely trying to deflect unwanted negative attention. That’s understandable. But know that other people perceive you as dismissive and as a person who avoids accountability.
Having the awareness to see how people react to your expression of your feelings is a crucial workplace skill. It's right up there with emotional intelligence; you need to be able to separate your thoughts with actual observation of your colleagues' behavior.
3. You get defensive.
Does any kind of feedback tend to make you upset or angry? Do you find all feedback is harsh, unexpected or unwarranted? Whenever a colleague offers criticism, do negative emotions spiral out of control?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might want to check in with yourself about why you get upset. After you're done with your introspection and you have the answer, ask yourself why again.
Feedback and critiques are a part of life — especially at work — and is most often meant to help you grow. Because nobody is perfect, and I say this with compassion, not everything is about you. It’s not always personal.
It can be difficult to sit with discomfort. While it’s normal to feel anxious or upset by unexpected criticism, it’s important to understand and identify how it differs from warranted and objective feedback. Use the next feedback you recieve as a self-awareness exercise to help you further develop self awareness at work.
4. You say things you don't mean.
There are times when I wish people could just read my mind — that they’d automatically know when and why I am upset or frustrated or hurt. It would make life so much easier than having to be an adult and express my feelings.
It’s also easier — and emotionally safer — to respond with “nothing” or “no problem” when something is, in fact, a problem. When the going gets tough, we tend to bury our emotions.
It makes sense. we all want to appear capable and confident to people, especially at work. Passive aggressive behavior is a way to avoid confrontation and deflect feelings. It’s scary to be vulnerable, and it can be particularly intimidating at work given all the other dynamics women have to navigate.
If you rely on passive aggressive behavior to communicate, you’re also setting unrealistic expectations on others because humans are not, in fact, mind readers. It’s also exhausting — both for you and whomever else is involved.
5. You can't laugh at yourself.
I don’t enjoy being embarrassed and have a hard time dealing with shame. (Doesn't everyone?) It’s understandable that when you find yourself in a situation where you’re feeling bad, the last thing you want to do is laugh. Maybe you react by getting angry and lashing out at whoever is around.
What that you’re really doing there is deflecting — rather than sitting with deep discomfort, you distract yourself. Self-awareness in this situation is admitting to yourself you’re embarrassed/upset/ashamed. After that happens, the laughter usually follows.
6. You think you're a good listener.
Maybe you really are a good listener! If you think you are, it’s worth asking yourself why — what do you do that makes you one?
Have you ever finished a project and been nervous about it? There were other pieces you wanted to include but you ran out of time, or there was this one other area you thought could be stronger — and then all but one person gave you positive feedback. Who did you listen to?
If you’re anything like me, you dwelled on the one person who — out of all the leaders — confirmed your insecurities. How often do you do this? How about when someone is speaking? Are you just waiting for him/her to finish so you can say what you want to say? Can you get out of your own way and actually pay attention to what the other person is saying?
Listening is key when communicating. That’s not a secret. But it’s also not that simple. It’s how you listen and what you listen for that really counts. Self-awareness includes the ability to listen to instead of listening for.
At the end of the day, anyone can become self aware. It doesn't take an above-average intelligence, it just requires attention and introspection. Simply adhere to the advice above, focus on your emotions and on how you interact with other people. You'll develop self awareness in no time!
Jennifer Koza is a social worker who believes support and empowerment are key to life- and has the data to back it up. By day, she is a research and evaluation analyst, committed to preventing violence against women and studying the value of work and workplaces. By night, she is a painter- or at least she tries to be when she's not catching up on t.v./movies (or re-watching The West Wing, Gilmore Girls or The Office).
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