Self – awareness

“He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” 
Lao Tzu “

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”                               Aristotle

 “Every human has four endowments – self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate human freedom… The power to choose, to respond, to change.                                                        Stephen Covey


When I discovered the article, in the early nineties, “Emotional Intelligence,” by Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer (1990) it provided me with a great boost to my research as it supported my conclusion that there were key skills we needed to learn to develop our thinking and emotions. Their definition of emotional intelligence as, “the subset of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions” reflected so closely the skill development I had identified.

Reading ‘Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.’ by Daniel Goleman in the mid-nineties, I recall becoming excited in finding a book that seemed to offer so much support for my research and conclusions, I’ve given many copies to colleagues and referred to it hundreds of times in my sessions. Chapter 4 is entitled, “Know Thyself”, and it gives a good explanation of self-awareness, referring greatly to Mayer and Salovey.

“I prefer the term self-awareness, in the sense of an ongoing attention to one’s internal states. In this self-reflexive awareness mind observes and investigates experience itself, including the emotions.”    (page 46)

I was particularly pleased, as a scientist, to see written down, the criteria or characteristics of a ‘Self-aware person’ that could contribute to the evaluation and measurement the skill of self-awareness.

“Mayer finds that people tend to fall into distinctive styles for attending to dealing with their emotions.   Self-aware Aware of their moods as they are having them, these people understandably have some sophistication about their emotional lives. Their clarity about emotions may undergird other personality traits: they are autonomous and sure of their own boundaries, are in good psychological health, and tend to have a positive outlook on life. When they get into a bad mood, they don’t ruminate and obsess about it, and are able to get out of it sooner. In short, their mindfulness helps them manage their emotions”    (page 48)

             When I began trying to help children as a teacher I began trying to understand how they thought and felt, my techniques was the listen to them, reflect on what they said (or did) and ask them questions. I soon realised that how many (most) thought and felt about themselves was central to their difficulties. In the eighties I discovered the term ‘self-esteem’ which helped me understand some of the psychology and research in this area. For many years I used the phrase ‘low self-esteem’ to try to explain to children and adults their difficulties (see section on ‘Vulnerable Young People’). However, by the end of the nineties the research internationally and from myself helped me to appreciate that ‘self –esteem’ (how we estimate ourselves) was mainly due to our development of the 8 skills, in particular self-awareness, self-management and motivation.


The mirror mark test

We are not born with self-awareness, it is a skill that researchers have demonstrated begins to emerge at around one year of age and becomes much more developed by around 18 months of age, gradually, and hopefully, it is continually developed throughout life.

Lewis and Brooks-Gun (1979) conducted some interesting research on how self-awareness develops, putting a red dot on a toddler’s nose and then held the child up to a mirror. Children who recognize themselves in the mirror will reach for their own noses rather than the reflection in the mirror, indicating that they have at least some self-awareness. They found that almost no children aged under one year would reach for their own nose rather than the reflection in the mirror. About a quarter aged between 15 and 18 months reached for their own noses, while about 70 percent of those between 21 and 24 months did so. Lewis and Brooks-Gun study only indicates an infant’s visual self-awareness; children might actually possess other forms of self-awareness even at this young age.

Self-awareness is thought to develop in the frontal lobe, anterior cingulate and the mirror mark test indicates that self-awareness begins to emerge in children around the age of 18 months, an age that coincides with the rapid growth of spindle cells in the anterior cingulate and neuroscientists have now shown using brain imaging that this region becomes activated in adults who are self-aware.


“Know Thyself”

            Self-awareness can be defined as ‘the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals’, basically your understanding about who you are and how you relate to the world. The importance of this skill cannot emphasised enough.

‘Know Thyself’ was written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi,4th century BC, and it is thought to have been a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitude and applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are. “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Is a famous quote from Aristotle, whilst “The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge,” is attributed to Plato, reiterating, his teacher, Socrates.

This ‘deep introspection’ and reflection is at the heart of the skill of self-awareness, and central to the great philosophers for centuries.


The Road to Damascus & Scrooge

When I was a child in Sunday school, I heard the story in the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles) about Paul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus and frequently since then I’ve heard many people use the phrase “Damascus Road experience” to describe a conversion which is dramatic and startling. In essence Paul, who went by the name of Saul at that time, was on his way to Damascus with a letter from the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem giving him authority to arrest any who followed Christ, when a bright light shone on him and a voice (Jesus) convinced him to completely change his view and become a follower.

Quick or Sudden changes (developments) in self-awareness are often quoted in various religious and non-religious texts and in recent years numerous films have provided storylines in which the change in self-awareness has been the central storyline.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first published in December 1843  tells the story of a bitter old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge  and his transformation into a gentler, kindlier man after visitations by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. Basically, the ghosts provide Scrooge opportunities to undergo ‘deep introspection and reflection’ on his life causing his awareness of himself to change dramatically.

In the film, “It’s A Wonderful Life”, the angel, Clarence, helps George Bailey to undergo a similar quick, dramatic change in his self-awareness, causing him to become aware of his importance to many people, preventing his suicide.

The Oscar-winning film (1997), “Good Will Hunting”, the main character, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), undergoes his dramatic development in self-awareness with the assistance of a therapist (Robin Williams), his girlfriend (Minnie Driver) and best friend (Ben Affleck).

The techniques used to develop their self-awareness in these stories, to cause their transformation, are to provide opportunities to closely study their thoughts, feelings and actions. This ‘deep introspection and reflection’ has probably not occurred for these characters previously in these stories, which is likely to be true for many (most) people, particularly in the fast paced modern world. Possibly because of the poor development in their self-awareness of so many people in the fast-paced modern world there has been a lot of research and books in recent years.

 Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP)
            NLP was created in n the 1970s, by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, claiming a connection between the neurological processes (“neuro”), language (“linguistic”) and behavioural patterns learned through experience (“programming”) and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life. The definition of NLP in the Oxford English Dictionary is:

“a model of interpersonal communication chiefly concerned with the relationship between successful patterns of behaviour and the subjective experiences (esp. patterns of thought) underlying them” and “a system of alternative therapy based on this which seeks to educate people in self-awareness and effective communication, and to change their patterns of mental and emotional behaviour.”

The last line of this definition possibly provides an explanation as to why NLP has become so popular internally since its creation, in that it provides some techniques for developing self-awareness.

 Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Aaron T Beck is credited with developing cognitive therapy in the early 1960s as a psychiatrist at the University of Pennsylvania.  He designed and performed experiments to test psychoanalytic concepts of depression and he found that they experienced streams of negative ‘automatic’ thoughts that seemed to pop up spontaneously. He discovered that their content fell into three categories: negative ideas about themselves, the world, and the future. He began helping patients identify and evaluate these thoughts and found that by doing so, patients were able to think more realistically, which led them to feel better emotionally and behave more functionally.

Beck explained the key ideas in CBT, that different disorders were associated with different types of distorted thinking which has a negative effect on our behaviour. He found that successful interventions will educate a person to understand and become aware of their distorted thinking, and how to challenge its effects. He discovered that frequent negative automatic thoughts reveal a person’s core beliefs and that core beliefs are formed over lifelong experiences, so we “feel” these beliefs are true.

CBT is based on the idea that problems aren’t caused by situations themselves, but by how we interpret them in our thoughts, our self-awareness. The following are common examples of poor self-awareness thinking.

  • Emotional reasoning – e.g. I feel guilty so I must be guilty
  • Jumping to conclusions – e.g. if I go into work when I’m feeling low, I’ll only feel worse
  • All-or-nothing thinking – e.g. if I’ve not done it perfectly, then it’s absolutely useless
  • Mental filtering – e.g. noticing my failures more than my successes
  • Over generalising – e.g. nothing ever goes well in my life
  • Labelling – e.g. I’m a loser


CBT aims to break negative vicious cycles by identifying unhelpful ways of reacting that creep into our thinking and tries to replace them with more useful or realistic ones. It has been shown to have effectiveness and a role in the treatment plans for anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, chronic pain, personality disorders, bipolar disorder, psychosis, schizophrenia, substance misuse disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brain scan studies have shown that the patients have overactivity in the limbic system (includes the amygdala) a region that processes emotion, and the hippocampus, a region involved in reliving traumatic memories which return to normal after a course of CBT in people with phobias. Other neuroscience studies have found that CBT can also change the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking, making real, physical changes to both our “emotional brain” and our “logical brain” (thoughts).

The therapy, coaching, counselling etc. used in CBT has been applied extensively in the last few years, using computers, internet and self-help books. It has been very useful in helping to provide techniques to help people identify their strengths and weaknesses, know themselves better, label their feelings, accepts what they are feeling but change their response to them.

Daniel Kahneman

Some particularly important research in understanding our thinking and self-awareness has been that of the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences winner, Daniel Kahneman. He won this award for his work on the pyschology of judgment and decision-making, and I explain his discoveries further in the section on the skill of cognition. His excellent book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” published in 2011 provides a lot of very significant evidence to illustrate our dichotomy between two modes of thought:

  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious

It provides decades of research to demonstrate that human judgment is frequently flawed and often very irrational, basically our self-awareness is poorly developed. We tend to believe that we are in control of our minds, but we only control system 2. System 2 represents the conscious self that makes choices and decides what to do. System 1 represents the instinctual mental events that allow us to make quick decisions with little mental energy.

We need System 1 to survive but it often causes us to make systematic errors in specific situations.   

          Another important conclusion (relating to our cognition) from research expressed in the book is that our logical, rational system 1 thinking often struggles to think statistically, analysing numerical data accurately and being easily influenced by numerical information, so make flawed decisions.

            However, probably most importantly in relation to our self-awareness is that we probably think of ourselves and of other people in terms of two selves.

  • Our experiencing self,who lives in the present and knows the present, is capable of re-living the past, but basically it has only the present. It’s the experiencing self that responds when the doctor asks, “Does it hurt now when I touch you here?” 
  • Our remembering self is the one that keeps score,and maintains the story of our life, and it’s the one that the doctor approaches in asking the question, “How have you been feeling lately?” or “How was your trip to Albania?” or something like that.

             The experiencing self and the remembering self often get confused between them. The remembering self is actually the one that makes decisions and Daniel Kahneman uses this example to explain it. If you have a patient who has had, two colonoscopies with two different surgeons and is deciding which of them to choose, then the one that is chosen is the one that has the memory that is less bad and the experiencing self has no voice in this choice.

We actually don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. Even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences, we think of our future as anticipated memories. Basically there is ‘a tyranny of the remembering self’, and the remembering self ‘drags the experiencing self’  through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.

This research illustrates that unless our self-awareness is very well developed we are likely to make a lot of poor decisions.

Daniel Siegel – Mindsight

            In 2004 I bought and read “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Daniel Seigel and Mary Hartzell which I refer to in detail in the section on Parenting, and it introduced me to the work of Dan Seigel. I discovered that he is a supporter of ‘The science of learning and ‘Success Feelosphy’ though he does not know because he is a pioneer in the field called interpersonal neurobiology (The Developing Mind, 1999) which seeks the similar patterns that arise from separate approaches to knowledge involving all branches of science and other ways of knowing (eg. philosophy) to come together and find the common principles from within their often disparate approaches to understanding human experience. Sciences contributing to this exciting field include the following:

Anthropology. Biology (developmental, evolution, genetics, zoology), Cognitive Science, Computer Science, Developmental Psychopathology, Linguistics, Neuroscience, Mathematics, Mental Health, Physics, Psychiatry, Psychology (all branches), Sociology, Systems Thinking.

Since Interpersonal neurobiology attempts to apply research from all these areas to discover the key components necessary for good health and well-being, it clearly overlaps greatly with my own approach and mission. I was delighted with Daniel Seigel’s book ‘Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation’ that I bought in 2011 as it provided a lot of useful research and practical ideas about Mindsight. The mindsight approach sees integration as the essential mechanism of health and well-being.

“Mindsight is a kind of focused attention that allows us to see the internal workings of our own minds. It helps us to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them, enables us to get ourselves off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we all have a tendency to get trapped in…The focusing skills that are part of mindsight make it possible to see what is inside, to accept it, and in the accepting to let it go, and, finally, to transform it.” (page xi).

In essence, the mindsight approach attempts to apply systems thinking to our health and well-being, explaining that the prefrontal cortex as being key to the development of Mindsight: bodily regulation, attuned communication, emotional balance, response flexibility, fear modulation, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition, which he believes make emotional well-being.


The major principle of Mindsight is focused attention or reflection with ‘mindfulness training activities’ being strongly advocated. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, mindfulness may refer to “a state of being aware”, mindfulness is an essential element of Buddhist practice. In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a cognitive behavioral therapy program, at the University of Massachusetts to treat the chronically ill and it is now widely used by healthy and unhealthy people with similar programs being widely applied in schools, prisons, hospitals etc. Mindfulness is this instance is the moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” – attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong. Mindfulness focuses the human brain on what is being sensed at each moment, instead of on its normal obsession on the past or on the future.

In recent years, Mindfulness and similar movements have become widespread, possibly in response to growth in mental health disorders and realisation that self-aware people tend to act consciously rather than react passively, to be in good psychological health and to have a positive outlook on life.

A number of researches have shown self-awareness as a crucial trait of successful business leaders. In a study undertaken by Green Peak Partners and Cornell University examining 72 executives at public and private companies with revenues from $50 million to $5 billion, it was found that “a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of overall success”. Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert found that almost half of the time we operate on ‘automatic pilot’, unconscious of what we are doing or how we feel, as our mind wanders to somewhere else other than here and now.

Measuring Self-awareness

For a number of years I supported a ‘Living Sober’ group when I was invited to provide sessions for them around the 8 skills. This group of recovering alcoholics meet regularly to support each other and they found these sessions invaluable since it provided an understanding of why they became addicts and what was needed to overcome this difficulty. What was particularly pertinent to them was the skill of self-awareness, since the first of the famous “Twelve Steps” as published by Alcoholics Anonymous is

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

This is clearly a key development in self-awareness. A key part of their approach was to have a ‘sponsor’, someone who could support them on a one-to-one basis, basically a mentor, so the 8 skills provided a great deal of useful information and approaches, the section on Alcohol and Binge Drinking provides more detail on this.

Trying to regularly measure the 8 skills is essential and is central to development of our self-awareness. The previous section on the skill of cognition illustrates how humans commonly have flaws in making decisions and is usually a big factor in our self-awareness. However, if measuring the 8 skills becomes central to our self-assessment it will clearly increase our chances of achieving a healthy, happy and successful life.



1985   Six Thinking Hats                                                                          Edward De Bono

1990   Emotional Intelligence (article in Imagination, Cognition, and        Personality)                                                          Peter Salovey and John Mayer

1995 Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ      Daniel Goleman

2012 Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation       Daniel Siegel

2012 Thinking, Fast and Slow                                                             Daniel Kahneman