Sight is something we take for granted. Imagine trying to drive your car wearing a blindfold, not knowing where you are or where you’re going. It doesn’t take much to imagine how frightening such a situation would be!
I found myself experiencing that fear the other day while driving to work. I was going full speed when all of a sudden, I found my car surrounded by a thick fog. 40 miles an hour suddenly felt like 100. I panicked a little, trying to decide whether to continue driving or to hit the brakes. If I couldn’t see in front of me, then neither could the car that had been following a little too closely behind me. White-knuckled, trying to stay calm, I decided to slow way down and search for the white line on the right side of the road. Soon I saw the faint red brake lights of the car in front of me. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that I had some indicator of where I was going. It felt like hours passed as I inched forward at a crawl until the road climbed and the fog dissipated. I eventually arrived at work, a little shaken, but safe.
As I met with clients throughout the day, my driving experience proved useful and instructive. All of my clients were in a fog of sorts. They were experiencing the same fear I had experienced a few hours earlier. The fear of feeling out of control—unable to see the way forward. All of them were seeking answers and understanding—they were looking for tail lights to lead them through the darkness and I felt humbled to be the one they were looking to.
Many of us feel like we’re driving blind at certain points in our lives. We’ve all experienced this. However, what few of us realize is that many times this lack of emotional and mental insight can often be caused or worsened by a deep and unrealized misunderstanding of ourselves and emotions.
We have powerful feelings that can overwhelm and surprise us. We say and do things that at times may seem random or disconnected from how we truly feel or wish to be. We may even have positive experiences that we are afraid we won’t be able to replicate because we’re not quite sure how we stumbled upon them in the first place.
Similar to driving into an overpowering fog, losing visibility into our own behaviors and the feelings and thoughts that motivate them, can be downright scary.
As a therapist, people often ask me questions like:
- Why am I so sad?
- Why do I lose my temper?
- Why do I always end up in relationships where people take advantage of me?
- Why am I so critical of myself?
- Why don’t I feel worthy of being loved or giving love?
Sometimes, I will ask their question back to them to gauge their understanding and perception of their situation.
Do you know what their response is most of the time? You guessed it—“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
It’s the most common phrase I hear in my work as a therapist.
- I don’t know what I’m feeling.
- I don’t know what my strengths are.
- I don’t know where my fear comes from.
“I don’t know” is a very normal response when we are looking to understand ourselves better. All too often though, we start with “I don’t know” and we end with “I don’t know.”
As a result, we’re left with the fear that comes from not being able to understand or see the way forward.
Just like driving fast into a dark fog, we can’t move forward in our relationships with others and especially in our relationship with ourselves when we are paralyzed by “I don’t know.”
So, in therapy, we dig deeper. We work together to find answers–exploring possibilities, looking for patterns, and noticing which of our underlying needs are not being met. At the end of the day, my job is to help my clients get from “I don’t know” to “I know” and more importantly—“I understand.”
This critical process is called “self-awareness” and it’s surprisingly difficult to master.
Self-Awareness was first studied in the early 1970s by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund, who created the concept that individuals can willfully choose to focus on their external environment or on their internal experience as it relates to that external environment. This looking inward leads to self-evaluation–where people notice how their actions, thoughts, and feelings compare to their circumstances and to their own expectations. Such self-evaluation involves taking personal responsibility for one’s internal states, that is, one’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to situations.
Self-awareness sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? After all, who knows you better than you do?! You can tell that you’re living and breathing, you know what you’re thinking and feeling. So, what’s the big deal?
Why is becoming truly and constantly “self-aware” difficult?
We simply are not used to paying close attention to our thoughts and feelings.
Most of us go through our day highly unaware of our internal states. In fact, our brains rather work against us in that department. The brain is rewarded for automating things. Our breathing, digestion, body temperature, and circulatory system all function in an automated state, below our conscious awareness. We form patterns of behavior so that our brains don’t have to remember each step of a process that we do regularly. Brushing our teeth, making eggs a certain way, doing laundry, or even filling out routine paperwork. These are tasks that we can complete from an automated state with very little conscious awareness of the steps involved in each task. When you pull into your driveway and realize that you don’t remember making all the turns on the streets leading to your home, that’s your brain in automation mode.
While automating can be helpful to us, it can also have a sharp side that may hinder us. Patterns of emotions triggered by thoughts or actions can quite radically overtake us without us understanding why.
Ever found yourself in the middle of an emotional meltdown?
My client Rebecca, described such a meltdown one day in my office.
“I don’t remember exactly what put me over the edge,” she said. “All I know is there I was, standing in front of my two children feeling like a volcano and melting down right in front of them. I lost my temper and I started to yell. I could hear my voice, sharp and loud, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself. I sent them up to their rooms in tears, and afterward, I felt like a huge failure. What kind of mom screams at her kids that way? I hate myself for acting like that. It’s happened many times before and I know it will happen again. I don’t know how to stop it.”
What Rebecca described was an automated emotional response that ramped up and took over without her consciously choosing her actions. It seemed to her that it occurred “out of the blue,” but in actuality, there was a series of steps that led her to that place, steps that slipped by her awareness until she exploded in full emotion. Because she was “driving blind” as far as having visibility into her emotions, she acted in a way that was not aligned with what she valued.
Self-awareness is about getting in touch with you on the inside, knowing what is going on internally–where your thoughts and feelings live–so that you can show up in the world, and in this case, as a mom, the way that YOU want to. The more we can know ourselves, especially our hurts and our needs, the more we can bridge that distance between where we are and where we want to go.
Self-Awareness begins with observing. I like to compare it to standing in the middle of a violent storm. When the wind is blowing and you are getting pelted by hail–all you can think about is surviving. You may not be able to think about how you missed the sky starting to darken or think through the risks of seeking shelter under a tree that could easily be hit by lightning. But if you could take a step out of the storm and sit behind the window in your home all safe and dry, you’d be able to notice things more–you’d be able to see your options more clearly. This is called objectivity. It is the ability to distance yourself from the situation you are in.
Why is this so important? When we are in the middle of stress or high emotion, we very often lose our willful control over our feelings and behavior. We get stuck. We may lose our temper, we may give up too quickly on a task because we feel we are a failure, or we may mindlessly eat an entire bag of chips. Some of my clients describe it as getting trapped in situations where they are doing the same things over and over again that do not serve them well.
Self-awareness allows you to understand and better “see” your inner world. It’s taking off the blindfold and shining a light on all of those automatic thoughts and feelings that sometimes trip you up.
The process of taking the blindfold off can feel a little daunting at first, but if you can successfully become self-aware then there’s a pay-off.
Why is Self-Awareness important?
When you practice self-awareness:
You learn to better understand yourself
You can be proactive in how you choose to handle your emotions and how to act in situations
You develop the confidence to align your behaviors with your values
You learn to be kinder to yourself
You can answer the question- why did I do that or why do I feel that way?
You feel more in control of your life and get your needs met more often.
You can be more readily at peace with who you are
You are able to operate at your very best self and experience your true degree of personal power
As we practice looking inside and learn how to “work with ourselves”, we get better at it. It will feel awkward and strange in the beginning, but with practice, it becomes natural and comfortable, even enjoyable!
The best news of all is this—Self-Awareness is a skill. Not one of us was born self-aware. It’s something we learn how to do and it has very real tangible benefits in our lives.
Becoming truly self-aware is worth the investment—it is the foundation upon which lasting positive emotional and physical changes are built.
Over my years of mothering and counseling I’ve developed exercises to help anyone (including you!) start building self-awareness “muscles.” The exercises are simple but powerful.
1. Create a daily habit of self-reflection.
We live in a very busy and fast-paced world in which almost every moment of our days is filled with tasks or electronics. Build quiet time into your day to notice what you are feeling and thinking, and allow yourself the time to process those feelings and thoughts.
Here are some practical tips to help you create a pattern of daily self-reflection.
2. Become the observer.
Being self-aware is learning to be an observer. Much like putting on the hat of a detective, when you are self-aware you are in discovery-mode rather than judgment or action-mode. You slow down and add a critical step before you act. This allows you to choose your next step rather than react in the moment.
3. Count to 6!
You might be familiar with the age-old advice to count to ten, but new research in neuroscience has found that it actually takes only 6 seconds for the thinking part of the brain to come alive during an emotional event. This is really great news! If you can practice self-soothing in an emotional storm, then you can delay acting on impulse, and instead engage you “observer” to help you understand what is happening in your minds and hearts.
4. Pay attention to your body.
All day long your body gives you clues as to what you are thinking and feeling. Worried about something? Your body may express it in the tightness of your shoulders or in an upset stomach. Angry and upset? Your chest might get tight or your head may throb. Each person experiences emotions in a unique way. Work on noticing how emotions feel in your body.
The emotional body scan is a great way to practice this.
5. Do a little emotion homework.
Most of my clients focus on only a handful of emotions and lack the vocabulary for the many variations of emotions they experience. It can be very helpful to increase your vocabulary in terms of feelings and emotions so you have more words to describe what is going on inside you. There are many lists and diagrams showing the variety of emotions humans experience at one time or another.
Here is a feelings wheel that I have found to be helpful.
6. Get familiar with the vocabulary of feelings.
Part of growing your awareness is being able to identify the feelings and emotions you uniquely experience. According to a study in the Journal of Psychological Science, people generally have a hard time discerning between negative emotions. Instead, they tend to lump them all together which inevitably makes them feel overwhelmed and more negative. As much as possible, try to separate and name your individual feelings and emotions by breaking down your feelings or creating your own feelings wheel.
7. Train your emotional brain through writing.
As you strive to pay closer attention to what you are feeling, writing it down can be very helpful because it engages a different part of your brain. Learning to use both the feeling and the thinking parts of your brain will help you get better and better at connecting to your inner world. Just start where you are and don’t worry about being sure about what is going on inside your head. “I think I might be feeling…” is a great start. Use your feeling list to help you match what you are experiencing to a word that best resonates with you.
This may be a great time to start a journaling practice. Taking time to write out (without editing) your thoughts and emotions will quickly get you in touch with your internal world.
This list of activities is simply a starting point. The path to true self-awareness and therefore true emotional and personal power is a journey. I’ve been blessed to have guides on my journey and I hope I can provide help and guidance–however big or small–for your journey too.
I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions! I’m here for you. Comment below, or visit our forum to post questions and get answers from other women and mothers who are a part of our community.
If you’re ready for the deep stuff, the stuff that will truly begin to transform your life then consider learning more about takecareofmom.com’s programs where you’ll go deep on what I call the five pillars of power.