Recently, I was asked to write a guest post for the blog called A Life Colored Amber. The blog, starting with its heart-warming title and finishing on its content is all devoted to spreading positive attitude towards life, so I had to think hard about a topic optimistic enough to meet the requirements. Finally, I decided to muse upon the notion of self-awareness, which influence on our lives is nothing but positive in every aspect.
Self-awareness puts us in total control over our own lives. Only when we start paying deeper attention to our own self realizing our roots like family history, biological inheritance, upbringing, and our surrounding like social groups, environmental forces, cultural influences, can we fully understand the importance of our own self in the current course of life we happen to be a part of.
It is often said that traveling broadens our minds. We learn a lot from people of other cultures, since we belong to a totally distinctive one. Learning cultural differences deepens our self-awareness by increasing our sense of belonging, and I can relate to this, since I never felt so utterly Polish only when I had a chance to live in Spain surrounded by Spanish people trying to impose their habits on me.
This experience strongly influenced my identity. For the first time I learned that I can change my habits, my rituals, even my every-day language, but deep down inside I am only a mere observer of what is happening with me. I had this overpowering feeling of split personality, I acted like a Spaniard but my Polish self was in constant amaze of my actions. It was as if I had an inner observer who manipulated me to see my reaction to a particular stimulus. On every step of my experience I knew that I can safely go back to the core of my own self which was defined by all the factors that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Sounds like a mental breakdown? Maybe, but I am not the only one out there.
I would like to describe an extreme and rather morbid example but it’s the only one I know that was documented and described in the literature devoted to self-development. During WWII a Jew psychologist Viktor Frankl was taken to a death camp, which made him realize huge potential of self-awareness. This is how Stephen Covey describes his aha-moment:
“One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms” – the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Victor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very own involvement. His basic identity was intact. (…) Between what happened to him, or the stimulus, and his response to it, was his freedom or power to choose that response.”
Dr Frankl exercised his self-awareness into the extreme level of meta self-awareness where he could picture himself away from his present situation – by using imagination and paramount potential of his memory he could place his self in a completely different situation, like for example his lectures at the university. Covey summarises his experience in one sentence: “Frankl used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”
Now, I used this extreme example not to make you a zombie who shuts himself from the outside world in his own imaginary one, but to make you realise how much of a power of choice do we really have, what a wide variety of reaction patterns we possess. It is not a situation that has power over us, it is our own self that can allow or not to be influenced by it; our own concession is the real boss here.
Is it possible to exercise self-awareness to the level of usability in every-day situations? Of course, but it requires patience, deep involvement and regular practice. There are many sites devoted to self-awareness, but the only draw-back is that meditation practitioners focus mainly on our body and thought-free state of mind, psychologists draw your attention to self-exploration whereas neurologists suggest brain stimulation practices.
Below, I have chosen exercises that are a mixture of all those approaches, and so you will find: physical exercises that raise our body control awareness, self-reflection practice set together with brain exercises which appeal to our left and right hemisphere (analytical and emotional one).
Gaining control over our body is a very important step in gaining control over our responses to certain triggers stimulating our reactions. Very often tense muscles increase the level of anger, stress or fear. It is vital to know how to control our body in order to control our negative emotions.
The very basic exercise raising the awareness of your body is to sit, lean back and close your eyes trying to recognize what parts of your body are tense. Now try to picture a certain situation and do the same. For me, stressful situations tense my neck muscles whereas anger releasing ones my stomach muscles.
The next step is to lie on the bed tightening and relaxing different parts of your body. With time, you will notice that you gain access to more and more muscles, even the ones that probably you did not know that existed. The more muscles you can consciously tighten, the more probable it is that you can also relax them on demand, which is the overall aim of this practice.
It is very important to be able to name your feelings, and to know yourself thoroughly including all your Achilles’ heels. Here, I would like to present three exercises that increase your level of self-esteem and influence your objectivity towards yourself.
Ex.1. The Victory Log (on the basis of Mike Brescia’s e-book Today Is Your Day To Win)
The overall aim of this exercise is to raise your level of confidence in stressful situations. Your task is to think about every little or big success that you have ever achieved throughout your life, and make a list of them on the piece of paper which you can carry around with you at all times. There is no time limit: from your early childhood up till now, nor is there any level of achievement: everything counts! Have you ever dated a hottie? Put it on your list. Did you climb a really tall tree when you were 10? It also makes a list. Did your boss compliment your work? Yes, that’s very much listable.
Now, in every situation that makes you feel uneasy, stressed or lost, you will take out the list and read it. The further you walk down the memory lane of your achievements, the lower is the level of your stress and higher is the level of confidence you gain.
Ex. 2. Self-Pros and Self-Cons
Listing your strengths and limitations enables you to work on the latter. Personally, my list of cons is considerably longer than pros, but it gives me motivation to work on them in order to cross them out from the list or change their position from con side to pro one.
Being aware of your qualities also helps you recognize certain triggers that influence your negative emotions. For instance, if you have recently discovered that you are a lost case of a perfectionist, it is more probable that in the future you will not get irritated by your son’s recklessness in colouring within the lines, since you know that those feelings stem from your personal weakness, and your negative emotions are in this case misdirected.
Ex. 3. Post Argument Objective Concluding
This exercise will practice your objectivity towards yourself, and hopefully in the future will prevent you from reacting improperly to a certain situation.
Think of a recent argument that you had, and look at it as objectively as you can. Write down all the possible reactions that you could have had, everything that comes to your head, do not judge it just write with the flow of your mind.
Now, look at the list, and divide the reactions into emotional and cold-blooded – was your reaction emotional or cold-blooded? If emotional, try to figure out what factor triggered this emotion remembering that our feelings are personal and we should not be subjected to them.
When you are done pondering on the triggers, look at the list again, and find the most appropriate reaction, universal to every human being, not only you.
Brain Stimulation Practice
This exercise will put you in touch of both sides of your brain, the one that is responsible for solving mathematical equations, analytical and comparative thinking and the overall use of logic, and the one that steers our emotions, imagination, creativity and artistic skills.
Your task is to write down a word that comes to your mind and describe it both ways:
- using an intellectual and factual approach to it like grammatical definition, historical facts, linguistic diagnose, semantic description, etc.
- using your emotional response like personal experience connected to this word, feelings that you attribute to it, desires that are awaken by the word, or stories that comes to your mind when thinking of it
Learning the difference between subjective and objective response to a word is a milestone in raising the level of your self-awareness. It is a simple word for now, but in the future it may be a whole sequence of situations.
The examples of exercises shown above require a deep sense of self-involvement and determination. You have to fully open yourself to yourself, and understand your ulterior motives, the unique reasoning of your mind and how your body reacts to external factors. It is difficult to admit that we are fallible, but I think that this is the first big step in the difficult process of self-improvement. So just to finalize my thoughts, I would like to leave you with a quote of Doctor Covey who said that:
“To change ourselves effectively, we first had to change our perceptions.”