so, self-awareness, anyone?

developing greater self-awareness is one of the goals i’ve been working on with my counsellor. i’d have had greater success if i’d have understood exactly what it was. it’s certainly a popular term; it shows up everywhere. people who make mistakes blame a lack of it. headlines extol the value of it. we say we’re practicing it when things are going well. i realized recently, however, that i couldn’t define it, not without looking it up. i tried and all i came up with was a tautology; self-awareness is being self-aware.

a more accurate statement might be “self-awareness is knowing yourself.” it’s knowing who you are and what you want. it’s understanding what you’re thinking and feeling. it’s focusing our attention on ourselves, comparing where we are currently to our standards and values. It’s becoming objective evaluators of ourselves.

self-awareness is supposed to be non-judgmental; observational only. that idea shows up regularly in stoic literature as well. a thought is just a thing and you can accept or reject it on that basis. we have a variety of thoughts all the time. being self-aware means looking at thoughts and observing them, perhaps even understanding them. this is not the same as accepting them, or what generates them. it’s also not changing what’s going on inside if it’s not congruent with the person you want to be. the last is where i tend to stumble.

i’m getting better at knowing what i’m thinking. it’s improved since i decided to scale back on denial in favour of self-knowledge; it’s not like denying the truth was helping much anyhow. mental illness still caught up with me and negative behaviours still had a cascading and detrimental effect. i might as well face what i think and believe. facing things is not all that goes into self-acceptance, however.

i can observe my thoughts; that’s a good. unfortunately, i don’t stay neutral about them. i rate them and correspondingly myself as “good” or “bad” depending on the content. that’s a bad. for instance, i might notice that i’m calling myself fat again; that i’m slipping into eating disorder-type thoughts. self-awareness and stoicism would have me observe what’s happening without judgement before i decide what to do next. unfortunately, i tend not to wait. i notice the thought, react to it, and jump in with both feet. too often that looks like trash-talking myself for what i’m thinking or deciding that food should be an optional extra. these behaviours lead to more thoughts of the type that i should observe non-judgmentally, but don’t. i move from self-knowledge to reactive and skip being self-aware. it’s not the way to function if one wants to live well.

it’s a habit i suppose, like anything else. i’ve many years of self-unawareness to counter. it’s easier to pay attention to what’s going on inside when things are going well, or at least not poorly. when the thoughts and feelings get difficult, it’s natural to revert to a practiced behaviour. it’d be nice if good habits were as easy to adopt as negative ones, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for humans. my internal monologues are certainly longer now as i strive to not only stay aware of my thoughts but to respond to them appropriately. i try to evaluate the original thought and see how it lines up with my values and goals, but if i respond habitually, i then must observe, evaluate, and address my instinctive response too. i sometimes wonder what all this thinking and self-talk looks like from the outside. are there are protracted periods of time where i appear to onlookers to be absent?

i told my counsellor that i was seeking self-awareness, but as i’ve travelled down this path, i’ve learned that while observational insights are good and helpful, what i really wanted was self-acceptance – close to but not entirely the same thing. i wanted to know was that despite everything, i was okay. it’s hard to believe it when you hear it from others; it doesn’t have the same weight. it doesn’t matter how many people accept us if we can’t accept ourselves.

a better goal would be developing both self-awareness and self-acceptance. it’s become apparent as i practice observing my thoughts that the former is fairly useless if you aren’t working on the latter as well.


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