In my last blog post, I presented the three essential components of healing from a functional digestive problem like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or a functional non-digestive medical problem: self-awareness, mindfulness, and connection with others. In this blog post, let’s take a closer look at self-awareness—what it is, why increasing your self-awareness is essential to healing, and how to increase it.
What Is Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is knowing yourself. Increasing self-awareness is therefore how we come to learn about and know ourselves better.
Self-awareness happens when we engage in a conscious process of looking within and reflecting on something. This allows us to recognize something about ourselves, about the way we think, feel, and do our lives. Increasing self-awareness means learning something new about yourself as opposed to recognizing something you already know exists.
Why Increasing Self-Awareness is Essential to Healing
To understand why increasing self-awareness is essential to healing, let’s go back to my definition of healing, which is based on Stephen Levine’s definition of healing: Healing is taking a single step into an unknown realm of experience in mind, heart, and body so that you can shift Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) patterns at play.
You presumably already possess a certain level of self-awareness because having lived with yourself for all of these years, you know plenty about yourself! If the goal of healing is to expand what you know, then increasing your self-awareness is a critical part of accomplishing this.
Self-awareness can actually be quite frustrating for people because as they begin to see more clearly the kinds of thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, urges, desires, needs, and beliefs that they have, they now have to face the reality of being more conscious of some of the unpleasant experiences they’ve been having without the ability to stop them. At the same time, becoming aware of something you were not aware of before gives you newfound knowledge and power. Without first being aware of something, you can’t investigate, explore, work with, or change it. Without self-awareness we would be full of blind spots.
How to Increase Self-Awareness
We increase self-awareness is by spending time reflecting on something. You can do this with yourself quietly. You can do this through journaling. You can also do this by talking to people.
You are probably already engaging to some extent in self-reflection with some of the people in your life to whom you feel closest. When you talk about your day and explain why something made you have a particular reaction, you are using or increasing self-awareness.
Self-reflection is taking the time to give attention to something that has some meaning for you and by doing this hopefully understanding more about it. Giving your attention to what you thought and felt, how you behaved, and why you thought, felt, and behaved the way you did in a given situation provides you with important knowledge about yourself.
Self-expression is taking the time and energy to express what you obtain through self-reflection. Generating self-awareness does not require self-expression but can be further facilitated by it. If you are going to share your self-reflections with someone, it’s important to set up a situation for yourself that’s conducive to sharing freely and openly without fear of being judged or criticized.
Increasing self-awareness can best be accomplished by being curious about yourself, picking a focus, a method of self-reflection, and a time frame. Make these selections based on works best for you and is most appropriate.
Are you curious about human nature or your own inner workings? If you are, think about healing as an opportunity to capitalize on your curiosity. To me, that stuff is fascinating and is part of what drew me into becoming a psychologist.
If you’re not naturally curious about your own inner workings, then that may be something to explore…Why aren’t you interested in knowing yourself? Is there fear about what you might discover? If so, how might you work with that fear so it doesn’t get in the way of your healing? Are you interested in knowing others more than knowing yourself? Try some self-reflection on these questions. Perhaps they will lead you toward becoming more curious about yourself.
Curiosity drives us to naturally want to be self-reflective, leading us towards increasing self-awareness. Healing is a whole lot easier when you are genuinely curious about your own human nature.
Pick a Focus
In order to pick a focus, consider choosing something in your life that’s working well or that you’re enjoying. You could choose something really lovely, touching, or wonderful to focus on.
Alternatively, you could also pick something that’s been upsetting, angering, bugging, or gnawing at you. Or something surprising or disarming to you. Or something you’d like to understand. You might choose a behavior of yours that you’d like to modify. Or a reaction to something or someone in your life that makes you curious or that you would prefer didn’t happen quite the way it happens. You might choose a memory that seems to hold power or weight in your life.
When picking a focus, if you are picking something likely to elicit unpleasant feelings, try to choose something that feels like it has some charge or weight to it but is not a big trauma in your life. The intention with this exercise is to practice consciously engaging in self-reflection in order to increase your self-awareness. It is not intended to get yourself so activated or stimulated with emotions or anxiety that you can’t function or set it aside when the time frame is over.
Select a Method
There are several methods of self-reflection available to you. You could journal quietly with yourself. You could engage in some kind of creative self-expression like drawing, modeling clay, making sounds, or engaging in movement. Or you could think out loud by having a conversation or by “free associating” with someone as long as you feel safe and comfortable self-disclosing personal information with that person.
Free association is traditionally a form of psychoanalysis whereby a patient talks for many minutes at a time with the analyst simply listening without saying much at all. If you’re interested in this, make sure the person to whom you are sharing understands that you are interested in their simply listening without offering any feedback or reactions unless you expressly ask for it. Perhaps it would feel a bit more natural for both of you if you agree that your listener is free to acknowledge that they are following you with an “uh-huh” every so often as you talk.
As a regular practice, journaling offers the most benefit for increasing self-awareness. The practice of choosing a focus, putting your pen on paper or hands on a keyboard, and writing freely without stopping or editing yourself is powerful. It has the potential to bring forth more unconscious material and then requires your brain to express that material in words through movement in your hands (and fingers), engaging your brain in processes involved in reducing stress and negativity.
Choose a Time Frame
In general I recommend spending no more than 20 to 30 minutes engaged in self-reflection, and I would do it only once a day, perhaps only once a week if it’s eliciting strong feelings or sensations. You could spend as little or as much time as you’d like engaging in self-reflection as long as you do not get overly stressed or emotional. There is no benefit to overwhelming yourself with unpleasant emotions or sensations, though if you choose to focus on something unpleasant, you will likely experience some degree of unpleasant or painful feelings and sensations.
If you’re choosing to engage in free association with someone, then I might start with five minutes, check in with the person, and if you feel you need more time, go another five minutes, but no more than ten.
Try to make self-reflection, self-expression, and self-awareness time enjoyable and meaningful. That will make it more likely that you’ll do it regularly. Becoming more practiced and comfortable spending time connecting with yourself more deeply gives you some of tools you need in order to heal your body.
Stay tuned. Next time we will get into mindfulness.