Building conscious awareness is foundational to healing. We cannot heal if we do not know what is going on inside our minds and inside our bodies. When we become stuck, we must lift up the hood to our inner selves. We must shine a spotlight on what is going on there.
Becoming stuck in unhealthy thoughts and behavioral patterns is common. We become stuck when there are parts inside us that just don’t work well together. We feel this in our negative emotions like shame, guilt, anger, resentment, etc. We also feel stuck in our bodies with sensations like headaches, fatigue, chest tightness, trouble breathing, muscle soreness, chronic pain, etc. To heal, we must rejoin the disconnected parts inside of us. To do that, we must first become aware of what is going on.
In this article, we will learn how to become more self-aware. We will explore the different components of our conscious and subconscious selves. We will begin to separate out concepts like witnessing, feeling, thinking, values, behavioral patterns, needs and suffering, discomfort vs. pain, emotional reactivity, boundaries vs. expectations, stories, and history. We will explore blind spots that become barriers to raising self-awareness. We will learn how to process these concepts in different parts of our mind and in our bodies.
Improving self-awareness goes by many names such as conscious practice, building consciousness, mindfulness, self-reflection, being present, being genuine, self-listening, witnessing, and emotional intelligence. While many of these terms are similar, there are some differences.
Here we will focus on listening to one’s inner self. We are shining a spotlight inward. Shining a spotlight inward is the first step to moving from a helplessness mindset to empowerment. Listening to oneself is the complementary practice to listening to others. Both are critical to healing. To explore listening to others, see my article Active Listening.
This Article Contains:
Bearing witness: the first step to healing any relationship
The first step we must take to healing any relationship is to observe what is happening. We must bear witness to what is going on for us. We are not worried about what may happen or what has happened. Put aside what the other person is thinking, feeling, or saying. We first want to know what is happening to us right now.
Most people find this practice of conscious awareness challenging. It takes concentration and effort. It can be uncomfortable or even downright painful. We risk the possibility of unearthing difficult, traumatic, or explosive emotions. We have to prepare ourselves for this possibility.
In the past, we may have thought that we were fully aware of what was going on for us. I know that I’ve fooled myself before into believing that I was already “self-aware” when, in fact, I was only seeing the surface. My survival instincts kept me from looking under the hood. They kept me from seeing the many layers of my inner self. And yet, when we become stuck in the same old patterns, we know that we’re missing something. Confusion presents an opportunity for learning and growth. Identifying that we are stuck is simply the realization that we’re still at the surface. We have to dive deeper.
Bearing witness is a skill that requires practice. The first step is to be intentional. We are going to shine a spotlight inward. We are not going to worry about someone else right now. All our other stressors and worries must be set aside. We are going to focus on ourselves. The spotlight is on us. It is time to care about us right now.
This practice of intentional self-care is foundational. We cannot help someone else if we do not have a solid foundation to stand on. When flying an airplane in crisis, the first thing we do is to put our own oxygen masks on. The same is true when pulling someone out of quicksand. We need something solid to stand on. Bearing witness to ourselves, in the present moment, is that foundation. We need to know where we are at right now before we can begin to help others. With practice, it may only take a moment to do, but it does take practice.
After deciding to care about ourselves, the next step is to separate from ourselves. This is a type of intentional dissociation. We must step outside of ourselves. We do this to create calm. We cannot properly observe something while being emotionally reactive. We need to become the calm, curious scientist who is determined to study ourselves. We need to be a neutral, nonjudgmental observer.
Intentional dissociation is different from the unintentional dissociation that people experience in trauma. In unintentional dissociation, people subconsciously become paralyzed to conserve energy and spare themselves from intense pain. This is not something that people do voluntarily. They do this automatically as a survival mechanism. Here they are separating away from the pain. They do this to lower the pain intensity, which has become overwhelming.
In intentional dissociation, we are being intentional. We are purposefully separating to create calm. We can voluntarily reconnect at any time. There may be parts of us that are highly emotional or overwhelming. We are separating from those parts and actively looking back upon them. We are not doing this out of fear. We are not paralyzed. We are not running away from pain. Instead, we are trying to understand what’s going on. We cannot understand something that we cannot see. We must learn how to listen to our injured parts. We must see our wounds and observe our suffering.
Being self-aware is an ongoing, daily practice. This will take time. We cannot master this in a day. There are many different techniques designed to master this practice including mindfulness meditation, yoga, counseling, and Internal Family Systems therapy. We will explore some simple home exercises at the end of this article.
The importance of intentional witnessing cannot be understated. I once was able to calm and resolve suicidal thoughts within a few minutes simply by bearing conscious witness to them. I could have treated them as intrusive, unwanted thoughts and let them spiral out of control into fear. Instead, I witnessed the thoughts. I approached them with curiosity and compassion. I heard what they wanted to tell me. I understood there was purpose in those thoughts, despite how intense that may have been. There is purpose in all of our feelings and thoughts. By understanding this, they eventually settled down. As I worked towards calm, I was able to take action. I used the energy of those thoughts towards a productive purpose.
This was not easy for me to do at the time. I don’t offer this story to be dismissive of other people’s intrusive thoughts. Some people live with intrusive thoughts every day. The causes of intrusive thoughts can be incredibly complex and difficult to unwind. The longer they’ve been going on and the greater the intensity, the harder it is to settle them down. And yet, understanding those thoughts is possible. Bearing witness is always the first step.
Observing our autopilot
Once we begin this process of conscious witnessing, the first thing we will notice is that we spend 95% of our existence in autopilot. In autopilot, our subconscious mind is doing the work for us. It is like we are flying in a spaceship. Our conscious Self–the captain of the ship–isn’t doing much. Most of the time, the captain is dozing or daydreaming. The ship is flying itself.
Anytime we are acting out familiar routines, we are in autopilot. We might be driving, listening to music, or performing a job that doesn’t require much conscious thought. If it is a habitual behavior, this is our autopilot.
The more habitual the task, the less conscious we are. For instance, often times when I am driving, I might suddenly “wake up” and realize that the past 20 minutes just disappeared. I can’t remember any of it. My conscious self was completely asleep.
Even when we are doing something that requires a lot of thought, our autopilot is still doing the majority of the work. We might be playing a sport. How much of that effort is instinctual as opposed to being thought out step-by-step? Or we might be trying to solve a complex puzzle. Our autopilot is constantly suggesting ideas and solutions. It draws these ideas and solutions from learned experience having previously solved similar puzzles. Our consciousness, if activated, is then choosing from among the suggestions given.
When we argue with others, most of what is said is spoken by our autopilot. The more emotional we are, the more our autopilot is in control. Think back to the last argument you had. How much of what was spoken was a deliberate choice? How much was thoughtful? Then ask yourself how much just rolled off the tongue, like word vomit or like a volcano exploding? Our consciousness may have been watching the words come out, but it was more like watching a movie of other people arguing rather than exercising conscious choice.
When we get stuck in negative patterns of thought, our autopilot has become stuck. Our autopilot has become like a glitchy computer that is now stuck on a continuous loop. To get unstuck, the first thing we have to do is bear witness. As we begin to bear witness, we have to recognize we are on autopilot. How much of what we are doing feels familiar? How much of it is an old routine? Which of our behaviors have we done before? This is our autopilot in action.
The next step is to wake up” our consciousness. This isn’t much different from when I woke up while driving. This is an intentional practice of stepping outside our habits and routines. This is not easy. Learning how to effectively interact with our autopilot is the subject of another article: How to influence your autopilot.
Our autopilot is part of us, but it is not something we have control over. It is our subconscious self. In the moment, it is like the weather. It does what it wants to do. It is free to act as it desires, despite whatever our conscious self would want it to do. It believes it is acting in our best interest, even if it is doing something we don’t want it to do. Over time, we can influence our autopilot. We can learn new habits and routines, which will become our autopilot. This takes time and practice.
Our autopilot is critical to functioning as a human. Managing our bodies and our minds is incredibly difficult. The ship requires a crew. But it also needs a captain–our conscious selves. Most of the time, the ship moves along just fine. But problems inevitably occur. To manage those problems, ultimately, the captain needs to learn the jobs of the rest of the crew. The captain can never do all of their jobs and certainly can’t do them all at once. But to figure out what’s getting us stuck, the captain needs to know those jobs. This means that our consciousness needs to become aware of the many different tasks done by our autopilot. The more tasks we learn, the more we move from a state of helplessness to empowerment. When a crewmate is struggling, the captain can offer support. When we become stuck, our awareness will know precisely where to look to find the source of the issue.
We will spend the rest of the article shining a spotlight on the different moving parts of our autopilot. We will examine our Identity, thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, behaviors, stories, histories, traumas, and blind spots. We will demonstrate that there are aspects of each of these components that can be manually controlled by our captain–our consciousness. There are also aspects that are outside of our immediate, direct control and are the sole prevue of the autopilot, our subconscious. We will learn how to distinguish what is in our direct control and what isn’t. This distinction can move us from helplessness to empowerment.
Through the process of observation (bearing witness), we are stepping outside ourselves. We are creating a space of separation from other aspects of our minds and bodies. We then come to exist in this separate space. We strive for emotional neutrality within this space. We want to be objective observers. To reduce bias, we must have calm. We must avoid seeing only what we want to see, and thereby cherry-picking those aspects of ourselves that are most palatable. Our goal is to see as much as we can objectively. We want to avoid being pulled into our narrative. Instead, we stand outside the narrative. We are no longer a character in our stories. We are no longer the narrator. We are the reader.
Step 1. Recognize thoughts and feelings
Thoughts and feelings are the basic messages of our subconscious. The first part of becoming self-aware is to hear our thoughts and feelings clearly. We must recognize them. From there, we can break them down and understand them.
Thoughts and feelings carry an important purpose. We may not understand that purpose until we’ve gotten to the deeper layers of self-awareness. Here are a few basic tips to hearing them:
- Separate your Self from your thoughts and feelings. Remember always, “You are not your thoughts and feelings.”
- Label your feelings. If needed, write them down to see them clearly. Try to untangle them into distinct feelings. Often there are many jumbled together.
- Lay out all of your thoughts. If needed, write them down to see them clearly.
- Honor your thoughts and feelings no matter what they are.
- Learn not to be overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings. Work on maintaining separation of the rest of your Self from difficult thoughts and feelings. Pause to rest, if needed.
- Pay special attention to intrusive thoughts and feelings like shame, guilt, resentment, suicidality, cynicism, etc. These thoughts and feelings are complex. They require considerable unpacking before they can be understood. They are often rooted in deeper layers of the subconscious that will require exploration.
- Some thoughts and feelings contain hidden messages, especially those mentioned in step 7. These hidden messages can be challenging to discover. It may take a lot of reframing and self-discovery to decipher them.
- Remember that thoughts are ideas and conclusions suggested by your subconscious. Keep in mind that thoughts are hypotheses to be tested. Thoughts are not automatic conclusions needing to be adopted by your whole Self.
- Persistent negative thought patterns like addictive cravings, self-criticism, self-loathing, desires to hurt others, and cynical thoughts come from deeper layers of the subconscious. You can discover the roots of these difficult thought patterns through Internal Family Systems work. See We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.
For a more detailed look at finding the purpose of feelings and thoughts, please read Feelings have Purpose.
Our thoughts and feelings will guide us through the rest of self-awareness. Some may be easy to understand and trace to their origins. Others will be far more challenging. We will take our time along this journey. Avoid getting sidetracked and stuck by these difficult thoughts and feelings. Many of them are not what they seem. This includes addictive cravings, self-criticism, self-loathing, desires to hurt others, and cynical thoughts. We can reframe these later to discover their hidden messages.
Step 2. Recognize feelings in our bodies
We cannot heal unless we reconnect the mind, body and soul. Reconnecting to our bodies is the next step. Despite being critical, this is an often-overlooked step when it comes to self-awareness. Our feelings are tethered to a place in our bodies. Feelings come from some of the more primitive areas of our brain and brainstem. These areas of our brain and brainstem are also tied to places within our bodies. Our bodies can act as a bridge between those feelings and the rest of our Self.
These bridges are different for each person. Some people feel joy as a tingling in the toes or in the spine. I personally feel my anxiety and stress as a tightness in my chest. I’ve had patients experience their own feelings in many different ways. I’ve seen them show up as pain, warmth, burning, squeezing, bladder fullness, intestinal irritability, nausea, heartburn, difficulty breathing, muscle twitching or cramping, joint pain, a rash (hives), dizziness, headache, visual phenomena, and numbness. I’ve even had patients experience their emotions as rhythmic body movements that mimic a seizure. Or I’ve seen patient’s where large parts of their bodies will go weak and numb, mimicking a stroke.
Start by recognizing feelings in your body. Where are your feelings located? When you feel anxious or stressed, where do you feel this in your body? How does this show up?
There is a powerful connection between our minds and our bodies. Western culture has the bad habit of seeing the mind and the body as separate entities. Western medicine often treats illness as being the domain of either the body or the mind, not both. We segregate treatments into one domain or the other. Even western hospitals are divided into separate medical and psychiatric wards, a practice that is detrimental to healing. This practice probably comes from a type of fear and ignorance of how the mind works to interact with our bodies.
Thankfully, we are starting to break this misconception and see that most medical issues of significance cross over into both domains. We realize that traumas to our bodies become amplified by our minds. When we fail to heal the mind, the physical trauma and disability persists. We are held back. The body cannot heal itself.
To heal, we must reconnect the body to the mind. The mind-body connection helps explain why rhythmic physical movement and breathing exercises can bring calm in a time of emotional reactivity. It also explains why we can interrupt difficult emotions with touch, massage, a warm bath, or a cold shower.
Step 3. Setting boundaries, distinguishing pain and discomfort, finding a window of tolerance
The next step is to identify and separate two different types of uncomfortable feelings: pain and discomfort. Separating these two feelings is critical to establish a window of tolerance. Healing occurs inside that window. We cannot heal if we stay in a place of comfort. Neither can we heal if we are continuously inflicting new traumas, which compounds our injury.
Pain is the feeling we have when someone violates a personal boundary. Pain can be nontraumatic, such as when someone accidentally hurts us. For instance, a person could accidentally bump into us. Or we could get into a car accident and experience an injury. Alternatively, pain can be traumatic. When an injury is traumatic, there is an emotional component to the injury that doesn’t heal automatically via our autopilot. If someone hurts us by intentionally violating a personal boundary, this injury is traumatic. We will have an emotional reaction.
Pain is an indication of harm. To understand pain, we must become aware of the boundary that is being violated. We must see the boundary for what it is. Boundaries are invisible barriers that keep us from harm. Boundaries prevent injury. We can have physical boundaries, like our skin and the personal space around us. We can have psychological boundaries, like the right to be free of threat or insult. When someone violates a psychological boundary, this can hurt just as much as if someone injures us physically.
When we experience pain, we need to locate the boundary. Boundaries are different for each person. They change over time. They can be flexible or rigid. For instance, a person can have a boundary that they do not work after 4:30PM. This boundary exists to maintain proper work-life balance. As the person’s values change, that boundary may change.
Boundaries define our personal space. For instance, I might say that I will not allow others to hit me or curse at me. Boundaries prevent others from doing something to us. Boundaries deter actions that would otherwise be harmful. We may choose to invite other people inside our boundaries, but we maintain the right to show them the door should we change our minds.
When it comes to boundaries, it is important to distinguish discomfort from pain. Pain is a violation of a boundary. Discomfort is the stretching of that boundary that doesn’t result in any direct violation. Healthy boundaries balance strength and flexibility. We do not want a boundary to be rigid. A rigid boundary is more like to break than a flexible one. Of course, a boundary can become too flexible so that it loses strength and also breaks.
Attunement is the practice of discovering our window of tolerance. How far can we push our boundaries before we cause pain? How much discomfort can we bear? We develop attunement by stretching our boundaries. How much can they stretch before they start to tear? Attunement also involves working our bodies and minds. How much work can we perform before we cause injury?
When we are injured, we instinctively tighten up. This is done to protect ourselves from repeated injury. In the short term, it is advantageous as it makes the boundary stronger. In the long term, this instinctive tightening is detrimental. Instinctively, we work our boundaries less. As a result, our boundaries atrophy. They become weak and brittle.
Healing requires that we stretch an otherwise brittle boundary. Consider an injured muscle that tightens up. We have to strengthen and stretch the muscle to restore it back to health. We have to convince it that it is now safe to relax again. The same is true for psychological trauma. To heal, a person needs to go back and reexperience enough of their traumatic memories until they fully understand and reintegrate with the trauma experience. This process is accomplished slowly. There may be intense psychological discomfort in resurfacing old memories. Go too fast and we might tear a brittle boundary and cause additional harm and injury.
It doesn’t matter if we’re healing a physical, psychological, or spiritual injury. To heal, we must be able to tell the difference between discomfort and pain. We must accept discomfort while also working to avoid pain. Developing attunement helps us know the difference. Time and hard work are needed. Through this rhythmic practice of stretching our boundaries and strengthening them, we become more attuned to what our bodies can tolerate.
Step 4. Recognize needs and suffering
Humans have many different needs. We have the need to feel safe. We have needs for belonging. We need connection to the environment. We have physiological needs for nourishment and shelter.
Many of our needs cannot be met by remaining inside our boundaries. To meet them, we need to go out into the world. We must go into common spaces. Unlike personal spaces, common spaces are shared with others. No one person owns them.
When we experience a negative emotion, this can be the result of harm being done to us by the violation of a boundary. Or negative emotions can come from suffering. Suffering occurs as the result of a chronic, unmet need.
We cannot possibly meet all of our needs at all times. So, there is a rhythmic process of meeting a few needs at one time, then changing our attention to focus on other needs. We fill each bucket of need. When we turn our attention elsewhere, that bucket gradually empties before it is refilled again.
When a need goes unmet for a long time, the natural craving we have transforms into suffering. Different people experience suffering in different ways. Suffering can manifest in a person’s mood as irritability, emotional lability, or as a type of depression. Suffering can manifest somatically, meaning that it shows up in our bodies as a physical symptom like fatigue or headaches. Often people will distract themselves from suffering as a coping mechanism. The person may experience cravings for other substitutes. For instance, they might replace their true needs with a craving for alcohol. With enough time, these alcohol cravings may turn into addiction. To stop drinking, this person cannot just focus on quitting alcohol. Nonholistic alcohol treatment is likely to fail. Instead, the person must find their unmet needs. They must see where they are suffering. They must find a healthier way to meet their needs and alleviate suffering. Only after doing this does escaping an alcohol addiction become possible.
Step 5. Differentiating expectations from boundaries
To get our needs met, we set up expectations for ourselves and others. Expectations are often confused with boundaries. Boundaries are barriers that we create for ourselves to protect our personal spaces. We own our boundaries and personal spaces. Others cannot decline to respect them. We alone carry the burden of enforcing these boundaries.
Expectations are burdens placed on others in shared spaces. We expect others to do something for us. Unlike boundaries, expectations are negotiable. Other people have every right to decline an expectation that we might place upon them.
All relationships require participants to separate out shared and personal spaces. Within shared spaces, people in relationships commit to working together to help meet each other’s needs. These shared commitments need to be fairly communicated and negotiated. People need to all agree. Then they hold each other accountable for living up to their commitments.
Once we understand the difference between boundaries and expectations, we can start to see the difference between pain (harm) and suffering (unmet needs). We reduce pain when we work on setting and enforcing healthy boundaries. We reduce suffering when we develop healthy bridges to people and places that can help get our needs met.
When we are stuck in a contentious relationship, one strategy for getting unstuck is to lower expectations and focus on enforcing healthy boundaries. We can avoid placing expectations on people that they would not otherwise accept lovingly from us. Keep the expectations low enough such that the other person feels free to love us. As everyone involved begins to feel free again, then we can work to renegotiate our commitments.
Step 6. Develop awareness of our behavior and the impact on others
Another key aspect of self-awareness and emotional intelligence is to be aware of the impact of our behaviors on the people around us. Even as we are learning about ourselves, we must develop social awareness of those around us. This is a complex topic that goes beyond the scope of this article. Here are a few key points when assessing behavioral impact on other people:
- Learn to pick up on the mood in the room of those around us.
- Learn how to hear what the other person is “really” saying. Practice Active Listening.
- Continuously assess how our behavior impacts others. This requires intentional observation of others and how they respond to our behaviors. Be flexible enough to change mid-course if something isn’t working.
- Monitor for behavioral patterns (or cycles) that connect us to others.
- Assess the impact of behavioral patterns on us and others. See my Guide to Positive Cycling.
In building self-awareness, we keep the focus inward on ourselves. But as we are now realizing, we cannot completely remove other people from the equation. We will inevitably impact others with our behaviors. In turn, they will impact us through their behaviors. Those impacts will generate new feelings and beliefs inside us. When the behaviors repeat themselves, they generate cyclical patterns. See my Guide to Positive Cycling for a more in-depth explanation of how this can occur and the impact of these patterns.
Step 7. Develop awareness of our behavior and the impact on ourselves
Returning our focus inward, there is still a lot of work to do in examining our behaviors. Here are some key points when assessing behavioral impact on ourselves:
- Practice witnessing our own behaviors. This requires stepping outside ourselves and becoming an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. We should become an observer who has no stake in the game. We are only being curious about what is happening. Practice this type of curiosity.
- Separate out our intentions from our behaviors.
- Clearly outline what our goals and intentions are.
- What personal needs are we attempting to satisfy through our behaviors?
- Observe our behaviors for what they are, not for what we want them to be. Learn to bottom-line our own actions. What are we actually doing?
- Where do we put in the most effort? Look at effort as involving four personal resources: time, emotional energy, cognitive energy (non-autopilot thinking), and physical exertion. For example, running four miles while listening to music involves physical exertion and time while it conserves emotional energy and cognitive energy. Having a political debate with a friend conserves physical energy while expending time, cognitive energy, and emotional energy. Working on a complex math problem would only involve time and cognitive energy.
- How much of our behavior is being done by our autopilot? Anything that follows a repetitive pattern, derived from learned experience, is done by the autopilot.
- How much of our behavior is not being done by our autopilot? How much is intentional, thoughtful and new? This is our conscious behavior.
- What is the impact of our behaviors on us? Are we satisfying the personal needs we intended to satisfy? Which buckets of personal need is becoming less filled over time? Is this simply due to the passing of time or a direct result of our behavior? Did we (unintentionally) poke a hole in one of our buckets, causing it to drain faster?
- If we failed to satisfy certain needs, have we become stuck? Is this something that has happened before?
Now that we’ve seen where our efforts are going, we next need to ask where they are not going? What aspects of our lives are we not putting in a lot of effort towards? What needs are we not satisfying due to lack of effort? Have we ignored those needs or suppressed them? Have we become complacent? Have we become dependent on others to satisfy them for us? If so, how does the other person feel about that? Is our relationship with that person still growing, or has it stagnated as a result of co-dependency? See my Guide to Positive Cycling for a deep dive on this topic.
These are the key steps to assessing the impact of our behavior on ourselves through the eyes of an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. This takes a lot of practice.
There are other lenses by which we might view our behaviors. Each lens can offer important insight. For instance, we might view our behaviors from the perspective of our “future selves.” What would an older, more mature version of us say about what we are doing? Or we might view our behaviors from a perspective in our past, such as our inner children, our inner critics, or our inner rebels. For a more detailed explanation on how to do this, see my article We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind. Each of these perspectives brings important experiences and biases to the table and can therefore generate valuable insight.
For the remainder of this article, we will focus on our present selves. We will continue use our neutral, nonjudgmental observer. We will go a layer deeper by looking at the tools being used in our actions. These tools constitute our moral values.
Step 8. Values as tools to maintain boundaries and satisfy our needs
The next step in building conscious awareness is to become aware of the values we are using in our everyday behavior. We all have needs. Our behaviors are the actions we do in the world to try to satisfy those needs. Values are the tools we use in our behavior.
Values are moral tools that help us make choices. They are moral tools because they tell us what we ought to do. They are simple judgements. For instance, “We ought to eat a salad to satisfy our hunger.” These judgements help advance us in the direction that we will go.
When most people think of values, they jump to complex issues like marriage, abortion, politics, etc. Values can certainly be used to answer these complex questions. But what we should realize is that we use our values everyday, countless times a day, to solve far more routine, mundane issues. Values help us through our routines at work and at home. They help us decide what to eat, when to eat, when to be intimate, when to be alone, how to interact with our children, etc. Most of the time, we are not thinking about these decisions. We are simply doing. Our consciousness is unaware of the values being used. Instead, our autopilot is automatically exercising our values for us.
In building consciousness, our goal here is to observe the values being used by our autopilot. We are not trying to change them at this point. We only want to step outside ourselves and observe.
We have many different values. Our autopilot is choosing, on our behalf, which value should be used for which situation. It is using past experience to guide it. For instance, let’s consider an argument with a spouse. Let’s say that at the beginning of the argument, our autopilot decides that we should be exercising listening and compassion. It tries to be flexible. It knows, from experience, that we get more sugar from honey. However, let’s say the argument doesn’t go as expected. Our spouse doesn’t react as expected, and our autopilot is feeling increasingly negative. It is afraid of where the argument could go if it is allowed to continue. Our autopilot then decides it has lost patience and becomes reactive. It flips a switch over to a self-preservation mode. In becoming reactive, we might now exhibit anger or defensiveness. Alternatively, we might withdraw from the argument or begin to stonewall our partner. Then the autopilot convinces us that it was the other person’s fault that we had to make this switch. All of these actions are simple judgments the autopilot is making. Exhibiting anger, defensiveness, stonewalling, self-preservation, withdrawing, and self-deception are all tools that we use. These tools are all values just like listening, compassion, and patience.
At this point, we’re not prepared to determine if our autopilot is doing the right thing or not. We only observe. We try to connect the dots between our needs, feelings, and values. We begin to see how one drives the other. In the previous example, we felt fear and anger. We can now see how this drove our change in posture. We changed from using bridging values like listening, patience, and compassion. With increased reactivity, we switched to using self-protective (boundary) values like defensiveness, withdrawal, and stonewalling.
Understanding which values should be used when is a complex topic that I will explore in later articles. At this stage, we are only observing. Which values are we using? How effective are they at helping us reach our goals?
There are two types of values that are equally important. Boundaries help protect our personal spaces. A personal space might be a physical space, like your home or your body. Or a personal space might be invisible, like a personal right. For instance, we might say that we have the right not to be insulted or treated aggressively in the workplace. We might set a boundary on our time or the amount of physical effort we would use at work. An injured worker might be given a 25 lb. lifting restriction.
Boundaries are meant to preserve our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. They keep us safe. We use many different tools to enforce our boundaries. We may use aggression. We may withdraw behind additional layers of protection. We may create physical space by leaving a common room that no longer feels safe. We may create temporal space by contacting a person less often. We may withdraw inwardly into self-protective places within our minds. We pause or sever connections with someone who threatens us, thus becoming less open and emotionally available to them.
The second broad category of values are our bridging values. Bridges help define how we will function within share spaces. Shared spaces are common places for connection. A shared space is defined by the group’s relationship. There is an agreement amongst the group on what is shared and what is personal. Members of the group may join together in their shared spaces at any time. Each member has equal right to the shared space. Outsiders, nonmembers of the group, do not have rights to the shared space, but they may be invited guests. Members, however, cannot violate another member’s personal space.
For instance, a family might share their home. A home will have different rooms. Some rooms are common spaces, while some are personal (private) spaces. Guests may be invited over. Respect for these different spaces is critical to relationships. This helps a parent understand that they should never chase a child, during an argument, into the child’s room. The child’s room is their own personal space that should never be violated. The child must feel safe going there. It also helps the parent understand why sending the child to their room as a form of punishment will backfire. The child’s room is a place of safety and should never be treated as a jail, which transforms it into an unsafe place. The child feels trapped there. Instead, a parent should instruct an aggressive child to find a place of calm. Give the child the option of going to their room or a different shared space in the home. So long as they are able to work towards calming their aggression, the child has every right to make the choice. If the child makes the choice of staying in a shared space and remaining aggressive, the parent can then say, “It looks like you’ve chosen to go to your room. Feel free to rejoin us in the family room after you are calm.” The parent may then be forced, by the child, to send the child to their room. But the child understands, intuitively, that their room remains a place of safety, not one of punishment.
There are many different types of bridging tools. These include all the rules and behaviors that are used within our shared spaces. A few of the common ones include: empathy, patience, curiosity, active listening, asserting oneself, acceptance, honesty, tolerance, benefit-of-the-doubt, courage, play, and imagination.
Every behavior we engage in has an underlying value. As we start this exercise of becoming more self-aware, practice finding that value. Give it a name. Is it a bridging value or a boundary?
People often disagree over values. During this exercise of becoming self-aware, practice being our neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Are we using our values too much despite lack of efficacy? Are we using certain values with too much or too little intensity? Is the chosen value appropriate? Could we have chosen a different value than the one we used?
Keep in mind the importance of being nonjudgmental. We do not judge ourselves for the value we chose. Think of our values as tools. Each of our values has a purpose. Each one has a role. Even the less mature ones like aggression, defensiveness and stonewalling have a potential purpose. Think of ourselves as carpenters with a toolshed. We wouldn’t fault a hammer or screwdriver. A hammer can be misused. It can be used in the wrong situation. A person can decide that all problems should be solved with a hammer. A hammer can be used unskillfully, resulting in accidental injury or negligence. A hammer can even be used as a weapon to deliberately hurt someone.
Our values are no different. Becoming self-aware is about seeing the values we are using. We can learn to use these values more effectively. We can also dust off values that we haven’t used in a long time. It’s like finding that lost screwdriver that fell onto the floor rather than continuing to beat the screw with our trusty hammer.
Start to observe how effective our values are each situation. There are probably situations where certain values are highly effective. Then we may find other situations where those same values just don’t work. They don’t achieve the desired result. Pay attention to how people react. Their reactions, together with our own feelings, will tell us how things are working.
Step 9. Recognize relationship patterns
We know that 95% of our day is spent in autopilot. This means that for the vast majority of our existence, we are engaged in familiar patterns. We are doing something similar to how we’ve done it before. It turns out, as we are in autopilot for much of our lives, so is everyone else. And so, this means that 95% of relationships involve one person’s autopilot interacting with another person’s autopilot. The relationship becomes, to a large extent, a familiar pattern.
This isn’t a bad thing. We all have our routines. Families have routines. We have routines at work. We establish routines with friend groups. These routines allow us to feel safe and connected. The good news here is that the vast majority of those routines serve their purpose of providing us with safety and connection. They fill our needs.
When a group joins together to complete a familiar pattern, we call this cycling. One person feels the needs of the group, and they act to fill those needs. Others within the group respond. Further responses are provoked down the line.
Attunement occurs when the rhythms of a relationship line up into harmony. Our individual patterns (or cycles) harmonize together. Group needs and individual needs are all being filled in a balanced way.
Certain relationship patterns stand out because they do not work. There is a lack of harmony. These patterns create negative emotions for individual members. We do not hear the hundreds of parts of our car that are quietly humming along doing their jobs effectively. But we can hear that one part that is clunking every time we turn the wheel.
Becoming self-aware is about identifying those relationship patterns (cycles) that are no longer serving us. We can then use IVR self-therapy as a method of correcting those patterns to better serve our needs.
The first step is identifying that when you are in a relationship, you are engaged in a cycle. Try to put together the pieces of that cycle. Look at how needs, emotions, and behaviors align. When do needs become drained, and how do they refill again?
Next, look for attunement within members of the group. Attunement involves harmony, rather than conformity. Each individual is making their own music. However, when combined, the rhythms of their music create pleasing chords and progressions. What aspects of the relationship are attuned? What aspects aren’t? Where is there disharmony? Try to be fair and honest when making the assessment.
Negative emotions will instruct us that something isn’t quite working. They tell us we are stuck somewhere. It’s our job to identify the issue. Be sure to remain an emotionally neutral, nonjudgmental observer. Remember that bearing witness is always the first step.
A relationship should grow over time. Growth involves adapting to meet new challenges from the outside world and also adapting to change within individual group members. Growth involves working towards achieving a high level of attunement.
Positive cycling is the term used to define a relationship that is engaged in positive growth. Attunement increases over time. The group adapts successfully to meet new challenges. Needs are generally being met.
Negative cycling is the term that describes a relationship that is rapidly deteriorating. This is the divorce where two people are trying to ruin each other. The house is on fire, and everyone involved is holding a gasoline can. Negative cycling is more common than we think. Unfortunately, we see it all the time on the news and in American politics. We only see a piece of it at a time, so it can be challenging to but together the full cycle. Many of my patients become engaged in negative cycling after they are injured on the job. They get caught in cycles of blaming, guilt, resentment and shaming.
Codependency describes a stagnant relationship. The relationship has ceased to grow and adapt. Members are out of tune. Unfortunately, just like anything in life, without maintenance and growth, a stagnant relationship will fall into decay. The entropy of life slowly deteriorates the relationship. This process is similar to negative cycling except that it is slowed way down. Negative cycling will destroy a relationship in hours, days or weeks. Codependency will destroy it slowly over months, years, or decades. In codependency, the house isn’t on fire. From the outside, everything appears normal and healthy. But you really don’t want to go in there. You don’t want to peel back the layers of the rotting relationship.
For a more detailed look at positive cycling, negative cycling, and dependency, see my Guide to Positive Cycling.
Our emotions will instruct us in which cycle we are involved in. Codependency can be difficult to spot if we don’t know what to look for. Codependents spend lot of time learning how to suppress negative emotions and mask their situation. Chances are we have all been involved in multiple codependent relationships in our lives. To try locate those. Find those subtle, hidden negative emotions. Look for behaviors that just don’t make sense. Make an honest assessment of attunement. There may have been attunement on basic needs like safety, food, and shelter. But what about deeper needs like emotional intimacy, physical intimacy, and spiritual intimacy. Life is too short to deny these needs.
Step 10. Recognize 6 levels emotional reactivity
When becoming self-aware, it’s important to become aware of what emotions we’re feeling. We want to label those emotions. The next thing we should do is evaluate their intensity. In fact, the intensity of our emotions may be even more important than the label itself.
Emotional reactivity is the intensity of our negative emotions, especially negative emotions related to safety. This is an important to concept for building self-awareness (emotional intelligence). Positive emotions are a binding force that connect people together. Think happiness and laughter. These emotions consolidate an existing connection to make it stronger. In contrast, negative emotions are a destructive type of energy that bring about change. This may sound bad, except that negative emotions are just as important as positive ones. Negative emotions are simply used for a different purpose. Negative emotions bind through destructive change. They change the very nature of a connection into something else.
Negative emotions are akin to heat. Reactivity is the temperature in an oven. You need the right amount of destructive energy to cook your dinner. The right amount produces a chemical reaction that changes our food into something tasty and edible. But too much heat becomes dangerous.
With reactivity, we are concerned with stress emotions that aid in safety. Stress emotions are regulated by the amygdala. These include anxiety (fear) and anger. Stress emotions activate the fight-or-flight response. They produce adrenaline that help us fend off an intruder.
When talking about reactivity, we are not concerned with other negative emotions like sadness, shame, and guilt. These emotions are signs of disconnection. Although necessary for survival, these emotions aren’t involved in minute-by-minute threat detection. A person who has chronically high levels of disconnecting emotions may indeed be highly reactive. This is because we need connection to buffer reactivity. Think of a time when you were angry and then let out some steam getting together with friends. People who lack healthy connections will often be highly reactive.
Reactivity is important. Stress and anxiety, in the right proportions, allow us to learn and grow. We wouldn’t get off the couch without these impulses. However, in American culture, our problem generally isn’t having too little stress. Most of the time, we have far too much. Our reactivity is too high and we get burnt. Very often, we don’t know how to manage our reactivity. We don’t use it in the right away. We are like children playing with fire.
Even the best relationships can deteriorate quickly if members don’t learn how to manage their reactivity. Just like an oven needs a thermometer, we need to recognize how reactive we are. We need to understand what we can accomplish based on the level of heat present. What can we cook at a given temperature?
Here is a chart that divides reactivity into levels 0-5. At level 1, we are calm and generally in our best position to be helpful and nonjudgmental. When we give advice, such advice comes out of a place of compassion, active listening, curiosity, and imagination. There is no hidden motive to our advice. Level 1 is desirable in most workplace conditions as it allows people to exercise their cognitive abilities to the highest degree. Level 1 maximizes collaboration and inventiveness. In level 1, we are in our best position to turn off our autopilot and exercise our awareness. We can be mindful and intentional about things we do and say.
At level 2, we start to feel some increased stress and irritability. We allow instinct (our autopilot) to take increased control. Our consciousness is no longer in the driver seat, but our consciousness still monitors things from a short distance away. Level 2 may be desirable for athletes and professions that rely on instinct and where over-thinking can be problematic. Think police officers and firemen. These professions may involve higher levels of competition, stress and even some degree of danger. For most general workplace environments, where there’s minimal physical danger, level 1 is superior. When we find ourselves in level 2, try returning to level 1 by lowering reactivity. We can do this by actively increasing our conscious awareness. Shine a spotlight on how we are feeling and find a way to let out some steam. We can also use humor to deescalate tensions that might arise.
As we progress through the levels, we trade thoughtfulness for survival instinct. We also trade out consciousness and control, deferring more and more to the autopilot. Eventually, the amygdala takes over complete control of our behavior and actions. Survival becomes paramount. The amygdala will not trust other parts of our brain (including our consciousness) to interfere with our fight for survival.
|0||Flat, unemotional, disconnected||Pure logical thinking||Not attuned |
|1||Calm||How can I help?||Patience, |
|Optimistic with reservations|
A small ulterior agenda
|Urgent listening |
Applies (subtle) pressure
|3||Uncomfortable (stressed), |
|Unsure which way the conversation is going to go||Reciprocal listening and assertiveness|
Will not tolerate a lecture but happy to give one
Intense anxiety (fear)
|On the edge of the precipice|
Fears rapid deterioration of the relationship
|Only tolerates being listened to|
Complete loss of control
|Relationship is rapidly deteriorating|
In level 3, our stress turns up even higher. Level 3 is the last position at which we can still have a productive conversation with someone. We are annoyed and frustrated, and these emotions are difficult to hide. We do not know if things will improve or turn ugly. Here we become more transactional. We are only willing to listen to the other person to the degree that they are willing to listen to us. We will only extend other people the degree of respect that they extend us. Our instinct is to lecture, but we should avoid doing this. Lecturing is likely to increase the other person’s reactivity to match ours. And we are not in a position to receive a lecture back. Instead, our goal in level 3 should be to avoid allowing the encounter to slip further towards level 4-5. We do this by creating healthy boundaries that pause or end the encounter the moment it starts to deteriorate. We can say, in a nonjudgmental fashion, “I’m uncomfortable with the way things are going. I would like to pause for now.” Establishing effective guardrails should be done first before trying to work out a solution. Once we have effective guardrails in place, reciprocal listening and assertiveness can be attempted.
If things slip further, we enter perilous level 4. In level 4, we are facing overwhelming stress, fear, and/or anger. We are on the edge of hostility but have not yet crossed over. The most important thing to do here is to recognize that are in level 4. We also need to realize that in level 4, we are in no position to solve our problems. We lack thoughtfulness. We are simply too reactive. Our oven is way too hot. Avoid making the mistake of grasping for a solution. Such attempts will backfire. Instead, our goal should be to reduce the heat. We need to get back to level 3. We can do this by raising our consciousness. Simply becoming aware that we are in level 4 is a critical step to escaping it. We can also look for a way to withdraw from a triggering environment. Find a place of calm. If we can’t physically withdraw (we are stuck in a crowded airport, for instance), we can imagine ourselves in a calming place, like on a beach. Once in a calm environment, we can burn steam through exercise, yoga, meditation, music, distraction, journaling, repeating calming phrases, etc. Only when we’ve returned to level 3 can we resume problem-solving.
Level 5 is an escalation of level 4 into a place of complete loss of control. Here, the amygdala, the survival model of our autopilot, believes we are in grave danger. It has assumed full control and wrestled that away from our conscious self. Our consciousness is helpless to watch the next set of events unfold like a movie. Here we will do things that we will regret later.
There is no predicting what a person might do or say in level 5. We should learn to recognize the signs in ourselves and others. We will see hostility if we get close to someone in level 5. Or we might see a person in level 5 simply say things that don’t make any sense. They may be accusing someone of something. The last thing we should want to do is argue with such a person. Logic will be ineffective. Remember that their conscious self, the part of their mind that can interpret logic, is completely disconnected from the amygdala, the part of them that has assumed full control. They will realize what they’re saying isn’t right later, after the rest of their brain has “woken up” and reconnected. Instead, we should give this person space. Allow them to take out their hostility on an inanimate object of minimal value, such as squeezing a pillow.
If we’re the one in level 5, the best thing we can do is to recognize this. Simply recognizing a loss of control gets us halfway back to level 4. Look for a flood of aggressive and/or violent thoughts and impulses. We may have the desire to hurt ourselves or others. We may want to be destructive. As we become aware of these impulses, we need to find space to let out some aggression. Intense physical exercise can work. Or we can find an inanimate object of minimal value and take out some aggression on it (squeezing a pillow). Avoid doing this in front of others who might find us threatening. With practice, a person can learn how to meditate out of level 5. Simply learning how to feel the anger in our bodies is a way of releasing it slowly and safely. We can also feel parts of our bodies that aren’t angry, such as our hands or the weight of our bodies in our feet. Or we can focus on breathing. Avoid anyone who is also emotionally reactive. We don’t need any more heat. Seeing someone else sad, angry, anxious or happy will only trigger our reactivity. The only person who can help us is someone who is perfectly calm (someone at level 1). Usually, it takes a professional to bring someone out of level 5. Lay people find it difficult to not become reactive themselves when confronting someone at level 5.
At some point in our lives, everyone will find themselves in level 5. This is a scary place. After it’s over, reflect back on what was happening. Level 5 should be a rare occurrence. Consider seeking professional help if you find yourself in level 5 on more than the rare occasion. Also consider professional help if you found it difficult to get out of level 5. For instance, if you took out your aggression in a destructive way (punched a hole in wall). Or if you acted out your aggression in full view of others, causing them to feel threatened. Or if you destroyed something of real value or actually hurt another person. All of these would be reasons to engage a professional.
As we begin to develop awareness of reactivity, we should examine our baseline state. A person with secure, healthy attachments will live at levels 1-2. But there are a lot of people out there who live in levels 3-4. This means that they are hypervigilant and prone to anger / aggression. Someone with a high degree of baseline anxiety might find their baseline to be a level 3. When they get panic attacks, they experience a sudden escalation into level 4.
Finally, there is a reactivity level 0. This is a person who is emotionally flat. The person may try to be helpful, but they lack the ability because they are not attuned to the environment in the room. They cannot feel others and therefore lack the empathy needed. They appear robotic. Such a person will also struggle to help themselves through emotionally charged situations. In these situations, such a person will likely jump from reactivity level 0 straight to levels 3-5. They will skip over calmer levels 1-2. Why does this occur? Think of how hard it is to start a fire from scratch with cold materials. It is much easier to control an existing fire that is already burning calmly. We can easily add or subtract heat when needed. When starting a fire from scratch, we instinctively pour too much fuel. When it gets going, it explodes. When facing a reactive environment, a person starting at reactivity level 0 will typically become highly anxious. Their anxiety goes from 0 to debilitating levels very quickly. They never achieve that sweet spot of having just enough stress to be helpful.
How do we get out of level 0? Again, the answer requires first that we recognize it. Once we see ourselves as acting robotic or not being attuned to others, we can work on this. This is a lot like trying to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together. It takes patience, practice and skill. Start by focusing on feelings coming from our bodies, whatever they may be. Put our spotlight there and allow our feelings to gently swell. Once we’ve kindled this, next look for signs of feelings in others. Ask other people how they feel and see if what we thought they were feeling matches what they say. Next, try to match our feelings to theirs by remembering a time when we felt that way in your past. Practice this enough and we will easily be able to kindle our own reactivity, when needed, to escape times when we are feeling flat. We will go from level 0 to helpful level 1 and avoid the unhelpful anxiety of levels 3-5.
Step 11. See our identity roles
When developing self-awareness (emotional intelligence), the next step is to be cognizant of our Identity. We all have a capital-I Identity that is the sum of many smaller intersecting pieces. For instance, a person may be a runner, a spouse, a parent, a son, an electrician, a friend, etc. We can be all of these things at once. But generally, at any one moment, we are only acting the role of one of these (lower case i) identities.
Each one of these identities has its own purpose, beliefs, outside connections, needs, values, hopes and dreams. That is because each identity has its own story complete with past history and learned experiences. Each one is like its own version of us. These different versions are all connected, but they are in many ways separate.
Here is where it is helpful, especially in difficult moments, to recognize which identity we have assumed. See that identity for what it is. See how its past experiences shape our present feelings and behaviors.
Each identity is like putting on a pair of colored glasses that changes how we see the world. Building awareness involves seeing which pair we are wearing in different situations. Why do we do that? What if we changed to a different set of glasses? How would we look at the world differently? What if we extended a coworker the same compassion that we would give to a family member? What if we cared as much about ourselves as we did our own children?
We are all multiple because of our diversity of different internal identities. By understanding this, we can start to see how a person might appear disjointed or hypocritical. As their identities change, their values and behaviors change also. To an outsider, they appear confused. They may be labeled as “bipolar.” And yet, this is something that we all do.
We can see how a person might easily become stuck if their identity roles are not attuned to one another. Consider a person who’s work life puts considerable strain on their family responsibilities. These types of identity conflicts are incredibly common.
To take a look at the elements of Identity, see What is my Identity?
For a deep dive on common inner identity roles, see We’re all multiple: Internal Systems of the Mind.
Step 12. See the stories we tell ourselves
Each of our identities has a rich story. Each of these stories has its own world, characters, mood, starting point, history, momentum, and trajectory. The protagonist, one of our identities, is but one character of many. Things happen to our protagonist. Our protagonist responds to events. Mistakes are inevitably made. We have opportunities to learn from our mistakes and grow.
We humans are creatures of narrative. We want our stories to be simple and neat. We want to align people into neat categories of allies and enemies, good and bad. We want our stories to have an arc towards some type of positive resolution. That resolution should involves meaning, growth, and happiness. We want to be the hero bending events in that direction.
As we begin to gain self-awareness, we need to stitch together the stories we tell ourselves. We need to pull them out into the open and dissect them. How is our autopilot weaving the story for us? How does our conscious self then participate by translating that story into language? How are our stories shaped by the way they are told?
The next big question is to figure out who is the narrator in our story? We know the narrator is part of our inner self. Is the narrator the same as the protagonist? Often, they are different. The protagonist may be an inner child (us at the age of 6), while the narrator may be an inner critic (us at the age of 16). Sometimes I will speak my story aloud and surprise myself when I hear my mother’s words spoken in my voice.
How might our stories be different if someone else were the narrator? This can be a different identity inside us or another person outside us.
This practice of hearing our story is especially important when we become stuck. When our story seems to be spinning in circles but going nowhere, then now is the time to open it up and question it.
Questioning involves recognizing the characters in our stories and the roles they play. Look externally at how we view others in our lives. How do we cast them into certain roles? Remember that we (or more accurately, our narrator) are the ones doing the casting. We are the ones putting expectations on people. Inside our stories, we determine if they fail or succeed. We determine if they are good or bad. Are their efforts valued or not valued? We decide how they will be connected to us. Will they be one of us or will they remain outsider? We interpret their behavior through the lens of our narrator. We stop questioning their actions when they behave as expected. We stop exploring their motives once they fit the roles we assigned.
We also need to look inward at the cast of characters living inside us. Inside the deeper contours of our story are a whole host of behind-the-scenes characters. Here we will find our internal judgers, critics, cheerleaders, firefighters, rebels, and more. We can shine the spotlight on our inner children that have been traumatized and exiled. We can pull them out into the open. Find out what they have to say.
Finally, we also need to see how our stories may be limiting us. The stories we tell create a framework for our lives. We then go about living inside that framework. This framework comes with beliefs and values. Values are the tools we can use to reach our goals. These values may be useful, but they can also be limiting. Beliefs are a set of invisible walls meant to keep us safe. While they do keep us safe, they can also box us in.
Sometimes we have goals that lie beyond. Sometimes our goals don’t fit within the framework of our stories. This is what happens when we become stuck. We feel like we’re trapped inside an invisible box and we just can’t reach anything on the outside. Our minds do a great job of convincing us that someone else is to blame for our entrapment. When in fact, often, we are trapping ourselves.
Consider how often we tell ourselves that we can’t do something. Or we may resign ourselves to being a certain type of person. We incorporate these details into our identity and our stories. They become us. This may happen consciously. Most of the time, these invisible walls are established by our autopilot. Sometimes they are given to us by medical providers. We are labeled as being a person with chronic pain or chronic mental illness. Instead of simply accepting our current circumstances, these disorders become core pieces of our identity from which we cannot escape. Healing is put aside, and the focus is put on managing our problems. Often, we expect others to do the work of managing for us. We become disempowered and helpless.
To escape being stuck, we have to see how our own beliefs are holding us in place. We also have to realize that we are equipped with far more tools than the ones we’re currently using. Ultimately, we have to transform our stories.
Step 13. Unfold your history
Each of our stories began somewhere. Quite often, that beginning is buried deep within the layers of our subconscious. The place where we think our story began is not the actual beginning. Only our autopilot knows where things really began. Discovering that true history is critical to understanding our stories. Our stories just don’t make sense otherwise.
It’s common for people to not be fully aware of this important background. Our autopilot may be protecting us by keeping difficult memories hidden. Or our autopilot may simply not think that it’s important for us to know how we got to where we are. Our autopilot wants to keep us grounded in the present instead of overloading us with information from our past. In most cases, the autopilot is probably correct. However, when we become stuck, we have no choice but to unwind the past.
Here is another opportunity for exploring ourselves. Here is where we take the story we think we know and begin working backwards. Here is where we look at all those pieces of ourselves. We ask where did they come from? We are primarily concerned with the critical people who shaped our childhood and young adulthood. These are the people who taught us the tools we now use in life.
Here are a few questions to help us get started. Remember, we are using curiosity and compassion as our tools for unwinding our past. We remain a neutral, nonjudgmental observer. When we start to feel judgmental towards ourselves and others, that is simply a sign that we’re going too deep too quickly. Slow down or pause until we can regain our place of calm compassion.
- For emotional reactivity, what important individuals in your life modeled the different states of reactivity for you? How do you use those models in your own life?
- Consider how you treat your feelings. How do you communicate them to others? Which feelings do you feel safe communicating? What individuals in your life treated their feelings in a similar manner? What events in your past taught you which feelings were safe (or unsafe) to communicate?
- In terms of body awareness, what important individuals in your life modeled this for you? Were there important people in your life who seemed to be out-of-tune with their bodies? Were there people whose bodies seemed to control them, rather than the other way around? For instance, were there people with poor health, chronic pain, headaches, seizures, mental illness, or other disabilities that played an important, often unpredictable role for people in your life? If so, how might you have carried some of what you saw forward in your own story?
- How did people in your life react to unmet needs and suffering? Did they put unfair expectations on others? Did some people sacrifice their own needs to keep the peace? How have you emulated these strategies in your own story?
- How did people model boundaries for you in your childhood? Did your family maintain safe and healthy boundaries? Were some people’s boundaries routinely violated? How has this shaped your life going forward?
- For the important people in your life, how did they listen to you when you had something to say? What listening techniques were most effective? Which techniques didn’t work? Which techniques do you use most often today?
- What values are most important to you today? Who modeled those values for you in childhood?
- What are the patterns of your relationships? Who modeled those patterns for you in your past?
- What identity roles are most important to you? Who modeled those roles for you in your past?
Step 14. See the traumas in our stories
In building self-awareness, we will need to identify several types of traumas. Once identified, we can start to see the lasting impacts of trauma on our lives. Consider taking the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) quiz. This quiz can be a starting point for identifying and treating childhood trauma.
We will look at four different types of trauma: abuse, chronic suffering, neglect, and abandonment. Each of these involves a degree of helplessness. The person suffering from trauma feels helpless in their situation. This leads to a chronic, maladaptive change. Their autopilot adapts to reduce helplessness. These adaptations provided relief in the short term but become detrimental over time.
Abuse occurs when someone violates our boundaries. Boundaries exist to protect our personal spaces. Someone who violates our personal spaces is abusing us. Personal spaces include our bodies, our homes, our property, our time, our Identity, emotional energy and availability, our self-esteem, psychological safety, perception of reality, religious preferences, and more. Personal spaces are those physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual domains which we enjoy complete sovereignty. No one else, including bosses, parents or partners, have a say over our personal spaces. While it is ok to invite someone into our personal space, they must depart when requested. We can also agree to loan out parts of our personal space to others, such as our time. However, this is a type of invitation which can be rescinded. Anyone who intrudes upon our personal spaces is committing abuse towards us. Abuse includes insulting someone or degrading someone’s self-esteem. Certain types of abuse are particularly impactful. Physical abuse will often make a person feel perpetually unsafe; they can find it difficult to achieve calm. Sexual abuse can make it very difficult to feel safe while being intimate with partners going forward. Gaslighting can cause a person to be unable to trust their own instincts and perception of reality.
Chronic suffering occurs when we have particular needs that go unmet for long periods of time. This becomes traumatic when we adapt to those chronically unmet needs. For instance, a child who is often hungry will learn to steal food; later in life they may develop obesity or an eating disorder. Or if we have our emotional needs go unmet, we may suppress them and become robotic.
When chronic suffering occurs to a child or dependent, then we call this neglect. Their needs are being neglected by their caregivers. The child is helpless because they are entirely dependent upon their caregivers, the individuals causing the trauma. The child is trapped in an impossible situation. This type of trauma is highly impactful as it will dramatically alter the course of a child’s life. They will adapt to a difficult situation to survive. These adaptations provide temporary survival benefit. However, they become maladaptive later in life. They are difficult to overcome as the person matures into adulthood.
Abandonment occurs when adults make commitments to each other and later rescind those commitments in an unfair or dishonest manner. In every relationship, there are commitments to support and help fulfill the group’s needs. Commitments are negotiated. All relationships inevitably change over time. Many relationships are destined to end. Abandonment occurs when one partner doesn’t fulfill their obligations in the relationship. Instead of holding an honest conversation to renegotiate commitments, they act in a dishonest manner. They may lie or pretend to be still living up to their obligations, when in fact they are not. Abandonment and neglect are similar, except that neglect occurs to dependents. Dependents don’t have the power to change or end the relationship. In abandonment, the people involved are not dependents. All individuals have a fair say in negotiating commitments and ending the relationship. Infidelity is a common type of abandonment. So is not supporting a spouse through a mental or physical infirmity.
Step 15. Blind spots
As we fill in the details of our stories and progress towards self-awareness, we need to be cognizant of our blind spots. Blind spots are inevitable. We all have them. They can never be completely eliminated. But we can improve our awareness of them. We can mitigate the detrimental effects of blind spots through active listening.
There are two main types of blind spots. The first blind spot involves the type of lenses that we wear that alter our vision. Imagine that we are all wearing our own unique colored glasses. These glasses change the way we see the world and ourselves. Without these glasses, we couldn’t see. Yet with them, the world is inevitably changed. We cannot help it. Anything we see will be changed.
There is an important principle in physics known as the Observer Effect. The Observer Effect says that we cannot observe something without simultaneously changing that thing. This means that whichever instrument we use for observation will inevitably create some change. It doesn’t matter what we use–a microscope, a telescope, etc. We will produce change in the object being observed.
Some people view this Observer Effect in a negative light as a bias or a distortion. In that light, it can be seen as a bad thing. I prefer to look at it as a cost of observation. We can never see things “exactly” as they are. We will always change what we see. This change will create blind spots.
As we weave together our stories, our narrator becomes the primary agent of this type of change. Our narrator brings his or her own experiences and judgements into the telling of our stories. We give our narrator incredible power in this way. We have no choice but to look at things through the lens of our narrator. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at events, at people, or at ourselves. We can only see people and events through this lens.
And yet, we can change narrators. Each of our identities is a different lens. Each one can serve as a new narrator. We can change these lenses and therefore see things in different ways. We can look at things through the perspective of a father, a child, a hobbyist, a worker, etc. We draw upon different sets of past experiences to change up which or lens we will use.
Becoming cognizant of the many ways that our lenses alter the way we perceive the world is the subject of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.
Step 16. The blind spot of perspective
There is a second type of blind spot to be aware of. For this blind spot, it doesn’t matter what type of glasses we wear. Our Identity and past experiences have no bearing. This blind spot is entirely determined by our vantage point (or perspective).
Any time we perceive something, we look at it from a particular direction. That vantage point will affect what we see. For instance, if we are standing on the Earth, it will appear flat. Or if we are located on a spaceship out in space, the Earth will appear spherical. This change has nothing to do with the type of glasses we are wearing. It is dependent upon perspective. The Earth is, in fact, both round and flat. Both perspectives are valid. We could even move to a place well outside our solar system, and the Earth may appear as a dot. The Earth becomes a single-dimensional object from that vantage. Or we could speed up time and the Earth will appear as a ring due to its orbit around the sun. Depending on how we configure time, the Earth may create a smear on our screen. As a smeared image, it appears to take on wavelike properties of movement and of being in several places at once. Alternatively, we could look at the Earth from the perspective of a worm underground. Suddenly the Earth becomes the shape of the universe!
Each of these perspectives teaches us something about the Earth. Each one has its own blind spots. If we only look at one perspective, we might make assumptions about the Earth that turn out to be false. We gain a better understanding of the Earth by observing it from many different perspectives. But we can never know it from all perspectives. We will never be able to fully “know” the Earth. Believing that we can come close is arrogance. After all, we still have yet to discover the vantage point that will allow us to understand the Earth’s gravity.
In physics, there is a concept known as the Uncertainty Principle. There is always uncertainty when we attempt to look at things. This uncertainty depends upon our vantage point. Uncertainty was originally discovered when Werner Heisenberg realized that you cannot both measure a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. Simply by measuring one aspect, you lose the ability to measure the other. Uncertainty is not eliminated by improving the quality of our measuring instrument (reducing bias). Uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the thing being studied.
In psychology, we see uncertainty everywhere. All people have inherent uncertainty. This uncertainty exists as a type of blind spot for the observer. For instance, when we are acting out the role of a parent, we are not acting out the role of a coworker. If we are locked in survival mode, we are not exercising compassion and curiosity. Uncertainty can be resolved, momentarily, by choosing a particular vantage point. But in the resolution, we create a blind spot. We fail to see what else could have been.
All of nature shares in this uncertainty. Nature can be one thing at one moment, then it can turn around and be something completely different the next. When held together, the two things appear to be mutually exclusive. How can the Earth be flat and round at the same time? It feels absurd. It’s only absurd because of the way we simplify our concept of the Earth inside our minds. Even now, most human beings simplify their model of the Earth and think of it as “only round.” We fail to appreciate that it is also flat, all-encompassing, ringlike, wavelike, single-dimensional, and more. Believing that our vantage point is the “correct one” and that the Earth can only be round is hubris.
Uncertainty is fundamental to matter. It is an inherent property of all things. People are no exception. To understand being, we must appreciate our uncertainty. There are aspects of human nature that we can never know. It’s not that we lack the knowledge. There will always be things that are unknowable. There are always more perspectives we’ve failed to appreciate. This type of uncertainty can be daunting if we carry with us the expectation that we can know everything. Once we drop that expectation, we can gaze upon the awe and wonder of being. Paradoxical uncertainty is an attribute of being that is freeing. Just like the Earth is never just the Earth, a mother is never just a mother. A murderer is never just a murderer. An addict is never just an addict. We are all more than what we seem. The addict doesn’t have to shake their addiction. They are already more than their label. We are all multiple. We are all more than the self-created models that box us in. We are all more than the roles we give ourselves. We are all more than the self-told stories that trap us.
We all have incredible freedom in our lives. Actualizing that freedom is self-empowerment. The cost of freedom is profound uncertainty. This uncertainty constitutes a type of blind spot that can never be fully known. We can never see inside these blind spots. We can never unfold our paradoxical nature, look inside, and determine that we’ve figured it all out. There are always more perspectives with which to see things. There are always questions what could have been? and what can be?
Whenever we look at someone, the person being seen is not the actual person. We only see a simplified version that we’ve created for them. The person always has inherent uncertainty. This effect is independent of any glasses we may be using. Rather, perspective is key. The perspective we use will determine which aspects of the person we will see. We might see a mother, a nurse, a runner, etc. We must remember, however, that this person is always more than what we see.
Our paradoxical nature goes far beyond genetics, upbringing, and personal idiosyncrasies. There is paradoxical uncertainty in human connection, moral values, our identities, our feelings, our beliefs, our behaviors, our intentions, our histories, and the way we interact with our environment. Each of these paradoxes gives us freedom at the cost of uncertainty. Added together, the degree of freedom is extensive. We can do a lot with the immense volume of choices that we have. But also, we must recognize that what we don’t know far exceeds what we do know. The uncertainty heavily outweighs what we actually know about people. This holds especially true when trying to understand ourselves.
We all like to overestimate our ability to “know” others and ourselves. Our minds are great at hiding our blind spots. These blind spots cannot be eliminated simply by changing the lenses through which we see things. Neither can we simply alter our vantage. The minute we attempt to close one blind spot, we inevitably create another. For instance, we can dive into understanding what it’s like to walk in the shoes of another person’s motherhood. As soon as we do, we lose perspective on what it may be like for that person to be a sister or a professional. We lose the ability to see that they may have been abused as a child. We forget that this mother still carries, inside her, her own inner child.
We can get to know other people, but we can never close all our blind spots. Our ignorance will always exceed our knowing. Because of this, curiosity and compassion should always be our most-used tools on the journey toward understanding.
A big part of becoming self-aware is developing an understanding of our own blind spots. Even if we may not be able to fully see past them, we can still learn an incredible deal. We can locate them. We can feel their shape and size. We can develop methods of working with them, rather than avoiding them. We can recognize the incredible harm that occurs when we pretend they don’t exist.
Even if we cannot “know” everything about ourselves, there is still incredible benefit in striving to know. We can work to fill knowledge gaps through consciousness building and listening. We can work towards understanding. But there will always be uncertainty. The project of understanding will never be “completed.” Yet, we can accomplish much in our efforts.
Conclusion and Next Steps
Building consciousness is the foundational practice for healing. Becoming self-aware is really just a fancy way of saying that we are listening to ourselves. The complementary practice to this is listening to others (active listening). These two practices together make up the Reflection piece of Identity-Values-Reflection self-therapy.
This article is merely a starting point to building self-awareness. There are many layers to our inner selves. Just when we feel like we’ve become fully aware of one layer do we discover a tunnel down to another. Healing is a daily commitment. The project of growth is never completed. We can never stop striving towards understanding.
The goal of healing is not to change other people in our lives. We do not heal by bending the world to our own designs. Instead, we must change ourselves. We must accept the world as it is. Then we can change how we show up in the world. To do that, we need to first better know ourselves.
Now that we’ve learned the difference between our autopilot and our consciousness, we can start to explore how these two interact. How can we utilize our consciousness, with all the choices available, to affect the autopilot over time? See How to influence your autopilot.
Next, I will provide a few basic exercises to help build self-awareness.
8 Home exercises for building self-awareness
We don’t become self-aware overnight. We must practice it. There are many possible exercises that can help build self-awareness. Each of these exercises can be done alone or with a therapist, coach, or friend. But if we involve others, we must remember that we are doing 90% of the work.
- Timed Daily Check-in. Borrowed from Dr. Nicole LePera, this is an excellent exercise to get started. Set your watch alarm to go off at a certain time in the middle of your workday. When it goes off, stop what you’re doing and take 1-2 minutes to assess how you are doing. What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What identity role are you acting out? Are you suffering right now (what needs aren’t being filled?) What reactivity state are you in? Just prior to starting the exercise, were you being present in the activity you were doing, or were you distracted by something?
- Daily check-in with another person. Similar to above, this time you ask another person close to you to assess what they observe about you. What would they say you are feeling or thinking? How reactive do you seem? In what ways are you being flexible? In what ways are you being rigid?
- Conversation recheck. Immediately after finishing a conversation with someone, replay the conversation in your mind. How present were you in the conversation? Were you doing something else? Were you thinking about something else? Feel free to ask the person directly how present they thought you were to see how well your impressions match.
- Recognize reactivity. Similar to the Conversation recheck, this time assess yourself after an argument or difficult conversation. Focus on assessing your reactivity. What reactivity level were you feeling? What reactivity level were you at based upon your behavior? How much listening were you doing compared to speaking? Did you go into lecturing, judging, comparing, or fixing? How did you get to your reactivity level? How might you have shown up differently in the conversation had you been at a different reactivity level? What level did you start at? Did you allow yourself to be pulled into a state of greater reactivity? Feel free to check in with the other person directly on what they think about these questions. Otherwise, you can gauge their body language. Were they backing away from the conversation or were they leaning in? Did their reactivity level go up or down as things progressed?
- Where am I suffering? Whenever you are having negative feelings, practice exploring them further. Ask “Where am I suffering? What needs do I have that aren’t being met?”
- Is this pain or discomfort? Whenever you feel pain, explore that feeling further. Are you feeling pain or discomfort? Discomfort occurs whenever we feel something uncomfortable, yet we remain inside our window of tolerance. Pain occurs when we are pushed outside our window of tolerance. Pain is what we feel when our boundaries are being violated.
- Speak your story out loud. Practice telling your story in front of a mirror. Say it out loud. “This is what I used to believe. This is what I believe now…” Telling your story out loud is a way of allowing your whole Self to hear the story, dissect it, organize it, and integrate it. See if it stands up to personal scrutiny. Then do the same thing with another person.
- Future self journal This worksheet by Dr. Nicole LePera is incredibly helpful.
There are many other ways to build consciousness. Journaling or creating a collage of magazine pictures can help us discover things about ourselves and answer difficult questions. Consider mindfulness meditation practices. Also consider yoga as a way to build up body awareness.