By: Julia D'Addurno
Generally, self-awareness is having a clear perception of who you are. Goleman (1995) proposed that self-awareness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, since self-awareness requires a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, limitations, values and motives. Emotional intelligence and self-awareness also allow one to understand oneself, others, and the world around them (Goleman, 1995; Goleman, 2007). According to research on self-awareness, knowing oneself is associated with higher success, creativity, stronger relationships, and better communication. It is a quality that many people strive to obtain and most people think they already have.
Many people would be surprised to know that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is actually quite rare and that very few people are estimated to actually have this quality. So if you’re reading this, there is a high chance that you may not actually be as self-aware as you think you are. You may not be alone, though. If you ask someone if they think they are self-aware they will most likely say yes. This is the reason organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich developed a way of measuring self-awareness in a more objective and valid way. In her research study, Eurich (2018) found that only 10-15% of participants met the criteria required to actually be considered self-aware. That’s extremely low considering how many participants claimed to already be self-aware.
In this study, Eurich (2018) explored what distinguished this self-aware group from the rest of the participants. She found that introspection - the process of thinking about one’s thoughts feelings and behaviours - does not always lead to self-awareness, contrary to popular belief.
Most people believe that if you reflect and think about yourself (thoughts, feelings and behaviours) you simply learn more about yourself. However, studies have shown that people don’t always learn from experience, being an expert does not help root out false information, and seeing ourselves as highly experienced keeps us from seeking information and questioning things. Therefore, people who introspect are less self-aware and actually have poorer wellbeing (Eurich, 2018).
Eurich isn’t saying to stop thinking. We just have to change the way we think. Introspection can be effective but most people do it incorrectly. When we think about ourselves and try to understand our actions, for example, we think “why?” or “why did I do that?”. This question opens up a big possibility for error. Mainly because there is so much outside of our conscious awareness. When we ask why, we come up with answers to this question that feel true but are often wrong. We have unconscious biases. Everyone has them. Our judgment is almost never free from bias. Our experiences, education and upbringing all contribute to our perception of the world and they determine who we are. Our brains use all this data stored in our internal hard drives to make shortcuts and organize information in a way that allows us to make quick assessments of situations.
We rarely question our judgements and usually don’t question their validity. Asking “why?” is not only unreliable but it also leads us to thoughts that are unproductive and possibly negative. Rumination is when we overthink a situation or event. In ruminating, we focus on our fears, insecurities and shortcomings. These thoughts are often irrational. If we think about an event that has already happened and try to determine why an outcome was the way it is, we are usually not thinking productively.
So how do we introspect correctly? Eurich explains that “what?” questions should be initiated instead. Asking “what” questions helps us stay objective and move forward. This is backed up by experimental research in which it was found that participants who received negative feedback on tests assessing their sociability, likability and interestingness, were more likely to evaluate themselves more openly and compassionately when asked to think about what kind of person they were than participants asked why they were the way they were. Students asked to think “why?” were more likely to rationalize and deny the test results, and judge themselves more harshly (Hixon & Swann, 1993). Another notable study mentioned included widowed individuals who evaluated their happiness after the loss of their spouse a month following their death and then a year later. Those who tried to make sense of their spouse’s passing and ask why they died were happier a month later but were more depressed a year later than those who focused on what they could do to grieve in a healthy way, move on and move forward with their loss. These people were happier one year later.
So, the questions we ask ourselves in our journey towards self-awareness should bring us forward. One of the reasons therapy can be so beneficial is that we are able to work with our therapist and learn about ourselves in a way that pushes us forward. No matter how aware of ourselves we become there is always so much more to learn!
A shortened version of the assessment Dr. Eurich and her team used to assess self-awareness can be found here: :http://www.insight-book.com/quiz
Dr. Eurich also has an amazing TED Talk that highlights some of her important findings on self-awareness! It can be found here: https://www.ted.com/talks/tasha_eurich_increase_your_self_awareness_with_one_simple_fix?language=en
Eurich, T. (2018). What self-awareness really is (and how to cultivate it). Harvard Business Review.
Goleman, D., (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam.
Goleman, D., (2007). Social Intelligence: The new science of human relationships. New York: Bantam.
Hixon, J. G., & Swann, W. B. (1993). When does introspection bear fruit? Self-reflection, self-insight, and interpersonal choices. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(1), 35–43.doi:10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206