Self-awareness has become a popular buzzword, but the roots of it go deeper than psychology.
When you hear the term “self-awareness,” what comes to mind? For me, self-awareness always translated into being aware of the self I present to the world — so being aware of how other people perceive me. But for plenty of other people, the exact same term means being aware of our inner selves, being able to recognize and monitor our internal struggles, desires, values, and emotions.
How can a term that is used so ubiquitously mean two different things — and even more importantly, which of these is the correct definition of “self-awareness”?
That’s the question organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich and her team of researchers set out to answer over the course of a four-year, large-scale scientific study with over 5,000 participants. As they told the Harvard Business Review, what they found was that there are two distinct types of self-awareness — and true self-awareness requires a balance of them both.
Across the studies we examined, two broad categories of self-awareness kept emerging. The first, which we dubbed internal self-awareness, represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others. 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.
The second category, external self-awareness, means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above. Our research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives. For leaders who see themselves as their employees do, their employees tend to have a better relationship with them, feel more satisfied with them, and see them as more effective in general.
Eurich initially assumed that people who were high in one area of self-awareness would be high in the other, but that turned out not to be the case. In fact, it was truly rare to find someone who was proficient in both types of self-awareness. Based on her results, Eurich estimates that only 10-15 percent of the population has both types of self-awareness, making them truly self-aware. Eurich included a mini-assessment in her write-up for the HBR, which I definitely took (in the spirit of scientific inquiry, of course).
It was unsurprising to find that while I have a fairly decent grasp on my own internal world, I’m basically incapable of seeing myself as others see me. I’ve always known that I tend to either wildly overestimate or wildly underestimate the opinion others have of me — but what I didn’t really know is that it’s not a matter of over or under-estimation at all. It’s more like the results of someone throwing darts while blindfolded — I swing so wide off the mark it’s sometimes incomprehensible to figure out how I got there at all.
This is almost certainly why, for me, self-awareness has always meant being aware of the self I present to others. That’s the area of self-awareness that I’m lacking, so that’s the one that stands out to me as being something I need to work on. Building that kind of self-awareness begins with listening to other people — having the patience and the charity to be open to their perspective, hear what they have to say, and set my own ego aside in order to consider the truth of their words. You know, kind of the same thing we’re called to do as Christians.
You can certainly try the assessment out yourself, but I bet you’ll find your results to be similar to mine — what self-awareness means to you will probably be the type of self-awareness you know you’re lacking, which in turn will point you to the virtues you need to build in order to live an authentically self-aware Christian life.
So when it comes to building self-awareness, starting from the virtues you know you’re lacking is really the best possible place to start.