06/21/17

A Journey to Self

Self Reflection is a process that helps us get a better sense of who we are, who we want to be and how we will achieve that.

We arrive in this world without instruction manuals and grow up without an emotional toolkit. Without proper bearing, it is easy to lose our way. As we go through life, we collect emotional scars from bad experiences that we inevitably face. At some point, these experiences clog our lives so much so that we disconnect with ourselves and our core beliefs.

According to psychologists, this disconnection causes us to drift away from giving our very best to achieve our true potential in life, or what American psychologist Abraham Maslow described as self-actualisation. Maslow was one of the founding fathers of Humanistic Psychology; the school of thought that is based on the belief that we are born with the desire to achieve our maximum potential. This idea was further adapted by the founder of Person-Centred Therapy, Carl Rogers, whose ideas set the baseline for modern psychotherapy. He also believed that every one of us have one basic motive that is the predisposition to self-actualise.

Simply put, psychologists are suggesting that every one of us has the potential to achieve the highest level of ‘human-beingness’, and that we can achieve our goals, wishes and dreams in life. Each of us starts out in life with a strong internal value system which gives us a sense of judgement on what is right and wrong. We learned these values from our parents and/or our immediate surroundings. It is this sense of values that make up our concept of self or specifically, our real self.

“Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside, awakes” – Carl Jung

As we deal with the reality of life, our ideals and values can appear naïve, unrealistic and untenable. Before long, we have abandoned those values in favour of the rules we are taught by the world and adapt our core values to these rules. This then forms the foundation of our projected self. These two components of self; the real-self and the projected-self, are crucial in shaping our lives.

When our real self (how we see ourselves) and projected self (what we would like to be) is in harmony with each other, the capacity for us to unlock our full potential is unlimited. The more aligned these two self-concepts are, the more in touch we are with the here and now.

We are also in tune with our experiences and feelings, and welcome change and growth. But when there is a discrepancy between these two concepts of self, harnessing our unlimited potential won’t be as easy. This is because when there is a clash between what we are and what we think we should be, we begin to experience a disharmony, which ultimately leads to increased levels of stress and anxiety.

The goal for ourselves is to achieve alignment with ourselves and eventually attain peace and happiness. As Maslow said, congruence can be developed and unlimited potential can be unlocked just as a flower can achieve full bloom when conditions are right.

Unlocking Potential

Human’s potential is unique and we are meant to develop and progress in different ways according to our personality. For us to unlock our potential and continuously “grow”, we need an environment that provides us with:

  • Genuineness

    Which includes honesty, openness and self-disclosure

  • Unconditional acceptance

    Being seen with unconditional positive regards

  • Empathy

    Being listened to and understood

Self-awareness is defined as the accurate appraisal and understanding of our abilities and preferences, and their implications for our behaviour and their impact on others.

Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and science writer, has proposed a more popular definition of self-awareness in his best-selling book “Emotional Intelligence”. He defines it as “knowing one’s internal states, preference, resources and intuitions”. Self-awareness is our ability to monitor our inner world, our thoughts and emotions as they arise, along with how well we notice and monitor our inner world.

It must be noted that the effectiveness of self-awareness lies in its non-judgmental quality. This means that we accept things, good and bad experiences, as an inevitable part of being human rather than giving ourselves a hard time about it.

Furthermore, self-awareness goes beyond getting to know ourselves better. It is also about paying attention to our inner state with a fresh mind and an open heart.

This is important because our mind has the tendency to store information on how we react to a certain event to form a blueprint (or instruction manual) of our emotional life. This causes us to condition our mind to react in a certain way when we encounter similar events in the future.

Now, self-awareness allows us to be conscious of this conditioning and preconceptions of the mind, which can form the foundation of freeing the mind from it.

So what? How can it help in unlocking potential?

According to Daniel Goleman, self-awareness is a cornerstone for emotional intelligence. The ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts proactively is key not only to understand ourselves better but also to being at peace with who we are. Those who are more self-aware, tend to act consciously rather than react passively. They are in good psychological health and tends to be more positive in life.

They also have a greater depth of life experience and are more likely to be more compassionate to themselves and others.

Why is it not easy to be more self-aware?

If self-awareness is indeed important, why aren’t we more self-aware? The most obvious answer is that we are simply “not present enough” to observe ourselves. In other words, we are not “wholly present” to pay attention to what’s going on inside or around us.

A recent study by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert found that we are on “automatic pilot” or are unconscious of our own actions.

Besides the constant mind-wandering, the various cognitive bias also affects our ability to have a more accurate understanding of ourselves. For example, confirmation bias can trick us into searching for or interpreting information in a way that confirms our preconceptions or views about a certain topic.

A lack of the willingness to seek feedback could also work against us if we want a more holistic view of ourselves through the eyes of others. This could have a significant impact on the story we are telling ourselves and the way we relate to others.

Five simple and straightforward strategies to Develop and Improve Self-Awareness

  • Create some space to self-reflect

    Allocate yourself some time and space every day – perhaps first thing in the morning or half an hour before sleep when you stay away from the digital distractions and spend some time reading, writing, meditating, self-reflecting and connecting with yourself. Imagine if you are in a dark room without windows, it is rather difficult to see things clearly. The space you create for yourself is that crack on the wall where you allow light to come through.

  • Practice Mindfulness

    Mindfulness is the key to self-awareness. American professor Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. Through mindfulness practice, you will be more present with yourself and you can “be there” to observe what’s going on inside and around you. Mindfulness is not about sitting cross-legged or suppressing your thoughts. It is about paying attention to your inner state as they arise. You can practice mindfulness at any time you want, through mindful listening, mindful walking or even eating.

  • Keep a Journal

    Writing helps to process our thoughts. It also makes us feel connected and at peace with ourselves. Writing can also create more headspace as you let your thoughts flow out onto paper. Research shows that writing down things we are grateful for or even things we are struggling with helps increase happiness and satisfaction. You can also use the journal to record your inner state. Try this at home –choose a half day on a weekend, pay close attention to your inner world – self-reflect and ask yourself what you are feeling or what you are saying to yourself, and make a note of what you observe every hour. You may well be surprised about what you write down!

  • Practice being a good listener

    Listening is about being present and paying attention to other people’s emotions, body movement and language. It is about showing empathy and understanding without constantly evaluating or judging. When you become a good listener, you will also be better at listening to your own inner voice and become the best friend of yourself.

  • Get Different Perspectives

    Ask for feedback from others. It is true that it can be nerve-wracking to do so and sometimes we can be too afraid to ask what others think of us – yes sometimes the feedback may be biased or even dishonest but you will be able to differentiate them from real, genuine and balanced feedback as you learn more about yourself and others. We all have blind spots, so it is always helpful to gain different perspectives to see a fuller picture of ourselves.

To summarise, connecting to ourselves in an open, kind and accepting way is not only essential to our well-being, but also critical in unlocking our true potential. It must be said however that developing and/or improving self-awareness is a life-long journey and we all have work to do in this area. Not only that, being a good listener to our own inner voice is not easy, especially given how much noise and conditioning (external and internal) is imposed on us. But with practice, practice and practice, it will surely become easier for us if not natural.

To be self-aware is to be more resilient, more realistic and for others more predictable. Remember as Winston Churchill put it, “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential”.

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