Self-awareness is a skill that anyone can learn to improve with the right exercises and habits.
Are there parts of your life or personality that you just can’t seem to understand? Maybe there are certain behaviors or tendencies that seem to pop up over and over again despite leading to negative outcomes?
The ability to be self-aware is one of the most essential yet difficult to achieve skills we humans can achieve. But it is possible!
In this guide, I’ll explain what self-awareness is, why it’s important, and then walk through 10 effective and practical exercises you can use to actually cultivate self-awareness in your life.
Table of Contents
- What is self-awareness?
- What are the benefits of self-awareness?
- 10 examples of how to increase self-awareness
- Pay attention to what bothers you about other people
- Meditate on your mind
- Read high-quality fiction
- Identify your emotional kryptonite
- Draw a timeline of your life
- Ask for feedback (and take it well)
- Do some micro-travel
- Learn a new skill
- Identify cognitive distortions
- Make time to clarify your values
- Summary & Key Takeaways
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness means the habit of paying attention to the way you think, feel, and behave. More specifically:
- It means looking for patterns in the way we tend to think about and perceive what happens to, how we explain things to ourselves and make sense of the world around us.
- It means understanding our own emotions and moods. Instead of trying to avoid or “fix” how we feel, we observe and stay curious about our feelings, even the difficult, uncomfortable ones.
- It means paying attention to how we tend to act and behave in certain situations. What are our default responses to things? What are our habits and tendencies?
In short, self-awareness means paying attention to and trying to learn about our own psychology.
What are the benefits of self-awareness?
It’s hard to overstate the benefits of self-awareness, so I’ll just list a few of the most common positives that come from increasing our self-awareness:
- Better relationships. It’s difficult to ask for what we want and need in a relationship when we’re not very clear about those things ourselves. What’s more, the less self-awareness we have, the easier it is to get defensive in our interactions with people, which is a recipe for disaster in any type of relationship. If you want to improve your relationships, start by trying to become more self-aware.
- Improved moods. Our mood and how we tend to feel hour-to-hour is largely dependent on how we choose to think and behave. When we improve our awareness of the relationship between thoughts, behavior, and emotion, it becomes easier to regulate our feelings and moods.
- Clearer thinking and better decision-making. Poor decision-making often comes from muddled thinking and strong emotional reactions. When we become more aware of our habits of thought and feeling, we can more easily distinguish between short term impulses or desires and long term values and goals.
- More effective communication. Achieving a clearer sense of what you believe and what you really want makes it far easier to communicate in any aspect of life, whether it’s with a spouse, manager at work, or best friend. The better we know ourselves, the easier it is to communicate assertively, to be honest about what we would like and respectful of the wishes of others.
- Increased productivity. The most common cause of procrastination and poor productivity isn’t a lack of effort or commitment, it’s interference from ourselves. When we struggle to get to work, it’s usually because on some level our own thoughts, emotions, or habits are getting in the way. Improving self-awareness can help eliminate many of these hidden obstacles to productivity.
10 examples of how to increase self-awareness
As a psychologist, I work with clients all the time to increase self-awareness in one respect or the other. Here are 10 of my favorite techniques and strategies for becoming more self-aware.
1. Pay attention to what bothers you about other people
Often the things that irritate us the most in other people are a reflection of some quality we dislike in ourselves.
We all have aspects of ourselves that we’re not proud of—a tendency to bend the truth a little too often, for example. Or maybe we avoid conflict like the plague, often ending up feeling like a doormat or getting used by those around us.
If we don’t know how—or believe it’s possible—to change these things, we can end up doing the next best thing: Not thinking about them. And while ignorance can feel like bliss, it isn’t really. Not in the long-term.
So, whenever someone does something that seems to particularly annoy or irritate you, ask yourself: Could this be a reflection of something in me that I dislike? Do I do some version of that?
2. Meditate on your mind
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness meditation. It’s the simple practice of keeping your attention focused on your breath or some other physics sensation. Then, if you notice your mind wandering to other thoughts, gently returning your attention to your point of focus.
While mindfulness meditation has been shown to be beneficial for everything from weight loss to depression relief, it can actually be a powerful way to increase your level of self-awareness.
Specifically, mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to learn more about how your thoughts work. When you practice watching and observing our thoughts without attaching to them or thinking about them, you begin to realize a powerful idea: You are not your thoughts.
All too often we lack self-awareness because we’re actually thinking too much. We easily become lost in our thoughts, assuming they’re true or worth engaging with simply because our mind decided to throw them at us.
A regular mindfulness practice will open your eyes to how the thinking mind works and how much more there is to you than the mere content of your thoughts.
3. Read high-quality fiction
It’s often said that great writers are great observers of the world around them. And it’s this capacity to notice subtle details and features of life that allow them to recreate it so movingly in their work.
But the very best writers are expert observers of human nature in particular. It’s their job to notice the tiny details of thought, emotion, desire, and action that most of us miss amid the frantic business of daily life.
And even though most of us probably aren’t called to be authors and astute observers of human nature professionally, we can all learn a thing or two about ourselves by learning to pay attention like an author.
By describing people carefully, good fiction teaches us how to think about people carefully and with compassion. And the better we get at observing others, the more likely we are to look at ourselves the same way.
So spend 30 minutes sometime and come up with a list of good fiction you’ve been meaning to read or ask a knowledgeable friend to recommend a few of their favorites.
Learn More: How to Become a Prolific Reader
4. Identify your emotional kryptonite
Nobody likes to feel sad, anxious, ashamed or any other variety of negative emotion. Which is understandable since they feel bad, sometimes painfully so.
And while we all recoil from negative emotions, each of us tends to have one particular negative emotion that we especially dislike and try to avoid.
A common pattern I see in my clinical practice is for people to do anything to avoid feeling sad. They’ll go to extraordinary—sometimes harmful—lengths to distract themselves or numb out that specific feeling of sadness, even if it means increasing the intensity of other negative emotions like anxiety, shame, and guilt.
For example, I had a client just recently who discovered that part of the reason she felt anxious in social situations is that she worried constantly that people were judging her. Specifically, she worried that they could tell she drank too much and were judging her for that.
When I asked her about her drinking, we eventually discovered that even though drinking was causing her a lot of shame and anxiety, to her it was worth it because it was the only way she knew how to distract from the sadness in her life.
We all have certain emotions that we especially dislike. And more of often than not, that means we try very hard to avoid feeling that emotion. The problem is, being so afraid of an emotion that we’re willing to do just about anything to avoid it can lead to some pretty negative consequences in the long-term (substance abuse, for instance).
But perhaps most importantly, by avoiding the emotion, we’re avoiding listening to what the emotion has to say to us. Negative emotions are painful because our mind is trying to get our attention, sometimes for a very good reason.
Learning to tolerate the discomfort of our emotional kryptonite can unlock a wealth of insight about ourselves and our world if we’re willing to listen.
Learn More: How to Clarify Your Emotions
5. Draw a timeline of your life
One of the most eye-opening “tricks” I perform as a psychologist often happens in the second session with my clients.
At the end of our first meeting, I sometimes ask them to spend 20 minutes drawing a timeline of their life at some point before our next meeting. I instruct them to sit down with a blank sheet of paper and a pencil and, starting with their birth, mark the major events in their life along the timeline. Specifically, events that had a big impact on them—big or small, positive or negative.
Inevitably, people come back and say some version of the same thing:
That sounded like the dumbest exercise ever but I was shocked at how much I realized about myself.
In particular, many people are able to make sense of or get a new perspective on an especially distressing or difficult time by seeing that specific period “in context.”
Being able to think developmentally and in context is key to self-awareness.
6. Ask for feedback (and take it well)
Here’s a question: How often do you deliberately seek out feedback about yourself?
If you’re anything like me—or most people, I suspect—probably not often. Which is a shame because good feedback is one of the fastest and most effective ways to grow and improve ourselves.
In particular, while there are many aspects of ourselves that we can see need improvement, it’s the parts of ourselves we can’t see—our blind spots—that are the real problem. And other people are uniquely positioned to notice these and help us see them. If we ask…
So, how exactly should we go about asking for feedback about ourselves?
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Choose a solid relationship in your life: parent, spouse, best friend, etc. Someone with whom you have enough relationship credit that they would be willing to point out something negative.
- Start small. Ask about something initially that’s not too big or threatening. This is about building up the other person’s confidence that you can take criticism well. They’ll be more likely to tell you about a major personality issue if you’ve shown them that you can take criticism about household chores well.
- Take the criticism well. Avoid defensiveness at all costs. Anticipate that you’re not going to feel wonderful at the moment someone points out a flaw. And that’s okay. It’s normal to feel that way. Try your best to simply acknowledge their feedback, thank them for giving it, and explain that you plan to work on it.
7. Do some micro-travel
New places and strange environments get us out of our routines and force us to be more self-aware.
When I lived in Italy, I remember being appalled initially by how much time people “wasted” on long, extravagant meals—dinner for 3 hours, are you kidding!
But after spending time in Italian culture and being forced into the experience of these long, relaxed meals, I began to appreciate this alternative attitude toward meals that was more than simply a refueling process. And while I don’t regularly eat 3-hour dinners, my perspective on meals and their function has changed as a result of my travel and time spent in a new environment.
Of course, even though regularly jet-setting to exotic countries probably isn’t a viable strategy for most of us, we can get the self-awareness benefits of travel without having to go very far.
Micro-travel is the simple idea that we can still engage in travel but on a local scale. For example, if you live in a large city or urban area, you’re likely familiar with your own neighborhood, downtown, and maybe a couple other spots. But there are probably whole neighborhoods you haven’t spent much if any time in. This is an opportunity for micro-travel.
Similarly, while two weeks in Thailand might not be feasible for you at the moment, two days at a local state park that you’ve never been to might be.
If we can broaden our idea of what travel means to include local or nearby locations that are still unfamiliar, we can get many of the benefits of travel—including a boost to our self-awareness—at a fraction of the cost in time or money.
8. Learn a new skill
Just like traveling forces us to become more self-aware by throwing us into novel situations, learning something new increases self-awareness by forcing us to think and act in novel ways.
As adults, we all get pretty set in our ways, in large part, I think, because we end up doing the same things over and over again. And while this leads to a certain kind of comfort, it also fosters a narrowness of mind and thought: When the only things we’re doing are things we’re already good at, it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security that we know how things work.
The antidote is what’s sometimes called Beginner’s Mind. The idea behind beginner’s mind is that in order to learn new things, the mind has to be flexible and see things fresh—like a child. Which means that if we want to cultivate flexibility and freshness within ourselves and the way we see things (i.e. self-awareness), we should go out of our way to be a beginner. And one of the best ways to do this is to learn a new skill.
Whether it’s playing the piano, speaking Mandarin, or watercoloring, committing to learning a new skill is a powerful exercise in mental flexibility and self-awareness.
9. Identify cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts and beliefs that warp how we see things, including ourselves. Just like we all can get into unhelpful physical habits (e.g.: nail-biting, snacking late at night, etc.), we all have certain mental habits that aren’t doing us any favors.
For example: Whenever something upsetting happens while I’m driving—getting cut off, someone taking a parking spot I wanted—a default script that runs through my mind is, What a jerk!
For whatever reason, I’ve developed a mental habit of name-calling other drivers anytime I get upset on the road. This is a problem because even though other drivers do make mistakes, sometimes I do too. But if my default reaction is to always externalize and blame other people, I miss the opportunity to see my own behavior and self-correct.
If every time I get cut off, I tell myself that the person cutting me off is a jerk and should be a more considerate driver, I may miss the fact that I chronically drive too slow in the passing lane because I’m talking to my wife and not very aware of how I’m driving.
The point is, a major source of a lack of self-awareness is inaccurate mental habits and self-talk. If we can learn to identify these patterns of inaccurate thinking, we can become more self-aware—and probably end up feeling better too.
10. Make time to clarify your values
Here’s a frightening question: How often do you make time to deliberately and carefully consider your highest values and aspirations?
If you’re like most of us, the busyness of daily life tends to sweep you up—day after day, week after week—in a constant stream of activity without much time for reflection, especially reflection on the most important things.
So is it any surprise then that we have a difficult time reaching our goals and finding satisfaction when we don’t spend any time contemplating what that would even look like for us?
What’s more, it’s probably not surprising that we end up chasing artificial goals that culture and society tell us are important (nice car, big house, trim waistline, Ivy League schools for our kids, etc.) but that we don’t genuinely find meaningful and rewarding.
A special form of self-awareness involves becoming aware of and clear about the things that really matter to us: Why are we here? What are we called to do? What makes for a fulfilling life that we can be truly proud of?
These are big questions. And while they sound intimidating, that’s probably because we just don’t spend much quality time actually considering them.
Try this: Pull out your calendar and find a 30-minute time slot once a month (I like 4:30 pm on the last Friday of every month). Set up a recurring monthly calendar appointment for this time and call it Values Clarification. Each month at this time, take out a sheet of paper and simply brainstorm ideas and thoughts related to this question of values and what you really want.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it. What’s important is that you give yourself the opportunity to think about it. You’ll be amazed at what comes up!
Unfortunately, the term self-awareness can come across as a bit magical and esoteric, complicated psychological jargon for a mysterious process deep within human nature.
But it’s not.
Self-awareness is simply the capacity to observe our selves—to take notice of and pay attention to patterns within our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. And it’s a skill that we all have.
Some of us may have more or less of it to start, but there are plenty of straightforward exercises anyone can take advantage of to improve their own self-awareness no matter where it stands right now.