Psynamo Group Professional Mental Health Practice

Our Thoughts: 5 tips for approaching self-awareness

We spend a great deal of time in life preparing ourselves for how we look before we head out into the world every day. Managing one's self-image is often confused with self-awareness however. Self-awareness begins from the inside out, here are a few helpful tips to get you started at taking a closer look at how you could raise your own self-awareness. This is by no means an exhaustive list and raising self-awareness can be part of a positive experience of self-development, a larger enterprise that would take more time that the suggested exercises below. These are some easy places from which to start thinking however, and working to see the positives, is nearly always a great state to be in.

1. Identifying Values:

We do not often think about what principles guide our actions but taking a moment to do a simple ‘Values’ exercise, such as the “Value Card Sort” from Miller and Rollnick’s (1998) Motivational Interviewing (MI) support materials, or similar can help to ensure you are living every day as meaningfully as you want to. Aligning our actions with our moral compass can be very empowering and ensuring each decision we make in life will fulfill something deeper in us can be a very grounding experience. We do not need to have lofty goals, we merely need to embrace the values that drive us, honestly, an engage more authentically in life according to these values. It is also key to be able to identify the ‘aspirational’ values from the ‘actual’ values. Some you will already be living, some you wish you were doing. Celebrate what you already have and inspect the aspirationals a little more closely. If they belong to someone else, it may be time to think about letting some go, especially if they are holding you back from achieving those you really care about or are causing you distress. If they are causing you distress, it never hurts to have a little mental hygiene session or two with a mental health professional.

2. Identifying Strengths:

It is often noted that when people are asked to list what is good about themselves, many can be stumped, but when asked about faults and or what’s not working, the list seems to flow and, in some cases, can be endless. This can get us stuck in a rut if we spend most days ruminating about what we cannot do instead of what we can do. The Values in Action (VIA) survey, offered free and online through the PennState University website for VIA research, asks a great many questions and offers up a list of strengths for you. All of the 24 strengths are valid, valuable and real. A little of all of them is in you, just in varying degrees. The results from your answers puts your strengths in a ranked order for how they are most likely to be showing up for you. Maybe you have never considered you had any of these 24 strengths, but you can bank on them being real as the ongoing research from this project collects data from every participant (who gives their permission) and provides a number of activities and opportunities to better realise and develop your particular strengths as well as your particular mix. If nothing else, your list of good things about yourself can be increased to 24 items, all you need to do is give it a go.

3. To-Do Lists and Covey’s Cross:

Whilst this is not new, it is a very simple and effective way to put one’s seemingly or actually hectic schedule into order, but in a meaningful way that removes an element of stress and the sometime confusion that can ensue when we put everything we can think of that we need to do on level and equal pegging with everything else life demands of us. A simple example is the humble, simple and yet potentially unsettling “To-Do” list. We have probably all done this at some point whether it was for the weekly shopping, organizing children’s schedules or planning business strategies.

The first step is to list out everything that could be done. Often these lists start out concrete, such as buy toothpaste, arrange dentist appointment and can end up with life wishes such as get my piloting license. All of these are equally valid things to put on a to-do list but not all are immediate. Again, we need to separate out aspirational from actual, those that are time bound within a day and those that are more of a must-get-done before the end of the month sort of task. How does this tap into self-awareness you might wonder? Well, how we choose to spend and/or clutter our lives says a great deal about who we are, what we want to do, who we are trying to please and even about the responsibilities we feel we have to do versus want to do.

A first easy way to gain control of your schedule, lower the stress that is often associated with feeling overwhelmed by a never-ending list of equally demanding and important tasks swirling in our head AND take a peek at who we are trying to be is as simple as two lines that cross to form a big plus sign on a blank sheet of paper. Label the upper left quadrant “TODAY”, label the upper right quadrant “THIS WEEK”, label the lower left quadrant “THIS MONTH” and the lower right quadrant, you guessed it, “THIS QUARTER” or even “THIS YEAR”, depending on how far out you think about your future.

Make your to-do list, if you haven’t already got one lurking in your back pocket or on your phone, and plug and play. The quadrant titles can of course be adjusted to suit your own timing (hour, half-day, day, week, etc) but the main point is being able to see that not everything is immediate or urgent. If you have more than five things in your immediate quadrant, unless they are micro-tasks, such as shopping and daily family or similar routines, or more than five in your far-future quadrant, you may well have too much for you or anyone.

Still, consider how much you are trying to pack in, or not, (and why), and think about how you can adjust this if you really are not satisfied with what you see. Check if all of the tasks really are living up to your values and are they employing all of your best strengths. Realistically, there is no perfect list, we are humans. There is a balance that ensures you keep your sense of you though, or at least helps you become more aware of it, if you were not previously.

4. Mindful Awareness:

OK, everyone says this and it has data to support alleviating a whole host of difficulties and cultivating a more enriched experience of life and of other people’s experience of you as a knock-on bonus effect. How on earth does this cultivate self-awareness you may wonder? Well, the practice of slowing down and gaining any kind of awareness of our experiences in life is going to, per force, make you self-aware, whether it is at a the physiological, meta-physical or other astral-plane level. This of course, depends on what you wanted to get out of it, but don’t expect to go into deep meditative practices on your first stab, you will most likely be disappointed and give up.

Instead, just try simple daily awareness exercises to start you off. The easiest is brushing your teeth. Of course, you do this every day because you have good hygiene as one of your core values, you want to take care of your choppers because we are going to live for much longer that we used to and we want to look good, or at least not knock them over with halitosis.

Now, being ‘mindful’, has perhaps developed a bigger mantle than most are willing to tackle, but it really is in every simple act that we have to be aware in order to truly be mindful. The sitting around for hours on end, hands resting on crossed-knees, eyes closed, is an advanced state and maybe one you are not even thinking you want to try or aim for. But brushing your teeth, you (hopefully) already do, so let’s give it a go.

We do not realise how much information we take in with our eyes these days and how little we take in through our other senses in order to allow these organs to inform our experiences and therefore our awareness of our environs.

Just closing your eyes, whilst doing a normal everyday task, such as brushing your teeth, and paying attention to the sensations, saying them in our head (cumbersome to speak with a toothbrush rolling around in your mouth) is mindfulness at a simple, easy to approach level.

Letting all the other thoughts that would normally come into your head whilst brushing teeth and losing focus on yourself in the mirror, just stop for a moment, as you call out to yourself, ’minty smell’, ‘gritty texture’, ‘hard bristles’, talking yourself through each tooth, maybe for up to a minute. Viola, you have been mindful, congratulations!

The other thoughts aren’t going anywhere, don’t worry, if they are really important they will revisit your mind. If you don’t list them out, they will keep coming back! Again, self-awareness can start on the micro-level of just what is going on in your body, no judgement, no expectations, just calling it like it is, and you are well on your way.

5. Thought Logs and the Attitude of Gratitude:

The Positive Psychology movement has moved forwards in leaps and bounds since its first and clearest enunciation at the start of the current century. Many have contributed to the burgeoning movement away from the deficit’s model of human behaviour and functioning and towards a possibility for appreciation of the old philosophical questions such as ‘what is the good life’ or ‘what is the right thing to do’. Not everyone is into diaries but there is something to be said for committing our thoughts at any given moment to paper or bytes.

Firstly, memory is never whole, it is only ever reconstructed from our perspective of our experience in any given moment. Yes, this implies that we can never be fully aware, which is why it takes so much work and can put some people off trying altogether. Another important factor to consider is that anthropologically speaking we are somewhat primed with ancient structures deep in the brain, to scan the horizon for danger or threat in order to protect the main being, a primary directive. This is why sensory issues can be such a bugbear for some.

Back to the point, we only lock in salient material that confirms the absence of threat or at least a plan for responding to it should it arise. When our systems are not occupied by this, which is really most of the time anymore since it is not often that we are being chased by lions and tigers and bears (ok, some of us choose this, not speaking of this group), we are free to feel ‘good’. Once we have our basic needs of water, food and safety satisfied, now what. Well, we could go for procreation, paying it forward on the species front. If we are really lucky, we can also focus on the affiliation with other humans angle too, but you have to feel really safe to do this, really good early childhood-parent bonding experiences set us up with the ability to do this.

So, if we are safe, stable, well-fed and watered, and manage to get through childhood relatively intact, wow, that is already a lot to be grateful for in and of itself, but we are primed to be able to clock what is good in life. And yet we don’t, why?

Well, perhaps because we just haven’t had as much history doing so yet as we have had in sorting through all the things that aren’t fulfilling some impossible criteria and looking instead at what works and going with that. This is not to say that we want to expunge doubters, nitpickers and the like, hey, we need lawyers, actuaries, architects, etc, society is good with people who help us to interpret the law, understand trends in order to think about the future and build safe building to house us all in.

But, and this is a big but, we also need to be able to just taste a strawberry, and appreciate it for what it is. We need to be able to look at our children and see the good that they were born with, not just the potential that can be developed before they are 10 years old if you get them in all the right tutoring. We need to be able to be grateful for each little thing. Ok not each little thing, that would take way too long, but choose some during the day, 5-6 and write them down and repeat them before you go to bed, remind yourself that there was something that worked, primes the other partsof your brain to kick in and potentially change your perspective. Your mind will sort out the other things while you sleep, that is what it was designed to do, you do not need to mull over stuff during the day as much as you think you do or you allow yourself to do. Even sharing the few good things you have and getting each family member to do so at dinner or in the morning if your schedules are truly disparate, can fill up the ‘good’ meter fairly quickly.

Really, leaving it to philosophers to figure out what is good may take too long, removes your autonomy and leaves you with options you may not like or want to adopt. Go ahead and give that attitude of gratitude a try for yourself and find your own good, but write it down somehow, remind yourself and share with others often. You might just be surprised what you become aware of about yourself!

So, hopefully you can grab onto any one or all of these at some level. Hopefully, you have a little more insight into the idea that self-awareness can run a little deeper than having one’s hair be in place, if you want it to. Give any or all of these suggestions a try and see what comes up for you. Regardless of what you try, enjoy being at whatever levels self-aware you want to be.