By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.
This is Episode 62 and this week I’m talking about self-awareness. I’ll be discussing what self-awareness is, why it matters and, most importantly, how to become more self-aware every day. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
This episode was originally released on 18 January, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 62, and thanks so much for joining me!
Continuing on from last week’s episode, this year is ‘The Year of Wellbeing’ here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast… because wellbeing doesn’t just happen; it takes work. So each week on the podcast I’ll be continuing to share simple ideas for improving your mental health and wellbeing by exploring lots of different things you can do every day to make a positive difference in your life. This week is all about getting to know yourself and developing your self-awareness, because understanding who you are and how that influences every aspect of your life, including your feelings and your overall health, is a massive part of wellbeing.
Before we go any further, I’d like to take a quick 30-seconds or so to say that this episode goes out on January 18th… which means we are now just a few days away from the launch of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV! It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions getting ready for this — excitement, fear, mild confusion… — and I can’t wait to share this new content with all of you. You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube however the easiest way is to head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/YouTube where you’ll find information, embedded videos plus the channel link to subscribe (and a hot tip here: if you watch the trailer then you can just click on the LTAMH logo at the end to subscribe). I hope you’ll join me on January 21 (or Jan 20 depending on where you are in the world) so that we can talk some more about mental health! Now, on with this week’s episode all about self-awareness…
I believe that it was the group of five philosophers collectively known as the Spice Girls who once said, “Swing it, shake it, move it, make it, who do you think you are?” and while I’m not entirely sure what we might be swinging, shaking, moving or, indeed, making in this particular context, that question “who do you think you are?” is one that we should all be asking ourselves on a regular basis (in my case, part of the answer is that I am someone who will find any excuse to quote the Spice Girls).
So… who are you? Who are you really? It’s a question I posed all the way back in Episode 30: Identity and I’m revisiting it here because self-knowledge is the foundation of well-being. I won’t be repeating the identity stuff I talked about in that episode (like what you stand for and what you want out of life), so I encourage you to check that one out for more on that subject, but instead what I’ll be looking at today is how having a deep understanding of who you really are — even the stuff that hides away in dark corners of your mind — and accepting it, is the first step in enabling you to improve your wellbeing (since this is The Year of Wellbeing here on Let’s Talk About Mental Health)… and it’s also the first and, I think, most important step in being the best version of yourself possible.
So, what is self-awareness? Let’s explore some definitions…
What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is about being consciously aware of who you are; your character, feelings and values, along with what drives and motivates you. I mean, it pretty much is what it says on the tin: ‘self-awareness’ is about being fully aware of yourself. In a minute I’ll explain why that matters but first let’s dig a bit deeper into some definitions.
According to Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology;
“Self-awareness is a form of stepping back and observing your thoughts and feelings as they unfold. It can be as simple as noticing the emotions that you feel when you spend time with certain people or the thoughts that run through your head when you feel scared about trying something new. Or it can be a more complex… awareness of how your thoughts feed into your emotions, physical sensations and behaviours. Put simply, self-awareness is shining a light on… your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and urges. Awareness of these aspects of yourself is the first step to change and growth. After all, you can’t change what you don’t know about.”Source: https://www.innermelbpsychology.com.au/self-awareness-mental-health/
According to an excellent article by an organisational psychologist in the Harvard Business Review (which I’ll link to in the transcript — see below), there are two types of self-awareness: internal self-awareness and external self-awareness. Let me quote from that article:
“[There are] two broad categories of self-awareness… The first [is] internal self-awareness, [which] represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and [our] impact on others… The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above.”Source: https://hbr.org/2018/01/what-self-awareness-really-is-and-how-to-cultivate-it
I think at some point in a past episode I’ve shared the Ancient Greek saying ‘know thyself’ (just don’t ask me which one; I’ve lost track at this point!) and that saying dates back thousands of years; it was known to be inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and it can also be found in the works of great philosophers like Socrates and Plato. Now you might be wondering what I’m doing talking about ancient philosophy in a podcast about mental health (and, fair question!) but at its core philosophy is about studying the nature of our existence; in other words, it’s about seeking answers to the questions “who am I?” and “what’s the meaning of life?” — questions which are absolutely fundamental to your overall wellbeing. So those two simple words, “know thyself”, when put together become the most complicated and challenging aspect of human existence… because to truly know yourself takes time, takes work and above all else, takes real courage. Sometimes the answers we find about who we are might not be the ones we would hope for, but the whole point of working on your self-awareness and seeking to truly understand every aspect of who you are and who you are not is about helping you to identify where you are today and why, so that you can then make choices which help you to be the best version of yourself possible every day.
The other day, Facebook did one of those notifications where it shows you posts from this day however many years ago, and I had a series of them come up from over a decade ago (I know, impossible since I’m so young but anyway…) from a night where a group of us went out for dinner and drinks. This was just a couple of years before my breakdown and deep into my phase of using alcohol to mask all of my pain as well as to give me the confidence to be what I thought was ‘the life of the party’. One of the semi-drunken posts included me thinking it was funny that we’d been there for half an hour and I’d already had several drinks, made inappropriate comments as though I were in a reboot of The Benny Hill Show, and then insulted a friend twice (supposedly as a joke — sorry Dana for always ripping on you and thinking that was funny because it wasn’t). When I read the posts from that night (which became worse and worse as the night wore on), I first felt a bit embarrassed but then I began to feel nothing but empathy and love for that person who, back then, was still so socially awkward that he thought the only way to have fun was to get completely hammered and make an idiot of himself. I know now how much pain he was in and how much he was hiding from, and I know how much potential he had if he could just find a way to be completely honest with himself so that he could then be true to himself.
I share that story because I find it interesting that we each have all of these different versions of ourselves that we were and that we could be, and the only thing that’s stopping us from finding which one is the most authentic version of ourselves and living that (so that we can be the best version of ourselves possible) is our self-awareness and our choice.
So with that in mind…
Why is self-awareness important for your mental health and wellbeing?
If we just go through life without choosing to question our motivation in terms of the things that we do and say, and whether or not our actions are contributing to us being the best version of ourselves possible then that lack of self-insight can lead us to doing things that take us away from finding and maintaining genuine wellbeing. Being the best ‘you’ that you can be isn’t just internal or external; it’s both. It’s about being someone who does no harm to yourself or to others, someone who is kind to yourself and to others, and being someone who gives more than you take from yourself and from others. That stuff is tough and it takes real work every single day, and making the choice to look at our actions so that we can consider whether they are healthy or unhealthy. For example, if we use drugs or alcohol (or both) to mask our pain then what we’re doing is the opposite of self-awareness; it’s self-denial… and denial (apart from being a river in Egypt…) can do real and long-lasting damage. When you deny your truth, you deny yourself the ability to be the very best version of yourself that you can possibly be… and that usually leads to heartache, pain and misery.
So then why does self-awareness matter so much? Because in order to be the best version of yourself possible, you need to truly understand who you really are — the good, the bad and the ugly. No self-deception, no delusion, and no excuses — just the truth. Only once you become fully aware of that truth can you hope to be able to take the next steps in your journey towards wellbeing and true growth.
Let me just spend a moment on that ‘growth’ thing for a minute. I think I might have shared before that my partner likes to garden (while I have trouble keeping anything green from turning into a dried-out corpse, but that’s a whole other story…). The thing with gardening is that if you want it to work then you need to do some work. You need to work out what conditions you have — your soil, your sunlight situation, your exposure to people like me who will inadvertently kill anything tree-like in nature — and then you need to make adjustments for your conditions; in other words, instead of just hoping for the best or ignoring your situation, you need to be completely honest about what your reality is and then go from there in terms of making adjustments where you can to optimise your situation. You either accept things as they are and deal with that, or you put in the hard yards to make changes — building better soil, trimming surrounding trees to bring in more sunlight etc… whatever you need to do (keeping me away from them also helps). Either way, you adjust… but you start with being fully aware of the truth. That’s what self-awareness is and why it matters. It’s like when you take a trip somewhere new — you need to begin by finding where you are on the map (OK fine, so your GPS does that for you) and then once you know where you are you can then work out how to get to where you want to be. Self-awareness is that little arrow-shaped button in the Maps app which shows you where you are now; you cannot hope to figure out a course towards wherever it is that you want to go unless you know exactly where you are (and how you got there in the first place, so you don’t retrace your steps).
As part of wrapping up this ‘why?’ piece, I mentioned an article from Harvard Business Review earlier and I just want to share a short paragraph from it which explains some of the benefits of greater self-awareness. It is:
“We’ve found that internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression. [In terms of external self-awareness]… our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives.”
And again, the link for that is in the transcript (see above). The main message here is that truly knowing all of yourself gives you the chance to improve your wellbeing not just internally but also in terms of your relationships with other people and the wider world, which all leads to greater satisfaction and fulfilment.
So how do you become more self-aware? Let’s jump into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to build greater self-awareness
So, there are lots of different things you can do to increase your self-awareness and some of these are things I’ve explored in their own episodes already, so where that’s the case I’ll do a quick overview and then let you know which episode you can check out for further details (you can find audio and full transcripts for every episode — for free — at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes).
So the biggest one I want to start with is making time for deep and honest reflection. I talk about reflection practically all the time on this show and usually somewhere in most episodes I’ll bring it up, because it’s about sitting down and really having a set of honest, objective and judgement-free conversations with yourself about who you are, where you are, how you got there, where you’re heading and what needs to change to get there. I did a whole episode on it back in Episode 12 (at the end of 2019) so check that out for a structured approach to reflecting… but whatever you do, it’s important to begin by being honest about where you are today; it’s that map and journey thing I talked about earlier, where you need to know where you are before you can hope to plan where you’re going.
Part of that piece involves being honest with yourself about your mindset. Are you optimistic or pessimistic? Are you naturally positive or do you tend to default to the negative? There’s no right or wrong, however research has shown that people who tend to be more negative and pessimistic often have lower life satisfaction than those who are more positive and realistically optimistic. I covered mindset in Episode 31 and optimism in Episode 47, so check those out for more about those topics.
Next, you can build greater self-awareness by observing your emotions and seeking to understand them instead of just reacting. I talked about this a lot in Episode 57, and the thing here is that when you just react to your emotions then it can feel like you have no control… but you do, and you always do. You cannot control external events or people, but you can absolutely control what you do and say, as well as what you choose to do with your feelings. When you pause and consider what you’re feeling, and then seek to understand why you’re feeling that to get to the root cause (instead of just going with the emotions), you begin to better understand yourself. For example, I know that until I’ve had my four coffees each morning I am not the most approachable person in the world (so, consider that fair warning if you ever see me in the morning!). Now, I could just blame the coffee for that (which is external) but the reality is that this is something that’s more internal; I need time to wake up and ease myself into the day before I can face the world, and the coffee is just a symptom rather than the actual root cause. Hopefully that makes sense but anyway… don’t just react; instead, think about what is really going on and then you can respond in a much more thoughtful way.
Be clear about who you are and what you want out of life, because this is what will guide you and hopefully it should inform the decisions that you make. Part of that involves recognising that you can learn just as much about yourself by exploring what you don’t want out of life as what you do. This is that piece about ‘know thyself’ from the Delphic Oracle that I mentioned at the start of the episode; it’s something that takes time, regular effort and perseverance.
One way you can do that is regular mindfulness practice — which was the subject of its own episode back in Episode 42. You don’t need to hike to a mountain top or consult a guru in order to be mindful; just take a few minutes each day to pause and quietly absorb your surroundings, gently noticing every detail and experiencing the present entirely. If your mind drifts or random thoughts pop up, notice them and let them go, then return your focus to the present moment. What this type of practice does is it helps to ground you in the present more fully, since we often spend so much time ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. Being self-aware means being able to focus on the present fully, because this moment is where you live — not in the past, which has passed and cannot be changed, only learned from; and not in the future, which is unwritten and which will be determined by what you do here and now. A few minutes of simple mindfulness practice every day can make an enormous difference in terms of grounding you in the present and helping you to know yourself.
Another thing that does that and which works well for building greater self-awareness is journalling. Putting your thoughts down on paper can help to get them out of your mind (and I don’t know about you but I’m a venter, so when I’m feeling some type of way I find that most of the time just getting it out — either on paper or talking to someone — makes the world of difference). The important thing here is to be objective and non-judgemental — I talk all the time about being kind, and that means being kind to others as well as yourself. A few minutes a day spend jotting down your thoughts can help you to get to know yourself better. You may also find daily gratitude practice helpful — I covered this in its own episode back in Episode 46 and by identifying what you’re grateful for, you can get a better idea of what really matters to you in life (just as you can by spending time thinking about your priorities, which I explored all the way back in Episode 3).
And then moving on, next I want to encourage you to explore different perspectives rather than only focusing on your own. I think there is a bit of a tendency to focus on ourselves, certainly in Western countries like Australia if we’re being really honest, and the thing is that while you may not agree with other people that doesn’t mean that they don’t have something to teach you (even if that thing is what not to do in order to be a decent human being). Discover new ideas, new ways of thinking, new perspectives… ask questions and learn about the broader world, not just your little corner of it. There are over eight billion of us on this planet and we’re all unique, and I’m sorry to have to break this to you but your way of living and doing things isn’t the only way and it may not even be the best way… so be curious about the external world beyond your little bubble and you’ll find that you begin to become more self-aware of your own opportunities to grow as a result of what you discover. And to paraphrase a well-known quote, “If you always think what you always thought, then you’ll always get what you always got” — and staying the same is stagnation, not growth. If you want to be the best version of yourself possible, you need to grow… and in order to grow, you need to expand your mind and become even more self-aware.
If that’s something you’re struggling with, get support. A counsellor or therapist can work with you to explore all of this stuff objectively, and will hopefully challenge you to look at things from different perspectives.
And always remember that the Spice Girls encouraged us to ponder not only who we think we are, but also to trust it, use it, prove it, and groove it… and then show how good you are! 🙂 😛
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to self-awareness and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: getting to know yourself and being completely honest about who you are, and who you are not, can be a real challenge for many of us, especially since we’re taught by society from an early age to do whatever we need to do to fit in… and so it can take a lot of work to dig through all those layers of conditioning that have built up over the years to get to the truth of who you really are as an individual. But in doing so we allow ourselves the opportunity to become the very best version of ourselves possible — someone who is authentic, kind and giving; someone who makes the most of every moment of this gift that we call life. You are unique and there will never be anybody like you, and so getting to know yourself and understanding who you truly are — and living that — allows you to become whatever it is that you need to be.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing. So… what choice will you make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and it is:
“There is only one journey. Going inside yourself.”Rainer Maria Rilke
Next week I’ll be talking about simplicity. I’ve mentioned quite a few times in past episodes that one of the things that can have a big impact on our wellbeing is our ability to focus on simplicity over complication, because the more complex things are in life the higher the likelihood that challenges can occur. So next week I’ll be discussing what simplicity is in relation to wellbeing, why it matters, and how to incorporate greater simplicity into your life every day to improve your overall wellbeing.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released in the morning of Monday 25 January in the Asia-Pacific region including Australia; the evening of Sunday 24 January in the UK, Ireland, Europe, Africa and the Middle East; and the afternoon of Sunday 24 January in the US, Canada, Central America and South America. And of course, join me for the launch of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on January 21 in Australia & the Asia-Pacific region, January 20 in the rest of the world!
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list find out about new stuff at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au. You can find links and information for the YouTube show at www.letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/youtube.
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Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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