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Self-awareness is a key for personal transformation

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The concept of self-awareness started to form a few centuries ago, long before psychology was established. Even the Renaissance philosophers gained the insight of themselves as not only the acting but mindful subjects. And it was an exciting step on a human’s path to self-recognition. Contact with yourself is impossible if you don’t recognise yourself as a perceiving subject and don’t understand what is happening inside in this moment and in these circumstances.

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A new insight from Founders Club discussion groups. We will try to find a connection between the chosen life strategy and self-awareness, and figure out how to train it, as well as, find out how the increase and qualitative growth of specific skills give awareness in everyday life and business.

How important is self-awareness in everyday life? Is it possible to learn it? And how?
It seems that it is possible. The essence of self-awareness is to observe your emotional experience and feelings of “here and now”. Thus, all meditative practices, philosophical teachings, psychotherapy cast a key role in self-awareness.  

It is most easily achieved in a therapeutic alliance: when there is someone “reminiscent” of the current state, asking questions about the general condition and the experienced emotions. Traditionally, this is a psychologist. Maybe a caring parent up to a certain age. Also, a teacher or a coach, in other words, someone from the outside. And once this skill is improved, the external figure is placed inside (introjected), and then the person is able to periodically “scan themselves”.

Thus, Gestalt-psychologists pay special attention to the interaction of the therapist and the client, to “mirroring” the feelings and states analyzed in actual contact, in the moment. This leads to the development of the client's self-awareness.

Еherapists, who work in an existential direction, generally put self-awareness at the forefront. They understand by this the ability to seek and find personal meanings of what is happening. Hereby, self-awareness is understood more broadly, specifically as a conscious building of life-based on values ​​and meanings. “We cannot learn values. we have to experience values”, wrote Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. And in order to understand the experienced values ​​as such, a high level of detachment and awareness is important. So that at every stage of life, a person decides whether to be, basically, a creator or a destroyer in any, even very harsh circumstances (Frankl's work “The Psychologist in a Concentration Camp” is widely known). This choice is perceived from the point of view of the finiteness of being when the knowledge of death gives a tremendous meaning not only to life itself, but also to any “little things”.

In the psychology of the humanistic direction, the idea of self-awareness, in general, appeared in a new way: Plato's "man is the measure of all things" was rethought in the aspect of satisfying basic needs, the possibility of creative self-realization, freedom of expression. The interesting thing is that one of the postulates of this approach is self-awareness in the present moment. To truly realize your potential, you need to at least understand what it is. In addition, study yourself as well as possible.

With all the abundance of psychological schools, the practice has shown that no problem is solved at the same level at which it arose initially. Therefore, the goal of any therapy is to change the perception aspect. To expand its framework and to shift the emphasis, or just to look at the different angles. But in order to do this, at first, you have to find point A.

The most important person is you

Why? Because only on the inside you can find all the keys to any change. In psychology, awareness is associated with the ability to observe, both, for yourself and at the same time for what is happening at a given moment.

And it is a “top-class” ability to do this even when a person is irritated, or burns out with shame, feels depressed; in other words, when a person experiences strong emotional involvement. Usually, emotions “consume”, and it seems that this is the real “reality”. No matter how it is. They arise precisely not because of events, but because of the interpretation of what is happening. It can be pretty hang-loose. Did the boyfriend forget to call? “He doesn't care about me!” and an emotional reaction is immediately triggered. Didn't get the job you wanted? “I am a loser”. And this assessment, the “picture” in the head, and not the fact itself triggers us greatly. That is why it is so important to separate and distance yourself from what you feel. From the situation, from the model of habitual perception, from emotions, from what is happening. Don’t confuse it with running away, since the escape strategy is different. To separate is to observe yourself, giving space to any of your manifestations.

It is now clear why philosophers first came up with the idea of ​​self-awareness. Уou can answer differently to the “What am I?” question. But this is definitely not a profession, not a body, not thoughts, not emotions and feelings. Not a biography and not a generic history. Rather, a complexity of everything mentioned above and something more. According to the principle “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. And what is the centre of this complex? “The mystics of all countries and eras argued that the one who watches what is happening inside us and is not involved in anything is who we really are” (Swagito Liebermeister “The roots of love. Family constellations —  from dependence to freedom”). But Carl Gustav Jung considered such estrangement to be the task of individuation (growing up) and the main condition for the manifestation of selfhood. This process is often compared to peeling an onion: you remove one layer, a second one, and another one until you reach the inner subject, who studies its roles, masks, moods, states with great interest.

But there’s a catch. The main thing is not to confuse the Observer pattern with someone else. If this someone inside accuses, shames, condemns, approves, encourages or gives any assessment, then most likely that it is the Inner Parent. The observer is only a researcher, an impassive fixator. Its main characteristics are benevolent attention and interest.

Self-awareness scales: from situatedness to life strategy

 

There is minimal awareness in a specific situation: for example, you are busy, but the messenger beeps every minute. Irritation arises. You either turn off the sound or skim through the messages and get back to business. The awareness in this situation will be: you heard a sound —  felt irritated —  asked yourself a question:

“What is happening to me? —  I am angry at extraneous sounds. —  What's more important: watch messages or finish what I'm doing? —  Finish the case. —  Can I handle the impatience and anxiety? What if there is something important there?”

And depending on the last answer, choose a further strategy. It seems like a long chain just on the paper. In fact, such internal dialogue lasts a few seconds. And if the first questions seem obvious, then the last two bring the closest thing to conscious behaviour.

Self-awareness in the general meaning of the life strategy is connected with searching and finding the meanings. Including individual ones. To find meaning in any situation being estranged from a spontaneous reaction is not about “positive thinking” but more about confronting different aspects of yourself.

For example, you carefully prepared a lucrative contract and it went off. What will be the reaction? In the beginning: annoyance, irritation, disappointment, perhaps fear. A deliberate approach helps to symbolically understand the situation: as if you are “above”, on a step higher. The meaning can be understanding that your expectations did not correspond to reality or a valuable experience of living your own aggression. Or maybe, accepting restrictions and looking for an alternative. Finding meanings is always a solo journey.

“... Sense or meaning is, most likely, something that we project into the things around us, which are neutral in their nature”, said Viktor Frankl.

Self-awareness is when everything has a meaning. And even more: everything that happens is perfect for a particular person at this very moment since it contributes to their maximum realization. This is the initial agreement that any event is deeply true for you.

Especially in extreme conditions. Solzhenitsyn and Frankl wrote about this differently, without having met each other. Solzhenitsyn after the Stalinist camps and Frankl in a German concentration camp. Both observed that disagreement, indignation, deep feeling of injustice, and anguish most often led prisoners to early death. And finding meaning (to survive in order to find lost relatives; because there is faith in God; to live at least this day as a person) saved a lot of people.

Self-awareness: is it for the “chosen” ones?

 

Quite unlikely. Everyone has its main tools. It is attention. To become self-aware means learning how to share the focus of attention: at the same time, you are observing the situation and your state and feelings in it. Often, we are “looking” for what resonates with values: for some, it is relationships, for some — work and career, money, and etc. And very rarely, attention is directed to yourself. Directed not as a member of relations (manager, son/daughter, husband/wife, parent, etc.), but as a pure subject, which is originally manifested in reality right now. The attention which is directed inside helps to "separate" from the thick of things, contributes to the slowdown of the spontaneous reaction (which often harms). It also changes the quality of various interactions by figuring out relations with yourself. This useful “habit” to perceive yourself as a separate creature, gives power for real maturity.

What is the main distinctiveness of a self-conscious person? They gradually stop using the same models and patterns and move away from spontaneous reactions. Since our reactions are quite often similar for all of us. Somebody praised you — awesome, somebody criticized — you’re embarrassed and ashamed. Everyone has it. And if you think about what you feel: how is the satisfaction of praise residing within you? Does warmth spread in your chest or makes you blush? Maybe it makes you smile? And the criticism? Do you freeze, shrink, or attack in response? While you are exploring feelings, you are separated from them. We can either be in the thick of things or look from the outside. The second helps to delay the reaction and change it from the usual to a more balanced one.

While there is no self-realization in time and space, we are governed by ancient brain structures responsible for instincts and emotions. That is why, with losing sight of the emotional and psychic reality, it is difficult not to face a few disappointments. The good news is that frustration leads to awareness.

Why do you need self-awareness?
  • The bare minimum is to increase your productivity. First of all, by separating from the situation. When we are spectating, we are not ourselves anymore. And what we look at is changing under the focus of attention.

For example, you are late for an important meeting. “It's my fault!” is one feeling. “I feel guilty!” is completely different. In the second case, it means that someone inside, who looks at you being late and notes the feeling of awkwardness. Of course, in this version, the awkwardness doesn’t go anywhere, but it is experienced less intensely. This means that it has less influence on the further situation.

  • Another important aspect that is influenced by self-awareness is the possibility of quitting the “me-object” state, which is a characteristic of the “victim” psychology.

“As long as a person believes that his problems are caused by some external issue, therapy is powerless”, — stated Irwin Yalom (“Love's Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy”). In this case, relationships are built on the principle “I don’t influence anything, something affects me” and such a rudiment of the child's inner psyche, when we were completely dependent on parents and primary caregivers. And a person habitually adapts and survives no matter what. It simply reacts by responding to the impact. The state of the “me-subject”: “I influence reality, and it also affects me”. How do I influence it? Thoughts, decisions, intentions. But above all, I influence it with my feelings. First of all, it is very pleasant to feel more “influential”. Secondly, it is possible to bear some of the responsibility for what is happening. Followers of the Gestalt approach in psychology directly associate self-awareness with a sense of responsibility. And this is a sign of maturity.

Types of self-awareness

 

Self-awareness can be on different levels, as well as, it can be at only one. 

Physical level

It is also about a healthy lifestyle and about everything that considers physical comfort, which is consciously organised by the person. Your inner spectator scans the actual physical state by asking a question “What does my body want now? What is better for it right now?”. Or, for example, you can decide once and for all not to wear synthetic clothes. Don’t buy uncomfortable clothes. Or you can complete a massage course. Or before eating sweets, ask yourself “Is it really what I want right now?”. There are many ways to establish a connection with your body.

Emotional level

The brain areas responsible for emotions are formed much earlier than the neocortex, the structure that allows analysis and intellectual processes. This is why emotions and feelings truly own us. Basically, it is more important not what you think, but what you feel in a given situation.

At this level, rage vortices and complexes are activated, so it is most difficult to observe yourself at this point. But separating from emotions, even for milliseconds, can quantumly change the current state. This means that in milliseconds, you will no longer be in the situation that was before.

For example, you heard acridity, so you left, slamming the door. The following question helps to separate from the situation: “What kind of feeling is so unbearable for me now?” Did you get “triggered” with anger? Or have you fled from excruciating shame? Maybe you have carried off the grave guilt for what happened? What is the verbal name of what you were living at that moment? And how do you feel when you remember that situation?

Mental level

This refers to being aware of your strengths and weaknesses, setting goals, beliefs and maximises. The answer to the question: “In what myth do I live and want to live?” Or two completely different answers: “I live in one myth, but I want to live in another”. Is this a myth about achievements that add value to life? Or a survival myth? Maybe about the hero's path? At this level, the inner observer helps to separate the grain from the chaff: to understand where it is imposed, socially conditioned, and where it is fully individual.

Everyone knows about the midlife crisis: when it turns out that the house-car-career isn’t that bad, but it doesn’t make you happy. Therefore, the milestone of plus/minus 40 is often about finding an individual path. You've definitely heard stories about how an accountant suddenly ends up in drawing classes and begins to fulfil art orders. Or a successful manager sells out all the property and leaves for some Indian ashram. Robin Shawarma wrote about this phenomenon in the book “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari”. Such extravagant events happen precisely because of the sudden self-realization being on the wrong path: as if a person is living “not his own life,” or loses meaning in it, or when nothing pleases. And then the person begins to search for “his own”. It is the departure from habitual patterns that contributes to a radical revision of life.

Spiritual self-awareness

This is the level of relations with the Absolute, building an individual picture of the world and realizing yourself in it. Often, this is a search in religion, esotericism, culture and art: when it is important to be aware of yourself as a part of something bigger. Including, being aware of the mission at the level of a personal myth (“I live to help people”, “to carry the truth”, “to create works of art”).

How to train your self-awareness?

You have to start with the habit of asking questions. So at least, you have to accept that from now on there will be an inner Observer. Directing your attention inward, into psychic reality.

The easiest way to return to “the here and now” when you are absorbed in something is to simply turn your attention to the daily routine. For example: “What's for lunch today?” “I wonder what material this table is made of?”

There is a great (and fun) exercise to get into “the here and now”: look at yourself from the side through the eyes of some object in the room. For example: “How does this bookshelf see me now? A flower on the window? Computer monitor?”

But what if you turn this action into a systematic self-observation? Where to start?

  • It is important to talk from the first person more often. “I was lazy and didn’t go to the gym”.

  • The specification of the situation will help you to see the essence of the events. Just compare: “I’m shocked!” and “I’m shocked when I see such a reckless approach.” It is possible to continue: “Why does someone's irresponsibility trigger me so much?” Any strong feeling has its own “history” in your biography. Therefore, as soon as you feel a strong emotional inclusion, you have to understand: you begin to interact not with this very situation, but with an event from “there and then”.

  • You can prepare a top list of everyday questions. For example: “Does it really make me happy?” “And what really pleases me?” “What am I feeling right now?” “How is it called? Disappointment, bitterness, or resentment? What's the difference for me?”, “What do I really want from this person? Can I give it to myself without their help?”

  • It would be nice to get rid of the habit of judging and blaming yourself. As soon as you notice this, say "stop" immediately. No judgment. Simply interrupt this process. And think about what has happened that such a habit appeared.

  • Self-conscious people certainly know how not “to burn out”. Since they know when to fill themselves up on time, give some rest and take care of themselves. These people understand that their most important responsibility is their inner state. And the more resourceful it is, the more productive it is in work and any relationship.

You can continue the list or come up with your own ways of training self-awareness, the main thing is attention to yourself, the ability to keep yourself in the loop.

How does self-awareness affect you?
  • Reduces vulnerability to stress (including information stress, the most insidious one). An island of strength is forming inside you (it is our inner Observer). This alone preserves your boundaries and helps you avoid being completely involved in stressful situations.

  • You become more productive by the ability to switch without any fuss.

  • You are able to foresee several steps ahead. Or an even broader perspective.

  • Communication efficiency improves. As well as the quality of life. You better understand yourself and others, adequately evaluate your strengths, and your behaviour is less dependent on someone’s reactions. 

  • You begin to build your life on your own, with less regard for authorities, and eventually, you become happier.

It is difficult to reach the inner “I” through distortions, psychic defences and displacements. But without doing this, we run the risk of remaining in a set of roles and masks, and not starting our own unique path. The funny thing is that our arsenal of reactions is quite the same for everyone. However, it becomes more interesting, when you have to develop your own psychological "handwriting", to find unique meanings and draw a unique picture of your fate.

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So how are you doing? Difficult and sometimes painful, but such a necessary way to “find yourself”. Maybe you want to talk about it?

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