Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021
Self-Awareness: Do You Know Who You Are?
Self-knowledge does not involve any form of inference or perception or labelling. It is nothing more or less than the ability to articulate the contents and objects of our emotions, motives, beliefs etc. (John Greenwood, Relatives and Representations, 1991)
By the words of others shall we, using intelligence, know them; by our own words do we, if we strive, know ourselves. (Eric Partridge, Name into Word, 1935)
Self-awareness is defined as the accurate appraisal and understanding of your abilities, potentialities, preferences and motives; as well as their implications for your behaviour and their impact on others. It’s reality-testing; a calibration of self-beliefs against the facts of life.
Self-awareness is partly knowledge about the self: strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities and passions, idiosyncrasies and normalness. It can be derived in many ways from many sources. Sometimes self-insight comes from a sudden epiphany in the classroom or on the couch. It can even occur at a work appraisal. It comes out of both experienced and unexpected success and failure: what others say, and by receiving feedback from a personality test.
Essentially, we get a good appreciation of our skills from specific experiences:
• How well we do at certain tasks.
• What other people say about us.
• How successful we have been.
• The sort of failures and disappointments we have experienced.
• When we compare ourselves to other people who are both similar and different from us.
Self-awareness can be treated as an individual difference variable. It is a trait. In general, high self-awareness is most strongly associated with intellectual and social detachment, analytical inclination and ability. Smart people know how smart they are. Cognitive factors (thinking ability, vocabulary) may be of primary importance, informing accurate judgements of others. This is contrary to the popular stereotype of warmth and emotionality being linked with sensitivity. You can increase your insight of yourself and others.
The data show that people who under-rate their performance tend to be better performers than those who over-rate it. Self—other agreement (the agreement between how one sees oneself and how others see one) is related to success in relationships and at work.
But it is important to note who the other person is and what they know about you: what is their data bank.
There are obvious advantages of self-awareness. These include:
• Discovering what we are good at.
• Investing our developmental efforts most efficiently.
• Helping other people understand us.
• Developing our full potential.
There is, of course, a pathological form of self-awareness. This is manifest in the hyper-vigilant, counselling-addicted, self-obsessed individuals who are interested in nothing but themselves. It is a phase most adolescents pass through. But some become stuck. It’s deeply unattractive and quite counter-productive. Some call it sub-clinical narcissism.
It can take years to find out who you (really) are, where you belong (in the family, organization, community), knowing what you can best contribute to others. Some people are lucky: they are given opportunities to test their skills and see their impact. They become more aware of their potential and how they naturally behave in specific situations.
Are you self-conscious in the sense that you really have self-understanding?
Three things help:
First self-testing, exploration and try-outs. Try new tasks and situations. Adolescents are famous for saying they don’t like something that they have never tried. People make discoveries late in life — often through chance discoveries. Don’t wait — you might have hidden talents at something. And then again you might not. And this leads to awareness of your talents.
Second feature, self-acceptance. This is neither the over- nor under-estimation of your talents. We are not all intelligent, creative and insightful. It’s as sad to see people ignoring or underplaying their strengths as their weaknesses.
Third, seeking out feedback from others. A good friend, boss, teacher tells it like it is. They help to clarify crucial questions: what is really important to me? Who is the authentic me?
To be really self-aware is to be more resilient, more realistic and for others more predictable. The narcissist who vainly seeks ever-more reassurance from others is unappealing, and probably as unhappy, as the depressive who only sees personal faults.
For the Freudians the goal of all therapy is self-awareness. To understand the murky unconsciousness, the real self, the inner child. That can also be the source of self-obsession: which is the darker side of the quest for self-consciousness.
Many people know about the famous Johari window with its 2 x 2 dimensions: what I see in me; what I do not see in me; what you see in me; what you do not see in me. This yields four boxes.
The four boxes are labelled thus:
The Open Self which is common knowledge. This involves things like interests, ambitions, abilities that both I and others who know me, know. The open self is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get part.
Then there is the Hidden Self which is the little box of secrets: things I know about me that others do not. This may contain stories of past events, odd beliefs and desires or socially unacceptable attitudes and beliefs. ’Things I know about myself that I have not disclosed’ come in various guises. There may be things I am ashamed about; or things that I really don’t think important or things simply best forgotten.
The third box is labelled Blind Self which is about things other people know about (see in, are sure of) me but which they have not told me. That is, I am blind to these supposed facts or at least reputation. Thus some people harbour odd beliefs about their appearance or abilities that are simply untrue…at least from an observer’s perspective.
The fourth box is the Unknown Self — things neither I nor others know about me. Buried, repressed or long forgotten thoughts or even areas of potential. Perhaps they can be mined by therapists interested in, and supposedly able to, drag things from the murky unconscious into the bright light of day.
We get information about ourselves and develop self-awareness via feedback and give others information through disclosure.
Fletcher, C., Baldry, C. & Cunningham-Snell, N. (1998). The Psychometric Properties of 360 Degree Feedback: An Empirical Study and a Cautionary Tale. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 6, 19—34.
Fletcher, C. & Bailey, C. (2003). Assessing self-awareness. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 18, 395—40.
Furnham, A. (2018). Rater Congruence in 360 Feedback: Explaining why ratings of the same person differ and what organizations should do about it. In D. Bracken, Allan Church, John Fleenor and Dale Rose (Eds). Handbook of Strategic 360 Degree Feedback. Oxford: OUP.