Dr. Paul on developing self-awareness for better self-control

Hold a mirror up: By seeing yourself as others see you, you’re more likely to become the person you hope to be.

We’re all experts when it comes to other people. We can see their superpowers, their super flaws, and everything in between. It’s amazingly simple to see our children, partners, family and friends as they are. But when it comes to ourselves, we’re as blind as bats.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to see ourselves as others view us. Consider that as we go through our day, we can’t see our facial expressions, hear our voice as others do, or glimpse our bodies in motion. Our perspective is always looking outward. We are constantly reacting to the world around us. Humans are especially visual creatures, continually scanning the environment for threats and opportunities.

Our mind is the primary tool for discerning meaning. It interprets sensory information, analyzes incoming data, and plans and executes action. Our minds are constantly “thinking,” with thoughts arriving and departing like planes at a busy airport. What we see and hear goes through a sieve of past experience, beliefs, expectations and habits. Indeed, our brain organizes visual and auditory information into recognizable patterns.

And yet, to see ourselves as others see us is an enormous advantage when it comes to human interplay. To be able to “evaluate” our evaluations of incoming sensory information, to see how we organize knowledge, and how we plan, act and react enables us to choose our behavior more effectively. It helps us to respond rather than to simply react to the world around us.

So how can we see ourselves more clearly? How do we find a mirror that reflects back to us our true selves? It’s all about developing self-awareness.

Here’s how:

Cultivate calm. To see yourself clearly, your mind must be relaxed. Just like a lake with calm water reflects the sky and landscape around it clearly, a peaceful mind is better able to see itself.

Note your beliefs and values. What do you value? What are your beliefs about yourself and others? And importantly, look at your behavior and actions — do they reflect your beliefs and values? Be brutally honest with yourself. Sadly, words and actions don’t always correspond with each other.

Listen to what friends and family say about you. To really listen to the observations of others can be challenging. We may discount compliments and become defensive when criticized. Be open to this valuable source of information. Your family can be a great source of personal observations. They spend so much time observing you in your everyday life.

Review each day. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Imagine that when you got up this morning, a video camera was recording everything you did and said during the day. Rewind the tape and see yourself, as if looking at a TV monitor, as you went about your day. What did you do? How did you react and respond to others? What did you feel? Were your actions consistent with your values? What did you appreciate about how you handled something?

Stop the tape and give yourself a pat on the back. What would you have liked to do differently? Pause the tape, rewind and play back the tape as you would have liked to have been. Did you have a particularly challenging experience? Play that segment in slow motion noting how you felt, what you thought and what you said. What was the tone of your voice? Then play it back the way you might hope to have been. This exercise, when done regularly, can help you develop great self-awareness.

Beware and be aware. Human beings are masters of self-deception! We tell ourselves a story and then believe it, regardless of the facts. Question your narratives about others and yourself. Look closely, openly and with compassion.

We are all growing, changing and learning all of the time. By nurturing self-knowledge, we can better become the person we hope to be.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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