Is self-awareness really the key to a happier, healthier you?

Don't cringe, but how well do you truly know yourself and the effect you have on other people? According to a new book, increasing your self-awareness can lead to a more successful life

Words by Alix O’Neill

My friend Mags* laughs like a mime artist: wide jaw, no sound, jazz hands. It’s a joy to watch. She makes a mean salted caramel brownie and never judges. I value her friendship. But Mags has a habit of turning every conversation back to her. Had a bad week? Mags has had a bad month. Psyched about your promotion? Congratulations! Did you know Mags is on track for one, too? It used to infuriate me, but I realised long ago that Mags doesn’t mean to be self-involved – she simply has no idea how she can come across to others.

But before you dismiss this lack of self-awareness as something you’d never do, bear in mind that being intelligent, successful, empathetic and sociable does not make you immune. I thought I was enlightened when it came to my shortcomings. I know I’m bossy and that if I don’t eat every three hours, I’m best avoided. So I was shocked when my husband informed me (after much badgering) that I can be ‘slightly self-obsessed’. Apparently, I talk about work incessantly. But I’m self-employed and my husband is usually the first person I’ve spoken to all day, so it’s hardly my fault if I occasionally navel-gaze, right?

It would seem I’m in denial, much like the rest of the population. ‘Ninety-five per cent of people think they’re self-aware, but the reality is closer to 10-15 per cent, which means on a good day, 80 per cent of us are lying to ourselves,’ says Dr Tasha Eurich, author of an illuminating new book, Insight, which explores the power of self-awareness in a self-deluded world. Are we really that misguided? ‘It never occurs to us to ask if we know ourselves as well as we think we do. It’s far easier to deflect and criticise others,’ Dr Eurich adds.

So what influences our self-awareness as adults? Ultimately, says the author, self-aware parents do raise more self-aware children, so the way you are around others starts early and remains the same, unless you are committed to changing it. ‘This makes sense, because children of self-aware parents see a sense of insight modelled as they grow up,’ says Dr Eurich. ‘But by that same token, some of the most self-aware people I’ve come across in my studies had a remarkably un-self-aware parent. This shows us that people can change their destiny. Quite often, some of the best self-awareness lessons come from seeing the mistakes the un-self-aware make.’

We’re often told we live in an age of narcissism – a side effect of social media and its fixation with selfies – but our obsession with self goes much further back, according to journalist Will Storr, the author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed And What It’s Doing To Us (published 15 June). ‘Aristotle believed you couldn’t succeed in life unless you were in a state of ennobled self-love,’ he says. ‘We still have these ideas around self-esteem – that if you love and believe in yourself, you’ll do well and be happy.’

Individualism, says Storr, originated in ancient Greece, a civilisation of small island states that weren’t suitable for farming. ‘Everyone had to rely on themselves and so lots of small industries sprang up. The same applies in the West today. Governments don’t look after us any more, there’s no job for life – in order to get along and ahead, you’ve got to care about yourself because it’s all on you.’ In other words, a little self-obsession is essential for survival, but focusing too much on oneself can lead to a lack of self-awareness, warns Dr Eurich. Why is it so important to be self-aware? For starters, studies have shown that people who understand themselves and how others see them are generally happier. They’re also more likely to be smarter, get more promotions, lead more profitable companies and are less prone to lying, cheating and stealing.

I bite the bullet and ask a few loved ones what they really think of me. My best friend singles out my people-pleasing, while my mum has issues with my ‘knee-jerk reactions’. My dad’s gripe is my insistence on playing the Rolling Stones every time he visits (‘I like that Ed Sheeran, too, you know’). Dr Eurich is right – it’s freeing to face your flaws. Once, I would have tried to stamp out these imperfections. Now, I acknowledge them and choose to like myself anyway, and I’m mindful of acting impulsively or blindly droning on about what I’ve been up to at work all day without considering if people want to hear it. It’s a long road to full self-awareness, but I’m ready to take the first few steps.

Self-awareness, 101: getting to know you

Ready to turn the mirror on yourself? Here are Dr Tasha Eurich’s five steps to self-awareness

1 Become an Informer, not a ‘Me-former’
Research shows 80 per cent of social-media users are ‘Me-formers’, who post about what’s happening with them; while 20 per cent are ‘Informers’, who typically share non-self-related information, such as amusing observations or helpful articles. Informers tend to have more genuine friends. Dr Eurich says: ‘When tempted with a Me-former conversational topic, ask yourself, “What am I hoping to accomplish by doing or saying this?”’ Task: Posting your fifth ‘chilling with an Aperol spritz in Barcelona #inlovewithmylife’ selfie? Turn your camera on the world around you – Informers share cool streetscapes and snapshots of local life.

2 Don’t ruminate
We all self-flagellate occasionally, but fixating on our failures keeps us in a spiral of inward-looking negativity. According to studies, ruminators are less satisfied with their lives and more prone to anxiety, bad moods and poor-quality sleep. Next time you start to obsess, ask, ‘Does anyone else care about this as much as I do?’ The answer is usually no. Task: When your mind begins to spiral over that job-interview disaster, try this ‘thought-stopping’ technique: picture a large stop sign to snap you out of your rumination.

3 Aim for self-acceptance, not self-esteem
‘Millennials have grown up in a world where they’re constantly reminded of their wonderful qualities. The more deluded we are about our skills and abilities, the less likely we are to succeed,’ says Dr Eurich. But there’s a healthier alternative to self-esteem. ‘Self-acceptance means understanding our objective reality and choosing to like ourselves anyway.’ Task: Hopeless cook? Who cares? You don’t always need to excel. So ditch the homemade dim sum next time your friends are over and order pizza instead. They’ll like you better for it, and you’ll be less stressed.

4 Be the biographer of your life
‘Self-aware people tend to describe key life events from different perspectives, exploring complex and often contradictory emotions,’ says Dr Eurich. Think about your life as if it were a book. Divide it into chapters that represent important phases and, within each phase, think of five to ten key scenes – high points, low points, turning points, etc. For each event, explain what happened, who was involved, what you thought and how you felt. Then look at your story as a whole. Identify major themes, feelings and lessons – what does it say about the kind of person you are? Task: When writing your narrative, don’t shy away from the bad stuff or try to tie everything up neatly. Embracing the messiness provides a greater opportunity for self-discovery.

5 Have a dinner of truth
Psychologists have found that learning to understand constructive feedback helps us to make better choices. Find a ‘loving critic’ – someone who wants you to be happy and successful – and ask them to dinner. During the meal, invite them to share the one thing that annoys them most about you – stress that nothing is off-limits and you’ll listen with an open mind. ‘You might be surprised at how exhilarating and helpful it is to learn how this other person sees you,’ says Dr Eurich. Task: Use the 3R model for feedback: receive, reflect, respond. Don’t listen passively. Instead, ask questions to gain a better understanding. Take a few weeks to reflect and consider how you can act on the feedback positively.

*name has been changed

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