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How can you become more self-aware?

Updated: Sep 11, 2021

If you’ve ever heard someone say to you that in order to achieve something, to be successful, to do a good job, to make the right decision, etc. you have to "know yourself", you may have wondered: “Ok, well...but…how do I know myself?”

Woman writing in a notebook

In this article, I will explore:

What is self-awareness?

Why is self-awareness important?

Tools to become more self-aware

Can life coaching or therapy help you to become more self-aware?

What is self-awareness?

To know oneself is a concept that is closely related to that of becoming more self-aware.

We can define self-awareness as the ability to:

  • understand our inner life with increasing levels of depth and complexity

  • have the capacity to grasp the meaning of what we are experiencing as it is happening to us (in the here and now)

  • be able to observe with a degree of detachment our mental processes from cause to effect

  • make sense of our thoughts, emotions and behaviours

  • have the ability to see the origin and consequences of our behaviours

  • understand our mood changes and become proficient in anticipating when these are likely to occur

  • grasp the meaning of the undercurrents of our emotional life by tracing back our emotions to their cause

  • be aware of our assumptions, biases and blind spots

  • be aware of our needs and desires

  • have consciously chosen the values by which we live our life

  • have clear boundaries in relationship with others

  • be aware of our weaknesses, strengths and soft spots and accept them as part of who we are.

Although the journey of becoming more self-aware is never ending, we can say that we have achieved a certain degree of competency when we increasingly experience inner peace (regardless of the external circumstances), higher levels of well-being and our relationships become more meaningful and fulfilling.

Why is self-awareness important?

Self-awareness goes hand in hand with body-awareness. To be self-aware, we need to be grounded and fully present in our bodies.

When we are disconnected from our bodies, we are dissociated from our emotions. This is because emotions are a somatic experience: they live in the body. A person who is “all in the head” finds it hard to connect with their emotions. They are also generally disconnected from the way their bodies experience those emotions.

For example, if we fear a situation, our bodies will react before we are consciously aware. This is because thoughts outside our conscious awareness are triggering the alarm that there is some kind of danger to our survival. As a result, the amygdala gets activated and we become alert to any potential threats in our environment. Our attention focuses on anything that could be dangerous. We get ready to fight, fly or freeze.

When we are dissociated from our bodies, we tend to ignore our experience by dismissing it as silly, or we react on it without much thought, sometimes with dire consequences. If we go about life constantly being triggered by external events and unconscious drives, we will probably struggle to bring some sense of control and order to our lives.

Tools to become more self-aware

To become more self-aware, we can begin by noticing what is happening to us at the time when it is happening.

For example, if someone says something to you and you feel angry about it, instead of reacting to that feeling, you can:

  • Take a step back by literally doing it and as you do so, take a deep breath. When taking a deep breath, make sure you inhale through your nose and allow the air to go all the way down to your belly.

  • If you cannot take a physical step back because of injure or disability, you can imagine yourself doing it. As you do this, gently breathe in and out a few times.

  • If you feel safe to do so, explain to the other person that you need to take a break from the conversation.

  • Make a conscious effort to listen to the other person. You can acknowledge them by saying: I hear what you are saying. Right now, I cannot give you a response because I need to think about it.

  • Acknowledge that you are angry, hurt, sad, etc. and make a mental statement “I am feeling angry right now, I want to shout at this person”. Acknowledging how you are feeling by mentally stating it allows you to pay attention to your emotions. This may not alleviate their intensity, but it may help you to take some distance from what you are feeling.

  • Do validate your experience. If you are feeling angry, there is no point in denying it or trying to talk yourself out of it. Honour your experience by saying to yourself: “Right now I am feeling angry and that’s OK. I choose not to react to these emotions. I will reflect on this when my head is clear.”

  • Change your body state. This means that you need to do something different with your body in order to momentarily distract your mind from negative automatic thought loops. If you are sitting, stand up. If you are standing, walk around the room or go outside and breathe in some fresh air. You can also stretch and/or flex your upper body by gently bending it down as far as you can go without pushing it or hurting yourself. Make your way back up slowly as you gently breathe in and out.

There are many exercises that you can do to re-focus your attention and to change your awareness at a specific moment in time. By learning to re-focus your mind with the aim of getting some clarity, you will begin to notice that it is easier for you to refrain yourself from acting out your emotions in ways that you may regret at a later point.

Self –awareness goes hand in hand with self-development. To work on our growth and development means that we are looking to understand ourselves better in order to function more effectively in the world, to make life-enhancing decisions, to have meaningful and fulfilling relationships with others.

The more you get to know yourself, the more you understand that you are “a work in progress” and a never-ending spectrum of possibilities!

Depending on your age and the stage of lifespan development at which you are, you will have had the opportunity to develop certain aspects of your personality while others may still be hidden or unknown to you, and that’s perfectly OK.

The more experiences you have, the more you'll learn about yourself.

The more you learn about yourself, the more self-aware you become, and the more opportunities will come your way that will disclose ever more complex aspects of yourself.

We learn new things about ourselves when we move out of our comfort zone, when we experiment, when we take risks, when we dare to face the unknown. However, it is also important to remember that we also learn a lot about ourselves when we struggle, when we are in emotional distress, when we feel vulnerable, when we are down and feel hopeless, when we lose someone we love, when we reach out to others and ask for help.

Self-awareness is the first step to higher and higher levels of personal freedom. The more we are aware of our responses to external events and to the currents of our inner lives, the more choice we have. Our capacity for empathy expands as we become more in tune with the emotional lives of others. We understand that we are all struggling to make sense of a complex, challenging world and so we have the choice to be less judgemental.

When you are not aware of the currents of your inner world, you usually do a lot of projecting: you project negative aspects of your psyche onto an unwilling recipient. You “dump” onto others your own “stuff.” People become the recipients of your projections and you stop seeing the person in front of you. All you see is who you want them to be or who you believe them to be.

The contents of our psyche that we do not know about or that we fail to see get relegated to a corner and from there, project a shadow. According to Carl Jung’s original definition, shadow contents are ‘anything that lay in the unconscious part of one’s personality’ (Johnson, 1993, 61). Johnson writes that:

Shadow of a person on a wall
The shadow contents of the psyche
Unless we do conscious work on it, the shadow is almost always projected; that is, it is neatly laid on someone or something else so that we do not have to take responsibility for it.

We can project our shadow on another person, a group of people or an object. As it is usually the case with an actual shadow, it is a twisted version of reality. To be able to see people or things as they really are, we need to make an effort to identify these unconscious contents and expose them to the light of conscious awareness.

There are a number of tools and exercises that can help you to become more self-aware. You can create your own “self-awareness tool-box”.

However, bear in mind that not all tools in the box will work at all times. You can test which strategies are useful to you and which are not.

We will look at a series of exercises based on three models to increase self-awareness:

The Life Chart

The life chart consists of drawing a timeline of meaningful events in your life. The goal is to remember how you experienced those events and how you feel about them at present. This exercise can lead to all sorts of memories and insights about how you have changed over time. It can also be a great tool to measure achievements and failures objectively. It is a good way to “take stock” of your life when you are at a crossroads or when you need to make a very difficult decision with life changing implications. It is very helpful when you are feeling stuck as it can provide you with a completely new perspective.

You can see an example of the Life Chart by Adolf Meyer here.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is useful to become aware of your needs and to evaluate whether they are being met. If, for example, you identify a pattern playing out in a particular area of your life, you can use this model to assess whether the pattern is an unconscious attempt on your part to get certain needs met.

Very often we try to get our needs met by using the wrong strategy. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that our needs will not get met by repeating toxic dynamics in relationships. This can be a powerful way to assess whether it is time to do things differently.

The Johari Window

Another tool to gain self-awareness is The Johari Window. This model relies on your ability to be honest with yourself and to ask for other people’s feedback.

The Johari Window brings to your awareness your blind spots, that is, the things about yourself you cannot see (that are outside your conscious awareness) and it provides you with a more objective picture of yourself. It is a good method to enhance your self-knowledge by reducing the gap between who you think you are and how others see you. It may be quite challenging to ask for other people’s feedback but it may also be very rewarding. The best way to approach the Johari Window is by asking trusted members of the family and friends you consider to be safe, if they would mind helping you to complete an exercise for self-awareness.

The Johari Window is divided into four quadrants where you can identify the aspects of yourself that are:

  • Known to all

  • Unknown to others but not to ourselves

  • Unknown to others but known to ourselves

  • Unknown to others and to ourselves

The uncharted territory of the unconscious can be explored in the Unknown Area if we are willing to self-disclose to people who will give us honest feedback. This will present us with a great opportunity to gain new insights about ourselves.

Other tools to become more self-aware are:

  • Setting Goals

  • Writing on a journal

  • Keeping a record of dreams (also known as dream work).

  • Giving and receiving constructive feedback

  • Personality Tests

  • Working with a Life Coach, a Counsellor and/or Psychotherapist.

Always remind yourself that to engage in self-development work with the purpose of becoming more self-aware is an ongoing process and not a definite goal with a set deadline.

Self-development with the purpose of becoming more self-aware is a life-long journey and its ultimate goal is to unveil your true-self. Your true-self is who you truly are at the core underneath all the layers of your socially-conditioned self or persona. Only through methodical and conscious work can you aspire to know the treasures hidden in your soul.

Can life coaching or therapy help you to become more self-aware?

A definite yes.

There is only so much you can learn about yourself by practising introspection, reflection and self-development techniques. Because they are too close to you, family and friends will sometimes be wary of giving you an accurate picture of yourself for fear of upsetting you and straining the relationship.

Life coaches and therapists are trained to help. Each profession has a different approach to helping but it all comes down to one thing:

A good life coach/therapist will be non-judgemental and will listen to you with empathy and compassion.

They will also challenge you to think differently and if necessary, they may provide you with important and relevant information (also known as life skills or psycho-education), techniques and strategies.

Good life coaches and therapists have received appropriate psychological training to help people with a variety of problems in different areas of their lives.

They also work with many people and this gives them the extra advantage of seeing the same issues play out over and over again in the lives of many of their clients. As a result, they may be able to easily spot those things that are not within your awareness, they can help you to clear your thinking and can guide you through the process of making the choices that are right for you.

So now, next time someone tells you that “you need to know yourself”, you can tell them:

“Absolutely right, I am in the process of becoming more self-aware and I am a work in progress!”


Johnson, Robert (1993), Owning your own shadow. Understanding the dark side of the psyche. NY: Harper Collins

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