Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions, and drives, as well as their effect on others – Daniel Goleman
In some ways I have been very unaware of my inner emotional world all my life. Most of us go through our lives fast asleep. We do not want to wake up. We perceive the waking state as too painful. Anthony De Mello writes in his book Awareness
“The chances that you will wake up are in direct proportion to the amount of truth you can take without running away”
My heart (emotions) was never really fully engaged with life. Maybe that was because I had learned from my earliest years to detach from my emotions so as not to feel the pain of abuse from my grandparents (I lived with them for a year while my parents were out of the country while my father was being treated for tuberculosis).
Another explanation for my relatively flat affect was that I was conditioned to “stuff” my feelings as any good male from an English heritage was supposed to do (except for anger). I believe the phrase for the latter is “stiff upper lip”.
After I became a psychologist, entered psychotherapy, went through very painful experiences like divorce, disease (my son’s schizophrenia) and the death of my parents, my feeling world started to awaken and become more intelligible to me.
I have also spent countless hours reflecting on the question
“What does it mean to be self-aware”?
Here are some of the ways.
Being responsive, not reactive.
I have my hot button issues. People who trouble or perplex me typically activate these pain points in my psyche. In reaction to such persons I have strong negative emotional reactions like anger, dislike, judgment, and avoidance.
More often than not, these persons are simulating an old conflict with ghosts from my past. I react automatically and unconsciously to them “as if” they were embodied in the person irritating me in the present.
The key to managing these disabling feelings is to know what is going on by identifying the hurt part of me that they activate. I also curb my reactivity by hitting the hold button, by viewing these people as my spiritual teachers and going deeper in order to see each one’s inner essence.
Feed the true self, starve the ego
When I speak of self-awareness I must ask a deeper question like “What is that self”?
Here lies a problem since we are all made up of two entirely different selves.
There is the ego self, which is based on the story the mind constructs about us. That is mixed with the preoccupation we have with the opinion of others. The contents of this mind include ego baggage like “separate and distinct from others, entitled and privileged, it’s your performance stupid, and what’s in it for me?”
Another answer to “What is the self?” and for which one has to dig a lot deeper relates to the soul or true self. Living at the level of this self seeks answers to “Where do we have common ground?” and “How can I be of service to you?”
I begin to awaken to my true self when I am aware of the deceptive strategies of the ego. It does not surrender willingly and assures me (false news at its worst) that I need it to be successful in life. My best chance at getting beyond the ego is to learn how to step back from my busy thought life through mindful meditation. And into that gap steps the observing self which is more likely to be objective about me and in so doing reflect my true self.
In the end it is how the self behaves that determines whether it is our true or false self. Having said that, there is a distinction to be made between two almost opposite types of behavior that come from very different places in our minds and hearts and have very different consequences on our lives:
One enriches our life while the other limits it
One divides us from others the other unites
“The unaware life is not worth living”