“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
– Abraham Lincoln
I don’t think people value self-awareness nearly enough. In fact, I think that we spend the majority of our time filling our lives and our bodies with busyness and vices in order to avoid self-awareness. I have encountered some who believe that self-awareness is “egotistical,” or a waste of time, or self-indulgent and therefore morally wrong. At face value, we all–minus my last example–would likely agree that self-awareness is important, but our behavior betrays our underlying beliefs about that. Let’s explore some reasons that we need self-awareness.
Reasons we need self-awareness:
1- Increased productivity.
You might think you’re getting ahead by staying busy all the time, but sit with this thought for a moment: working hard is not the same thing as working smart. There’s a growing body of evidence that shows that working overtime, all those hard hours, is working against you. Having greater self-awareness–goodness, having time to develop it at least–can benefit you like this: when you take the time to step back from your work, you can evaluate how you work as well as what distracts you from your work. Self-awareness is the unsung hero, the best supporting actor in this regard. We build up many habits that work against us, we get things done but they’re done poorly, and sometimes need to be done more than once because of that.
When I was learning how to not kill myself in the gym, my personal trainer enlightened me to the fact that putting your attention into how you do your exercises–self-awareness–has a dramatic impact on how strong you become. This applies to work. And without proper self-awareness, we go over our limits and too late discover that we’re frittering away our time on Facebook, or daydreaming, or worrying about our relationships instead of focusing on our productivity. You are your most important tool for dealing with your life, how much time do you spend sharpening yourself?
2- Better learning.
Self-awareness impacts learning in so many ways. Traditionally, people have viewed that to mean “I’m not a math guy” which is, frankly, philosophically lazy. I used to believe that, but the greater issue at hand for myself was that I got so physically wound up by the expectations I placed on myself, add to that not knowing how to ask for help, that my poor brain wilted under the demands. When your shoulders tense out really hard, your blood flow to your brain gets reduced; when you have unchecked expectations that don’t line up with reality, you carry taxing and unnecessary burdens; when you can’t ask for help, you’re unable to do what you could otherwise with a bit of support.
A wise tutor is aware of you, learns your language and assumptions, brings your struggles to your awareness, and works within your zone of proximal development. Furthermore, enhanced self-awareness leads to the exciting possibilities of embodied learning – that is, placing yourself as a point of reference directly in your learning.
It seems abstract, but research is showing that the brain forms it’s most powerful memories through relationships, and things that relate to “me” carry the most weight. Not only that, but placing yourself spatially in your imagination in relationship to even symbolic representations of abstract thoughts uses a greater proportion of your brain and enhances memory integration.
This is where I encourage the students that I mentor to use their hands when describing things – repeat the same motions in an exam, and you’d be amazed at how the concepts “pop” back into your memory. Consider this, 3/4 of the brains lobes deal directly with movement and spatial relationships – and that doesn’t consider the cerebellum, typically known for its role in balance, which has almost as many neural connections in it as the greater brain itself does. Our physical bodies are deeply connected to our brain, and not using our physical bodies to learn, even abstractly, is a waste. All symbolism finds its root in the actual, physical world, so familiarity with the physical world will enhance your understanding of the symbolic world. Striving for greater awareness, particularly of your body-in-this-world, will lead to greater learning.
3- Better relationships.
Building off of body awareness, you’d be amazed at the role self-awareness plays in relationships. Self-awareness might even be the thing we argue with our partner about, and tell them that they need more of – but we can’t control them, we can only control ourselves. It takes two to have an argument (one is just someone yelling), so knowing your triggers and behaviors in arguments can be critical to short-circuiting arguments and having greater relational success. My guess is that you don’t want to yell at the people you love. My guess is that you don’t want to shut them out (except maybe in the heat of an argument, but these things have a way of carrying over).
Emotions seem really mysterious, and we often feel like we’re at their mercy until we discover them in our bodies. Do you know what anger feels like in your body? Do you know what it feels like escalating, or does it seemingly go from off-to-on like a light switch? I’ll let you in on a secret from personal experience – when you know what your baseline, everyday-self feels like, it’s easier to return to that place of being when you’re in other places like extreme anger or even sadness. Easier, but it takes practice.
Emotional regulation is a skill, just like riding a bike – it can be trained and it can be practiced. If this is an area you struggle with and see value in improving on, work in bite-sized chunks. If something escalates you from happy to 10/10 angry, maybe practice responding to something that makes you 2 or 3/10 angry. Left unchecked, we’re prone to jump into the heart of the struggle – this is a real challenge in working with PTSD, for example. Half the battle is finding a battle the right size to learn from. Find something in your zone of proximal learning, as above, that fits where you are at emotionally and physically. I learned this firsthand as a side-benefit from doing body-based psychotherapy training; good pieces of training don’t role-play, they deal with thorny, real-life struggles.
4- Deeper life satisfaction.
I saved the most abstract for last. It’s a tired cliche, but the reality is that we spend so much of our lives pursuing what it means to live and so very little of our life actually living. Many of us work for the weekend, some of us live paycheque to paycheque, and each of us has some dream that we have to attain. “If only I…” runs in the background of your mind, as you grind away, not remembering exactly how you got to work, or what you did at work, or even necessarily what you did over the weekend. We tend to live unremarkable lives, and that is deeply dissatisfying and troubling. Perhaps that is why we spend the majority of our time filling our lives and our bodies with busyness and vices in order to avoid self-awareness. Self-awareness threatens us with existential dread much like unexpectedly walking into a brick wall at night does. It overwhelms us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. What we find on the other side of the struggle, however, can be much more fulfilling.
When we take advantage of the time we have here in this life, when we live in the present moment–with an eye to future moments, and gratitude to the past moments–we can allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the beauty of existence. The quiet, unproclaimed beauty of our partner deep in thought as they work, or of the hazy multi-colored pastel sunrise on a cold winter day, or of the delight in being surprised by whatever walks into your awareness as you do what you do.
This is a way to see the world, a way to see yourself, that can only enhance all else that you do. It has no moral value apart from whatever you apply it to, and it brings so much benefit to being able to respond to what is actually before you, rather than by your memories and expectations being superimposed on reality. The truth is, as exciting as technological advances have been lately, we have all already lived with “augmented reality glasses” for so many moments in our lives. We augment our perceptions with all our lack of self-awareness by everything we project into the world. No wonder people sometimes look at us, wondering what planet we’re on.
This deeper life satisfaction comes from slowing down, intentionally reflecting on our actions and intentions, addressing things we missed and pondering our direction. It’s in these quiet moments of reflection and the resultant prayer that I find myself drawing closest to God and understanding His heart toward me and those I encounter. I mull over the good and the bad, reinforcing what works and making reparations for what doesn’t. It’s from my time in quiet reflection that my wife receives my best and where I can support her in giving her best. Wherever you are at in your spiritual journey, I believe you can benefit from this form of self-awareness.
What does this mean for Christians?
Many Christians struggle with their sense of self and feel obligated to annihilate their “self” based off of their interpretations of scripture. Verses such as (hover mouse for contextual tooltip) John 3:30, or Galatians 2:20 have been lifted out of context for so long and worked into our perceived understanding of theology that is actually not true. I encourage you to read and re-read those verses in context – don’t even stop at the chapter they’re embedded in, for chapters and verses came after scripture was written, and often do not contain the entirety of a thought or essay.
The challenge is that the word “self” can take on different meanings in different contexts, and what it means in one place is totally different than in another, and therefore, its inappropriate to carry over the meaning. The self that is meant to die is that of pride, of self-centeredness, of rigid stubbornness and unforgiveness. The self that is meant to die is the self that gets in the way of relationships with others, and ultimately, relationship with Jesus. The self that remains, that we are given, that is restored and redeemed is the self that is open to relationships, to being led, to being aware of needs and limits, and to being aware of the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That is the self that Jesus died for, the self He wants to cleanse and restore, and the self He wants a relationship with.
Lack of self-awareness in the Christian life is a serious problem, especially if it’s falsely idolized as a form of righteousness. Avoiding self-awareness by diverting to spirituality is called spiritual bypassing, and I’ll be writing more on that in the future. Self-awareness of body, mind, and soul leads us to respect our God-given limits, acknowledge our need of Him through His saving and sustaining power. Self-awareness cues us in to how we tend to sabotage ourselves and our testimonies. Consider Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 9:27 boldly states, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” An athlete is aware of how their body performs. An athlete is aware of where their limits are and takes active steps towards improving themselves. They spend months sharpening an “axe” for an event that ultimately may be over in seconds. How much more do we need to sharpen ourselves for a fruitful and productive life?
Self-awareness is biblical. Consider the following, a favorite passage of mine:
“Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties;
and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
– Psalm 139:23-24
We’re collaborators in the process of renewal with God when we invite Him to search our hearts through prayer and let His Spirit show us areas that need improvement, need submission to Him, or need to be removed from our lives. The passage from Psalm 139 is not the only section in the bible that speaks of self-awareness either, here are some others to reflect on: 1 Timothy 4:16, 2 Corinthians 13:5, Proverbs 20:5, Psalm 26:2.
Getting to know oneself is a life-long journey, and I happen to think that asking God to show you more of yourself is one of the best ways to achieve that. Likewise, a good friend can show you the parts of yourself you’d rather stay ignorant of. Sometimes, the things we shove under the rug into our subconscious or unconscious mind come back to cause us great mental malady. Good therapy can be useful in rooting out the parts of us we need to work on, gives us tools in doing so, and is a great process of self-discovery and self-mastery.
And in all that we discover in ourselves as Christians, we are given the choice and His power to choose to remove it or let it grow.
How do you grow in self-awareness?
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