The ability humans have to focus attention on ourselves and use that awareness to evaluate strengths and shortcomings is almost the very definition of a double-edged sword. What you observe can provide helpful information to drive behavior change and improve results. But self-assessment can also take a dark turn and morph into relentless self-criticism. New research points to how we can use constructive self-awareness to gain valuable new perspectives and actually boost self-control, self-esteem and leadership.
The downsides of self-awareness have been well documented by psychologists for decades and even referred to as the human dilemma
. The destructive impact of hypercritical self-focus has often been considered so damaging that only recently have psychology researchers waded back in to explore and document the positive benefits of more constructive self-introspection.
Current research suggests that having reasonable expectations for yourself, along with an optimistic attitude about meeting them, can enable people to derive the benefits
of self-awareness without getting sucked into its dark side.
Research by organizational psychologist, executive coach and best-selling author of Insight
, Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., suggests it is quite possible to experience and increase healthy self-awareness. And that there is good reason to do so. Seeing ourselves clearly enables us to make better decisions, build stronger relationships and communicate more effectively. Self-aware leaders have also been shown to be more effective, promotable, trusted and respected.
Internal and external self-awareness
Eurich’s research with more than 5,000 participants started with a scientific literature review to create an updated definition of self-awareness. Two broad categories consistently emerged. First, what psychologists call internal self-awareness. That’s how clearly we see our own values, aspirations, thoughts, feelings, strengths and weaknesses. It is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, greater personal control and happiness. It was also associated with less anxiety, stress and depression in Eurich’s research.
The other category of self-awareness is external, or understanding how others see us. Those who are adept at understanding how other people see them tend to be better at showing empathy and considering the perspectives of others.
Interestingly, Eurich’s research found no relationship between the two types of awareness. You can be high in one and low in the other. However, those who were most self-aware worked on both aspects — understanding themselves and getting feedback to see how others experience them.
Their research also found that, although most people believe they are self-aware, only about 10-15% of participants met the study criteria for self-awareness. Those with more experience and power often tended to have the most unrealistic and inflated sense of their self-knowledge. The higher up you are in an organization, the fewer people who are comfortable providing candid feedback.
How successful leaders do it
However, the most successful leaders in Eurich’s study did seek out critical feedback from a range of sources. “Women especially often have this harsh inner critic playing on a loop in our heads which can make it difficult to seek feedback, even though that is exactly what we need to improve and advance,” explains Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D
., best-selling author of Better than Perfect
. “Feedback is not indicative of failure; it’s simply data. It’s information you can use to keep getting better.”
Knowing that your inner critic can be a powerful and unreliable source, she suggests also seeking input from those you trust to truly have your best interests in mind. That can be a supportive boss or colleague. But sometimes you need to look further to a mentor or sponsor who is invested in your success. “The best feedback will be both candid and caring,” Lombardo says. “And even then, be careful to develop a full picture. You will sometimes encounter one person whose views just don’t fit with what others have shared with you.”
Ask what, not why
Always wary of the potential dark side of introspection, Eurich and others point out that “Why?” is one of the most counter-productive questions for building self-awareness. When we start the self-introspection process by asking why
something happened or didn’t happened or why
we feel a certain way, the brain starts inventing answers. Those answers can be totally off base, relying on your faulty inner critic, fear and personal insecurities rather than an accurate read of the current situation.
The most effective leaders in Eurich’s research instead asked, “What?” As in “What
situations cause me to feel resentful?” and “What
actions can I take to drive a better outcome next time?” and “What
do I need to do to move past this setback?”
“When we ask ourselves better questions and combine that information with feedback from candid and caring sources, we can gain the rewards of greater self-awareness, without unrealistic expectations and overly harsh self-assessment,” Lombardo says. She calls that letting your inner light shine brighter than your inner critic.