Growing Self-Awareness

I was talking with my wife about a close friend of ours the other day. I am very fond of this person. He is kind, generous and highly principled. In fact he has a number of lovely qualities. However, many people, even those who know him as well as I, can’t stand him. If you were to ask them about him they would say he was opinionated, loud, he dominates the conversation and he’s always talking about his achievements.

And guess what? They’d be right. He’s all of those things. I can see it as well. Is my friend self-aware? I think he is to some extent – I have gently teased him about how much he talks and he smiles as if to say “I know – I can’t help it”. He’s not taken his self-awareness to the stage of initiating change. Maybe he doesn’t know how to, or have the motivation to change. I believe that we are just as addicted to our behaviours, even those we wish to change, as we are to say, smoking or over-eating.

Self-awareness is one of those things people talk about quite a lot, but it’s rarely looked at in much detail. In the job market, we talk about candidates as being self-aware but I’m not sure recruiters and employers really know what they mean by it. It’s just a buzzword.

First, we need to be specific when we describe someone as lacking in self-awareness. My friend only lacks self-awareness in terms of the way he behaves and affects people in conversations. He’s perfectly aware of his values and beliefs. He is also pretty accurate as to his professional strengths and weaknesses. That’s not to say that his poor self-awareness in the area of social skills is small; over the years it has caused him significant difficulties in his career because he has got up the wrong people’s noses.

So how can we examine self-awareness in a little more detail?

The well known Johari window is a good starting point. (By the way did you know that the Johari window is so named because it was devised by two guys, one called Joseph and the other Harry? I bet you’re pleased you’re reading this now).

An open and self-aware person will have a relatively big “Public” box. Private and self-aware people will have a relatively large “hidden” box. These are both to do with what is in our self-awareness and the important thing is to increase that left hand side of the grid relative to the right.

Reducing the size of the boxes on the right comes from talking to others. When it comes to uncovering the unconscious, your companion needs to be skilled at listening. This is the work of counselling because you are entering into unknown territory together. The questions that need to be asked must be carefully considered and asked tentatively – they are an invitation to think about something that might appear to be very slight and more importantly, possibly painful.

Similarly, honest conversations with a few people who know you well can help you to uncover your blind spots, but you need to ask them. People will not want to offer this kind of feedback to you uninvited because it can be painful and it really is your responsibility to seek it. Many people say that a good friend is one who will tell you the stuff that you may find painful. That’s true, but a good friend would be very careful in the way they approached the subject, and most would wait for the invitation.

The next stage is to accept who you are. You may find it difficult to believe the feedback you are being given, but if a few trusted people all say more or less the same thing, you’ve got to take it seriously. It may be painful but it’s worth living with that feedback for a few days to get used to it. Once you have accepted the feedback you will begin to notice it as you go about life and it will be confirmed in the way others behave towards you. You will begin to see how people react to your behaviour and associate it with that part of you that you wish to change.

Acceptance is not about deciding “well, that’s just me and there’s nothing I can do about it”, neither is it saying “I’m awful and I can’t bear to be who I am”, it is simply what I said – acceptance: “This is me. I can change me if I wish, or I can stay as I am if I wish.”

Change is not instant and it may seem impossible at first. All you will notice is your failure rather than your successful change. Each time this happens, ask yourself how you might have done something in another way. Ask yourself what it might have been about that situation that caused you to adopt that old behaviour. Then next time you find yourself in a similar situation consider what you might need to do in order to be different.

In time you will be making a habit of the new behaviour or way of being. But remember, it’s a slow process, and even when you are doing well, you will slip back into the old way. It’s inevitable because what you are asking yourself to do is to undo a lifetime of behaving in a particular way. In fact, I’d say that most people never fully rid themselves of that old behaviour, because to some degree it’s hard wired. What you can do, however, is make it the exception rather than the rule.

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