When I applied for my Ph.D. program in counseling psychology, I learned that one of the key qualities psychology programs were looking for in a prospective student was self-awareness. I had a vague idea of what that meant and why that would be an important quality in a psychologist. I thought self-awareness was the ability to spend lots of time thinking about myself, psychoanalyze myself, and worry about how I come across to the world. Well then, I prided myself in having plenty of it. It took seven more years of getting feedback on areas that I didn't know I needed to work on and being challenged about biases and beliefs I didn't know I held that I began to learn what self-awareness really means. In an article in the Harvard Business Review, psychologist Dr. Tasha Eurich provided a compelling summary of her research into what self-awareness is, the benefits of it, and how to improve it as a skill.
Dr. Eurich defined self-awareness as both how clearly we view ourselves and how accurate we are about others' views of us. She called these two aspects internal and external self-awareness. One of the key findings from her research that blew my mind is that being introspective does not by itself improve self-awareness. In fact, people who tend to think about themselves a lot are less self-aware and are less happy. She said that the main reason that introspection is not helpful is that people often ask the wrong question of "why?" Asking why is more likely to lead to an emotionally charged conclusion that is inaccurate or an answer that is based on our fears and insecurities.
Based on her research, Dr. Eurich found that the question "what?" leads to much more insightful, objective, and productive answers that boot self-awareness. For example, recently I was at a social gathering and felt very shy and tongue tied. If I ask myself why I was feeling that way, I come to the conclusion that I don't fit in or people don't like me. Neither of these answers are probably true but my mind likes to poke and lick the wounds of my insecurities. In contrast, if I ask what are the social situations that make me feel more comfortable and relaxed? Or, what can I do to help me feel more social next time? These questions help me think less critically of myself and others and instead, open me up to think more creatively to solve this problem. I could bring my partner to the next gathering, which will help me feel more relaxed. I can focus on playing with the kids, instead of maintaining small talk with the adults. I can create a mantra to remind myself that the initial get-to-know-you phase is always kind of awkward; if I stay around and show up often enough, I may be able to deepen the relationships. I can also just stop attending those gatherings altogether. So many more possibilities become available when I ask what rather than why. I also learn more about my preferences, values, and goals, as well as be more accurate about how others see me (they can't all dislike me, right?).
Give it a try. Does asking what help you move forward with more openness and non-judgement toward yourself and others? Does asking what help you understand yourself better?
We created this blog to share information about living a healthy, happy, and fulfilling life. We are constantly learning new things and making mistakes along the way. This blog is our way of chronicling our discoveries, musing, and lessons learned as people and professionals. We invite you to come along on our journey of self reflection, discovery, and thriving with challenges. We also hope to exchange wisdom and enlightenment from you, our readers.
The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.