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The power of self-awareness: Practical steps to enhance it

A woman taking a mindfulness walk in a forest.

Are you ready to get practical?

“We wondered when you’d finally get to that!”

I know. Thank you for your patience.

Let’s review.

Self-awareness is broader than we may have thought, which we discovered in Part 1 of this four-part series. Way broader, in fact. Self-awareness encompasses all facets of self, four of which were covered in Part 2. Not only do we need awareness, but we must focus that awareness, which is done by use of attention. We can attend to those things outside of us—other people, the environment, or culture for example. Or we can focus on those things that occur inside of us, such as thoughts, sensations, and pain. In Part 3, we narrowed the focus to the use of our mind to check the accuracy of our thoughts, sifting between brain babble and truth.

“That is one packed paragraph!”

Yes it is, but it needs to be. Everything we’ve already touched on has laid the foundation for what’s going on, explaining all the elements required to even have self-awareness. Foundation laid, you’re now ready to trust me when I tell you there are a few activities you can try that will hone and slowly expand your ability to use self-awareness more effectively. There are other ways, surely, but I have found this method highly effective.

“Whole-self” self-awareness practices

Hopefully, by now you’re able to see that self-awareness is more than simply knowing you’re a “self” or attending to one aspect of said self (like your thoughts or feelings). 

Throughout this series, I’ve prescribed little exercises to activate elements of your awareness system. To build on those and to incorporate all you have learned, I’m going to give you an overall structure, called the “five-point check-in,” along with associated exercises.

The five-point check-in

Have you ever been asked to “check in” with yourself? How did that go?

If you’re anything like me and many people I’ve worked with over the years, it probably didn’t go too well. You may not have known what exactly to “check in” with, or you may have tried to check in with everything—like your entire past or complete future. Not a particularly helpful (or even possible) endeavor.

And yet, you’ve learned in this series that there’s a lot to notice. So, how do you do it?

Enter the five-point check-in.

Inside you, there reside thoughts, moods, behaviors, and physical reactions. Each of these influence the others and all of them contribute to your state of being. When you influence one in a positive way, you influence all of them in positive ways.

Now consider that you’re also in an environment, which includes people, places, things, and situations.

There you have the five points: 

  1. Thoughts
  2. Moods
  3. Behaviors
  4. Physical reactions
  5. Environment

To use this check-in, take a look at all of the points, but narrow it to no more than three or four hours. Suppose you wake up at 7:30 a.m. It’s Monday. Right before lunch, around 11:30 a.m., ask yourself the following questions:

  1. In the last three to four hours, how have my thoughts been?
  • Example responses: Hectic, calm, negative, positive, racing, absent
  1. In the last three to four hours, how has my mood been?
  • Example responses: Sad, happy, curious, despairing, angry, anxious
  1. In the last three to four hours, how have my behaviors been?
  • Example responses: Engaging, withdrawing, fidgety, snippy, purposeful
  1. In the last three to four hours, how have my physical responses been?
  • Example responses: Cold, hot, tired, energetic, stiff, sore, relaxed
  1. Finally, in the last three to four hours, how has my environment been?
  • Example responses: Overstimulating, under-stimulating, inviting, repelling

Once you’ve taken stock on each of the points, finish up with the “magic question.” Ask yourself, “What might I need?”

The answer will depend on where the problem lies. If your thoughts are negative, what might you need? You need more positive or constructive thoughts. If your behaviors are snippy, what might you need? You need more interaction-friendly behaviors or, perhaps, some justice. What if your body is tired and sore? What might you need then? Then you’ll probably need a nice massage or a long bath. Are you getting the idea?

What if everything is just bad? Well, pick something that’s the easiest to do and will most positively affect one of the areas. Experiment. You’re a unique individual, so you’ll need to try a few things to see what works.

Some tips to help:

  • Try your solutions more than once. It can take time to get the hang of something new.
  • Keep a notepad and jot down the answers to your check-in. A word or phrase for each point is fine. This will help you notice patterns and not waste time on things that do not seem to work.
  • If you struggle to name how you’re doing in any of these points, start with “pleasant or unpleasant.” For example, decide if your thoughts/moods/behaviors/physical reactions/environment are pleasant or unpleasant to you.

This one exercise will raise your awareness and hone your attention on all the significant areas of your life in a manageable way if used consistently over time. As each of these points can also reveal some non-conscious activities, you’ll learn about yourself, as well.

Five-point check-in associated practices

Use this check-in exercise all by itself for at least two or three weeks. At that point, you may add one or more of the following, which are skills that come from robust, evidence-based practices, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

Create truth statements (for your thoughts)

Remember brain babble? A lot of what rattles around in your head is trigger-based and not necessarily accurate for the present moment. It’s not practical to try to trace the origin of every thought and experience in order to figure out how the present moment differs. All you need to start with is accuracy and helpfulness. Therefore, when your thoughts are weighing you down or are unproductive, ask yourself the following question:

“What is still true for you, but more helpful than this thought?”

The answer will be a “truth statement.” Truth statements are not always positive, though they can be. What they do is reveal accuracy and give you a “next step/focus” that will help you feel better. Here are some examples:

Unhelpful thoughtTruth statement
I’m such an idiot.I struggle to talk without anxiety.
I’ll never get better.I’m better now than I was this time last year. I can continue to grow/heal.
No one cares about me.My puppy loves me.
This work is too hard.I can do hard things. I can ask for help.
I’m unlovable.The people I want to care about me do not demonstrate their love well. I can find more expressive people.

Do mindfulness activities (for your moods)

As explained in an earlier edition, mindfulness is full awareness in the present moment with all your senses, nonjudgmentally.

The power of mindfulness comes from learning to attend to your whole self and then allow feelings to pass without judgment. No, that wiggle in your tummy or tension in your shoulder doesn’t have to mean anything. It will pass if you stop fueling it with your thoughts.

Here are a few ways you can build your mindfulness muscle:

Take a mindful walk: Go for a walk for at least ten minutes. Choose one of your senses on which to focus, or one aspect of a sense. For example, notice all the things you see or hear or smell or notice the color orange or the sound of birds.

Do a mindful chore: No one likes chores, but if they stop being chores and start becoming ways to connect to your senses, they can be way more pleasant while having the positive side effect of uplifting your mood. When washing dishes, folding laundry, eating a meal, or making your bed (or any other mundane task), try to really feel the sensations, deeply notice the smells, completely focus on the sights and sounds and, when applicable, absorb the tastes. Smell the bubbles, hear the crunch of the salad, feel the softness of the towels you are folding, and so on.

Try the STOP technique (for your behaviors)

Whenever you are upset and do not know what to do, try the STOP method from DBT:

S – Stop. Don’t move a muscle. Don’t think about anything.

T – Take a step back. Take a deep breath or leave the room if you can.

O – Observe the present moment. Notice what’s happening and how you’re feeling in this present moment. Ask yourself if your feelings fit the facts of what you observe.

P – Proceed mindfully. Choose thoughts and actions that will serve you in the long run.

Try the TIP technique (for your physical reactions)

When your emotions and body sensations overwhelm you, try this DBT technique:

T – Temperature. Change your temperature by using an ice pack or taking a warm shower. 

I – Intense exercise. If you’re angry, overly-excited, or anxious, try running in place or doing jumping jacks for two-to-four minutes. Raising your heart rate a bit can reduce the defense response in your brain.

P – Paced breathing or Paired muscle relaxation. A very helpful way to reduce the uncomfortable physical sensations that accompany strong emotions is to slow your breathing. Try four-square breathing, which consists of breathing in, all the way to your tummy for a count of four, holding for a count of four, breathing out for a count of four, and waiting for your next breath for a count of four. If four feels too long, try four-two-four-two. Or, try a round of tensing and releasing major muscle groups in your body. Don’t tense too hard. A great example of this can be found here.

Do a values Exercise (for your environment)

The places where we repeatedly tend to find ourselves and the people we find ourselves with throughout our life often stem from our core beliefs. Another name for core beliefs is “actual values.” We don’t always endorse these values. Some come from family, friends, and society and they push us when we are not paying attention.  Therefore, it can benefit us to do an exercise to determine our “aspirational values,” which are the values by which we want to live.

Here’s a values exercise for you to try:

  1. Find a list of core values.  
  2. Narrow the list to your top five values. This can most easily be done by narrowing them down first to just 20, then to 12, then to nine, and finally down to five. These are the values you want to live by.
  3. Make a list of the five values your actions and behaviors most often demonstrate. These are the values you actually live by.
  4. Make a list of the top five values you believe your mother, father, significant other, and society have. You can ask or guess these by what you see. Then, see if you can see what most influences your actual values. This step helps with shame. We don’t choose our actual values.
  5. Make a goal for how you’ll decide to move one step closer to your actual values. Revisit your list and do this step every week.

Hopefully, you can see how all of these exercises will enhance your ability to respond more effectively to what you discover in your five-point check-ins. To learn more about all of this and more, and to reap the greatest benefits from building up your self-awareness, connect with a skilled therapist who can help you keep learning and provide the objective input you need to use your self-awareness successfully.

Jerilyn and Torrence, revisited

What a journey! Can’t believe it’s over already!

Or is it?

This series may be ending, but the development of self-awareness is lifelong. Be kind and compassionate to yourself, because this is a process for sure! 

As a final note, along with all the practical ideas provided in this article, I challenge you to go back to the beginning and rewrite Jerilyn and Torrence’s story with enhanced self-awareness. 

What do you think you’ll find? Perhaps Jerilyn will question her thoughts or hold them up to the beacon that the present moment provides. Whatever you discover along this journey to greater self-awareness, remember to focus your attention on the whole self. 

Bit by bit, step by step, you’ll discover the true power of self-awareness.

About the author

Hannah Smith, MA, LMHC, CGP, is the founder of Potential Finders Network. She is also an author, blogger, coach, consultant, international board certified group leader, and nationwide trainer from the Seattle area. She has studied and practiced extensively in neuroscience-informed clinical treatment, as well as personal and professional development, and she guest lectures in academic and clinical settings around the country. Her personal and professional experience in the United States and abroad has enabled her to develop multimodal, culturally competent, cutting-edge, and relevant training programs offered in an engaging presentation style.