Updated: May 13, 2021
What is self-awareness?
We usually define ourselves by what we are, rather than who we are. For example, I might introduce myself as a 37-year-old father and husband who lives in Essex. If I were to expand further, I could include my work and some favourite hobbies; this might give an insight into the ‘who’ but still struggles to move much beyond ‘what’ I am.
Self-awareness helps us understand who we are.
While we are all likely to have an understanding of what ‘self-awareness’ might mean, there is actually no widely accepted definition. Academics say that self-awareness goes beyond consciousness – that is beyond knowing that you exist and being aware of and responsive to your surroundings – to knowing who you are and how others view you (Baumeister, 2005; Colman, 2008; Taylor, 2010).
Dr Tasha Eurich, an organisational psychologist and author of the book, ‘Insight’, argues there are two types of self-awareness:
Internal self-awareness - how aware we are of our own thoughts and feelings; how we perceive ourselves; and our understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses, values, behaviours, priorities, passions and desires. It also includes our awareness of our impact on others.
External self-awareness – an awareness of how others see us, including how they view our strengths, weaknesses, values, passions, and aspirations, etc.
Indeed, Eurich and her team defined self-awareness as:
"The ability to see ourselves clearly to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world around us."
What are the benefits of being more self-aware?
There are many benefits of raising our self-awareness that permeate numerous aspects of our lives. Self-awareness provides a lens through which we can explore our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviours. When we understand who we are, we can more purposefully use our values to guide us, we can more powerfully exploit our strengths, and we can more readily identify changes and improvements that will help us on our journey to greater fulfilment. It can also enable us to build better relationships that support our journey to be both more enjoyable and more successful.
Research has found numerous benefits of increased self-awareness, including:
Improved listening skills
Better decision making
More effective communication
Improved management of your emotions
Higher levels of happiness.
Increasing our ability to understand ourselves more deeply enables us to develop in a way that benefits our aims. By gaining greater clarity of our strengths and weaknesses, we can focus on development areas that will enable us to work towards our desired goals. We can accelerate our journey through building successful relationships and being clear on the resources available to us.
Not only are the beneficial traits listed above desirable in life, but they also carry significant business benefit. Eurich’s research showed that improved self-awareness means we work better, we become more effective leaders, we have higher job satisfaction, and we are more likely to get promoted and work in more profitable companies.
In particular, a high external self-awareness means people are better at seeing other people’s perspectives and showing empathy, which enables them to build stronger relationships and increases their effectiveness in leadership positions. Improved empathy, listening and relationships will also have significant benefits for working in teams and with external partners (e.g. customers and suppliers).
Participants in a 2017 Myers-Briggs survey said that becoming more self-aware had enabled them to:
Make better decisions (61% of respondents said this)
Be more confident leaders (64%)
Feel more confident in their contributions at work (67%)
Capitalise on their strengths more (85%).
They also said that self-awareness had been most beneficial in helping them deal with change, manage/lead others, cope with stress and work with others in a team.
Sutton, Williams & Allinson (2015) found that self-awareness was positively associated with job-related wellbeing. In their study, employees reported gaining a greater appreciation of diversity, improved communication with colleagues and increased confidence.
In a world of constant challenge and change, the links between self-awareness and resilience are also critical for business, as well as life in general. Research highlights self-awareness as being fundamental to resilience and I will discuss this topic further in a future article.
How can we become more self-aware?
One relatively simple, yet highly effective tool is reflection. This can take many forms but is usually done through a version of journaling, as writing down your thoughts and feelings helps you to become more aware of them and more intentional in doing something about them. It could also take the form of capturing thoughts and feelings in more creative writing, such as poetry, or even drawing.
Reflection is most powerful when it is balanced and holistic, with Eurich pointing to the need to include both the internal and external self-awareness perspectives in your reflections. From an internal point of view, a powerful model for regular reflection is Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle – you can find an overview of our interpretation of Gibbs’ model here.
A powerful reflection tool from an external perspective is asking for feedback from honest, trustworthy sources. This can include peers, managers, family and friends or clients.
The terminology of questions used in reflective feedback is also important. It has been shown that using ‘why’ questions can actually increase depression and anxiety and decrease wellbeing. This is because it prompts a deficit inquiry (Why did I fail? Why did it go wrong?), whereas using ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions (What did I learn from this? How can I succeed next time?) prompts a positive or ‘appreciative’ inquiry that leads to forward action.
Embarking on a more in-depth self-awareness journey can really help you better understand yourself and yield all the benefits outlined above. Additionally, when the journey follows a structure that encourages and enables regular review to check it remains relevant for you, it provides an on-going medium to maintain both wellbeing and performance.
The Personal Leadership programme has been specifically designed to achieve this. It will enable you to accelerate the development of your self-awareness, build your resilience, understand the power of your own choices and nurture a mindset that allows you to thrive.
The course guides you to consider your personal energy and the balance of your life as a whole. You will then use the 6Rs exploration framework to create a personal charter that comprises your:
Your journey will include a mix of self-reflection, exploratory exercises, personal strengths tests and feedback, leaving you with a roadmap that guides your future actions. Capacity is often cited as the number one barrier to change, so a series of stop-keep-start exercises allows you to focus and create space for the things that are most important to you. As you discover more about yourself, 10 personalised coaching sessions will deepen your learning and challenge you to push further and think bigger, developing clarity and direction in pursuit of your goals.
To learn more about how the Personal Leadership programme can boost your wellbeing, productivity and performance, please click here.
Baumeister, 2005; Colman, 2008; Taylor, 2010: all referenced in ‘What is self-awareness’
Tasha Eurich, Insight (2018)
Tasha Eurich, What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It); (Harvard Business Review, January 2018)
Myers-Briggs, Self-awareness (2017)
Sutton, Williams & Allinson; A Longitudinal, Mixed Method Evaluation of Self-Awareness Training in the Workplace (European Journal of Training and Development, v39 n7, 2015)
Gibbs, Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods (1988)
An adaptation of which can be found at https://www.ed.ac.uk/reflection/reflectors-toolkit/reflecting-on-experience/gibbs-reflective-cycle