science of us

A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Awareness

Photo: Robert Daly/Getty Images

The vast majority of people — up to 95 percent, in fact — believe they have a decent amount of self-awareness. And maybe you’re one of the lucky 10 to 15 percent who really does have an accurate view of themselves — but if we’re going by the numbers, well, the odds aren’t in your favor.

Those statistics are based on years of research from psychologist Tasha Eurich, author of the book Insight. “On a good day, 80 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves,” Eurich says. Making things extra tricky is the fact that self-awareness has two components: Internal self-awareness is the ability to introspect and recognize your authentic self, whereas external self-awareness is the ability to recognize how you fit in with the rest of the world. “It’s almost like two different camera angles,” Eurich says.

The two are independent, entirely different variables, meaning you can have one without the other. For example, maybe you know someone who is a complete navel-gazer with a high level of internal self-awareness. Yet you and everyone else think this person is a selfish jerk, but because he never receives external feedback, he has no idea. Conversely, someone could have a high level of external self-awareness, a clear understanding of how they fit in with the rest of the world, without knowing what they want and what makes them happy. To be truly, fully self-aware, though, you need both components — a feat that’s difficult to pull off for pretty much anyone. But, it’s worth noting, not impossible.

Accept that it’s going to be a challenge.

“We villainize people for not being self-aware when all the decks are stacked against us,” Eurich said. “Pretty much all over the world, forces are conspiring to make us more self-absorbed, which is basically the opposite of being self-aware.” Modern life makes it easy to become a part of what Eurich calls the “cult of self”: social media, for example, acts as a microphone-slash-spotlight we never have to turn off, while the concept of “personal branding” turns careful image curation into a professional skill. None of this is to suggest you should shut down your Facebook profile, Eurich says, but these elements can serve as environmental blocks to self-awareness: “Whether or not you know it, the cult is trying to recruit us all.”

Our environment isn’t the only obstacle — we’re all built with our own internal blocks as well. In a 2010 TED Talk titled “The Riddle of Experience Versus Memory,” psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted that our memories are often inaccurate, which makes introspection difficult. In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he writes:

Except for some effects that I attribute mostly to age, my intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy as it was before I made a study of these issues. I have improved only in my ability to recognize situations in which errors are likely … And I have made much more progress in recognizing the errors of others than my own.

In that last sentence, Kahneman is alluding to the “bias blind spot,” our tendency to recognize cognitive biases in others without noticing them in ourselves.

In other words, your brain isn’t built to easily spot your own lack of self-awareness.  It may seem like a futile pursuit, but Kahneman offers an answer that’s a little bit hopeful, even if it’s also a little bit frustrating. “What can be done about our biases?” he writes. “The short answer is that little can be achieved without considerable investment of effort.”

Moving past these blocks first requires acknowledging where you’re starting from.  Indeed, “the most powerful thing you can do is to gently stop assuming you’re already self-aware,” Eurich suggests.

Know why you’re doing it.

From stronger relationships to increased well-being, there are countless benefits to self-awareness. For example, in a study commissioned by consulting firm Green Peak Partners, researchers from Cornell University examined the traits that contribute to the effectiveness of successful leaders, concluding that a high level of self-awareness was the strongest predictor of success.

It wasn’t a particularly surprising finding, the paper noted; when leaders are self-aware, they know how to hire subordinates who are strong in the areas where they themselves are weak. “These leaders are also more able to entertain the idea that someone on their team may have an idea that is even better than their own,” the authors wrote. Confidence and power are often prioritized in leadership roles, they added, and “leadership searches give short shrift to ‘self-awareness,’ which should actually be a top criterion.”

Make peace with who you are.

Just because self-awareness is a desirable trait doesn’t mean it’s one we enjoy having. In a series of studies published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked subjects to engage in conversations with strangers, acquaintances, close friends, and loved ones, comparing the impression participants made on their conversation partner to the one they thought they made. Overall, the subjects enjoyed the interactions less when they had an accurate view of how they were perceived — when they had high levels of external self-awareness. “People tend to like individuals who have accurate self-perceptions, yet individuals tend to enjoy their own relationships more with people they believe see them in desirable ways,” the authors concluded. In other words, ignorance can be bliss when it comes to external self-awareness; like a heavily filtered Instagram, we’d rather people see a better version of ourselves, even if that version isn’t quite accurate.

Which is why self-acceptance is a necessary ingredient in self-awareness. “Self-acceptance is a really important tool to not just increase our self-awareness, but also love the person we think we are,” Eurich says. “You can think of them as two twin pillars.” Without self-acceptance, self-awareness becomes an unpleasant process, which in turn keeps us from embracing it. To put it another way, learning to accept yourself makes it easier to be honest about who you are.

Ask yourself the right questions.

Introspection is key to building internal self-awareness, but aimless wandering through your own psyche probably won’t get you very far. You need a framework. To that end, Eurich has identified seven pillars of self-knowledge to help guide introspection: your personality, values, passions, aspirations, strengths, weaknesses, and something she calls “fit,” which is the environment most conducive to your well-being. Start by giving yourself the time and space to mull over each of these areas. (Eurich has even created a 14-question quiz to help you along.)

Your approach matters, too. When introspecting, it’s common for people to ask “why.” Why didn’t I get that promotion? Why do I keep fighting with my spouse? “Research has shown there are two problems with this,” Eurich said. “The question ‘why’ sucks us into an unproductive, paralyzed state. It gets us into this victim mentality.” Second, no matter how confident we are about the answer to “why,” we’re almost always wrong.

Eurich and her colleagues looked at their research over the years to see what it was self-aware people were doing differently. “We went through all of our interview transcripts and we started to see a pattern. They were almost never asking why, but they were asking themselves what,” she says. “‘What skills do I need to build in the future?’ ‘What don’t I know?’” Why questions are emotionally charged, whereas what questions are rational and figure-focused, making it easier to approach a problem objectively.

Make it a group effort.

To build external self-awareness, on the other hand, you need to let someone else answer the questions. Eurich suggests asking someone close to you what they think about you, potentially even using the framework of those seven pillars. “You need to go in the outside world and get feedback from people you trust, people who want you to be successful but are also going to tell you the truth,” she says. (Eurich’s quiz is a two-parter — you also have to find a friend to answer questions about you).

You should also gather feedback from multiple “loving critics,” as Eurich calls them, to ensure you aren’t only getting one view.
Another loved one might see you in a completely different light. While you don’t want to outright dismiss any feedback or criticism, you do have to learn to think objectively. Getting a second, or third, opinion can help. In the end, though, it’s on you to synthesize all those opinions into a cohesive self-portrait — and then get acquainted with the result.

A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Awareness