Why We Should All Be More Self-Aware

Being self-aware is not only knowing yourself, it's knowing what others around you think of you, too. oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

You may have heard the term self-awareness tossed around, but what is it and why does it matter?

Being self-aware can influence how fulfilled you feel in your job and in your personal life. Daniel Goleman, who authored the 1995 New York Times bestseller "Emotional Intelligence," takes that connection much further, saying self-awareness is the key to success. He describes self-awareness as "knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions" — and then monitoring that "inner world" information as it comes up.

If you can be as aware of your emotions and thoughts as you are of your other daily experiences — without judgment — you'll be better able to deal with new situations because you'll know yourself better. You'll be more accepting of yourself, your thoughts and your emotions, Goleman says.

But self-awareness doesn’t stop at how you see yourself. It’s also understanding and acknowledging how others see you. Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist and New York Times bestselling author of "Insight," explains that self-awareness has two parts – internal and external. Internal self-awareness means we can clearly see our own values, passions, thoughts, feelings and emotions. External self-awareness is clearly seeing how others see us. People who are externally self-aware tend to be better leaders.

So how do you know if you’re self-aware or not? Eurich developed a short online quiz to help. The catch? You’re not the only one who has to take it. Someone who knows you well also has to answer questions about you.

In a recent TED Talk, Eurich refers to self-awareness unicorns. These are people who not only believe they are self-aware, but other people who know them would agree. Additionally, these unicorns would say they have improved their self-awareness in their lives and again, those who know them well would agree. This group made up a fraction of all the people she studied.

Thankfully, anyone can become more self-aware, as long as they’re willing to dedicate some time and effort to the cause.

How to become more self-aware

One way to gain some self-awareness is to work on your mindfulness practice. That doesn't mean meditating for an hour each morning (though that can be beneficial). In his book, "Wherever You Go, There You Are," mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally." To do this, you have to practice being more aware of how you’re feeling without passing judgment on yourself (i.e. recognizing that you’re jealous of your co-worker’s creativity and not beating yourself up about it.)

Adds Dr. Elan Barenholz, associate professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University, "Long-term mindfulness practices, such as meditation, can have long-term health and wellness benefits and may even lead to structural changes in the white matter of the brain, literally increasing your brain’s internal connectivity."

Eurich’s suggestion? Asking "what" instead of "why" to increase self-awareness, to avoid wallowing and see what you can do to change the situation. For example, let’s say you’ve just given a poor presentation to a client. As Eurich told Business Insider last May, "You might ask yourself, if you're a well-intentioned, successful person, 'Why did I go so wrong in that meeting?' or, 'Why did I mess that up?'

"What I've found, in my research and others', is that when we ask ourselves those 'why' questions, it takes us down a spiral of self-loathing. It makes us depressed; it tends to make us beat ourselves up in a non-productive way. But if we can ask the question of 'what,' that's more future-oriented. That can make all the difference in the world."

Probably the most important step on the road to self-awareness? Be a student of your own behavior. Ask other people questions about how they see you. You might be surprised. There are many reasons other people may not see us as we see ourselves. But don’t get defensive. If you try to see others’ perspectives as tools to help you better yourself, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a unicorn.