Most of my career has involved some form of providing leadership development solutions, including coaching executives from a wide range of industries. Soon after I began coaching, however, I noticed that regardless of how consistent I was in my approach of coaching someone or how open they were to the process, lasting changes weren’t always a given. I eventually came to realize that simply understanding one’s strengths and gaps, and having a desire to improve isn’t enough to ensure the kind of long-term behavioral changes that are necessary to consistently achieve better results. What I repeatedly observed was that the clients who achieved the most successful outcomes were also the clients who worked most consistently to improve their emotional self-awareness.
How we perceive ourselves and others happens in the present.
Our perceptions are formed continuously, from moment to moment. This process is so seamless that we often think of behaviors as being static, and that changing them should be as easy as flipping a switch. This is a mistaken perception because behaviors are formed by doing something repeatedly, over and over, one moment at a time. Being self-aware allows us to be present and to choose the most skillful behaviors to navigate our complex social landscape, taking into account both our own emotional needs as well as those of others.
Self-awareness is perhaps the most important tool for gaining access to our own agency, which is what we have control over at a most basic level, so that we can choose positive behavioral responses to the various situations we encounter in our lives on a moment-to-moment basis.
Self-awareness is a powerful tool for changing our emotional and behavioral responses on a moment-by-moment basis.
What is self-awareness?
The concept of self-awareness is fundamental to a number of different disciplines, each of which uses slightly different definitions. Within the framework of Emotional and Social Intelligence, for instance, self-awareness is defined as the ability to recognize your emotions as well as how they affect your performance and your interactions with others. In the broadest sense, “Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.” Functionally-speaking, self-awareness is the mind’s ability to be aware of its own contents (e.g. its own internal movements) as well as external phenomena. Neurologically, self-awareness is one’s ability to recognize what’s happening physiologically within oneself. At the most nuanced levels, self-awareness is the capacity to be cognizant of awareness itself.
As broad as the range of these definitions of self-awareness, so too are its practical implications. Absent self-awareness, we’re unable to consistently manage our impulses, motivations, and actions, instead letting our habitual reactions get the best of us. The problem with running on autopilot is that we end up defaulting to a set of unquestioned behaviors that don’t allow us to pause long enough to consider our situation and choose a skillful response.
Self-awareness is at the heart of the other competencies in the Emotional and Social Intelligence framework. Leadership competencies require more than simply developing and mastering certain skills; rather, we must also be able to apply those skills in a manner that produces positive and consistent results, and this is a moment-to-moment endeavor that relies on engaging our own self-awareness.
Methods to practice self- awareness and recognize our feelings:
Developing self-awareness is a continual practice. The good news is that there are a number of simple ways that we can incorporate self-awareness practices into our everyday lives. Here are 3 practical methods:
- meditation with focus
- body scan practices
- self-reflection through introspection or journaling
To practice meditation with focus, sit comfortably, spine straight, with eyes either closed or open and angled slightly down; find and follow your breath. As your attention wanders either to thoughts, emotions, sensations, or an awareness of external phenomena, gently notice this, allowing your attention to come back to the natural cadence of your breath. The moment you notice your mind has wandered off, you’re already back. This is subtle. No need to yank your mind around. Be gentle. Eventually, this practice of gently anchoring your attention on your breath will begin to shift your experience of your relationship with your thoughts and feelings even when you’re not endeavoring to do so. You’ll begin to wake up and notice when you’re responding from a place of habit, and instead connect with a small space in which you can pause, reflect, and respond more thoughtfully and skillfully.
Body scans help you to attune yourself to your body’s physical signals, which are often indicators or precursors of your internal and emotional states. Accordingly, by training yourself to notice your physical sensations and bodily signals, you’ll also be training yourself to notice the gestures that precede changes in your emotions and mental states. You can lead yourself through your own body scan, or you can find guided meditations online.
Finally, you can use daily self-reflection through introspection or journaling to help develop greater self-awareness. You can either write, or record your insights and observations using audio or video formats. Focus your journaling by reviewing every day how well you matched your intentions to your actions. Take note of how and why your mood shifted over the course the day. Reflect on how you are showing up and being perceived by others. To what degree is there alignment between how you’re realizing your aspirations and how you are being experienced by others? If there is a lack of alignment somewhere, why do you think it’s happening?
This practice will help you to begin to see patterns in yourself and better understand any underlying dynamics. Working with a coach can be indispensable to catalyze these insights, creating the circumstances for transformational growth and momentum towards your aspirations.
Our new series of primers focuses on the 12 Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competencies, including Emotional Self-Awareness, Adaptability, Influence, Teamwork, and Inspirational Leadership. The primers are written by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, co-creators of the Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency Model, along with a range of colleagues, thought-leaders, researchers, and leaders with expertise in the various competencies – including the author of this article, Michele Nevarez. See the full list of primers by topic, or get the complete collection!
In Altered Traits, Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson unveil new research showing how meditation affects the brain. Through thoughtful analysis of countless studies, they offer the truth about what meditation can really do for us, as well as exactly how to get the most out of it.