A Self-Awareness Definition You'll Actually Understand
Self-Awareness is Complex
I am a huge proponent of self-awareness. In fact, I’m pretty sure I find a way to use the term at least once a day (if not multiple times a day.) Somehow, it always comes up in conversation for me - whether it’s with someone I know or a complete stranger. This is partly because I strongly believe that it is one of the most important, if not the most important, things a person can consistently work on throughout their life. However, trying to give someone an exact self-awareness definition isn’t always easy. As humans, we really hit the jackpot in terms of complexity. We are infinitely interesting and fascinating and there will never be a time when we have finally and completely figured ourselves or anyone else out. Which is why, the consistent pursuit of self-awareness is so important to our overall evolution as well as our everyday happiness. And if you’re going to be pursuing it, it’s probably pretty important to know what it means.
Start Here: You Are Magical
So, what is self-awareness? You might be thinking that it’s an obvious thing - to be aware of yourself - like, “Hey, yeah, I know I exist.” How often do you actually stop to think about who you are, what you think about, your existence, your purpose, your behaviors, your fears, your likes and dislikes, your personality, your relationship dynamics, how you like to have fun, or how you really feel from a moment to moment basis? Yeah, that is a lot to think about. And maybe you got a little anxiety reading all that in one sentence. I did, too. So take a deep breath (even if you didn’t get anxiety) and let me excitedly inform you and remind you of your incredibly glorious existence in this moment. Take a second to think about all the things that had to take place for you to be here in this time and in this place. All the left turns and right turns and backward steps and skips and hops and falls - and that’s just in your own life. Now think about all the different things that had to happen before you even arrived on this earth, and all the people that got here before you and all the moves they made in order for you to get here. Not to mention, you are literally made of stardust. STAR. DUST. You are MAGICAL, you hear me? So to circle back, you are so much more than just a person that exists on planet earth. You are completely and utterly amazing and that’s where I want to start with defining self-awareness.
The Shadow Self
I believe it is incredibly important to start from a place of knowing our power and complexity and glory as we define self-awareness because self-awareness also includes exploring our shadow side and if we are in a place of insecurity and self-loathing, exploring the shadow side can be rough at best, and devastating at worst (and it totally doesn’t have to be!). Our shadow side is the “dark”, and relatively unknown area where the “ugly” parts of us reside. It’s the closet where all the monsters are. If you step inside, you might see all the parts of you that are broken, negative, fearful, insecure, mean, and bitter - the parts of yourself that you have deemed unacceptable. And because they are unacceptable they disappear into this unknown subconscious part of who we are - into the “shadows” of who we are. I intentionally put quotations around the words “dark” and “ugly” because we often reject things that we think are ugly, however, on the path to self-awareness and, more specifically, toward enlightenment, acceptance of the shadow side is hugely important. Let me give an example. A few years ago, I realized that I could be manipulative. And I don’t know about you, but the word “manipulative” feels really icky when I say it. It’s a word reserved for abusers and psychopaths, right?? Yet, in a moment of reflection, the only word I could use to describe my behavior was manipulative. Thankfully, I was also practicing being gentle with myself and accepting my shadow side. So when I had this realization, my response was further curiosity. Why was I being manipulative? What was the thing I was trying to get from the person I was attempting to manipulate and why did I feel like manipulation was the only way to get it? It was asking these questions that I got to the root of what was happening. It was a MAJOR self-awareness moment for me and ultimately led to me having greater compassion for myself and for others.
An Actual Self-Awareness Definition
Merriam Webster defines self-awareness as,
“an awareness of one’s own personality and individuality.”
And, for me, yes this is accurate, however, much too basic. What is “awareness”? What is a “personality”? What does “individuality” really mean? When I was in undergrad, one of my professors drilled into us an incredible definition of the word “humility” that I think is helpful here. He said that humility is “accurate self-awareness with positive self-regard.” Coupling “accurate” and “positive” in this definition always gets me. It’s like he was saying, don’t brag, but don’t beat yourself up! With that in mind, let’s break down these words and formulate a definition that better express what self-awareness is.
In my own pursuit of self-awareness, I have found that awareness is not just a knowing, but also a deep understanding of how something came to be. It’s looking into the history and cause of the behavior or belief. It’s exploring how that belief expresses itself, or when that behavior is triggered. It’s observing and allowing the nuances of the belief or behavior to come forward and take center stage. And these things that we observe, get to know, and understand are what make up our “personality.”
A personality is a combination of the characteristics, quirks, belief systems, mindset and general disposition that make up one’s everyday expression. On a personal note, I used to believe that personalities were developed through both nurture and nature. While I do think that certain non-physical traits are passed on naturally through DNA, I believe that those things are still much like programming in our nervous system and ultimately can be reprogrammed. A personality is simply the way we continue to choose to be. This is a topic that I will definitely continue to deep dive into. Another part of our “personality” is how we respond to things outside of us (and also the things inside of us). Our responses to people and events and our own thoughts and actions are extremely important in self-awareness.
The individuality part of this is what we, especially in the millennial generation, love to focus on - that we are unique! That there is no one else in the world like us. And yes, that is true. No one has had your experiences, has your DNA or brain or looks at the world exactly like you do. And this uniqueness is essentially the crux of our motivation behind pursuing self-awareness. Because our experiences are unique, our exploration of them and understanding of them and how they fit into our evolution will also be unique. And most importantly, NO ONE can do this exploration for us. It is a journey, a process, a lifestyle even. Because time as we know it moves linearly, we are experiencing the world at consecutively different stages of our being which means we will never run out of things to explore within ourselves.
So how do we put all of this together?
My Definition of Self Awareness
Self-awareness is the continuous pursuit of observing one’s own experiences and responses to those experiences, both past and present, including the attempt to deeply understand how those experiences shaped and anchored one’s unique expression of being.
Self-awareness is not a one-time, journal for an hour, meditate for three hours and now you are enlightened about yourself kind of thing. Yes, great insight can come from those practices, however, self-awareness is a life-long journey. For me, and for a lot of people, it’s truly a lifestyle. It’s a way of being. And it’s one of the best and most fun and interesting things I have ever pursued. It has made me a better person. It makes me feel fully alive. It has made my relationships better. It has made me happier. It has made me smarter. It has made me more compassionate. And if you’ve decided that you want a deeper understanding of yourself, but don’t know where to start, feel free to reach out. Check out my post on 5 examples of self-awareness in everyday life. These are practical things you can do to practice self-awareness a little more each day.
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