Self-awareness is a life-long process. It starts when we are babies, and continues throughout our lives.
Most of us have seen a baby discover his hands or feet. These are the first steps in self-awareness. Next, babies learn to recognize themselves. When they are under a year old, they may look in a mirror and think the reflection is another baby. But by about two years of age, more than half of kids tested will recognize themselves.
This is also the age children start to recognize the power of ‘no’. Why does this happen? They start to realize they are separate from others. They learn they have control over their behaviour, not only their movements.
Around the age they enter elementary school, kids enter another developmental stage. They begin to understand that other people have thoughts about them. They may start to worry what those thoughts are. They may fear judgment based on their looks or their behaviour or what toys they have.
These discoveries help us become aware of ‘our self in the world’. But there is also the internal journey, of ‘who am I and what are my beliefs and feelings’. This internal journey is an important foundation for many social and emotional skills.
There are great reasons to work towards being more self-aware. It helps us recognize and express our needs and feelings. This is a critical step in building healthy relationships. Internal awareness is also the first step to self-acceptance, which leads to self-esteem. Internal awareness also helps us discover automatic or ingrained reactions. And this lets us change behaviours that are not useful.
But here’s the most important reason to become self-aware. Our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings determine our behaviours. We like to be right so badly that our brains look for information that confirms our beliefs. And then we even start to act in a way that make our beliefs a reality.
Here is an example. Imagine you believe you are patient. Then you will look for situations that prove you are patient. You will better remember times when you were patient. And you will do your best to be patient in the future.
The same is true for negative self-beliefs. They can be self-fulfilling prophecies. Becoming aware of our beliefs and feelings allows us to challenge them. This is the first step to in ensuring we reach our full potential.
Unfortunately, internal awareness is a difficult skill to develop. Here are six reasons why.
1. We interpret everything.
We think our thoughts and feelings come from experiences. But they don’t. They come from our interpretation of the experience. How is that possible? That’s the way our brains work. We use different parts of our brains to process data. When we look at something, the information gets split up. We process colours, shapes, motion, faces and patterns in different areas of the brain. Then our brain has to pull those bits back together to make meaning. We will skip over information, or even fill in blanks, to make our interpretation.
2. We believe experiences cause feelings.
Feelings come from how our brains process a situation, not from the situation itself. For example, one person can view a gun as a threat, while someone else sees the same gun and feels protected. Our interpretation brain works extremely well. So well, we often forget that what we think and feel starts on the inside. This can mean we tend to maintain our focus on the external world, rather than checking into our internal world.
3. We don’t notice how memories influence us.
When we interpret experiences, we rely on memory. But again, this happens so quickly that we are not even aware that this is the case. A child who has been abused may see an adult’s arm in the air and be worried about being hit. He may feel fear and shame. Another child may see that same hand up in the air and start feeling anticipation. She may think a taxi is being hailed or she is about to be tickled. Our interpretations are based both on the surroundings and our previous experiences. To complicate this further, early childhood memories are not accessible to most of us. And yet they still colour our interpretation of experiences.
4. Sometimes our feelings aren’t ours.
Emotions are contagious. The mirror neurons in our brains help us feel what other people feel. So sometimes it is hard to know if we are feeling our own feeling or picking up on someone else’s feeling!
5. We may not want to admit our thoughts and feelings.
There is yet another reason self-awareness can be difficult. We may not like our thoughts or are feelings. This may make us try to block our them (knowingly or unknowingly). Or we may judge ourselves and tell ourselves these thoughts and feelings are ‘wrong’. When this happens, we may end up in denial of what we actually think or feel.
6. Words are just labels.
Sometimes we don’t have the right words. We can’t describe (even to ourselves) what is going on. This is because thoughts and feelings can be complicated. We can feel conflicting emotions at the same time. And words are limited. Translating what we think and feel into words is an acquired skill.
Phew. Self-awareness is an incredibly difficult skill. It can take a lifetime to develop. Yet it is also incredibly important. It is the basis of a healthy relationship with ourselves and with others. Might as well start helping your child on this journey now!
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