Self awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly — both internally and externally. To be self aware is not only to be conscious of your character, feelings, motives, and desires but having an accurate idea of how you display those things to the world around you.

Self Awareness: how to learn this critical skill when no one can teach you

The self awareness movement has become very popular in the personal development world — and with good reason. While 95% of people believe that they are self aware – only 10-15% of us actually are, according to Tasha Eurich.

When we see ourselves clearly we:

  • are more confident
  • make better decisions
  • are more creative
  • communicate better
  • work better
  • have stronger relationships
  • are better leaders

(check out this article for links on all the research on the this list)

This is a substantial list. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who isn’t interested in improving at least one thing on there. In fact, I’d bet most of us would happily increase all the items. And all of that comes from self awareness.

If self awareness is so important, we should all just go out and take a class in it, right? Unfortunately, that’s not really possible. No one can teach you to be more self aware. They can give you tips and tools (which I’m going to do in this article) on how to cultivate your self awareness, but everyone is different.

Since no one can get in your head, it’s impossible to teach internal self awareness. And since everyone’s perception of the world is different, you can’t use just one person’s feedback to compare how you think you show up to how you actually show up.

If this sounds complicated, don’t worry. I’m going to break down the differences between internal and external awareness and what you can do to improve each.

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You would think that because we live in our heads 24/7/365 for our entire lives, that we would be the foremost expert on what’s going on in there. And while you probably know more than anyone else around you, that doesn’t necessarily make you an expert.

Internal self awareness means that we are able to see our own values, passions, aspirations, feelings, desires, and motives clearly.  That’s a lot of stuff — but again we live here, we know every nook and cranny, right?

And yet I’m sure we’ve all had a moment where we’ve said something like “I don’t know why I love/hate/do this, but I always do.” Right there, that’s lack of internal self awareness.

I bet, though, if you took a few moments and thought deeply about what it is about this thing that you love/hate/do you would have a deeper understanding of it. In fact, talking it out with someone often reveals an answer we weren’t even expecting to find. This is increasing internal self awareness.

Notice, however, that I didn’t say that you should ask yourself WHY you love/hate/do this thing. And while it seems logical that asking yourself why would be the most direct route to the answer, it not only is not direct, it often doesn’t produce an answer at all.

When we start down the path to why, we can get stuck in ruminating about the topic, which then leads to anxiety and depression. That doesn’t sound like something you’re going to want to continue to do.

Asking what questions, on the other hand, helps get you into a solution focused mindset. This is the concept behind the coaching model that I use. There is only one time where I ask why in a session and that’s asking why is the topic important for today? If it’s not important, there’s no reason to discuss it.

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The rest of the session revolves around what and how:

What do you want to happen?

How might you make that happen?

What could you do to make progress?

What would that progress do for you?

These are all open ended questions that allow you to think deeply about your situation.

While in coaching I don’t dive into your past, when you’re thinking about self awareness, you’re free to examine that. You might consider what hasn’t been working lately? What might you do to improve that?

If you’re practicing mindfulness breaks or stress relief breaks throughout your day, you might consider inserting a couple of self awareness questions at the end of these. Once you’ve taken a moment to calm your brain down, it might be a good time to ask what got you so stressed in the first place? And what might you do to avoid that in the future?

Other ways to improve your self awareness are to take personality tests such as the Meyers-Briggs or this more off the beaten path one. While you might not completely identify with the results, and shouldn’t base all your self awareness around one quiz, they are certainly interesting information. You might see something in yourself that you never noticed before.

Self awareness doesn't stop you from making mistakes, it allows you to learn from them. Click To Tweet

Coaching and talk therapy are also fast tracks to internal self awareness. Conversing with someone skilled in listening and asking you the deep questions you don’t normally field, will help you become aware of who you truly are. You could have been telling yourself something for years and find out that it’s not actually true. You just simply thought it out of habit and never examined your thoughts any further.

Other useful internal self awareness tools are meditation, journaling, and mindfulness practices (including yoga). These options help you relax yourself and simply notice your thoughts without judgement. And in doing so you might see patterns or limiting beliefs pop up.

While internal self awareness is important, external self awareness is equally so. And despite the way it seems — just because you have one doesn’t mean you have the other. You can be incredibly self aware of who you are and how you feel and yet have no idea how you are perceived by the world.

Read on for how to cultivate external self awareness.

Self Awareness: how to learn this critical skill when no one can teach you


External self awareness can be dicey. We often show up one way with friends, one way with our partner, another way with parents, and a completely different way at work. Because of this it can be hard to jive your internal self awareness with how you’re perceived by the world.

For example, one of your values might be productivity. And perhaps you’re a big believer in coming into the office, putting your head down, and getting as much done as possible. You might be a friendly person, but as far as work goes, you’re all about getting being efficient.

How does that come off to those people around you? You might think that they generally leave you alone because they understand your need for productivity. However, they might think you’re shy, or anti social, or even hostile — depending on how you deal with distractions.

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You might not see any of these traits in yourself, but this is how part of your world perceives you. And the disconnect between how you want to show up and how people think you’re showing up is where external self awareness comes in.

It’s possible that you’re incredibly good with your external self awareness. How you think you’re being seen and how you’re actually being seen line up very closely — but if you never ask anyone you can’t be sure.

While I’m not a huge proponent of all the tests and evaluations they tend to do in executive coaching — the one that really makes sense is the 360º review. This is a questionnaire that’s given to the people you report to, your coworkers, and the people that report to you on how you show up in your job.

It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance - Thomas Sowell Click To Tweet

The average person is unlikely to ever get such a review, but there’s no reason that you can’t conduct one yourself. The difference here would be that because you’re doing it yourself, without a coach as an intermediary to filter this info, so you’ll want to be careful with who you question.

Start first with your inner tribe. Speak with the people that you know will give you the cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die truth and not those friends that will sugar coat it. If you’re trying to improve your external self awareness, you will get no where if the feedback is full of vagaries and fibs. Go to the people who you know can be “loving critics” as Tasha Eurich calls them.

If you really want a deep dive you can take Eurich’s online quiz, but you’re going to have to have someone else answer those questions for you as well.

External self awareness might be a little more difficult to get your arms around, but it is worth it. People who are more self aware are better at showing empathy and taking other’s perspectives. That definitely sounds like something the world could use a little more of right now.


Both internal and external self awareness are required for us to become well rounded people. And just because you have one, doesn’t mean you have the other. Try some of these tips and tools to help you increase both internal and external awareness.

If you’re struggling with being truly self aware, please contact me. Coaching is an excellent way to get real insight on who you are and how that’s playing out in the world around you.

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