The True Meaning of Self-Awareness (& How to Tell If You're Actually Self-Aware)

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Caroline Forsey
Caroline Forsey


Self-awareness is a critical tool to help you reach higher levels of job satisfaction, become a better leader, improve relationships with colleagues, and manage your emotions better. It’s also positively correlated with higher levels of overall happiness.


And yet, as one study estimates, only 10-15% of people are truly self-aware.

Luckily, self-awareness can be practiced and cultivated -- it’s not a fixed trait.→ Click here to download leadership lessons from HubSpot founder, Dharmesh  Shah [Free Guide].

If you begin to consciously practice self-awareness, you can evaluate how your values, passions, and goals fit into your current environment and emotions -- and how to align them better. You can also understand how other people view you, creating stronger, more authentic relationships with colleagues.

Self-awareness will help you become a happier and more productive employee and leader, and can help you align your current life with your passions.

Here, we’ll explore what self-awareness truly means, how to tell if you’re self-aware, and, best of all, how to improve your own self-awareness, right now.

If you’re still unconvinced that self-awareness is a valuable trait to cultivate, here’s a list of general benefits of being self-aware.

What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness was first defined by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund (1972), who proposed that, at a given moment, people can focus attention on the self or on the external environment.

Duval and Wicklund noted, "When we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves."

In other words, when you focus on yourself, rather than your environment, you compare yourself with your standards of correctness. These standards of correctness specify how you ought to think, feel, and behave. They are, essentially, your values and beliefs, otherwise known as your ideals.

You feel pride or dissatisfaction depending on how well your behavior matches up with your standards of correctness. If you’re dissatisfied, you might make changes to your behavior to better align with your standards. For instance, you might note feelings of discontent in your current role, and recognize you value creativity but don’t have the opportunity to exercise that passion. That dissatisfaction could lead you to pursue other creative outlets, changing your behavior to fit your standards.

Self-awareness, then, is a fundamental tool for self-control.

Make sense? One more thing.

Tasha Eurich, a researcher and organizational psychologist, and her team of researchers came up with two categories of self-awareness, which I think are important to note: internal self-awareness, and external self-awareness.

Internal self-awareness is something I’ve already mentioned -- it is how clearly you see your values, passions, and aspirations, and how well those standards fit with your environment and your reactions (which include thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses).

Essentially, internal self-awareness is recognizing your current job doesn’t match your true passion for marketing, or feeling dissatisfied with a heated conversation you had with your colleague, which conflicts with your belief that kindness is important.

External self-awareness, on the other hand, is the ability to clearly see how other people view you. People who know how others see them are typically more empathetic. Leaders who can see how their employees view them are usually more effective, and have stronger relationships with their employees.

External self-awareness is recognizing your employee took your feedback personally because of your tone, or realizing your employees are disheartened by the data provided in your last email.

Self-awareness test

Okay, so we’ve covered what self-awareness is, and why it’s important. Now, how are you supposed to know if you’re as self-aware as you should be?

The iNLP Center self awareness test is a quick, free online test to measure your self-awareness. Although it’s not a scientific or clinical assessment, the test was created by Mike Bundrant, who has 25 years experience as a counselor, NLP trainer (Neuro-linguistic programming, which is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy), and life coach. The test, made up of 12 multiple-choice questions, provides you with a score and interpretation of your level of self-awareness, and which areas you should focus on improving.

Additionally, consider taking a basic personality test: the results might contradict with how you view yourself, encouraging you to re-evaluate your true strengths and weaknesses.

There are other, non-standardized test ways to measure your self-awareness, too:

First, you could apply feedback analysis to your own life whenever you make important decisions. For instance, you might write down why you chose to switch departments at work, including your motivations, thoughts during the decision-making process, and what you expected would happen as a result. Then, a couple months later, check back in with your notes -- what’s gone according to plan, what were you wrong about, etc.? This can provide you with a deeper understanding of how you make decisions and how you can improve the process, as well as what motivates you.

Or, write down a list of what you perceive to be your strengths and weaknesses. When you’re finished, check with someone you trust to give honest feedback: are you missing any strengths or weaknesses, or do other people perceive you differently?

Ideally, over time, you’ll use various methods to slowly gain a deeper understanding of who you are, what you want, and how those things overlap or conflict with how you behave, think, and feel.

How to become more self-aware

Once you’ve discovered how self-aware you are, you’re probably wondering how you can get better at it.

There are dozens of ways to improve and cultivate self-awareness, but here are four of the biggest to start you off.

1. Ask “What?” instead of “Why?”

When people assess their current state, emotions, and environment, they all too often ask, “Why?” Like, “Why am I feeling so sad? Why did my boss give me that feedback? Why isn’t my project going the way I’d hoped?”

Here’s why asking “Why?” is ineffective: research has shown you don’t have access to a lot of your unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives. Odds are, you’re wrong about why you act, do, or think certain things. For instance, you might hear harsh feedback from a boss, and rationale it’s because you’re not cut out for the job, or harp on your insecurities -- it’s hard for you to unbiasedly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses and come to a correct conclusion.

Plus, you don’t often factor physiological responses into the equation when you’re trying to understand your behavior. For instance, maybe you lost your temper at your employee because of low blood sugar or lack of sleep, not because you’re an unfit leader.

Research has also found people who are introspective are more likely to ruminate on negative thoughts when evaluating the self. Self-evaluation through “Why” questions could leave you feeling depressed and anxious, while being entirely unproductive.

Rather than asking “Why,” highly self-aware people ask, “What?” “What” questions are more productive, and focuses on objectives and future goals, rather than past mistakes.

For instance, let’s say you’re feeling frustrated at work. “Why am I feeling awful?” will likely only leave you feeling more depressed, forcing you to ruminate on negatives. On the other hand, “What are the situations at work making me feel bad?” guides you to recognizing factors outside your control that don’t align with your passions or goals, and helps you strategize how to fix those situations.

2. Spend Time With Yourself

It’s not easy to reflect on yourself when you’ve got the TV blaring, you’re out to dinner with friends, or you’re glued to your phone.

Give yourself the space and time necessary to self-reflect, by avoiding distractions. Try spending time reading, writing, meditating, or practicing other solo activities to connect with yourself.

Try to give yourself 30 quiet, distraction-free minutes a day.

3. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness allows you to be present with yourself and observe your thoughts in a non-judgmental way. What better way to become self-aware than focusing, nonjudgmentally, on you?

Mindfulness forces you to focus on yourself on purpose, in the present moment. Next time you’re feeling frustrated at work, use mindfulness to check-in with yourself: what thoughts are going through your mind? How are you feeling? Simply being present enough to acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, will help you become more acquainted and better at recognizing them properly within yourself.

Take a look at these Mindfulness apps if you need help getting started.

4. Become a Better Listener, and Ask for Feedback

When you learn how to listen to your friends, colleagues, and managers without evaluating or judging them, you’ll become more empathetic and understand people better. Listening, by the way, isn’t the same as hearing -- like mindfulness, the practice of listening takes purpose and control. Listening to the important people in your life should give you a true sense of how they perceive you.

You can translate those listening skills to yourself, too, and become better at understanding your own thoughts and emotions. Listening to others and yourself is critical to becoming self-aware.

Additionally, it's important to ask for feedback from the people you work with, or lead. It’s impossible to have true, complete self-awareness, if you only turn inwards -- gaining different perspectives on who you are will help you see a truer, more complete picture.

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