In this two-part feature, we will explore what self-awareness is, common obstacles to attaining it, how it can greatly improve your life, and how to cultivate it.
Fear, the destroyer of dreams and happiness
Some fear is rational and protects us from danger.
But sometimes fear turns into irrational panic about imagined catastrophes that will likely never become reality. Chances are, you have heard of this popular acronym for fear: False Evidence Appearing Real.
Fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of success, fear of the unknown, fear of pain, rejection, isolation, humiliation, disappointment, love, responsibility, fear of death…the list of things humans fear is endless.
That’s a shame.
Think of all the opportunities and experiences you’ve missed because of fear.
To become more self-aware, it is crucial to understand – and face – your fears. Living in fear can prevent you from pursuing your dreams, achieving success, forming healthy relationships, and being truly happy.
The only way to ease our fear and be truly happy is to acknowledge our fear and look deeply at its source. – Thich Nhat Hanh
“When you know yourself, deep inside you have the power to resolve the issues that scare you rather than repeating them unconsciously,” The Self-Awareness Guy writes. He adds:
Many competent, well-meaning, intelligent people genuinely believe that something bad will happen if they think differently, change their behavior patterns, examine their feelings, listen to their inner voices or live consciously. They settle for being someone they’re not and live lives that doesn’t make them authentically happy. Thankfully, self-awareness can help anyone discover who they are and what their true path in life is.
Perhaps a better acronym for fear would be Face Everything And Rise.
In one of my favorite books, Fear: Essential Wisdom for Getting Through the Storm, Thich Nhat Hanh (who is a Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet, and peace activist), writes:
The present moment is where we need to operate. When you are truly anchored in the present moment, you can plan for the future in a much better way. Living mindfully in the present does not preclude making plans. It only means that you know there’s no use losing yourself in worries and fear concerning the future. If you are grounded in the present moment, you can bring the future into the present to have a deep look without losing yourself in anxiety and uncertainty. If you are truly present and know how to take care of the present moment as best you can, you are doing your best for the future already.
You might get hurt. You might make the wrong decisions at times. You might lose, and you might fail.
But you’ll never know if you don’t move past your fear and try. Learn to trust yourself and understand that pain and failure can provide valuable lessons that will allow you to learn and grow – and become more self-aware.
Ask others for honest, constructive feedback…but don’t care TOO much about what others think
The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages. – Virginia Woolf
Humans tend to care quite a bit about what others think of us. That’s normal, because hundreds of years ago we needed to be accepted by the group to survive. It’s a hard-wired survival mechanism.
The problem is the brain’s tendency to get stuck on the negative. Have you ever had (let) one negative comment from someone ruin an otherwise great day?
Studies have shown that the negative perspective is more contagious than the positive. Our attitudes are more heavily influenced by bad news than good news. Even the English dictionary is afflicted – it contains more negative emotional words (62 percent) than positive words (32 percent)!
Unfortunately, negative feedback from others can seriously warp your self-esteem and self-concept.
Your self-concept began to form in early childhood. Your parents, your peers, and authority figures largely influenced its development. All of the information and suggestions you gathered from those sources was stored in your subconscious mind – and were accepted as true, even if they weren’t.
As an adult, your self-concept has solidified, but it slowly continues to be molded and reinforced by your successes, failures, triumphs, humiliations and everything you experience, see, hear, read and think.
Of course, feedback from others – even the negative kind – is a part of life. Unless you live in a bubble, being exposed to the opinions of others is unavoidable.
When someone criticizes you, ask yourself if they are trying to help, or if they are simply being critical. Are they criticizing YOU personally, or your idea or behavior? Is their critique constructive and helpful, or is it a personal attack? If you can’t tell, ask for clarification without being defensive. Perhaps the person genuinely wants to help and is having trouble communicating their intent.
Most of us know at least one person whose glass is always half-empty – you know the kind. The most incredible thing ever could happen, and they’ll find something to criticize. They often claim to be “realists” but “pessimist” is a more accurate descriptor.
It may be difficult to do this, but try to understand that the problem is THEIRS, not yours.
Tip: this is NOT the kind of person you want to ask for feedback when you are working on developing healthy self-awareness. Pessimists aren’t likely to provide you with balanced information.
It is no exaggeration to say that every human being is hypnotized to some extent either by ideas he has uncritically accepted from others or ideas he has repeated to himself or convinced himself are true. These negative ideas have exactly the same effect upon our behavior as the negative ideas implanted into the mind of a hypnotized subject by a professional hypnotist. – Maxwell Maltz
Cognitive biases and how they can sabotage self-awareness
We’d like to think we are highly evolved thinking machines, but like it or not, all of us are susceptible to falling into sneaky psychological traps called cognitive biases.
Yes, that includes you.
Even the most brilliant, logical minds are susceptible.
A cognitive bias is an error in thinking made while processing information. They affect the decisions and judgments we make, and can influence the way we see and think about the world.
Some of these have been verified empirically in the field of psychology, while others are considered general categories of bias. These thinking errors prevent one from accurately understanding reality, even when confronted with all the needed data and evidence to form an accurate view. Many conflicts between science and religion are due to cognitive biases preventing people from coming to the same conclusions with the same evidence. Cognitive bias is intrinsic to human thought, and therefore any systematic system of acquiring knowledge that attempts to describe reality must include mechanisms to control for bias or it is inherently invalid.
A word of caution: Being aware of your cognitive biases does not mean you will automatically be free from their influence. But, knowing they exist and being able to recognize when they are muddling your thinking and decision making is a step in the right direction.
Our world is complex, and because there is so much information to take in, our brains often rely on mental shortcuts that allow us to act quickly. Known as heuristics, these shortcuts serve us well in many situations, but they also are a major contributor to cognitive bias.
Social pressures, individual motivations, emotions, and limits on the mind’s ability to process information can also contribute to these biases.
There are many forms of cognitive bias, but a few are particularly relevant to self-awareness. Those include cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, self-serving bias, actor-observer bias, and optimism bias.
Let’s take a look at each.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the mental stress or discomfort experienced when you hold two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, perform an action that is contradictory to one or more beliefs, ideas or values, or are confronted by new information that conflicts with your existing beliefs, ideas, or values.
A Tale of Grapes, Politics, Cults, and Aliens: Why People Cling to False Beliefs provides an in-depth explanation of cognitive dissonance, how it manifests, and how it affects our lives. Here’s an excerpt from that article:
It is human nature to dislike being wrong. When we make a mistake, it is hard to admit it.
We resort to mental gymnastics to avoid accepting that our logic – or our belief system itself – is flawed. Lying, denying, and rationalizing are among the tactics we employ to dance around the truth and avoid the discomfort that contradiction creates. We avoid or toss aside information that isn’t consistent with our current beliefs. Emotions trump logic and evidence. Once our minds are made up, it is very difficult to change them.
To prevent cognitive dissonance from sabotaging you, look at your thoughts and actions critically, objectively, and dispassionately. Being open to changing your mind as new information comes in can help you avoid making mistakes. You can break the cycle of lying, denying, and rationalizing – if you remain vigilant and open-minded.
Confirmation bias refers to the tendency to search for and favor information that confirms your beliefs while simultaneously ignoring or devaluing information that contradicts your beliefs. This phenomenon is also called confirmatory bias or myside bias. It is a normal human tendency, and even experienced scientists and researchers are not immune.
Have you ever noticed that, during a disagreement with someone, they (or perhaps, you) stubbornly stick to a belief, no matter what evidence is presented to show that belief is incorrect?
In many cases, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. The person (or, you) will resort to mental gymnastics – complete with cognitive flips and contortions – to justify that stance.
That is confirmation bias in action.
Confirmation bias drives willful ignorance, which is the state and practice of ignoring any sensory input that appears to contradict one’s inner model of reality.
It differs from the standard definition of “ignorance” – which means that one is unintentionally unaware of something. Willfully ignorant people are fully aware of facts, resources, and sources, but intentionally refuse to acknowledge them.
Self-delusion often feels good, and truth often hurts.
That’s what motivates us to vehemently defend obvious falsehoods.
There are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true. – Søren Kierkegaard
To prevent confirmation bias from distorting your view of the world (and your view of yourself), here are some tips from Jake’s Health Solutions:
- Be open to new information and other perspectives. Don’t be afraid to test or revise your beliefs.
- Even if you consider yourself an expert on a topic, approach new information as a beginner would.
- Ask someone you trust to play devil’s advocate. Ask them to challenge your assumptions.
- Don’t let a limited amount of past experience (particularly one negative experience) carry too much weight. Be sure to envision the future, not just replay the past.
- When you believe something strongly, but don’t have recent and compelling evidence to support that belief, look for more information.
- Check your ego. f you can’t stand to be wrong, you’re going to continue to fall victim to biases. Learn to value truth rather than the need to be right.
- Look for disagreement. If you’re right, then disagreement will help highlight this and if you’re wrong – it will help you identify why.
- Ask insightful, open-ended questions. Direct them to people who are not afraid to be honest with you. Be quiet and listen to what they say.
- Examine conflicting data. Discuss it with people who disagree with you and evaluate the evidence they present.
- Consider all the viewpoints that you can find – not just the ones that support your current beliefs or ideas.
And, then there’s the self-serving bias, which is when you blame external forces when bad things happen and give yourself credit when good things happen. It is a mechanism that can preserve self-esteem, but it also can mean you are avoiding taking responsibility for your actions.
Similar to the self-serving bias is the actor-observer bias. It tends to be more pronounced in situations where the outcomes are negative. For example, in a situation where one personally experiences something negative, the individual will often blame the situation or circumstances. When something negative happens to another person, people will often blame the individual for their personal choices, behaviors, and actions.
Optimism bias is when you underestimate the probability that something bad could happen to you. In the article Understanding the Optimism Bias, Kendra Cherry explains,
This bias leads us to believe that we are less likely to suffer from misfortune and more likely to attain success than reality would suggest. We believe that we will live longer than the average, that our children will be smarter than the average, and that we will be more successful in life than the average.
But by definition, we can’t all be above average.
The optimism bias is essentially a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers.
Optimism bias can lead to poor decision making, as Cherry notes:
People might skip their yearly physical, not wear their seatbelt, miss adding money to their emergency savings account, or fail to put on sunscreen because they mistakenly believe that they are less likely to get sick, get in an accident, need extra cash, or get skin cancer.
Some experts say there is an upside to optimism bias: it can enhance well-being by creating a sense of anticipation about the future. If you expect good things to happen, you are more likely to be happy, and by believing that you will be successful, you are in fact more likely to be successful. Of course, this requires action – optimistic thinking alone will not conjure up success and happiness.
You act, and feel, not according to what things are really like, but according to the image your mind holds of what they are like. You have certain mental images of yourself, your world, and the people around you, and you behave as though these images were the truth, the reality, rather than the things they represent. – Maxwell Maltz
Other ways to develop healthy self-awareness
Recognize your talents and strengths and mentor others. By teaching, you learn.
Recognize your weaknesses and seek a qualified mentor to help you improve.
Ask for constructive feedback from people you know will be honest with you.
Avoid comparing yourself to others.
Don’t expect perfection – making mistakes is natural and inevitable. Even most so-called “experts” don’t know EVERYTHING there is to know about their field. To err is human. When you fail at something or make an error, accept it, learn from it, and move on.
Remember that you are a work in progress, but even with your flaws, you have a lot to offer the world.
Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. -Carl Gustav Jung
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