A strong leader is able to go about their day as if they have two parts of themselves—separate, yet integrated—working together at the same time. The part we can see is active, fully engaged with people and situations. The other part is internal, constantly observing and making necessary adjustments in the moment.
Picture a leader meeting with a direct report. Outwardly, she’s listening to her employee’s complaints. Inwardly, she wishes he would hurry up and get to the point. When the leader is able to self-assess and hear her inner commentary, she is able to self-correct. She reminds herself that her employee has a right to be heard and realizes the reason she is feeling anxious is that she has a long list to get done after this meeting. Once she identifies why she is feeling this way, she is then able to shift her focus and concentrate on what her direct report is saying to her.
The Skill Of Self-Awareness
When people first encounter this idea of self-awareness, they often confuse it with certain negative psychological experiences. So, before we dive into how you can become self-aware, let’s describe what it isn’t. Self-awareness is not:
- An out-of-body or dissociative experience,
- That floaty/disconnected feeling where you “see yourself” from a distance,
- The experience of being self-conscious or ill-at-ease, such as when you feel insecure, or that you don’t belong,
- A paralyzing state in which you overanalyze every little thought or fleeting emotion that runs through you.
Self-awareness is not a negative experience, rather, it is a state of keen, supportive awareness. Most people believe they are self-aware, but true self-awareness is actually extraordinary. A study reported in the Harvard Business Review examined what self-awareness really is, why we need it and how we can increase it. After surveying nearly 5,000 participants, researchers found that only 10%-15% of people actually fit the criteria of being self-aware.
So, how can you become self-aware? There are three data points of self-assessing: moods, physical sensations and the core thoughts that are affecting your performance. Below is the process I teach my executive coaching clients—it’s all about collecting data.
Data Point No. 1: Your Mood
It may seem easy enough to identify what you are feeling, but if you really think about it, you likely only have a handful of general moods that you can readily recognize and describe, perhaps:
Your mood vocabulary may be limited, and that’s okay. But I challenge you to expand it to increase your self-awareness. It’s why I created a comprehensive list of 850+ words for feelings, emotions and moods as a reference tool. Use it as you check in with yourself throughout the day to log your mood. This is developing your ability to self-observe and self-assess.
Data Point No. 2: Your Physiological State
Our bodies provide us lots of information that we, unfortunately, typically ignore. We may notice a few daily aches and pains, but when you feel your shoulders getting tight or a pit forming in your stomach, can you stop and identify the source of the pain? Your body is trying to tell you something!
This data point is very similar to self-assessing your mood. Check in with yourself at several points throughout the day and observe your physical sensations. If you find this difficult (and most people do), try what’s called a “body scan.”
When you perform a body scan, you bring attention to every single part of your body and notice any sensations—such as tension, pain, coldness, warmth, numbness, tingling, etc.—or perhaps notice no sensation at all. Start with your feet and slowly go through each body part analyzing how you feel, all the way up to the top of your head.
Data Point No. 3: Your Thoughts
Next comes the hardest but most rewarding part: learning to identify your thoughts. Our thoughts are what create our response and are the reason for our reactions. When you are able to identify your thoughts, you can start to identify underlying patterns and the core beliefs that you hold. By recognizing any patterns that repeat themselves, you can pinpoint triggers that cause you to react sub-optimally. By honing in on your core lenses—your deep beliefs and indoctrinated perspectives—you can gain a better understanding of your underlying operating system. These different lenses can help you identify your helpful versus impeding belief systems.
If you have a hard time identifying your thoughts, you are not alone! But they are there. Recent research shows that the average person has more than 6,000 thoughts in a single day and the majority are negative. Once you learn to hear and articulate your internal monologue, you can begin to create some internal separation from what is not helping you. The key to learning to identify your core thoughts—just like with identifying your moods and physical sensations—is to practice frequently, many times per day, every day. Document everything you think and feel and review it.
Learning to identify your thoughts is the most important and impactful part of mental fitness. The more often you self-assess when you are triggered, the more quickly you can change and get out of that triggered state. Once you are able to observe yourself internally, you can adjust your actions externally in your interactions with others, which can directly impact your results as a leader.
Dive deeper into self-awareness with the help of my book, Leading Lightly.