Most of the time we are not present. We are simply “not here” to observe what’s going on inside or around us and as a consequence, we are unconscious of what we are doing and how we are feeling. We tend to operate on ‘automatic pilot’, with our minds and wandering into the future or the past.
Furthermore, when we focus on our self, we tend to do so in ways that are counterproductive. Self-esteem, self-reflection and introspection are forms of self-absorption which can obstruct authentic self-awareness.
Our culture once valued modesty and humility. It was the Age of Effort, where glorification of the self was shunned. In the late 20th Century, this was replaced by the Age of Esteem, where we don’t need to become great, all we really need is to feel great. For example: everyone gets a trophy, just for showing up.
There is no significant relationship between self-esteem and success. Research indicates that people with high self-esteem tend to be more violent and more aggressive. They are also more likely to walk away from challenging relationships and more likely to cheat, drink and do drugs.
The common belief is that more self-reflection should lead to greater self-awareness and thus happiness, less stress and more job satisfaction. Research has found the opposite. People who score high on self-reflection are actually more stressed, more depressed and more anxious. They are less satisfied with their jobs and relationships, more self-absorbed and felt less in control of their lives. Thinking more about ourselves does not mean we know more about ourselves.
It is also widely assumed that introspection- examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings and behaviors improves self-awareness. What better way to know ourselves than by reflecting on why we are the way we are? Yet research shows that people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being.
The problem with introspection is that most people are asking the wrong question. To understand this, let’s examine the most common introspective question: “Why?”. Why is a surprisingly ineffective self-awareness question. When we ask ourselves “why” questions, we are generally looking for the easiest and most plausible answer. Research has shown that we simply do not have access to many of the unconscious thoughts, feelings and motives we are searching for. And because so much is trapped outside of our conscious awareness, we tend to invent answers that feel true, but are often wrong. For example, after an uncharacteristic outburst by a new manager, a senior manager may jump to the conclusion that it happened because the employee isn’t cut out for management, when the real reason was a severe case of low blood sugar.
In addition, the problem with asking why isn’t just how wrong we are, but how confident we are that we are right. The human mind rarely operates in a rational fashion, and our judgments are seldom free from bias. We tend to pounce on whatever “insights” we find without questioning their validity or value, we ignore contradictory evidence, and we force our thoughts to conform to our initial explanations.
Another negative consequence of asking why– especially when trying to explain an undesired outcome, is that it invites unproductive negative thoughts. Research has found that people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns. For example, if an employee who receives a bad performance review asks: Why did I get such a bad rating?, they’re likely to land on an explanation focused on their fears, shortcomings or insecurities, rather than a rational assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, frequent self-analyzers are more depressed and anxious and experience poorer well-being.
Therefore, to increase productive self-insight and decrease unproductive rumination, we should ask what instead of why. “What” questions help us stay objective, future-focused and empowered to act on our new insights. When we ask ourselves “what” questions, we are more open to discovering new information. Consider the following questions: Why am I unhappy at work? vs. What makes me happy and what makes me unhappy at work? Asking yourself the right “what” questions increases your understanding of your values, passions, aspirations, the environment where you fit the best, your patterns (consistent ways of thinking, feeling and behaving), your reactions and the impact you have on others.
From Self-Absorption to Self-Awareness
Self-absorption is a judgmental drive that seeks to feed and protect our egos. As a consequence, we become overly preoccupied with our inner world and fail to appreciate our outer world. We find ourselves chatting away in our heads and making petty judgments, instead of letting go and living presently with what surrounds us. To move from self-absorption to self-awareness, it is important to focus on cultivating humility and to practice self-acceptance. Appreciate your weaknesses and keep your successes in perspective. Social media is a great opportunity to practice this all because it tends to promote self-absorption. Focus on posting non-self related information- become an “informer” (one who post updates that are information sharing), instead of a “meformer” (one who posts updates relating to themselves).
Both internal and external self-awareness are critical to effective leadership. Leaders must work to see themselves as clearly as possible and solicit feedback to understand how others see them. In addition, it is essential to be mindful with self-reflection and introspection because they can actively block authentic self-awareness.