Cultivating Self-awareness

Self Awareness

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by Jayaram V

Source: This essay was originally published in the book “Think Success, Essays on Self-help” by Jayaram V under the title, “Becoming Aware of Yourself," and reproduced with publisher's permission.

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Self-realization is a difficult goal, which only a few can ever achieve. In a spiritual sense, Self-realization means going beyond your knowing and finding your essence. In the following discussion, we will not focus on self-realization, but self-awareness, or knowing the parts of you that make up your personality, and how you can shape it to realize your goals and dreams.

The advantages of knowing your conscious self are many. It helps you to know your behavior and thinking so that you can decide which aspects to improve or strengthen, and which to ignore. With the insights you gain into your behavior and motives, you can mold your life according to your goals, abilities and values. Whether you change yourself or not, the knowledge itself gives you a better control over your thoughts and actions.

In every system, there are movable and immovable parts. Together they give stability to the system. The human personality is not different. There are certain basic aspects, such as your color, gender, body type, or intelligence, which stay with you for life. You cannot change them or remove them, without hurting yourself or doing damage to your mind and body. How you feel about them, and what you do with them influence your self-esteem, your world-view and way of life.

Whether you like them or not, you have to accept them and learn to live with them for the rest of your life, with some adjustments and coping behavior. You may regard them as your inherited karma. Problems arise when you struggle to change them. Imagine a celebrity in her eighties who want to look like a sixteen year old and compete with her for attention. There are limitations which you cannot defy, and which you should respect for your own mental peace. Our happiness lies in accepting them and adapting to them.

Then you have qualities and features, which you acquire not from birth, but from your experience and perceptions, starting from an early age until the very end. It is your experiential self, the edifice, which you create on the foundation of your God-given personality. It becomes integrated into your natural self to influence your thinking and attitude for the rest of your life. Whether you will become an extrovert or an introvert, sensitive or intuitive, and trustful or distrustful, depend upon your circumstances and upon what you learn from them.

Since it is deeply embedded in both your conscious and subconscious minds, you cannot change it easily without struggle and inner resistance. However, it is not impossible to change. With right know-ledge and right techniques you can become a better person than what Nature intends you to be by changing the factors that influence your thinking and behavior and adapt yourself better to the growing demands of the world around you. You can not only change your current behavior but also acquire new behavior through learning and practice to reach your goals or ideals. In this discussion we focus upon the barriers that interfere with your perception and awareness, and how you may deal with them

Understanding your mental filters

Put ten people in a room and give them a topic to discuss. See how they differ in their thinking and approach. Everyone in that room believes that he or she is speaking the truth and what is right. They may be totally wrong about their facts and beliefs, but in their minds they are convinced that they are speaking the truth. Why is it so? Why do we have so much diversity among people about their thinking, beliefs, and attitude, while they all live in the same world? People belonging to the same family, living under the same roof, hold different opinions and beliefs and grow up to become unique individuals. How does it happen?

Modern psychology probed into these issues to find out the truths about perception and cognition. We now have some answers, though not all. It is now clear that the truths held by each individual are relative and may have partial or no connection with the universal truths that define the world. Rene Descartes declared that your self-concept arises from your thoughts. It is very true.

Your self-image is created by not only your thoughts but also how you think. In receiving and processing perceptions, your mind acts more like a tube or a sieve, rather than an open system. Understanding the way it works and regulates your thinking and behavior is in itself a great challenge which you have to overcome in your search for truths about yourself.

Your mind protects you from the external world, filtering information and letting you know what you need to know to make you feel happy and comfortable. It creates its own myths and truths to validate your beliefs and prejudices. It colors your thoughts and opinions to help you to adapt to the world and find security and acceptance. It also filters information to save you from the trouble of dealing with a lot of information that may not be necessary for your survival and problem solving.

Thus, our minds rarely serve us as reliable instruments of truth. You reality may not be what you see and experience but what you believe to be the reality. Because of your selective perceptions you see the world not as it is, but according to your values, beliefs, desires and expectations. It is a kind of self-deception, in which we rather unknowingly or habitually engage to manage and simplify our lives. Recent studies prove beyond doubt that your mind creates distortions and delusions out of your perceptions to validate and reinforce your beliefs and attitudes and your self-image.

People entertain many illusions about how they look, think and act. They tend to overestimate their good qualities and achievements, and internalize their successes, while they attribute their failures and setbacks to external causes. They also spin their memories and rewrite them, or overwrite them to create their own narratives of what happened to them or to others. Many people may also suffer a nagging feeling that they may have been overrated by others and eventually people would find out.

This is the reality. Your mind stands between you and the external world and filters the incoming information according to your convictions, whereby you do not perceive truth, but what your mind presents you as truth. It actively selects, distorts, predicts and constructs your perceptions to create the illusion of continuity, reality, immediacy, and stability. It stands between you and the world like a prism or a convex lens rather than a plain glass. Hence, you rarely see things as they are.

Therefore, you cannot totally rely upon what you think is the truth or believe that only you are privy to it. Different people perceive the world differently and draw different conclusions and they all may be right partially or relatively, but not absolutely. The perceptions of the CEO of a company may be entirely different from those of the employees and customers, and unless there is an openness by all, the truth about the company and its operations may never be known. The same also holds true about each individual. If you want to know truths about yourself, you must know how to look beyond the illusions and the commotion of your mind to see the truth as it is. It is not possible unless you transform your mind into a clean and transparent glass. The classical yoga realized this principle thousands of years ago. Hence, it suggested that a yogi should suppress the modifications of his mind to know the truth about his true and hidden identity. When the mind is silent, you become truly self-aware. You see with great clarity. You become the seer or the pure witness.

Separating your true and mythical selves

Some psychologists believe that each individual is a compound self, made up of several selves or self-images. The person that you were with last night in the party may not be the same person you will see performing a task in the garden the next day, although she looks the same and bears the same name. Whatever may be the truth, we know that the identity or the individuality of each person is a mixture of both facts and fiction.

You have in you the reality of who you are and the idea or the notion of who you should be or should have been. One reflects your real self and the other your idealized self, which is made up of your beliefs and mental constructs. Both coexist in the same consciousness, and you use them according to your needs and convenience to relate to the world.

Most of the time you present your idealized self to the world and hide significant truths about you to get along with others or present yourself in a positive light. You may reveal them to the world only rarely, or unintentionally, in weak moments when you lose control over your conscious mind. Otherwise, you manage to wear your mask in public or hide behind the games and rituals you usually play with others to avoid intimacy or closeness. If there is too much disparity between the two selves, you may suffer from feelings of guilt and shame, which in turn may impair your thinking and reasoning.

Once both the identities overlap, you may not even know which part of you is active in you at a given moment. With these two identities coexisting, it is almost impossible to know yourself truthfully and objectively, because to do it you have to depend entirely upon your mind, and use it not only as the subject and the object, but also as the presiding judge.

Imagine what happens if you are the judge, the public prosecutor, the defense lawyer, the witnesses and the audience all at a time. Even if that case is decided, it is difficult to know whether justice was delivered. To know yourself correctly, your mind has to play these roles simultaneously and sincerely, apart from acting as both a facilitator and obstructer. You must become your own mirror and reflect truth with integrity, honesty and transparency.

Understanding your behavior

How do you know whether your behavior is caused by internal factors or by external factors? How do you know whether you are short-tempered by nature or your anger is caused by circumstances? Because you failed to make an impression upon the audience during a speech, should you consider that you lack presentation or public speaking skills? Your self-esteem and self-image depend upon how you interpret your actions and reactions and feel about them. Before you want to take any corrective action, you need to know which factors are responsible for your actions or behavior. If they are internal, you must change your thinking and attitude. If they are external, either you may adapt to the circumstances or avoid them or change them.

We have a tendency to attribute our successes to our abilities and effort, and our failures to circumstances or to others. If you won a trophy or an award, you may believe that you worked for it and take pride in it, but if you failed you may think that the judges were dishonest or your mother, teacher or friend did not let you prepare well. We do it so habitually that, unless we are extremely honest with ourselves, we will not know which causes are truly responsible for our actions and behavior. It is also true that we generally tend to attribute other people's actions to internal causes and our own actions to external causes.

The true test of whether your actions arise from internal causes or external causes is to know how frequently they happen and whether they happen consistently under dissimilar circumstances. For example, if you are unhappy most of the time in different situations, irrespective of where you have been or with whom you have been, it is an indication that the source of your unhappiness is internal rather than external.

If you are angry most of the time, even with people who are good to you, it means that you have to resolve your anger issues. You can use this approach not only to know your strengths and weaknesses, but also to evaluate other people and your relationship with them. If there are people in your life who habitually lie, cheat, and deceive, irrespective of circumstances, you have to decide whether you can trust them and rely upon them or maintain a safe distance. By nature, if a person is angry and abusive, you have to consider your relationship with him and decide how far you can risk your own peace and happiness to keep it.

Knowing your personality type

You might have noticed that you come across different types of people in your life. Some are extroverted, some are introverted, some are friendly, some are hostile, and, so on. Although people are by nature unpredictable and respond differently under different circumstances, we can tell from our observation that they possess certain behavioral tendencies and tend to act repetitively and predictably in most circumstances. This creates the assumption that we can categorize them into different personality types.

Before we discuss this further, let us be clear that your individuality, self-image and personality are not the same. Your individuality is what separates you as an individual from others. Your self-image is what you hold as your identity or self-concept, and your personality is the set of attitudes, responses, and behavioral tendencies, known as personality factors, which make you predictable to other people. While individual traits and behavioral patterns are many, psychologists have reduced them into five basic categories or types, called extroversion, neuroticism, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness.

The scope of this work does not permit a detailed description of each of these personality types. Extroverts are doers and seekers, who are motivated by the prospect of a reward or gain. They socialize more. Neurotics are emotionally sensitive and prone to negative emotions. They are vulnerable to depression and anxiety, and prefer being alone. Conscientious people work for long term goals and resist short term gains for future rewards. They are organized and disciplined, and prefer leading predictable and routine lives. Agreeable people empathize and care for others. They are good listeners, friendly and pleasant to be around and relate well to others. They socialize, but unlike extroverts, they do it out of genuine interest in people, not to seek attention. Open type people are highly creative, artistic, talented and intelligent. They may be interested in spirituality and parapsychology.

The personality types are not rigid categories and not mutually exclusive. A person may have a predominant personality but also possess traits of other types also. For example, a conscientious person may also respond to the prospect of a reward, but she may not as readily respond as an extrovert may.

An agreeable person may also experience fear and depression, but not as frequently or as intensely as a neurotic type. It is also possible that due to circumstances a person will transition from one personality type to another. Awareness of the personality types may help you to determine your predominant behavioral tendencies and use the knowledge either to set your goals or to choose your profession or work for your improvement.

Understanding your rationality

Although we have the reasoning power to think rationally and it is supposed to help us to deal with our problems, we do not always use it or use it correctly to make decisions, or solve our problems. Just as our perceptions are filtered by our minds, our thinking and judgment are also clouded by logical fallacies, irrational thinking, and defensive attitude. They are responsible for our perceptual and cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs. In his book, Feeling Good: the new mood therapy, the author, Dr. David Burns, identified 12 cognitive distortions to explain how people view the world through them and experience recurring pessimism and negative view of the world. They are explained below.

1. The All-or-nothing thinking: You see the world strictly as black or white. For example, if you are not with us, you are against us.

2. Overgeneralization: You over generalize a person or a situation based upon a single negative event or trait. If your boss does not approve your proposal means your career is doomed forever.

3. Mental filter: You let one small negative incident or detail cloud your judgment of the whole experience. After giving a beautiful presentation and being appreciated by all the participants, you begin to worry about the one person who sat in the corner and kept looking at you questioningly without saying anything.

4. Disqualifying positive information: You undermine positive information by finding reasons. Your colleagues like you because you entertain them generously.

5. Jumping to conclusions: Without proper evidence you make quick conclusions. Your friend must be having an affair because you saw her twice in the same restaurant having lunch with a person.

6. Mind reading: You make assumptions about other people's feelings and emotions or attribute motives without any evidence.

7. Predicting future outcomes: You anticipate negative outcomes and act as if it is a certainty.

8. Catastrophizing or minimizing: You either greatly exaggerate the severity of negative events or severely minimize the importance of positive events.

9. Emotional Reasoning: You reason that because you are emotionally feeling it must be true.

10. Shoulding: Due to guilt or distrust in yourself you believe that you must or should force yourself to perform certain actions because otherwise, you cannot be motivated to perform them.

11. Labeling things: You extend a negative quality or behavior to a person's entire character. Your friend is an idiot. Your colleague is a racist.

12. Personalizing experience: You assume that you are personally responsible for the negative behavior of someone, even if it has nothing to do with it. You boss is looking upset because he may be mad at you.

Thus, we can see that our rationality does not necessarily help us to see the reality, deal with our negative emotions or solve our problems. Instead, we may use it to perpetuate our negativity, depression and delusion. By recognizing and evaluating our perceptions and understanding, and analyzing our thinking and reasoning, we can correct, at least partially, our negative and erroneous behavior.

Become aware of your physical self

Your body is your physical and tangible self. It is the bridge between you and the world. In Hinduism, it is called the food body because it is made up of the food you eat. Since it is your visible self, people know you and recognize you by it. Since you also communicate with the world through it, it plays a significant role in your relationship with it.

There are many aspects about your body, which you cannot change, such as your height, color and looks. Sometimes it can create problems and influence your self-esteem, health choices and relationships. Your body is a natural machine. Since it is subject to the laws of Nature and vulnerable to threats, it needs both your support and your protection. /p>

Your body is your moving vehicle, the seat of your existence and your resting place. You live in it and depend upon it. If it suffers, you will suffer too. You can take care of it by respecting its limitations, responding to its messages and warnings, following preventive measures, and nursing it well during sickness and disease. The following factors contribute to health and happiness.

1. Good habits and healthy lifestyle choices protect your body from wear and tear and disease.

2. As you grow older, your body needs more care and attention.

3. Your body has a threshold limit in tolerating and responding to pain and physical abuse.

4. Knowing the illusions you may have about your appearance helps you to come to grips with reality.

5. Seeing yourself clearly

We have seen that your mind is both a facilitator and an obstacle to self-awareness. Unless you suppress the mental noise, and transcend the logical fallacies, perceptual errors, cognitive distortions, and defensive mechanisms, you will not be able to see yourself clearly and understand your behavior. One of the effective methods taught in eastern spirituality to develop mental clarity is to silence your mind through meditation and concentration and become a passive but conscious observer of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. As you become your own witness, cultivating detachment and dispassion, you can perceive the reality of the world around you and inside you, without distortions and delusions.

To maintain objectivity, you have to observe yourself as if you are observing another person. If you persist in your practice, at some stage, your mind suddenly opens up and you develop an insight into your thinking and behavior. You become aware of your irrational beliefs and undesirable behavior, and see yourself clearly and mindfully without the usual mental distortions. It leads to self-awareness and sensitivity towards yourself and others.

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