By Jimmy Warden
Self-awareness is something that a lot of people believe they have, but very seldom do. It comes through observation, contemplation, and implementation. We often observe others, but how often do we take stock in ourselves? The more we observe ourselves, the better we’ll understand both our internal and external selves. This is where our self-awareness begins. Once we have observed ourselves, next we’ll have to contemplate how that version of us has served us and the world. Lastly, implementation is needed to make sustaining change. If we are engaging in this process, we are beginning the journey of self-awareness.
Each day we probably interact with dozens of people and our brain is making tons of observations about them with each passing second. When our brain is being observant, we tend to make judgments based on how we think people and things should be. These judgments come from thoughts and often state how we think others should look, behave, speak, and think. We also have judgments about how the world around us should be because it’s “not up to par”. The paradox is that we often don’t realize how we contribute to these thought narratives and this is due to a lack of self-awareness, which comes from not observing our own thoughts, behaviors, appearance, and speech.
The more that we observe our thoughts, the more we’ll recognize how we interpret the world around us. A lot of us get caught up in negative thinking because we think that particular parts of our world should be different. Perhaps, we think that we don’t have the job that we want or think we deserve. Perhaps, we think that we should be happier because we have a family that loves us and food on our table, so we think that there’s something wrong with us if we’re not that happy. What we aren’t aware of is the fact that we have set a standard for our happiness based on societal ideas that having a job, a roof over our heads, and food on our table creates a certain level of happiness. We’re trying to make something that’s subjective, in this case happiness, and make it objective through the achievements of getting a job, renting or buying a home, and having enough to eat. Sure they can help contribute to happiness, but when we aren’t as happy as we think we should be, we try to obtain more happiness through more achievement. In reality, is it our thoughts surrounding what’s needed to be happy that needs to be taken into account in order to make some change to becoming more self-aware of what we need to be happy.
Each day, we have thousands of thoughts that flow through our thinking minds. Some studies have shown that we hvae around 6,000 thoughts per day, whereas other studies have shown that we have upwards of 60,000 thoughts per day. A study done by the National Science Foundation showed that up to 80% of our thoughts can be negative. This is evidence that supports the concept that we think that the world around is “isn’t up to par” more often than we are aware of. These thoughts also tend to come in by the bundle. For example, let’s use the scenario we created earlier with the person who is unsatisfied with their job, and add the scenario that they didn’t get promotion they were seeking. This person might be aware of thoughts such as, “the person who got the promotion doesn’t deserve it” or “this job isn’t worth my time if I’m not going to get noticed”, but they might not be aware of how these thoughts are shaping the reality they are perceiving. Reason being is that perception is essentially sensory information combined with thoughts to create a version of our own reality. Therefore, if we aren’t aware of how thoughts shape what we see, we aren’t seeing the world for what it could be. Chances are, their thoughts are shaping their experience and creating a distaste for their work, but they aren’t fully aware of that connection. This is a big reason why it’s important to begin trying to build awareness through observation.
Observing thoughts is not very tricky or challenging to explain, but it takes a lot of practice to truly start creating self-awareness of them. The practice is essentially taking “mental notes” of our thoughts. This practice is referred to as “noting” in mindfulness meditation training. The way to do it is to simply notice a thought and observe it when it passes through our mind without judgment. A couple of ways to do this is to label the thought as “thinking” or “feeling” depending on where we think the thought is coming from, whether it is just a thought that manifested or it manifested from a feeling. Noting the thought or feeling helps bring our mind back to the present moment because we’ll no longer be entangled in thought streams or patterns. Instead, we’ll be able to untie the thought rope before it takes us over.
Once we begin cultivating awareness of our thoughts, we’ll be able to recognize the types of thoughts we have each day and the type of thinker that we are. Are we always thinking about what could go wrong? Or are we more optimistic? Do we get caught up in blaming? Or do we take responsibility? Being aware of this can help us figure out what thoughts serve us and the world around us, as well as what thoughts don’t serve us and the world around us. This can be a turning point in self-awareness because thoughts tend to precede speech and behavior. Have you ever said something to someone you immediately regretted? That’s because you didn’t notice the thought of what you were going to say before it was said. That’s why there is the saying, “think before you speak”. However, I’d like to create a modified one that stays, “be aware of thinking before speaking”. This heightened self-awareness of our thoughts can also help us create more awareness of our behavior, too, as long as we simply apply that technique of noting. It will help us pause amidst an action that has been engrained in us as a habit and if this habit isn’t serving us or the world around us in a positive way, we’ll be able to think about that as we begin our process of contemplation.
Contemplation is crucial to engage in after observation and before implementation because observation can help us implement new changes, as long as we contemplate what we want to change. It starts with going through our observations of our thoughts, behaviors, and speech. Start by asking why. Why am I having these negative thoughts? Why do I think about the same things when life isn’t going as planned? Why do I run my hands through my hair when I’m annoyed? Why do I eat with poor nutrition after a bad day? Why am I impulsive in my speech? Why do I say certain things when I feel a certain way? These are some great questions to begin the contemplation process, but create questions that speak more to you based on your observations of yourself.
As we engage in contemplation, we create a better understanding and awareness of who we have been, and from here, we can create an awareness of who we want to be. At this point, if we’re not satisfied about who we’ve been, we can do better, to be better, in the future. It is important to forgive ourselves for our past selves because guilt, shame, and regret often do not serve us in the long run. Plus, until self-awareness is cultivated, our previous efforts were more than likely our best efforts because we weren’t aware of what we could have done differently until we contemplate what could have made for a better experience. That can only take place after an event.
At this point, we need to think about and contemplate who we want to be. What kind of energy do we want to bring to others? How do we want to present ourselves to the world with our body language? Do we want to be more compassionate or empathetic? Do we want to overcome interference more often? Do we want to recognize and reframe negative thoughts? These are several questions that you could start with, but if they’re not applicable to you, please think of questions that better suit your situation. This process of questioning and contemplating can help lead to making changes in what we think, do, and say. This is where implementation starts to come into play.
After contemplating and planning, we can begin implementing the changes we want to make. This is the most challenging part of the self-awareness journey because it’s very challenging to break the habits we’ve built when it comes to our ways of thinking, being, and speaking. However, at this point in the journey, we’ll have practiced the noting technique to be aware of our thoughts, and that same technique can be applied to implementation. It just takes a quick mental note of what we’re doing to recognize whether or not we’re implementing our changes properly, or implementing them at all. If we are, we keep going. If we aren’t, we should stop, and take a step back to contemplate why the implentation wasn’t successful.
If we haven’t been successful, there’s a likelihood that we’re trying to implement too much change at once. Even if we want to implement radical change, it is best to do this in a methodical manner in order to make it sustainable. For example, if we want to start waking up earlier to be more productive or implement a morning routine, it is better to set your alarm five minutes earlier than usal rather than an hour earlier. This will allow your body to slowly adapt to small changes over time. If you were to try the latter of the two options, you may be able to sustain getting up an hour earlier a few times in a row or perhaps even a week or weeks in a row. However, this takes a heavier toll on the body and mind and at a quicker rate, so you’re less likely to sustain that change.
If your process is thoughtfully followed, the changes are more likely to remain implented because you’ll be allowing your body and mind to adapt and recover at appropriate paces. I’ve tried going down the path of radical change before and have been able to sustain it for a few days or even weeks, but struggle stringing together months of consistent radical change. However, when I’ve been thoughtful about my approach, and not tried to bite off more than I can chew over time, I have found those changes to be much more sustainable.
At the end of the day, true self-awareness is a three-phase process that is constantly looping. It starts with an awareness and recognition of how we think of ourselves and the world around us. We can begin cultivating this by observing our thoughts in a non-judgmental way, through the technique of noting. Noting will also help us be able to observe our actions and speech because at the heart of noting is observing. Once we’re able to note our thoughts, actions, and speech, we can start to contemplate whether or not our past methods have served us and the world around us. If some of the answers are no, we should continue to contemplate why this is. That way, we can think up realistic plans of implementation to bring a better us into the world each day. Awaken to your awareness of yourself. You get the chance to make each day a bit better than the one before.