Self-awareness entails seeing yourself honestly and becoming aware of your behaviors, traits and feelings, including both your strengths and flaws. Developing self-awareness has been found to improve self-control, creative abilities, self-esteem, and an understanding of other people’s perspectives. I’ve found three core strategies to be effective in nurturing the capacity for self-awareness and improving overall mental health.
1. Practicing Mindfulness
A useful tool for helping develop self-awareness in all spheres is reflected in the capacity to notice both internal and external experiences in the here and now. Mindfulness, or the cultivation of an awareness of moment-by-moment events without judgment, have strong associations with improved mental health.
Engaging in yoga and meditation help to cultivate a “still” inner place from which true self-awareness can emerge. A good place to start is with the skill of deep breathing, the cornerstone of many mindfulness practices. Deep breathing is simple to learn, can be applied anywhere at any time. It is a speedy and effective method for developing mindfulness. You can start by just working on taking full, thorough and focused deep breaths for just five minutes daily, and gradually extend the time you spend on this practice.
Deep breathing involves taking a breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, feeling the rise and fall of your abdomen. Initially you can develop an awareness of your breath and then gradually extend to an awareness of thoughts, feelings and behaviors, just noticing these thoughts and feelings without any value judgement. Becoming more “tuned-in” to yourself through breathing and other mindfulness practices is a foundational skill for improved self-awareness and will help your mental health.
2. Connect to Your Emotional World
A core aspect of developing self-awareness requires tuning in to your true feelings. Being able to connect to your emotions—having in-the-moment awareness of your feeling and how they influence your thoughts and actions—is the key to understanding yourself and others. A great strategy for developing this capacity is to keep a feelings journal. Take a few minutes each day to write about how you feel and why. An emotions journal can help you identify the emotions in your life and the way you deal with them.
Start tracking your emotional responses in your journal. As you keep a daily log, you will begin to see patterns and common themes. You can write about any situation that made you feel emotional and describe the emotion itself, your thoughts in relation to the emotion, your physical response, the behavior the emotion generated, and how you attempted to manage the emotion. Even if you start by doing this with one emotion-inducing event a day or even once weekly, the impact on your self-awareness can be very significant.
There are a range of other possible ways of connecting to your emotional world (e.g. identifying the emotions an artist is trying to convey as you read poetry or listen to music, then recognizing how you feel in response; noticing and naming different emotions as you feel them). So find the strategy that works for you as developing greater awareness of your emotional world can really help your mental health.
3. Get Feedback from Others
This one requires a degree of humility, but it can be very insightful. If you have people in your life that care about you and can speak honestly, with no ulterior motive, about how they would describe you, consider asking them for feedback. Those that know you well can provide critical and useful perspectives on your personality and behaviors that you may not be aware of. So find the right moment, perhaps over coffee or tea at time and place with no distractions, and ask them to be honest with you.
The strategies listed above are meant to only serve as a basic framework. You can try them out but don’t be afraid to fine-tune them. Alternatively, you can take the time to research and find the mindfulness and emotion-based practice that feels right for you. Whatever the approach, take an active step to help your mental health through fostering mindfulness and emotional awareness. Gain a deeper sense of how you think, feel and act, and take note of the positive impact on your mental health.
- Paul J. Silvia, Maureen E. O’Brien, Self-Awareness and Constructive Functioning: Revisiting “the Human Dilemma”, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 10.1521/jscp.23.4.475.40307, 23, 4, (475-489), (2004).
- Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. PMID: 12883106.