We’ll share many self-awareness exercises in here, their respective advantages and disadvantages, why it’s worth doing them, and much more. But before we go into all that, let me share one of my favorite self-awareness exercises with you. It’s called Getting to Know a Protector, and I discovered it in Richard Schwartz‘s fantastic book No Bad Parts. I’d rather have you actually do this one exercise once, than have you read about all kinds of self-awareness techniques, because you’ll benefit so much more from the experience of practicing this one technique than you would just reading an article.
So let’s get right to it. Here are the steps of the Getting to Know a Protector exercise:
- Make yourself comfortable. Sit in a comfortable meditation post, or lay down. Take a couple of relaxed breaths.
- Scan your body and mind. Notice any thoughts, emotions, sensations, or impulses that stand out.
- Find one of these thoughts, emotions, sensations, or impulses that seems to call you, or want your attention. Focus on that for a while.
- Where is it located? Where in or around your body do you feel or sense it?
- How do you feel toward it? Do you dislike it? Are you annoyed by it? Afraid of it? Want to get rid of it? Do you feel like you need it, or depend on it? You just want to notice the relationship you have to this thought, emotion, sensation or impulse.
- If you feel anything other than openness or curiosity toward it, then ask the parts of you that might not like it or are afraid of it or have any other extreme feeling about it to just relax and give you a little space to get to know it without an attitude.
- Can’t get to that curious place? That’s okay. Spend some time talking to the parts of you that don’t want to relax about their fears about letting you interact with the target emotion, thought, sensation, or impulse.
- If you can get to that curious place, then begin to interact with it. Ask that emotion, thought, sensation, or impulse if there’s something it wants you to know, and then wait for an answer. Don’t think of the answer. Instead, just wait silently with your focus on that place in your body, until an answer comes. And if nothing comes, that’s okay too.
- If you get an answer, you can ask that emotion, thought, sensation, or impulse another question: What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t do what you do?
- If you get an answer, then you probably got an insight about how this emotion, thought, sensation, or impulse is trying to protect you from something. If that’s the case, then appreciate it for trying to protect you this way, for trying to keep you safe from harm. See how it reacts to your appreciation.
- Then ask: What do you need from me in the future?
- If you get an answer, great. If not, that’s fine too.
- Whenever the time feels right, focus back on the outside world, and thank your parts for whatever they allowed you to do. Tell them: “This isn’t the last chance to have a conversation with you. I plan to get to know you a ll even more.”
This might all seem a bit weird, and you might feel awkward doing this. You might at times be wondering whether you’re doing it right. That’s fine. Be open to experimentation, just give it a try. There’s no harm in doing this, you’re not taking any risk. All you’re doing is trying to get to know yourself better, to understand yourself better, in a different way than you usually do. You’ll become better at practicing self-compassion.
What are Self-Awareness Activities and Exercises?
Self-awareness exercises are specific activities designed to help you understand yourself better. This might seem obvious, but you have to actually do them in order to benefit from them. The sad truth is that most people will simply read this article, but never act upon it. They will read, think about, form their own opinions, have internal discussions about self-awareness—but they won’t actually sit down and do these exercises. And they’ll gain nothing from it, other than maybe the ability to talk about it and sound smart. Don’t be one of these people. Pick an exercise and do it, really do it.
There are many different approaches and frameworks, so you might want to try different ones—but I implore you: Please don’t try to familiarize yourself with every kind of exercise and theory before taking action. Just do one exercise and learn from your own experience. Your goal is not to become a scholar of self-awareness; your goal is to become more self-aware.
What are the benefits of self-awareness exercises?
Doing these exercises will help you overcome your own biases, illuminate your own blind spots, increase your emotional intelligence, and get better at decision-making. The more aware you are of your own emotions, the better you are at managing them.
Most people spend so much of their life on auto-pilot, and then wonder why they end up where they end up, full of negative emotions and regrets.
Self-aware people live intentionally, they make conscious choices. Their actions are more aligned with their core values. There’s something called Self-determination theory (SDT), which is all about how much of our behavior is self-determined and self-motivated (versus driven by external factors). Research by Brown and Ryan (Brown, K. W.; Ryan, R. M. (2003). “The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.) showed that people who act with awareness are more consistent with their values and interests.
Self-awareness is the first component of emotional intelligence–which makes sense when— Daniel Goleman, Self-Awareness (HBR Emotional Intelligence Series)
one considers that the Delphic oracle gave the advice to “know thyself” thousands of years
ago. Self-awareness means having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weak-
nesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor un-
realistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest-with themselves and with others.
Ultimately, you’ll find a deeper, more rooted and authentic sense of self-confidence, and be able to function more effectively in the world, relate in more meaningful ways to others, and accomplish more in your professional life.
What is the first step to develop self-awareness?
You build self-awareness by first accepting the fact that you don’t really know yourself. None of us does. We all get lost in our stream of consciousness and during the course of our lives move through different levels of self-awareness.
Just by the very fact that you’re reading this article, you’re demonstrating that you’ve already made the first step toward becoming more self-aware. Congratulations! The next one is to inform yourself on how to do it—and you’ve done that too. Now, you do the work: you practice. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Do the Getting to Know a Protector exercise I shared at the beginning of this article, it’s one of the best personal development techniques I’ve come across.
Here’s a list of exercises you can practice to improve your self-knowledge. I share them in no particular order—you already know what my favorite exercise is, and these ones are all good, so make your own choice.
Pay attention to the present moment. Without judgment.
Here’s a simple way to do a mindfulness meditation:
- Find a comfortable, quiet place to sit. Sit straight, but relaxed. Breathe.
- Focus on the now. Any thoughts of past of future, just let go.
- Pay attention to your breathing. Feel the flow of air as you inhale and exhale. Notice how it shapes your body, how your chest, belly, and nostrils move.
- Be aware of your thoughts. Don’t attach to them. Don’t even try to fight them or hold back or control them. Just notice them, and let them go. Always come back to the present moment.
Don’t overcomplicate this. Especially when you begin this practice, keep it simple. You don’t need to do this for an hour a day. In fact, even doing it for a minute a day is so much better than not doing it at all. If you practice this exercise for one minute a day for an entire week, then do two minutes a day the following week, and so on. Slowly work your way up. In the long run, you’ll gain so much more from building a consistent practice that’s part of your daily life than you would out of forcing yourself to suddenly start a hardcore meditation practice that you can’t sustain.
If mindfulness meditation is your jam, learn more about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Journaling can be a powerful way to get to know yourself better, and the more honest and unfiltered your journals are, the deeper the insights you’ll gain.
Sometimes you’ll write something, and in the process of writing you’ll find a clarity, you’ll recognize a thought, feeling, or pattern that previously was hidden in the shadows of your subconscious mind, never out in the bright light of awareness.
And sometimes you’ll write and feel like it didn’t do anything for you. But months, or even years later, you might read your diary and realize how much your thinking has changed. Or you’ll find how little it has changed: Maybe you’ll find that five years ago, you were incredibly worried that some debilitating threat was hanging over your head, and that you felt the same way 3 years ago, and that you still feel the same way now. And if this constant sense of imminent danger is always with you but never really materializes… well, then it’s probably unjustified. That’s why having a journal, a place where you document your thoughts and feelings, can be a great source of self-discovery.
This might seem weird, but just hit record on the Voice Memo app in your phone. Especially as you talk with different people throughout your day. You’ll be surprised about the tone of your voice and the emotional message you convey in conversations you have with different people.
Fair warning: You won’t feel like listening to these recordings. It’ll seem boring, or painful to listen to these at times. But if you do actually listen to it with an attitude of curiosity, and an open mind, you’ll be able to learn so much from listening to yourself.
In fact, we are our own greatest teachers. There’s no greater source of learning than our own selves. Pay special attention to moments where the recording of yourself sounds different from the way you thought you sounded when you said it—and then dig a little deeper to find out what happened there. Sometimes the answers will be obvious, other times they won’t. If you can’t seem to find an answer, then jot down the question somewhere: Why did I sound so defensive when I replied to George’s comment? Why did I sound so provocative when I asked Jenny that question? Why was I so reticent around Michael? And then, at a later time, revisit these questions and see if any answers come up.
Listening to recordings of yourself can be a great self development exercise, and you’ll gain so much insight about yourself from replaying moments of the day where you lacked self-awareness because you were so caught up in the moment.
Sometimes I wish there would be a recorder for our mind: because if we could listen to our own self-talk (the voice in our head), we’d be amazed at how we talk to ourselves. The amount and intensity of negative thoughts many of us create through our own inner voice is mindboggling.
And if you want to take this one step further, record yourself on video. Just place your phone somewhere and record yourself for a while until you forget that you’re even recording yourself. Later, review the recording—scroll around to different times. You’ll be surprised how revealing your own body language and posture can be, and how much it can teach you about your state of mind.
Write Your Personal Manifesto
A manifesto is a written statement declaring publicly the intentions, motives, or views of its issuer. Write one for yourself; describe exactly how you want intend to live your life, and principles you live by. Think of it as a your own mission statement.
The simple act of writing it down will help you become more aware of your most important beliefs and values. You’ll also be more aware when you stray off them—and you’ll notice when it’s time to adjust them. This will forever be a work in progress, but you want to consciously be working on it, rather than have it somewhere in the background, completely unaware of how it impacts your decisions and choices.
Personality tests are a great way to get to understand yourself better. Personally, the Enneagram was one of the most impactful personality tests I’ve completed, and I highly recommend the book The Road Back to You.
Here are a couple of popular personality tests. Many of them are essentially questionnaires
- Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
- DISC Crystal | 123Test | Truity Career Personality Profiler | Interpersonal Skills assessment | Sokanu |
- 16 Personalities
- Personality Perfect
- Extroversion Introversion Test
- Human Metrics
- Test Color
- Berkeley Emotional Intelligence Quiz
When you understand your own personality type better, you will also understand how to work better with others, and make better decisions in high-stress situations. And you’ll be better equipped on your self-improvement journey.
And if you want some inspiration and bitesized food for thought on the subject, check out my collection on the best quotes about self-awareness.
Are there levels of self-awareness?
There definitely are levels and layers of self-awareness, and there are even methods of testing and measuring how self-aware you are.
The closest thing to an actual self-awareness assessment is the Self-Reflection and Insight Scale or SRIS, developed by Anthony M Grant, John Franklin, and Peter Langford for example is a tool designed to measure a person’s private self-consciousness. Keep in mind that this is a more clinical definition of a very specific aspect of self-awareness:
Private self-consciousness and the subordinate constructs of self-reflection and insight are key factors in the self-regulatory process underpinning the creation of behavior change, both in clinical practice with clinical populations, and in performance enhancing coaching with nonclinical populations.— The Self-Reflection and Insight Scale: A New Measure of Private Self-Consciousness, January 2002, Social Behavior and Personality An International Journal
That being said, the more meaningful measure of self-awareness is your own life. Do you feel more in touch with yourself now than you did a year ago? Five? Ten? If the answer to these three questions is yes, then you’re on the right path. If you feel like you lost yourself somewhere along the way, then it’s time to re-examine yourself.
The Dark Side of Self-Awareness
Personal growth is not all rainbows and sunshines. Remember the movie The Matrix?
You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
So much of what’s in the way of seeing ourselves clearer are protective mechanisms. Part of discovering our own truth is also tearing down those protective walls that prevented us from seeing (and feeling) painful facts. This is what the Getting to Know a Protector exercise points towards. We have to be ready to face the pain. We have to be courageous enough to overcome our fears.
Ultimately, being more self-aware is good for your mental health—but it won’t make your life easier, or more comfortable. In fact, it’s a long journey that’ll rock your boat again, and again, and again.
Sometimes truth reveals itself like a pretty butterfly on a warm spring day. And sometimes it hits you in the face like a Mike Tyson punch. You have to accept all of it, and ultimately arrive at a place where you can embrace truth, accept it, even the “ugly” parts of it.