Growing your self-awareness

Mar 06, 2018
Acknowledging our vulnerabilities and improving our self-awareness can allow us to succeed in our personal and professional lives.

“What are your strengths and weaknesses” is a question frequently asked at interviews and one that interviewees are often least prepared to answer. While few have difficulty rhyming off strengths, describing one’s weaknesses or vulnerabilities is another matter. Doing so requires a level of disclosure that few of us are willing to make to ourselves, much less to others. 

As Abraham Maslow, American psychologist who is known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, said, “We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that would cause us…to make us feel inferior, weak…We protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defences”. However, research shows that vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. We connect to others through vulnerabilities. They are key to our self-awareness and how we manage ourselves socially. 

This article is designed to equip you with some means to identify and explore those vulnerabilities and improve your self-awareness.    

Focus on the here and now

Begin with noticing and self-reflecting. When interacting with others, you should slow yourself down and take notice of your emotions, thoughts and behaviours as situations unfold. Try to concentrate on what is happening to you in the moment. Studies show that we are able to concentrate on up to four voices at one time. One of those voices should be our own. 

The ability to focus on the present can and should be practiced regularly by using mindfulness exercises. Mindfulness is simply concentrating on the present moment and focusing on one element to keep you in that moment, such as your breathing. Through mindfulness practice, we learn not to engage with passing thoughts but rather to observe them and take notice of recurring negative thoughts that may be affecting us. By practicing mindfulness privately, we develop skills that we can call on to ground ourselves when we feel stressed or unfocused. These skills help us to avoid being distracted by anticipatory thoughts and give us the ability to stay focused when circumstances demand. 

Numerous apps are available to help develop or improve concentration skills. Headspace is one such option.

Thinking errors

How do we identify emotional or cognitive barriers to self-awareness? Be on the lookout for ‘thinking errors’ in your internal dialogues. These are harmful thinking patterns that may habitually hold us hostage so that we behave at the will of others or as victims of circumstance. Some examples of these include:

  • ‘Awfulisation’: “That was the worst interview ever. I was awful.”;
  • Blame-throwing: “It’s all his fault, he should have highlighted the difference.”;
  • Demands: “He has to listen to me because this report is late”, “She should have pointed that out, she knew it was important.”;
  • Extreme thinking: “she never listens”, “he’s always late”
  • Globalising: “I failed my exam. That proves I’m a failure.”;
  • Personalisation: “If I ask my manager for support, he’ll think I’m incompetent”.
Such thinking errors should be intercepted and challenged by considering their usefulness. Are these beliefs helpful? Are they true? Is there evidence to support them? 

Group dynamics

While mindful meditation and self-reflection are useful tools for improving self-awareness, our reflection in other people is more informative. When working in a team, it is important to stay aware of how others react to our behaviours. Noticing such reactions provides us with valuable feedback. Active listening and observation can help us to recognise and then adjust any negative behaviours of our own. 

A simple tool called the PFAT scan can help here. With it, we pay attention to:
  • physical body reactions in other members of the group. Are they blushing, sweating, fidgeting, clenching their teeth or fists?
  • others’ feelings suggested through their mannerisms or behaviours. Are they defensive, anxious, worried, bored, tense, challenged, or angry?
  • the appearance of negative body language. Are they retreating or lunging forward? Are they stammering or yelling?; and 
  • where their thoughts are focused. Are they speaking on task or are they defending their position, discrediting others, and redeeming themselves?   
To gain greater insight into our relational habits, we should pay attention to group dynamics, focusing not only on how we think and what we observe but also on how we feel during teamwork or group work. Certain situations or people may trigger negative reactions within us. We may discover that what we are experiencing is the mirroring of past behavioural patterns seen in close family members.

We should also seek feedback from trusted people seniors in your company and peers. Receiving such feedback openly and sharing our vulnerabilities can prove edifying. By accepting our vulnerabilities with reasonable self-compassion, we can start to accommodate them and to build on our strengths.

March EI exercise

Practice mindfulness and the reflective exercises described in this article. 

Paul Price is is an Executive Coach at Dynamic Connections.