Science of People - Logo

Self-Awareness: What It Is And How To Cultivate It

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Self-awareness is a valuable tool that impacts almost every area of your life! While some people have a greater natural predisposition to it, anyone can develop their self-awareness. 

Before diving into how you can do that, let’s look at self-awareness and some research behind it. 

What is Self-Awareness? 

Self-awareness is the ability to self-evaluate whether your words, actions, and thoughts match your ideals. It means that in addition to being able to think, one cultivates the ability to think about what they’re thinking. 

Highly self-aware individuals can recognize their strengths and weaknesses. This helps them determine if they are matching up to the ideals they hold for themselves. 

For example, people with low self-awareness might not know why they have sudden angry outbursts, feel emotional around certain people, or feel triggered by outside events. 

Self-awareness is the ability to stop and notice your feelings and how they affect your actions. It can also be noticing that your actions aren’t matching your ideals. It’s what the scientists have termed “self-evaluation” or “comparing against our standards of correctness.”

According to research, self-evaluation leads to two possible outcomes: 

  1. You succeed and align with your ideals
  2. You fail to align with your ideals 

If you fail, you get to decide to either change your behavior, thoughts, or words align with your ideals or move on and come to terms with not being who you want to be. 

In most situations, people will evaluate how difficult they think change will be. If the difference seems easy enough, they will do it. If it seems too challenging, they will avoid thinking about that aspect of life.

Typically, the easier you believe change will be, the more you attribute success or failure to yourself. On the other hand, the harder you think aligning with your ideals will be, the more likely you are to attribute the outcome to external factors. 

In reality, the ability to bridge the distance between an ideal and action is determined by both internal factors and external circumstances.

Types of Self-Awareness

There are two primary types of self-awareness—public and private. 

Private self-awareness is recognizing things going on in your head. For example, someone who experiences social anxiety may walk into a networking event and feel overwhelmed. Others around them may not know that this is how the person feels. 

As a self-aware individual, though, that person may recognize that they’re feeling overwhelmed and that this is a familiar feeling for them when they are at events with many people. 

Public self-awareness is the ability to understand how others perceive you. It begins to develop around five when a child becomes aware that others around them are individuals with unique thoughts and feelings. 

People with strong public self-awareness can be likable. However, they may conform too much to the expectations of those around them rather than being their authentic selves. 

Most people conform to public self-awareness some amount every day. For example, in school classrooms, students know to raise their hands and wait for the teacher to call on them before answering a question. 

This is a form of public self-awareness because the whole classroom is aware that the expectation is that the teacher will be the one to determine whose turn it is to talk in the classroom. 

The Benefits of Self-Awareness

Cultivating self-awareness is beneficial in building a sense of self and in relation to others. 

Here are some of the ways that increased self-awareness has benefitted a person: 

  • Increased self-awareness links to increased confidence and creativity. 
  • Research indicates that highly self-aware individuals are more likely to perform well in the workplace. 
  • Better self-awareness tends to increase workplace confidence and improve communication with colleagues. 
  • Self-awareness improves people’s decision-making abilities.

Self-awareness has many benefits—you might be wondering how to improve your self-awareness and take advantage of some of these perks. 

Let’s dive into that! 

3 Ways to Improve Self-Awareness

Emerging research indicates that only 10-15% of individuals are genuinely self-aware. However, with all the benefits of self-awareness, both personally and professionally, it is a beneficial skill to cultivate. 

Thankfully, as with most areas of life, self-awareness can be improved with time and dedication to growth. Here are a few tools you can use to improve your self-awareness. 

#1 Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment and not getting lost in daydreams or wandering thoughts. It’s a way to check in with yourself. One study showed that practicing mindfulness increased the self-awareness of a group of students in as little as eight weeks. 

Mindfulness improves self-awareness as you learn to observe your feelings and reactions.  

While noticing where you’re at, be non-judgemental to yourself. Pay attention to the things that worry you and ask yourself, “Do I have control over this?” If not, do your best to let go of it—much easier said than done, but still essential to practice! 

Action Step: Set aside 5-10 minutes of your day. If you’re able, find a consistent window of time you can use for mindfulness every day. This will help your mind and body build a habit. 

Some typical times that may work are correct when you wake up, on your lunch break, or in the evening when you’re unwinding from bed. 

Here are a few different ways you can use those few minutes: 

  • Deep breathing: Sit somewhere comfortable, close your eyes, and start breathing deeply. Once you adjust to this, focus on calming your mind. Once you feel settled and calm, imagine different parts of your day. Think about what concerns you, what you want from the day, and how you can influence the outcome of your day. Set your intentions before moving forward with your day. 
  • Mindful stretching: Mindful stretching is very similar to yoga. While stretching, focus on your breathing and how your body feels. When you notice your thoughts wandering, bring them back to the present moment. 
  • Try using this video (or find another one you like) to guide you through a mindful stretch: Mindful Movement 10 Minute Seated Yoga Stretch
  • Body scan: A body scan is when you sit down and concentrate on how your body feels. Focus on observing rather than judging. An important part of self-awareness is being able to observe without judgment. By practicing this skill with a body scan, you’re setting yourself up to observe feelings and situations throughout the day without judgment. 

Try a few different methods until you find what helps calm your mind and focus on assessing what you’re thinking and how you’re approaching life. 

#2 Deep Journaling

Journaling is a great way to slow down and figure out what is happening inside your head. It is challenging to look at the words on paper as you write. This can make it easier to evaluate your thoughts objectively. 

Journaling can also help you recognize what areas of self-improvement you need to work on. Pay attention to any emerging patterns of what you enjoy, what is important to you, and who you want to be. 

As you write down your dreams and goals, you can break them down into achievable steps. Once you’ve realized what is important to you, you can work to adjust your day-to-day life to work towards achieving those goals or prioritizing the things you genuinely care about. 

Most people keep journals to log their day or write down what has happened to them–this is a great start, but to develop real self-awareness, you want to try deep journaling. This is not only thinking about what you did today but why you did it. Here is an example of the difference between self-aware journaling and not:

Regular journal entry: “Today, I delivered my presentation to the team. Went ok. Got some good feedback. Need to spend more time on it for next time. Went to lunch with Gary to discuss.”

Deep journal entry: “Today, I delivered my presentation to the team. I was excited about this for weeks but was nervous right before I started. I worried that people would not like my ideas, which made me doubt myself! It went ok. I wish I had been looser–I felt very stiff and rigid. I wish I had practiced the delivery, not just the slides. But I got some good feedback. I think I get too much in my head and need to trust my ideas. Went to lunch with Gary to discuss. I wanted to know if he agreed with me – he did. Next time: Trust myself!” 

Action Step: Grab a notebook and pen, and find a calm space to journal. This could be a nook in your house, a local coffee shop, or your bed before falling asleep. 

You can simply start writing and see what comes out, or use one of the following prompts to help you get started: 

  • What is something I love about my life right now? 
  • How can I do more of what I enjoy in my day-to-day life? 
  • Who do I feel most like myself when I’m around them? 
  • What are ten sentences to describe what my dream future would look like? 
  • When do I notice myself being the happiest? 
  • What aspect of myself do I feel the proudest of? 
  • What are three things I’d like to see myself get better at in the next three months? 
  • Who do I wish I spent more time with? 
  • What advice would you give yourself a year ago, and what advice do you think your future self would provide you? 

Try experimenting with different styles of writing. You could try poetry, bullet points, or flow-of-consciousness writing. See what works for you and helps you slow down and realize what you’re thinking about. Then, evaluate those thoughts and how you live to see if they align. 

If you want more tips on journaling or more prompts, read How to Journal Effectively & Develop a Daily Habit

#3 Talk to trusted individuals

If you feel sitting down with a journal isn’t the right fit, try talking to a mentor, close friend, or partner. 

Close relationships can help you realize the discrepancies between who you want to be and how you behave now. When you’re talking with someone who knows you and wants the best for you, you may also realize more of what you want and hope your life will look like. 

Action Step: Ask a trusted individual in your life how they would describe you. Ask them if they have any recommendations for areas of life you can work on. 

They will be able to reflect back to you on how they see you. This may help you realize discrepancies between who you want to be and who you currently are. Although that can be discouraging, remember that becoming self-aware enables you to grow and change into the person you want to be. 

Bonus Action Step: Ask a close friend, family member, or partner to be your “accountability partner.”  

An accountability partner is someone you commit to being honest with and letting know how you’re doing in a certain area of life.

For example, if you want to set healthy social media boundaries, you might ask your friend to hold you accountable for not using Instagram or Facebook for longer than 15 minutes. You can ask them to check in with you from time to time to keep you accountable, not to exceed this amount. 

Then, the next time you’re bored and about to pick up your phone and scroll on Instagram, you’ll have to tell your friend about it, even though you’ve already used your 15 minutes. 

This alone can help you limit how much time you spend on social media.

Use this for any area of life that you’re working to improve! Whether you want to go to the gym three times a week, eat more vegetables, or become more patient with your colleagues. 

Self-Awareness Standards: Holding Yourself to Healthy Expectations 

It may be helpful to assess from time to time if your standards are healthy. Research indicates that the potential negative aspects of introspection, such as depression or anxiety, can be lessened when people set realistic standards they believe they can meet.

Most people fall into one of two categories regarding the internal standards they set for themselves. 

  1. Those who have unrealistically high expectations of themselves
  2. Those who don’t expect enough of themselves

Which group you fall into may differ based on the area of life. For example, you could have unrealistically high expectations of yourself professionally while having low standards of how you care for yourself.  

If you fall in the high expectation category, you might be able to resonate with this story: 

Marissa hit “send” an email to her boss and then realized she’d done something horrible. She had accidentally sent the email to the entire company instead of just her boss. 

“How embarrassing!” She thinks to herself. “That email contains project details that aren’t yet at a stage for everyone to know, and now others will read that email. I’m so embarrassed… How do I fix this?” 

She spends the day stressing out about the email and can hardly get other work done. Her boss eventually pops by her desk, and she has the chance to apologize in person. 

Her boss is honest and says it wasn’t ideal for everyone to receive that email, but it happens. He then tells her about a time he messed up, sent an email to the wrong person, and assures her it isn’t the end of the world.

She breathes a sigh of relief. Everything’s OK. Her boss was understanding, and she could move forward with her work day. 

What’s the problem with this story? Marissa’s standard is WAY too high. There’s no way she’ll be able to go through her entire career without making any mistakes. 

In Marissa’s case, it would be good to evaluate her standards and lower them to be more realistic, healthy, and sustainable. While striving for excellence is good, this perfection is unrealistic and damaging Marissa’s well-being. 

If you have unrealistically high expectations, you may not realize them until a situation arises that brings them out. Then, it is important to use the process of self-evaluation to figure out why you reacted the way you did in a given situation. 

On the other side of the spectrum, one may need to set higher expectations and standards for themselves. 

Take, for example, Janette. 

Janette and her partner, Paul, argued the other day. It started as a disagreement over what to have for dinner, and, before they knew it, they were fighting about Paul’s career. 

The argument got heated, and pretty soon, Janette realized she was yelling profanities at Paul. 

As Janette later reflected on what happened, she thought, “It doesn’t matter—at least I didn’t say anything worse. If he’s hurt by what I said, maybe that’s his fault. He shouldn’t get offended so easily.” 

In this instance, Janette and Paul’s relationship may benefit from higher expectations.

Janette, for example, may raise her expectation for herself, too, “It is my goal not to yell at Paul when I get frustrated. Rather, I want to honestly express how I’m feeling while still respecting him as a person.” 

Does this mean Janette will never yell at Paul again? Probably not. 

However, the next time they get into a fight, and she notices her voice rising, she may remember her goal to speak calmly to Paul and take a breath before responding to his words. 

Action Step: Ask yourself, “What do I expect of myself [professionally, personally, athletically…]?” 

What was the first thing that came to mind?

Now consider how you would respond to a friend who told you they had that expectation of themselves. 

For example, you may have said, “I expect myself to get an A on every assignment I hand in.” 

Ask yourself, “If my friend told me that was their standard, would I be supportive of it?” 

Probably not. 

You would probably encourage them by saying, “I think it’s great you want to do well academically, but sometimes life happens, and your mental and emotional well-being is more important than your grades. Besides, you can get some B’s or even C’s on assignments and still get an A in the course.” 

Once you have adjusted your standard, think back over the past three to five days and think about your actions and words in that area of life. Do they match up with your expressed standards? 

Do your actions show that you are unreasonably hard on yourself? Or do your actions show that you’re falling below your standards? 

Signs Someone is Self-Aware

When someone is self-aware, they typically have stronger emotional intelligence. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ, emotional intelligence comprises five components. 

The first is self-awareness—the ability to recognize your strengths and weaknesses. According to Goleman, the other components of emotional intelligence are self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation.

To learn more about emotional intelligence, read 10 Emotional Intelligence Traits to Master for Self-Growth

Individuals with strong self-awareness can clearly express their feelings, why they feel that way, and how they want to change their actions moving forward. This can be challenging, but you can often achieve it through introspection and hard work. 

Examples of Self-Awareness in Real-Life Situations

When someone is self-aware, they know how to assess their actions and determine if they are living up to their goals and ideals. This means that self-awareness is an aspect of every part of life. 

It can be challenging to envision self-awareness in different spheres of life. These examples can help you spot self-awareness and consequent personal development in various situations. 

Louis, the project manager

Louis has been a manager for roughly 5 years now. He enjoys his job and wants to develop his team members well. 

According to the metrics, the problem is that his team is one of the least innovative teams in their department. He recently started losing a lot of his start team members to competitors. 

He’s feeling discouraged and frustrated. He doesn’t understand why people seem nervous around him and hesitant to suggest innovative ideas. 

He asked one of the other project managers if he would be alright to observe a team meeting. He says he realizes this is unconventional but wants to see what they are doing differently. 

As he sits in the meeting, he watches how his colleague handles what Louis would consider a failure.  

Given the same circumstances, Louis knows he would have shown his frustration. But his colleague stays calm and starts to analyze the situation. 

He starts by asking the team if they can identify what went wrong. Was it the idea or the execution? They spend a few minutes talking about this and formulating a plan for how to move forward. 

Louis realizes that this team is much more engaged. They demonstrate a sense of ownership and involvement in the process. They weren’t scared to think outside of the box. 

He slowly realizes that the difference may be in his leadership style. He is too quick to get frustrated when things aren’t working rather than taking the opportunity to learn together.

At the beginning of his next team meeting, he says he wants to change their team culture. He realizes that that change starts with him but will need their help. He expresses how much he values their contributions and apologizes for not creating a space that fosters creativity. 

Alicia, the marketing intern

Alicia is super excited to be starting her new job as a marketing intern. She’s also incredibly stressed—what if she doesn’t make a good impression? What if they aren’t happy with her work? What if everyone hates her? (Oh no, she’s spiraling.)

She’s hoping this will turn into a full-time offer. It would be a dream job, making her even more nervous. 

Alicia goes to her car on her lunch break, sits down, and focuses on calming her mind. She does five minutes of deep breathing before pulling out her journal to write out how she’s feeling. 

Once it’s all on paper, she can see that she’s setting unrealistic expectations for herself. She decides to write out the expectations she wants to hold herself to. 

  • She wants to show up and do the best job she can do that day
  • She wants to learn something new every week
  • She wants to build genuine and meaningful relationships with her teammates.

Once she looks at her list, she begins to feel calmer. These are attainable goals and ones that will help her decide if she wants to continue working at this company after the internship is over. 

Her lunch break ends, and she can return to her desk feeling calmer and more excited about the rest of her workday. 

Her mental clarity empowers her to do better work and be more creative while solving various roadblocks her team has been running up against. 

Theo, the father, and husband

Theo and his wife, Mandy, have two active young boys. When Theo has the energy for them, they’re super fun to be around. He loves the family camping trips they’ve gone on and watching them unwrap gifts on their birthdays.

When they first got pregnant, Theo and Mandy decided to readjust their lifestyle so that Mandy could quit her job and be at home with the boys. 

Now, Theo goes to work every morning and comes home in the evening tired and, if it’s been a rough day, a little grumpy. Too often, he snaps at his sons and forgets to ask Mandy how she is doing. 

He doesn’t like that he acts this way and so decides to look inside and go beyond the classic excuses of, “I’m tired” or, “It’s been a rough week.”  

As he thinks about it, he realizes that he’s jealous. He feels like his sons are growing up so fast, and he’s worried he’s missing moments while he’s gone. 

After thinking about it for a while, he decides to ask his boss if he can start working remotely. He explains that he has young children and wants to be a part of their lives as much as possible. 

His boss is understanding, and they can strike a compromise. Theo can work remotely three days a week, and if his work-from-home days are as productive as his in-the-office days over the next couple of months, they’ll discuss the possibility of increasing that time. 

Theo is happy he can spend time with his family on work-from-home days. He loves eating lunch with them and having his kids pop into the office to see what he’s up to. He’s able to see first-hand how much work Mandy does to keep the family thriving and becomes more considerate of her. 

Final Thoughts: Becoming More Self-Aware

In a podcast interview, best-selling author, Brenè Brown, shared that lack of self-awareness is one of the underlying reasons for hate and unhappiness in the world. 

This is a big claim, but her research shows that, as children, everyone experiences pain that leaves them feeling vulnerable and helpless. The natural way to avoid these uncomfortable feelings is by falling into coping mechanisms. 

When these defense mechanisms go unchallenged, they lead to unhelpful behaviors that often hurt others and ourselves. It might show broken relationships, self-centeredness, narcissism, or even violence. 

While these coping mechanisms may have been necessary survival tools in youth, they no longer serve one well in adulthood. Self-awareness is the process of looking inward to realize this and work to heal and break old patterns. 

You can listen to their entire conversation here: 

Brené Brown — Striving versus Self-Acceptance, Saving Marriages, and More | The Tim Ferriss Show

Many people lack self-awareness, but the overwhelming benefits of being self-aware make it worthwhile to put in the work to develop it—you can do it! 

Here are some ways you can work on becoming more self-aware: 

  • Practice Mindfulness: Recognizing how your thoughts, actions, and words match up to who you want to be is the first step towards growth. In the first steps of this process, focus on observing yourself without judgment. This can be hard, but it is important to be able to assess yourself now so that you can work towards growth. 
  • Journal: Use a journaling prompt or write out characteristics you want to grow into. Consider writing down a realistic look at where you are now. While this can be discouraging at the moment, it is exciting to look back a few months down the line and see how far you’ve come. 
  • Talk to Trusted Individuals: Friends, partners, and family members can be great people to talk to while you’re working on becoming more self-aware. They can help you notice areas to work on and hold you accountable for the growth you’ve committed to. 

Remember, progress isn’t linear. It takes time to establish new habits. As Brenè Brown talks about, many discrepancies between how you behave and how you want to behave can be traced back to childhood—don’t expect to change overnight! 

Read our article 7 Tips to Develop Rock-Solid Discipline to help you make the changes you want to in life. 

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Get our latest insights and advice delivered to your inbox.

It’s a privilege to be in your inbox. We promise only to send the good stuff.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.