What is self-awareness and why is it important?

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert
Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

By Irvine Nugent

By Irvine Nugent

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Have you ever built a house? Well, if so you certainly started with a foundation, and today we’re going to explore the foundation of emotional intelligence. We’re going to talk about the elements that go into self-awareness and we’re also going to have some practical exercises that will help you develop and grow your self-awareness.

I built a house about four years ago and one of the most frustrating elements was the foundation. It went on and on and on and it felt like nothing was happening, and yet the architect said to us “if you don’t have a solid foundation then watch out, the house is going to have problems.” With emotional intelligence the foundation is self-awareness. When we have strong self-awareness, our emotional intelligence is built on a strong foundation.

What is self-awareness?

Let’s go into the elements that make a strong self-awareness and then I want to leave you with some practical exercises, some practical tools that you can use to integrate and grow that foundation, because unlike a house, this foundation can grow and develop each and every day of your life.

When we explore self-awareness there are a number of different elements that are incredibly important.

Recognize the emotion

The first is: do we recognize the emotion we are feeling in the moment? How many times a day are we asked, “How are you feeling?” Of course, what the person wants is the perfunctory “I’m fine”, but at the core self-awareness is that simple question. Are we aware of the emotion and are we able to label it? Are we also aware of the intensity? You know, I was reading recently that we have 13 words for snow, but the Eskimos have 50. So, when it comes to your self-awareness of your emotions, how wide is your vocabulary? Do you just use a few words? ‘I’m happy’, ‘I’m sad’, ‘I’m angry’. Are you able to give nuances in the particular moment? Because what we know is that the wider our emotional vocabulary, the better our self-awareness. And what’s amazing now is some research coming out that even the ability to label an emotion in the moment can help us deal with that emotion in a more effective way. There are some amazing programs currently in children’s schools helping them identify the emotion in the moment, and what they’re finding is that the extent and the duration of anger episodes is lessening. So, labeling our emotions is important.

Become aware of your body

The second thing is our physiology. You know, so often we live our lives from the head upwards, especially at the world of work, and yet our bodies were created to give us messages – emotional messages. Because here’s what happens when we’re triggered for an emotion: our body responds so quickly that it gives us signs even before we’re conscious that we’re in emotion. So, if we can read the body, if we can become aware of the body, then we will have vital signs to help us understand that we’re triggered in the moment.

So, what does that look like? Well, notice changes. Perhaps our heart is beating a little bit quicker. Perhaps the heat in our body is increasing. We’re becoming red, or perhaps we’re sweating. Perhaps our breathing has changed, becoming more shallow or deeper. Perhaps our blinking has increased, and we find that we’re not focused and we’re all over the place with our eyes. All of these are incredibly important because they are signals that something is up, and to the extent that we’re able to read them quicker and faster is the extent that we can add a little more choice into how we respond.

Know your triggers

The third element is triggers. You know, each of us has a unique fingerprint. No one else has our fingerprint, and the same is what I like to say with our triggers. We all have a ‘trigger-print’ and our trigger-print is different. Your trigger-print is different than my trigger-print. What goes into our trigger-print?

Well, it’s the sum of evolution and the experiences of our life. Things that happened to us in childhood, or even just last week – all of them have led to us having emotional triggers and formed how we respond to different situations in our life. So, do you know your trigger print? Do you know what gets you going? At work, is it the boss’s bad mood? Is it an angry customer? Perhaps you came in happy, everything was going fine, it’s your first phone call of the day, someone starts screaming at you and all of a sudden you’re triggered. I know two words in a workplace which send triggers all over the place – Budget cuts. To the extent that we know our trigger is the extent to which we realize that we have to watch out for emotions in the moment. If we know those triggers, then we’re able to manage what those triggers are.

We also carry a lot of biases, and part of self-awareness is knowing the particular biases that we have. Sometimes our biases are about other people. Sometimes our biases are about our preferences, but those are critical as well for helping us become aware, in the moment, of why we’re deciding what we’re deciding and to be aware of those biases. You know, you can’t remove your biases, but you can become aware of them.

Tools for coming more self-aware

So, now that we’ve explored self-awareness, I want to turn to five different ways that we can explore and become more self-aware each and every day.

Expand your lexicon

Tool number one, expand your lexicon – your dictionary of your emotions. You know, I talked about a few minutes ago that people who are emotionally intelligent have more words for their emotions. They’re able to describe their emotional life in detail. It’s the example of the Eskimos, they have 50 words for snow. So, ask yourself, how many words do I have for my emotional life? How nuanced am I? Am I able to perhaps show the intensity of my emotion in the moment? And if you say, “you know, I’m not”, then just Google lists of emotions, print out those emotions and go through them. Look at the different nuances of those emotions, because the stronger our ability to label an emotion, the easier it is to control it. Because let’s face it, if we’re not able to name the emotion, it becomes very difficult to tame the emotion in the moment.

Keep an emotion journal

The second tool is to keep an emotional journal. Yes, we have to be self-reflective. It kind of goes with self-awareness. So often we get in situations, we have an emotional reaction and then all of a sudden we don’t do anything about it. We don’t even think about it. And it’s past, only to repeat itself time and time and time again. What an emotional journal’s about is uncovering the emotional patterns in our life. So, I just invite you to get a journal, and every time you have a really strong emotional reaction, take just a few minutes and write down about the experience. What happened? What did you notice? What did you notice about your body? Did you notice any physiological signs? And then what proceeded that? Do you know what the trigger was? And if you know the trigger, do you know what the cause of the trigger was? All of this is vital information. You know, there’s no quick way to gaining self-awareness. It’s all about building these blocks, and a journal can uncover a goldmine of information.

Practice a body scan

I already talked about the importance of becoming aware of the physiological reactions, and part of that is at times we’re kind of out of touch with how our body is responding. So, you know, there’s a practice called a ‘body scan’, and a body scan is part of meditation. It’s basically being still, being seated, breathing, and then scanning through your body just to become aware of how each part of the body is feeling at the moment. You can do this in a few minutes. You just sit down and get comfortable. You can begin with your feet and feel the pressure of the feet on the ground, and then as you work up through the legs, into the stomach, through the shoulders and through the jaw and around the face, it’s stopping and pausing at each part to become aware of that particular part of the body. To become aware if there’s tension. To become aware if there’s heat, or cold. All of this is building up an awareness of parts of our body, perhaps that unless we have severe pain, we never really think about. And when we build up this tool through a body scan, we’re better able to recognize certain emotions as they happen.

Learn your trigger print

So the fourth exercise is finding all about your trigger print. All of us have unique trigger prints that we’ve developed to respond to certain circumstances in our lives. And what’s wonderful is each and every person’s trigger print is different. So, what’s your trigger print? What gets you going? You know, for me it’s people lining up in a queue at the grocery store where it says 10 items and clearly they have a hundred items in their cart. It drives me insane. It’s stupid, I know, but it does. And I often say to myself “why, Irvine, does that just get you so annoyed”, and you know what it is – I think it’s just fairness and courtesy. For me, a huge value in my life is courtesy and respect to another person. So, a trigger for me is when I notice people around me not treating me or others with courtesy and respect it gets me angry. It’s a trigger. And that knowledge helps me become aware of why I am getting so worked up in the moment. Now, our world is becoming crazier. It’s becoming faster. The world of work is providing us with so many opportunities because change is constant. The pace of work is changing. And so, to become aware of our triggers is empowering because at times, you know, we wonder ‘are our emotions controlling us or are we controlling our emotions?’ You know, one of the exercises I give to each and every leader that I work with is that they must watch the cartoon Inside Out. I don’t care who they are, even if they’re a CEO of a company. The reason why is because it’s so incredible. It teaches us so much about emotions, and it helps us as well to have a glimpse of our emotions and our triggers.

Explore your personality

So, the final point is to get to know some of our personality. There are many, many different personality assessments there and I use a lot in the leadership work that I do. You know, no single leadership or personality test tells us everything about ourselves, it’s just a little glimpse at who we are, but they can be really powerful in helping us become more self-aware. What gets us going? What makes us tick? What do we tend to avoid? What do we enjoy? All of them provide some new information that helps us become more self-aware. I tend to use three or four in particular to help people become more self-aware. The first is called ‘the big five’. That’s a personality inventory of five different aspects that make up your personality. First is openness: how open are you to new experiences? The second is conscientiousness: how applied are you to finish a certain goal and to motivate yourself? Third is extroversion: where do you get your energy? Is your energy through others? Fourth is agreeableness: how willing are you to sacrifice your needs so that others may have their wants and needs satisfied? Finally, neuroticism: how prone are you to anxiety because of what you need to do? That’s just one personality assessment. There’s DISC, which is very popular, Myers-Briggs, again, all of them provide glimpses into who we are. The more reflection we have, the more pieces of data around us that help us become more self-aware, the stronger our foundation of our emotional intelligence.

Irvine Nugent, Ph.D. –Behavioral Analysis Expert

Irvine possesses fifteen-plus years in senior leadership roles in various organizations. Dr. Nugent is an approved Paul Ekman International Trainer and offers a wide range of workshops in the areas of emotional intelligence, nonverbal communication, executive presence and lie detection which are based on the practical application of scientific research.
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