Self-Awareness is the Real Teacher


People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering.” St. Augustine

Becoming more self-aware is on its way to gaining the social stamp of approval in Western cultures.  Turns out the classic theme of ancient philosophers and fundamental principle of modern psychology to know thyself – is taking on new meaning.

This is particularly true as postmodern organizational and leadership theories continue to redefine the qualities and conditions necessary for effectiveness within the status quo. Self-awareness has found some new support in these spheres because its perceived utility makes it an attractive commodity.

In his Forbes article, Return on Self-Awareness: Research Validiates the Bottom Line of Leadership Development, author Kevin Cashman writes, “Self-awareness is the most crucial developmental breakthrough for accelerating personal leadership growth and authenticity.” Harvard Business Review writer, Anthony K. Tjan describes self-awareness as theone quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager and leader.”

Findings in neuroscience  also show the efficacy of the work performance levels of more self-aware individuals. Cashman’s article cites the work of Korn Ferry analysts David Zes and Dana Landis whose research makes a direct connection between leader self-awareness and organizational financial performance. In their paper, A Better Return on Self-Awareness, Landis points out that the higher ROR (rate of return) of self-aware leaders demonstrates that, “self-awareness is not a soft skill, a nice-to-have. It’s playing out in your bottom line.”

It’s said that “necessity is the mother of invention” – and self-awareness may become a required “skill” to navigate the turbulent waters of today’s complex workplace and more transparent cultural environment.

Let me set the record straight – as an organizational consultant, I’m not in disagreement with Cashman’s points or the Korn Ferry study – I welcome the findings. I consider self-awareness to be the foundation of all self-learning and change.  Without it, we’re stuck in unconscious choices that create much of the pain and suffering, personally and collectively, that are driving us towards seeking greater enlightenment.

But pursuing self-awareness as just another business tool – however we magnify it’s “value,” leaves us bereft of its deeper purpose and extraordinary life-changing potential. Self-awareness isn’t simply another tool to change habits – but a means for genuine transformation.

How We See it – Makes the Difference.

Philosophers, poets, gurus and religious leaders have elevated awareness to the highest form of living for time immemorial. Most famously, Socrates boldly asserted that the Unexamined life is not worth living.”

Psychologist Robert Gerzon said, Socrates believed that the purpose of human life was personal and spiritual growth. We are unable to grow toward greater understanding of our true nature unless we take the time to examine and reflect upon our life. Examining our life reveals patterns of behavior. Deeper contemplation yields understanding of the subconscious programming, the powerful mental software that runs our life. Unless we become aware of these patterns, much of our life is unconscious repetition.”

In the mid-1990’s, the introduction of emotional intelligence (EI) into organizational settings, laid the groundwork for self-awareness to be identified as a “skill.” Building on the work of academics John Mayer and Peter Salovey, author Daniel Goleman ranked self-awareness as the foundational competency for emotional intelligence.  Goleman defined self-awareness as the ability to monitor our inner world – our thoughts and feelings.

According to Goleman this “competency” includes the ability to recognize our emotions and the impact they have on our life. He also added that the self-aware person can identify their strengths and limitations and know their self-worth and capabilities.  While Goleman has always pointed out the inherent limits of IQ, he stresses the unlimited potential for emotional self-knowledge.

The introduction of EI concepts into the workplace represented a major breakthrough in systems where discussion of emotions has essentially been discouraged, if not taboo. But many EI programs with limited time-frames conducted in organizations cannot address the ongoing commitment it takes to develop intra and interpersonal awareness.

Human needs, intentions, feelings and motivations are complex – incomparable to any business system or technological processes. Yet many organizational leaders still persist in describing these complexities as “soft.”

In his article, Why Self-Awareness is the Secret Weapon for Habit Change, author Paul Jun explains, The pursuit of self-awareness is difficult and requires dedication. To be conscious of who you are, how you think and what you do is invaluable because it leads to self-knowledge, and in turn, change.”

According to Jun, “the dedication required to change our mind and behavior is the fight of our lives.” While I choose not to regard the commitment to self-understanding as the fight of my life – I do understand that the human need to save face externally and appease our fragile sense of psychological safety make practicing self-awareness very challenging.

It is particularly difficult when organizational systems work against this development challenge. No book or seminar can install self-awareness – once we gain the basic cognitive/emotional tools to do the work – we must commit to a life-long practice if we are to reap the potentially rich benefits that qualitatively can change experience.

Self-Awareness is more than Self-Reflection

Our addiction to information may convince us that acquiring more about ourselves will transmute to greater self-awareness. In turn, we expect behavioral change. If information were all that were needed, we’d be living different lives in a very different world. Information is not experience. And tuning more deeply into our experience is what shifts the ground of self-awareness.

How do we “teach” someone to be more self-aware? What is the process of becoming more conscious?  Dr. Daniel Siegel describes this deeper process of bringing what is unconscious into conscious awareness as “mindsight.” Mindsight, he explains, is the way we focus attention on the nature of the internal world – how we focus awareness on ourselves and on the internal world of someone else. So at a very minimum, it’s how we have insight into ourselves, and empathy for others. The key says Siegel, is not only being able to see more of our internal process but develop the ability to modify it.

Practicing mindfulness, while a valuable way in to the process of glimpsing the contents of mind, will not necessarily result in greater self-awareness. It’s about more than just being present moment to moment to experience (although clearly this is the crucial starting point) but developing the clarity and strength to take action (through thinking, feeling and behavior) to modify what’s happening in our experience.

Michael Singer, author of the Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself, writes, “To attain true inner freedom, you must be able to objectively watch your problems instead of being lost in them… Once you’ve made the commitment to free yourself of the scared person inside, you will notice that there is a clear decision point at which your growth takes place.”

The more we practice the act of self-awareness – the more we take ourselves off  auto-pilot, the repetitive thoughts, feelings and behaviors that generally make up most of our lives.
On one hand, auto-pilot functioning is the brilliance of the brain at work.  We don’t have to learn certain things over and over.  The down side of this smart brain functionality is that our thought patterns become repetitive.

Repetitive thinking and behavior reinforces existing neural networks – so what we continuously do, say, think, etc. tends to strengthen (literally thicken) our brain’s wiring. When we are operating with conscious awareness, we are always breaking new neural ground because we are generally learning (even the slightest nuance) something new.  We literally form new cells (neurons) every time we shift our thinking in new directions. Freud defined the conscious mind as including everything that is inside of our awareness.

Who is the Watcher?

Author Eckhart Tolle refers to the “watcher” of our experience. Think of the watcher as the “witness” of your experience – neutral, objective, non-judgmental.

Tolle offers a blueprint for deepening our experience through the active practice of self-awareness, “Be present as the watcher of your mind – of thoughts and emotions as well as reactions. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react.  Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future.  Don’t judge or analyze what you observe.  Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction.  Don’t make a personal problem out of them.  You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.”

As the watcher, you are compelled to decide whether the thing you are observing about yourself aligns with the person you want to be. Does it align with your integrity, your values, your purpose, your passion, with the core of who you are? And sometimes it forces you to acknowledge you haven’t defined your integrity, your values, your purpose, your passion or the core of who you are.

Yes, it takes great skill to develop self-awareness. It is a continuous process that takes commitment to do the emotional work involved. In the process, we’ll experience discomfort, resistance and sometimes even pain. But we will also experience new depths of freedom, authenticity, connection and peace that will be their own reward.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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