By Marc Wilson
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So you think you’re self-aware? 95% of people believe themselves to be self-aware. Recent research shows that just 10 to 15% of people are (Eurich, T – 'Insight' – Crown Business – 2017).
Self-awareness may be the most elusive and challenging skill we attempt to gain. It is a foundation for authentic leadership, it is required to be empathetic, it helps us conquer our insecurities, it is critical for robust, true friendship and love. Without it, we can never be sure that we will achieve happiness. Without self-awareness success will be ill-defined. Also, we will never be sure if how we act and react to others is real or merely a result of our attempts to craft our image to meet our own or others' desires – or in order to avoid being what we fear.
For many of us, there are people around us who have a better understanding of us than we do ourselves. We delude ourselves based on what we want to be or don't want to be. It is also a sad reality that our true self is often like a shadow – we forever catch glimpses of it (in other people, their reactions to us, etc), but we are often like a bewildered dog, barking in incomprehension. The shadow is our unconscious self.
There is a lovely aphorism that a shadow can only exist in the presence of light. It is explored in the story and metaphors of Peter Pan – a story in itself of growing up, or not. Only when we are self-aware, when we see our shadow, are we aware of the light – the happiness, knowledge and courage that gave rise to it. If we concentrate entirely on the shadow, we lose sight of the light. If we are scared of our shadow or fail to acknowledge it, we never appreciate the light at all. The shadow is not good or bad and neither is the light. Both exist in relation to one another. The shadow is not pretentious or made up – yet it can be skewed, tall and short depending on the angle of the light.
How self-aware are you?
95% of people believe themselves to be self-aware. 10 to 15% of people are (questions are the author's own, statistic from Eurich, T – 'Insight' – Crown Business – 2017)
Many of us have a view or desire of what our true self should be. It can be so important to us that our self is an image we or others approve of. Instead of recognising our shadow (self) for what it is / might be, we end up distorting the light (our lives, relationships, interactions and events) in attempts to shape the shadow closer to what we want it to be. We end up being unable or unwilling to experience the world as it is as we try to make it reinforce the person we think we should be.
Self-awareness is the foundation for growth. It is necessary to appreciate our insecurities and build security. It is critical to form healthy relationships. It is a requirement for leadership. It eases our path to success.
Clearly, self-awareness is not just for leaders. Why do so many of us go through mid-life crises? Why are divorce rates so high? Why are so many people in therapy and counselling? Why do teams rebel? Why do you battle with some types of people? Why are you surprised when your plans don't work out as you intend?
How self-aware are you?
Total Voters: 128
Self-awareness is not merely understanding our personality based on a psychometric. Understanding why we are the person we are can help us deal more effectively with who we are as a person.
We avoid self-awareness because it asks uncomfortable questions – are we prepared to understand ourselves, warts and all, love ourselves regardless and based on this truth, know what we can't change and change what we don't like? Many people spend lifetimes coming to terms with who they are and many never do. Self-awareness without acceptance and growth is torture. If we are to choose self-awareness then we must also choose to develop ourselves.
Some people cope with either their lack of self-awareness or lack of self-development. We all know the grouchy old man that people avoid. He's probably in your family somewhere. You avoid confrontation with him and kind of make do. Or you probably have that friend: 'It's like water off a duck's back – nothing gets to her!' Blissful ignorance? All good and well – until we get in the way of ourselves or that iceberg beneath the water sinks our dreams and ambitions.
We extrapolate survivor bias: 'If Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can succeed (and be happy) – with their apparent unapologetic abrasiveness and doing things their own way – then why shouldn't I?' You could try to mimic the paths of the exceptions. The odds of success would be against you.
Self-awareness and self-development require incredible courage and capacity. Sometimes we encounter that rare person we might describe as self-aware and being 'comfortable in their own skin'. It is an incredible compliment and an aspiration for all of us. People like this are wonderful to be around. They make us feel secure. They seem attractive. They are ease with themselves and the world. It is not because they have avoided confronting self-awareness, but because of the capacity they have developed for dealing with that knowledge, their comfort and openness in being whoever their true self might be.
These amazing people are not secure in their job, they are not secure in their intellect, they are not secure in their achievements, they are not secure in their relationships, they are not secure in their race, they are not secure in their gender, they are not secure in their sexuality. They are secure in themselves irrespective of all of those attributes. Perhaps they might truly be described as being secure in their souls. They are open to learn more about themselves and experience new things.
For many of us, we try to find some sort of bridge. We work from our acknowledged strengths. We start with a stereo-typed personality descriptor. We go for counselling. We enrol in motivational courses. We forgive the inner child. We take a sabbatical or a journey of self-discovery. We join an ashram.
Or we cope. We take on a role, job or life that is within our capacity.
Ultimately it is our minds that shape our character and our attitudes – in Milton's words, 'The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven' – perhaps the majority of us live our lives struggling with just that. Some people go through untold abuse and pain. A limit on self-development capacity – permanently or at a point in time – is no shame. Finding a starting point and path is as courageous as being open to whatever you might be.
As hard as it might be to discover who and why we are, changing what we need to is harder. We are stubborn, we overestimate our uniqueness and we excuse lack of change in ourselves while hoping the world and others will change around us or be as we want it / them to be. We get stuck in our patterns, literally spiraling through behaviours on a day-to-day basis. Developing self-awareness without developing control and power over ourselves serves little benefit to ourselves or those we interact with.
If we are to grow, to achieve all that we can, to be happy and fulfilled, then we must build self-awareness, build self-development capacity, manage who we are to get the best from it and improve where we can. Know yourself and accept what is, understand and accept what you cannot change, improve where it matters. If we understand ourselves and then excuse how we behave based on 'That's just who I am,' then we have cut our journey short.
Some ideas on building self-development capacity
There are very few things that are as bad or as amazing as we imagine. In fact, there are few things about us that actually are bad – those that usually come down to clear issues of ethics. The rest are judgments, norms and conventions – either our own or those we put upon ourselves. If you want to be a grouch, are aware of it and at ease with yourself, you live with that and the consequences.
I believe there is a little bit of everybody in all of us. Those we admire and those we dislike. The traits we despise and those we aspire to. The intensity of those varies with time.
If we cannot embrace these traits, what does that say of our ability to embrace and relate to other people? When we open ourselves up to be anything, we become accessible to anyone.
Humility is a great gift. We are a speck of dust on a speck of earth that is 4,5 billion years old in an infinite universe. Whatever we might be or not be – no matter how famous or 'important' we are – it is not too significant in that context.
Don't brush the possibility of being anything aside. What if it were true? Live in that space for a while. Understand the downside and the negatives realistically rather than emotionally. But understand the upside. What would the positive aspects be?
Sometimes the upside is limited. Finding out that we are perceived as arrogant, caustic or incompetent are not things in which most of us would find much upside. Sometimes the only upside is awareness from which we can build understanding, change and grow.
After a particularly hard and – in my mind – unfair feedback session, a colleague said to me, 'What if just a part of what they were saying is true? Could you seek that out and deal with that?'
It was a pivotal moment for me. It introduced me to the fact that 'the truth lies somewhere in between' – somewhere between others' perceptions of me and my own perceptions of myself. It allowed me to open my mind and reduce the sting (although that is inevitably there). The same is true of our capacity to hold any attribute at some point in time.
Many of us live trying to satisfy the expectations of others – our parents, a partner, friends, our colleagues or a boss. We try to be what we think they want and need. Fundamental to building self-awareness is giving ourselves permission to be anything. More than this, understanding that without giving ourselves this permission, we face living unfulfilled lives. While the choices we make require compromise, living our lives for anybody else short changes our own potential.
It might be true that those who matter won't mind and those who mind don't matter. But it can be a hell of a journey to find out who matters. Perhaps the fundamental truth is that while we might spend a lot of time with some people in our lives, we are going to spend 100% of that time with ourselves.
It is one thing to lie to others – it is quite another to lie to ourselves. Yet most of us do as we battle our own image of ourselves and as we try to live up to some aspiration.
There are myriads of self-awareness diagnostics and tools. There are many more books and papers. There are coaches, counselors and therapists. There are retreats and organisations. None are silver bullets – that capacity lies only in you. Starting the journey is relatively easy though. We are indeed all cut from the same cloth, even though our patterns and make up might be some specific combination of those pieces. Starting the discovery is understanding those pieces.
Stop trying to distort 'the light' and 'the shadow'. It is a truly rare and unlikely skill that allows us to see ourselves in an objective light and as others do. To solve that problem we need feedback.
It is hard enough developing the capacity to understand ourselves and embrace who we might be. It is incredibly hard involving others in that journey. But without doing this we will be unsuccessful.
If we are lucky we might work where peers are trained to give feedback in a constructive way. Without this, we are likely to get feedback informally or on request – and seldom in a way that is packaged such that it is tailored to how we might need it.
If we are exceptionally lucky we might find mentors, coaches and friends who are able to help us find truth in optimal doses and who help us process and build understanding.
Most of us tend to have fairly strong views regarding what we like / what we don't, what we should be / what we should not. The reality is that without being open to experience, we face the potential of missing out on finding out what truly fulfills us and even what we like.
Most of us can relate to that teenager experience of resisting the family outing, rebelling against school activity, testing the boundaries or being insecure about being different. As toddlers, rules and boundaries are built to protect us – fire will burn us. Parents' love provides the safety we need. As teenagers, we fight for our own space and test our own views of ourselves and the world. We test acceptance and our own levels of comfort with being our own person. We build capacity to challenge and accept.
The danger is that we become trapped in a fight of silent rebellion or a fight for acceptance. That we never leave our teenage years. That instead of this fight being to claim our own space or to be accepted into another, we become imprisoned by the fight. We push away opportunities and we lose openness to experiences. We never really complete the journey of our self-discovery but become a product of our rebellion or others' expectations.
Whether we see our personality as a product of nature or nurture – or indeed a mixture of both – our personality reflects a set of patterns and defaults. People do change, but these patterns and defaults are incredibly powerful. Understanding them is a key step on the self-awareness journey. Many people might stop at self-awareness. They might justify this as, 'That's just how I think' or 'That's how I feel' or even more generally 'That's my personality.'
While our patterns and defaults might represent some degree of hard-wiring, awareness gives us the ability to recognise our inner response and process how we wish to deal with it. We are then able to understand triggers to these responses, understand when these responses work and when they don't and modify them to improve the chances of achieving the results we seek.
When we are brave, we can truly question the reason for these patterns and defaults. If we apply a simple tool such as 'The Five Why's' to a rising feeling within our self, where do we end up? Are we able to understand more of our 'involuntary' responses?
Rather than rid ourselves entirely of these responses – or change our patterns / personality – we might only diminish the negative effects of these patterns and defaults. But we can certainly manage our responses and attitude to the situations in front of us. This is where we truly grow and where positive change takes place.
Life is short – but the rest of your life is a long time to waste. Each day we fail to acknowledge everything we are, what makes us happy, what makes us unhappy and everything we could be, is a day lived short of our potential. It is not enough to merely acknowledge our true self – without an action plan and measured progress we stand no chance of achieving our potential.
Delusion and avoidance can lead to tremendous waste as we chase the 'perfect life.' A particular hell is achieving our dreams and finding that we are left unfulfilled. I'm not sure that we can ever learn too much from the fractured lens of celebrity. However, Madonna (the music artist) once commented in an interview that she grew up feeling unloved and sought out adoration and love from a bigger and bigger fan base. She ended by saying that there was no lonelier fate than reaching a peak of standing on stage before 100 000 adoring people and realising that the love she sought was hollow.
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