Understanding Self-Awareness Inside and Out

In a deck of tarot cards, one card shows a collapsing tower. The collapsing tower represents the danger of building something on a false premise. No matter how much work we put into something—a relationship, a company, an idea—it’s inevitably going to come crashing down if the work was built on a flimsy foundation. When you build your emotional intelligence, the essential foundation is self-awareness.

Self-awareness is your ability to recognize and understand your emotions as they happen and to know your general tendencies for responding to different people and situations. People who test highly in self-awareness build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively, work more creatively and productively, are better decision-makers, and are overall more confident.

Perhaps the best thing about self-awareness is that it’s a learnable skill you can improve with practice. To help get you started, let’s take a close look at two sides of self-awareness: Internal and External, followed by two self-awareness strategies from Emotional Intelligence 2.0.

Internal Self-Awareness

What it is: The internal side of self-awareness is our ability to recognize and understand the things that make us tick—our values, beliefs, goals, passions, strengths and weaknesses, and personality. These drive how we feel. and why we feel that way.

Internal self-awareness in action: When Alexa von Tobel set out to start her business LearnVest, she was terrified by all the things that could go wrong. To quell her fears, she began to put together a written plan, and the writing deepened and expanded. By the time she was done, the plan was 75 pages. The interesting thing is not so much the business projections or the plan itself, but the core beliefs she had at the time about who she was and what she was seeking, and the way she still uses the plan. Now, whenever she finds herself stuck on a decision, lacking for motivation, or confused, she turns to that section of her plan as her self-guiding light, her foundation.  

Self-Awareness Strategy #11: Visit Your Values. Spend some time reflecting on the things that are deeply important to who you are, your core beliefs, and write them down. Your list doesn’t need to be a seventy-five-page manifesto. A short list of core ideas is often enough. Next time you’re faced with a tough decision or difficult time, pull out your list and use it to guide your next decision the same way von Tobel does. We tend to assume we draw on our core values or beliefs when faced with tough decisions, but in reality, we find ourselves reacting on a whim. By getting something written, you give yourself a place to go look, to slow down and visit your values more often.

External Self-Awareness

What it is: External self-awareness is our ability to see how other people experience us. This can be a tricky element of self-awareness because it means understanding how you actually come across to others (not just how you think you do).

External Self-Awareness in action: In a recent leadership study based on in-depth interviews with 125 leaders, the authors set out to learn how leaders develop over the course of their careers. One leader sticks out as a perfect example of the importance of the external side of self-awareness. David Pottruck began his career at Charles Schwab as the head of marketing. Being new, he convinced himself that he had to work as hard as possible to impress the people around him. He put in countless hours and held high expectations of the people around him. One day, Pottruck’s boss pulled him into his office and explained to him that other employees didn’t like him. They resented how he approached his hard work, didn’t trust him, and felt intimidated. All of this was going on, while in Pottruck’s mind he was winning them over through hard work. The feedback from his boss was that critical insight he needed to mold the way he balanced his work intensity with his approach with people. He went on to become the CEO.  

Self-Awareness Strategy #14: Seek feedback. Asking for feedback directly is one of the best ways to get honest opinions about your work and the way you come across to the people around you. Prepare yourself with specific questions for areas you can improve. When it stings, try your best not to be defensive or to deny any of the feedback offered. Pottruck could have easily turned on his boss and blamed his team saying they just weren’t willing to work as hard as he was, but instead he actually took the time to understand their experience, what his boss was saying, and to grow from it.

From Insights to Action. The challenge with self-awareness is that most everyone feels like they already are self-aware, but we all have major blind spots like Pottruck’s, or we forget to look deep inside, as Alexa Von Tobel does. Denial and frustration can be enemies to growing self-awareness, which requires admitting your shortcomings and living your values, both big and small. As you set out to learn about yourself, inside and out, make sure you do so openly and with self-compassion.

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