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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Few

How Well do You Know Yourself; How to Become More Self Aware.

Do you know who you are? or do you just think you do?

Being self-aware is the ability to monitor our inner world – our thoughts, feelings, how we interpret others and events. To train your attention to notice subtle, but important signals. To see thoughts as they arise rather than just being swept away by them, to think before you think. Becoming self-aware is a conscious process in which we develop our ‘understanding of ourselves’ (1).

So what? well, the self-aware person is able to manage his or her feelings and emotions and stay in charge, rather than be overwhelmed by them (2). Wouldn't that be nice, imagine being able to make a decision based on logic not fluffy emotions. Just think how much better your choices would have been in the past.

Consider the number of times you have made a mountain out of a molehill or made an assumption of a person based on their crumpled attire or strange haircut. Our interpretations of events, people, life issues etc. are filtered through our internal ideologies and beliefs that we have collected. Our perception therefore is very often not reality. With this in mind, through improving our powers of rapid cognition ('thinking before we think'), we could change our reality. Your world could look completely different.

Not only can our development of self-awareness help us to identify our bias, but it can also help us discover what we actually want and why we feel how we do. For example, we know that 90% of worries never come into fruition; if they do we handle them better than expected (3). What would be even more awesome is to notice the worry and rationalise, before it even starts to make us turn into that trembling, overthinking wreck.

The Science

As you know here at NLF we love to understand why we operate the way we do. Often this can offer some reprieve when we are going through times of hardship. So read ahead to be assured it's not you, it's your brain. The insula; a segment of the brain tucked behind the frontal lobes, reacts when the body physically signals an emotion e.g. a racing heart. It controls our very sense of 'feeling', or in technical terms produces a somatic marker. People who are oblivious to their own emotions (and also, often to how other people feel) have been shown to have sluggish insula activity. This is in contrast with the high activation found in people highly attuned to their inner emotional life (4), now you know what was wrong with that baffoon of an ex! At the tuned-out extreme are those with alexithymia (and related conditions such as Autism and Aspergers).

The phrase listen to your “gut feelings” - literally relates to messages from the insula and other bottom-up internal circuits that simplify life decisions for us by guiding our attention toward smarter options. The better we are at reading these messages, the better our intuition. Unlike many parts of the body, the gut has a large, complex, semi-autonomous brain, housing more serotonin neurons than the rest of the body. Isn't that amazing? Unfortunately, sometimes we can still convince ourselves that it is "us" and not the situation creating the uncomfortable feeling - this is where self-awareness becomes useful. It's also why you feel like your going to shit yourself when you're asked to do that presentation at work.

When the insula produces a somatic marker this is the sensation in our body that tells us when a choice feels wrong or right. This feeling often happens before brain reasoning, this brain circuitry guides our decision making when we face life’s most complex decisions, like who to marry or whether to buy a house. Such choices can’t be made by a cold, rational analysis.

"There are two major streams of self-awareness: “me,” which builds narratives about our past and future; and “I,” which brings us into the immediate present. The “me” links together what we experience across time. The “I,” in stark contrast, exists only in the raw experience of our immediate moment. The “I,” our most intimate sense of our self, reflects the piecemeal sum of our sensory impressions—particularly our body states" (5) - enabling us to make quick, but not always helpful decisions.

“I” builds from our brain’s system for mapping the body via the insula. Such internal signals are our inner guides, for example; that nagging feeling that you've forgotten something, the problem is these signals can also take control.

So powerful are these narratives, that humans are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience "the power of thin slicing" (6). If you're interested in your own bias, that you may not realise you have, check out the The Implicit Association Test (IAT).

Another way to look at your self-awareness is through The Johari Window:

The open area is the area that we know about ourselves and is also known to others.

The blind area includes the things that others know but we do not.

The hidden area includes things we know about ourselves, but do not reveal to others.

The unknown area is unknown to both us and others.

As we learn more about ourselves the quadrants will change in size. The more we reveal to others about our hidden selves and the more we learn about our blind area, the more our unknown area will shrink. How do you think others see you? What do you think you don't know about yourself?

Going through this process helps us to develop a greater understanding of ourselves and others. It involves an element of risk since we have to disclose something of ourselves and be prepared to receive feedback from others. "Self-awareness should not be viewed as a state that we can attain completely – it is a constant voyage of discovery that is never complete" (8).


1 Rawlinson JW (1990) Self- awareness: conceptual influences, contribution to nursing, and approaches to attainment. Nurse Education Today. 10, 2, 111-117.

2 Goleman, D. (2006). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

3 Leahy, R. (2005) The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You.

4 Terasawa, Y., Kurosaki, Y., Ibata, Y., Moriguchi, Y., & Umeda, S. (2015). Attenuated sensitivity to the emotions of others by insular lesion. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1314. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01314

5 Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York, NY, US: HarperCollins Publishers.

6 Ambady, Nalini; Rosenthal, Robert (March 1992). "Thin slices of expressive behavior as predictors of interpersonal consequences: A meta-analysis". Psychological Bulletin. 111 (2): 256–274. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/0033-2909.111.2.256.

7 Luft, Joseph (1972). Einfuhrung in die Gruppendynamik.

8 Burnard P (1986) Integrated self-awareness training: a holistic model. Nurse Education Today. 6, 5, 219-22

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