Surely the world would be a kinder, gentler, happier place if more people worked on their self-awareness. And yet, for those already well-versed in the attribute, their struggle isn’t about being self-aware. It’s about being too self-aware.
Sounds implausible, doesn’t it? Like having too much money, intelligence…or chocolate. How can too much of a good thing be a not-so-good thing?
Let’s start with the basics: What is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is an ongoing process of recognizing, acknowledging, and understanding yourself, both internally and externally.
Internal self-awareness is a bit like sliding down the rabbit hole and observing your own inner thoughts and feelings. You become an objective observer of your subjective self.
“Wow! Two years ago I wouldn’t have had that opinion.”
“I feel nauseous and weak every time I reach for the phone to call (whomever).”
“Why am I judging this person whom I don’t even know?”
“I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have my same political beliefs.”
Internal self-awareness, in and of itself, bears no judgment. It recognizes, collects information, and pauses to acknowledge physical, mental, and emotional messages.
It then uses that information to shape or refine thoughts and behaviors.
External self-awareness, on the other hand, is like sitting in your own audience and observing yourself.
It’s the awareness that compels you to adhere to social norms. It says, in essence,
“I’m not the only person in the world, or even in this room.”
“My thoughts and opinions aren’t the only ones that exist.”
“I’m in church, so I need to be quiet and reverent.”
*I wonder what others see in me when I am around them.”
“I wonder if the audience can tell how nervous I am.”
*I need to mind my manners at this party.”
External self-awareness can lead you to soften the expression of harsh thoughts when you’re in the company of mixed viewpoints.
It can also guide you to choose your wardrobe according to the setting and guest list of a venue.
Most importantly, external self-awareness is built on your curiosity about how others see you, while internal self-awareness is about how you see you.
How then, is it possible to be too self-aware if awareness is such a good thing? After all, we all know people who seem to have no sense of themselves or their effect on others, and it can be maddening.
Again, another distinction….
Self-evaluation is often confused with self-awareness.
While self-awareness is about attention to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, self-evaluation assigns value and judgment to them.
For example, you might feel embarrassed about a mistake you made.
If you're practicing self-awareness, you acknowledge your mistake and take action to correct it. “Ahh, lesson learned. I have some apologies — and then some corrections — to make. Glad I found out now.”
If you’re being self-evaluative, you might do one or more of the following:
- Call yourself derogatory names.
- Lie about the mistake.
- Avoid anyone who knows about your mistake.
You may even become less willing to take risks out of fear of making another mistake.
Whether the context is internal or external, micromanaging your self-awareness under a microscope of evaluative scrutiny can be counter-productive.
Being “too self-aware” internally can lead to stress and anxiety.
Your mind ends up spinning itself into a downward spiral of self-criticism, insecurity, self-doubt, and disapproval. You question everything you think and feel against a backdrop of unworthiness and inferiority.
Locked inside the vault of your own mind, you can imagine how carried away that process can become.
Being “too self-aware” externally can lead to social anxiety and such lack of confidence in public that you isolate or appear socially awkward.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also called social phobia, takes external self-awareness to an extreme. The sufferer has so much anxiety over everyday interactions — so much fear of being embarrassed or judged — that they withdraw from life.
Somewhere in the process of gaining perceptions, perspective gets lost.
When babies begin to develop internal self-awareness — “I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m tired, I want…” they are developing survival skills. They are recognizing themselves as thinking, feeling, interactive entities in a larger context of influence.
As they mature, their thoughts evolve from “survival” to more complex, relational, and abstract.
Some people never examine the connection between their thoughts and feelings and the behaviors and consequences that come from them and their expression.
Having too little self-awareness is not only damaging, but potentially dangerous.
But having too much self-awareness, if that is even possible, can rob you of a healthy life.
It’s the self-consciousness that reflects unrealistic truths about your interior life and external presence. You assume inferiority and extreme scrutiny and judgment, so the world becomes a hostile place — even in your own mind.
The part of self-awareness that is missing in these extreme cases is acceptance.
Acceptance is the difference between “I made a mistake” and “I am a mistake.”
It’s what empowers you to process your awareness into better behavior.
It’s what makes you use all those “notes to self” as a catalyst to living a more enlightened, productive, socially- (and self-) responsible life.
And it’s what helps you construct enough boundaries to be able to say, “It’s none of my business what other people think of me.”
Self-awareness is a perpetual personal journey and exploration of who you are, why you do the things you do, and how you can become more of who you truly want to be.
In that sense, you can’t be “too self-aware.”
What matters is whether and how you use what you learn to become the highest fulfillment of yourself.
Awareness, even when difficult, exists to propel you forward. Embrace it as the messenger it is.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn and I’m a life coach. Schedule a 30-minute private consultation for support in increasing self-awareness and becoming more you despite all that’s happening in your life right now.