This article on The Beginner’s Guild to Self-Awareness is a decent summary of some ideas on developing self-awareness from a cognitive perspective, quoting some authors and researchers that might be worthwhile checking out.
But as I frequently find with this topic, the article and the authors quoted focus a lot on cognitive and behavioral concepts but miss a huge component — the emotions that drive most human behavior.
The important thing to remember is that most people lie to themselves about their own behavior because to become aware of it would provoke feelings of guilt or shame, leading to fear. The thought process can be simplified as: “I made a mistake. This confirms my own fears that I am not good enough. No one will accept me or love me. I will be alone. Agh! Scared!” For those who lack self-acceptance (do not have good shame tolerance), these emotional experiences are too painful to bear. To help themselves function, they engage in unhealthy shame management strategies, that pull them away from self-awareness.
This is the conundrum of shame. Shame and guilt are pro-social emotions meant to pull us into compliance with social norms and help us repair mistakes in our relationships. Poorly tolerated shame, unfortunately, does the opposite. It makes us behave poorly (See Donald John Trump and Other-Blamers like him) and damage relationships.
Certainly, there is a time for introspection and self-analysis. This is good use of our powerful thinking and problem-solving minds. However, as I can attest from personal and professional experience, that only takes you so far.
The real solution is to develop compassionate self-acceptance.
As the article notes: “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.’
In essence, we all make mistakes and are flawed human beings. That is a given. What we must learn to do is accept this fact and then learn to comfort ourselves when we do make mistakes. What causes so much emotional suffering is that we are self-critical in harsh and unloving ways when we experience inevitable screw-ups. This leads us to either dump blame, criticism and accountability on others (Other-Blaming) or avoid criticizing ourselves (Blame Avoidance). We may also be hyper-critical of ourselves (Self-Blaming) in hopes of once-and-for-all fixing our faults so that we can be the perfect, flawless human beings that we and others will find acceptable and lovable. (Good luck with any of these!)
There is a time for intellectual assessment of our faults, of course. But for many people, asking “why did I do that,” as this article recommends, triggers the threat or fear reaction in the nervous system. Without self-compassion as a tool to respond, this self-criticism feels to your brain and body as if it is a threatening experience. The “fight-flight-freeze” reaction that instantly results can cause anxiety, worry and rumination, and perhaps paralyzing “freeze” responses of depression, dissociation, and helpless lack of motivation.
Learning compassionate self-acceptance gives us a way to manage this fear response. It teaches us that we can be there in a loving, comforting way for ourselves when we do fail. This then makes it emotionally safer to look inward, address our faults, and make personal changes. Without self-acceptance we will avoid doing so because it provokes so much emotional pain and fear.
To learn more about how to develop self-acceptance, sign up for my email list (no spam, I promise!) and you’ll receive a handout on this topic with recommended books and other resources included.
…be kind to yourself