Just about anyone you ask thinks they’re super self aware. Yet we all know so many people we judge to be unaware, distracted, even ‘clueless’ to their own stuff. So, what’s going on here?
Are we all in denial?
We all have gaps in self-awareness because seeing our foibles naturally causes discomfort. Self-awareness can trigger self-judgment, which often leads to very difficult emotions such as shame, anxiety, and sadness.
So how can we build objective self-awareness, without getting caught in the swamps of difficult thoughts and feelings that can show up at the same time?
Gerald: A Case Example
Gerald came to me seeking support for the stress in his life. A highly successful journalist he was having trouble coping with the frustrations of his job, managing others, interpersonal disputes, and so called ‘incompetent Millennials’. He was aware enough to recognize that he always felt angry and annoyed.
Together with his weekly skills training sessions with me, I recommended that he attend an 8 week meditation training. Formal practice, I explained, would help him develop more of the felt sense of mindfulness and offer manageable opportunities to practice the skills he learned in session. He was willing.
The following week after his first class, I asked him how it went. “Fine,” he said, “I think the meditation is going to be really helpful. It’s good for helping me just quiet my thoughts and practice my mindful awareness. . . But…”
Uh oh, I always worry when I hear “it was great, but”.
He went on to say, “I can’t believe how long these people go on and on about their s—t. I mean seriously, like we all wanna hear about their insipid little problems. Get some self awareness people!”
This is one of those therapeutic moments where the therapist must find the balance in both validating the client’s perspective, while at the same time nudging them towards the self awareness imperative to their growth.
As Gerald described how useful the class was for practicing his non-judgmental awareness, he was simultaneously blasting judgments. About self awareness no less!
Avoidance: The Nemesis of Self-Awareness
As noted, self-awareness can be very uncomfortable. So us humans develop all sorts of avoidance strategies (aka defenses) to protect ourselves. Gerald was using a common avoidance strategy: Blame, the attribution of our suffering to a certain causal agent.
Avoidance strategies can be very enticing! They often become habitual over time because they either minimize discomfort or increase pleasure in the short term. Blame may not seem like a very pleasant avoidance strategy, but in Gerald’s case, it was working. . . at a cost.
Blaming external situations and people for his discomfort relieved Gerald of the burden of self-inquiry, but also kept him stuck in his anger.
I gently asked Gerald if he noticed his own judgments about the other group members. His response was to double down and continue to list the reasons for his judgments with increasing speed and volume. His tone began to sound angry.
I shared this observation with him and asked him if he thought there might be something familiar about the judgments, frustration and blame. “Could there be a pattern?” I asked?
In order to find out, we needed to explore relationship between events in his life. The goal was to build his awareness of the interaction between certain kinds of situations, and the internal experiences that got triggered.
Mindful self awareness goes beyond reductionist self concepts or blanket statements like, “I’m just this kind of a person.” Or labels, such as “I’m just anxious,” “I’m a giver,” etc. Mindful self-awareness is an ongoing exploration of the relationship between events and how they influence you, your experience, and your actions.
Learning to Read the Dashboard
As we have learned in prior blogs, the experience inside your Mind-Body Vehicle is something different than the facts on the road. Our Passengers from past experiences frequently blur this distinction and impair our driving.
So, in order to better discern between outside facts and inside Passengers, you have to learn to read the Dashboard of your vehicle. In the Skill Clip below, I describe how you can begin building this type of mindful self-awareness by checking the Dashboard of your Mind-Body Vehicle.
These are some experiences logged by Gerald.
|FACTS/SITUATION||THOUGHTS||EMOTIONS||BODILY SENSATIONS||ACTION IMPULSE|
|Mindfulness class: Others sharing for longer than I do||“Who cares!” “Too much info.” “I shouldn’t have to sit thru this!” “I’m stuck!”||Irritation, frustration, powerless||Shoulder tension||Tell them to shut up! Shut down|
|Assistant didn’t remind me about appt||“Idiot!” “Useless”, “Lazy” “No body is helping me!”||Angry||Tension, heart pounding||Fire him|
|Boyfriend home late||“He’s so inconsiderate!” “Unfair that I have to wait.”||Pissed off, rejected||Eyes watering||Cancel, leave|
Notice the common themes that emerge. Anger type emotions are clearly the default emotion. But can you also see that there is a common ‘type’ of trigger and action impulse?
The situations causing anger were all interpersonally driven, and the impulse was usually some variety of attack or withdraw. This makes sense as the purpose of the emotion of anger is to activate an attack to protect a boundary violation.
Except has there really been an assault or boundary violation here? In our sessions together, this client revealed important lifetime experiences of feeling disrespected and marginalized. So, feelings of inadequacy or powerlessness have become Passengers, which cause exaggerated reactions in him.
The anger is really protecting Gerald from the underlying disappointment and powerlessness? By judging/blaming the triggering individual, Gerald can avoid these more vulnerable feelings. But the cost of being stuck in anger has even more consequences for his interpersonal relationships.
1. Activate the mindful self-awareness skill whenever you notice either distress or avoidance in your life. Mentally note each category of your experience.
2. As you take mental note of each category, say in your minds eye, “I am noticing the thought. . . “, “I am noticing the emotion of. . . .”, etc. for each section. Precede the content of each category with this prefix. Notice how labeling your experience in this way feels different. This way of mindfully acknowledging the here and now experience helps to honor what is present, without getting overwhelmed by the difficulty.
Actively practicing and building mindful self-awareness is not easy. This type of consciousness building is an act of bravery and goes in opposition to our natural (autopilot) human tendencies. But the outcome is one of self-determination and the empowerment to override old habits, and manifest the destiny we want.
If you found this skill helpful, I hope you will share it with other’s who might benefit. If you have questions about how to be skillful in your life, I hope you will send me a message in the comments section! Or sign up for the new Mindful-Mastery Skill Clips on Youtube, SKILL WEEKLY newsletter, or follow Mindful-Mastery on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. To pull all the skills together in one place, get the book! Mastering Adulthood: Go Beyond Adulting to Become an Emotional Grown-Up.
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