What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness competency is the ability to recognise one's own strengths and weaknesses in ability, character, behaviours, and attitudes from the perspectives of self and others.
Chan, CKY (2021)

Self-awareness, also known as self-understanding, is the ability to recognise one’s own ability, character, behaviours and attitudes. It includes the awareness of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and the impact of one’s actions and words. Developing self-awareness is crucial to setting clear and realistic goals and directions, and also helps enhancing a person’s self-confidence, direction, and discipline (American Psychology Association, n.d.; Chan, Zhao & Luk, 2017; Chan & Luk, 2021).

An interdisciplinary subject in itself, scholars from various disciplines have examined self-awareness from the perspectives of philosophy, cognitive science, health sciences, and more, with different definitions and understandings. One of the largest bodies of literature on this topic concentrates in developmental and evolutionary psychology, and often studies how beings differentiate themselves from their mirror reflection, such as Rochat’s (2003) five level of self-awareness that follows children’s stages in recognising themselves as a person.

In the holistic competency framework, we are less concerned about the early childhood development of self-awareness, and more interested in the “meta self-awareness” – the final stage in Rochat’s (2003) model of self-awareness – that people display in a more mature stage of development. “Meta self-awareness” also referred to as self-consciousness by Rochat, refers to an individual’s awareness of not only “what they are but also how they are in the mind of others” (p. 722).

One of the oldest and more influential understanding of “meta self-awareness” is Duval and Wicklund’s (1972) Objective Self-Awareness Theory. While it has since then gone through many iterations (Silvia & Duval, 2001), the main idea is that self-awareness is split into two parts, objective and subjective.

Objective self-awareness is akin to introspection and observing oneself as an object, when a person looks inwards at their own conscious state, actions and words, personality, body, and other personal aspects. Subjective self-awareness looks outwards, and it refers to the ability to see the impact and influence one has on others in a peripheral manner (Duval & Wicklund, 1972).

Eurich (2018), an organisational psychologist, has a more recent iteration of this idea, dubbing the variations as internal and external self-awareness, and look at it from a more social angle:

Internal Self-Awareness

This refers to how well a person know themselves, especially in terms of values, passions, aspirations, ability, thoughts, feelings, behaviours, impact on others, etc. Stemming from one’s own perception and introspection, internal self-awareness is the ability the understand the headspace, mental state, and even life stage one is in, which is important for handling everyday challenges, like hardship, decisions and stress.

By having a good understanding of themselves, one is likely to achieve greater happiness and sense of fulfilment, while suffering from less anxiety, stress, guilt, and other negative emotions.

External Self-Awareness

Instead of introspection, external self-awareness is achieved through seeking feedback from others. How well do you understand how other people view you? By developing external self-awareness, one avoids having blind spots in their self-image, and also spot discrepancies and be able close the gap. Looking at themselves through the lens of others also helps one communicate and work with others more empathetically, and as a result boosts one’s interpersonal relationships as well as leadership skills.

Closing the Gap

Realising discrepancies or misalignment between the realities represented by one’s internal and external self-awareness could serve as either an opportunity for self-improvement and reflection if taken positively, or a vulnerability if ignored. Silvia and Duval (2001) state that we would also compare ourselves to “standards of correctness” and evaluate ourselves independently without the help of feedback. According to their study, whether a person chooses to work on realignment or not depends on the perceived amount of effort the changes required and its likelihood of success; one is more likely to take action if the realignment involves less time, effort, and a smaller gap. This also depends on one’s level of self-acceptance and openness to self-improvement.

 

How Self-Aware are You?

A person with strong internal and external self-awareness has good self-understanding and clear concept of what they are good at, and where and how they need to improve. They also have a healthy habit of introspection and seeking feedback, and are able to tell apart constructive and destructive criticism, not letting the latter damage their self-esteem.

These self-aware learners tend to be more confident, creative, and make better decisions; at the same time, they are less likely to lie, cheat, or steal. Possessing effective communication skills and openness to feedback, they are also able to build and maintain stronger relationships (Eurich, 2018).

Dana, Lalwani, and Duval (1997) and Silvia and Duval (2001) both pointed out that self-aware individuals wouldn’t only adjust themselves to meet goals, but also adjust their expectations appropriately when they become unrealistic and overwhelming. This mindset entails healthy goal-setting and self-compassion, and enables good emotional regulation.

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How Self-aware are You?

Archetypes of Self-Awareness

According to the combination of high and low internal and external self-awareness, each person can be categorised into the following archetypes of self-awareness:

Seekers

  • Low internal and external self-awareness.

  • Seekers may feel lost and frustrated navigating life and relationships with a weak understanding on themselves and their purpose.

Introspectors

  • High internal, low external self-awareness.

  • Introspectors understand themselves very well, but may have blind spots on their strengths and weaknesses because they don’t seek external feedback. This could make it difficult for them to develop as a leader, or even lead to low self-esteem.

Pleasers

  • Low internal, high external self-awareness.

  • Pleasers are more focused on becoming what other people want, and neglect what actually matters to themselves. This could lead to a low sense of fulfilment and even harm their success in the long run.

Aware

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The Four Self-Awareness Archetypes

(Eurich, 2018)

  • High internal and external self-awareness.

  • Aware people know who they are and what they want to achieve, and also seek out and value others’ opinions. They are able to make informed decisions in life and effectively develop themselves and their relationships.

 

Why is Self-Awareness Important?

World Health Organisation’s Department of Mental Health (1999) listed self-awareness was one of ten life skills that promote wellbeing and social and emotional learning. Here are some ways it works:

Better Goal-setting and Decision Making

Instead of following what others do or expect from them, strong self-awareness would help them set goals that are suitable and tailored just for them. Able to manage one’s own expectations and notice their progress, they can set the right level of challenge for themselves to balance improvement and difficulty (Duval & Wicklund, 1972; Eurich, 2008, Ridley, Schutz, Glanz, & Weinstein, 1992).

More Proactive Attitude

Knowing themselves better means being more in sync with their performance and progress in self-improvement, learning, work, and more. This allows one to have greater self-acceptance, and also encourages positive self-development (Sutton, 2016). This also leads to developing better self-control/discipline (Silvia & O’Brien, 2004).

Higher Self-Confidence

By honing one’s work-related, study, and communication skills as well as being in tune with their self-development, their self-confidence and self-esteem will naturally enjoy a boost, too (Silvia & O’Brien, 2004). Eventually, this can help one achieve better wellbeing and satisfaction at work and in life (Sutton, Williams, & Allinson, 2015).

Better Interpersonal and Leadership Skills

Self-awareness helps one spot your flaws and strengths, which means they are more likely to realise if they’re doing something that may affect a relationship with another person. Along with empathy and awareness in how their actions and words could upset somebody, this is immensely helpful for noticing, understanding, and resolving conflicts or tension.

Through aligning their internal and external self-awareness and seeing themselves in a more objective manner, learners can also develop a more accurate perception of their ability and impact and therefore, build stronger relationships and act as better leaders (Eurich, 2018).

 

How is Self-Awareness Developed?

Giving Personalised Feedback

Personalised, detailed feedback gives learners a clear view on their performance. Whether it is on their academic performance in a course or programme, or their general attitude, feedback can help learners reflect more on their mindset, efforts, and approaches. It could also encourage students to gauge their performance in a more objective way, and be more open to alternatives.

This could also be in the form of peer feedback activities.

Journals and Reflections

Writing response journals or reflections on their learning experience, life experience, or a contentious topic could invite students to think more about their values and feelings towards different events and situations. Using contentious and thought-provoking issues as the topic of response journals would also ensure that there is less privacy concerns, especially in more mature students, and therefore more genuine reflections.

Learning Contracts

A learning contract is an outline of the actions a learner promises to take in order to achieve an academic goal or success. Learning contracts can be a helpful learning activity encouraging introspection and self-improvement, especially in skills and knowledge related to a course or programme. It helps learners to set goals and directions. It has been proven to increase motivation in students and also help teachers and students agree on learning goals suitable for the learner (Frank & Scharff, 2013).

Here are some common components in a learning contract (Frank & Scharff, 2013; Greenwood & McCabe, 2008):

  • Statement of purpose: rationale, aims, direction, or purpose of the contract;

  • Student actions: actions students promise to take in order to achieve said goal;

  • Teacher actions: support teachers agree to provide for the cause; and 

  • Sign-off: a signature to indicate a pledge.

Questionnaires and Thought Experiments

Presenting students with situations and deep questions can encourage them to think more about how they react in different situations. Originally a parlour game and usually used as an interview format, the Proust Questionnaire contains open questions like:

  • What is your greatest fear?

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?

  • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

  • On what occasion do you lie?

  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

  • What is your greatest regret?

These can be used as ice breakers or incorporated into other classroom activities.

 

How Should I Assess Self-Awareness?

Learning Contracts & Reflections

In the development section, learning contracts and reflections were discussed. As well as a good development activity for self-awareness, they can also be used as assessment with clear criteria or rubrics. Collection of reflections at the end of a learning contract, particularly when compared to the progress of learning to see if their perceived improvement align with their actual attainment, could be a way of assessing self-awareness.

Self-Rating and 360˚ Rating with Validated Instruments

Apart from classroom activities and assignments, there are also a variety of scales and tests developed to help measure and track development of self-awareness. While these tests are not appropriate for graded assessments, by implementing these tests at the start and near the end of a programme, students and teachers would be able to find out more about the students’ self-awareness and characteristics, and also see whether improvements have been made.

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Examples of Assessment Approaches for Self-Awareness

(Revised) Self-Consciousness Scale [SCS] (Scheier & Carver, 1985)

Measuring private and public self-consciousness, which are comparable concepts to internal and external self-awareness, SCS is one of the most well-known, reliable, and widely used scale for the purpose.

Situational Self-Awareness Scale [SSAS] (Govern & Marsch, 2001)

SSAS focuses on public and private self-awareness, and is another well-known scale for measuring this competency.

Mindful Attention Awareness Scale [MAAS] (Brown & Ryan, 2003)

The MAAS contains 15 items and assesses characteristics like awareness of what is taking place in the present. While it looks mainly at mindfulness – the trait of paying attention at the present and surroundings – it also taps into self-regulation and wellbeing constructs, which not only provides a snapshot of one’s self-awareness, but also prompts one with different scenarios to encourage reflection introspection.

Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory [FMI] (Walach et al., 2006)

Another test concerned with mindfulness, FMI has a psychometrically proven 30-item scale and a validated 14-item short form, both prompting takers with more abstract situational questions related to emotions that shed light on self-awareness and self-knowledge.

Peer Feedback

Feedback from peers and teachers are invaluable to helping students develop self-awareness, especially external self-awareness. This could be used at the end of group work or programme to help students learn more about themselves from the eyes of others. The Johari window framework is a good tool for this.

This technique developed by Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham (1955) is used most often in therapy, self-help groups and corporate training settings, but can also be useful tool for prompting students to think about themselves in a deep level. Each person would receive a list of adjectives and pick those that they think describe them, and the peer group would pick adjectives that describe the participant from the same list. The distribution is then plotted into four quadrants depending on whether these traits are known to the participant themselves and/or others. Through sharing their perception of each other, students could learn more about themselves from each other.

Some of the adjectives in the list include:

  • Accepting, adaptable, bold, brave, calm, caring, cheerful, clever, dependable, empathetic, energetic, happy, giving, helpful, etc.

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Johari Window

 

End Remarks

Self-awareness is an essential skill that helps improving academic and work performance and also emotional intelligence and happiness. While it is difficult for educators to directly teach or measure this intangible competency, by encouraging accountability and introspection and offering opportunities for feedback, students can be prompted to be more mindful of their own feelings and actions, as well as their impact on others.

 

Further Readings

  • What Is Self-Awareness and Why Is It Important? From Positive Psychology

  • What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It) from Harvard Business Review

  • Proust Questionnaire Template from Positive Psychology

 

References

American Psychology Association. (n.d.). Self-understanding. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved 30 June 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/self-understanding

Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.

Chan, C. K. Y., & Luk, L. Y. Y. (2021). Development and validation of an instrument measuring undergraduate students’ perceived holistic competencies, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 46:3, 467-482, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2020.1784392

Chan, C.K.Y., Zhao, Y and Luk, L.Y.Y. (2017). A validated and reliable instrument investigating engineering students’ perceptions of competency in generic skills. Journal of Engineering Education, 106(2), 299-325.

Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self-awareness. Academic Press.

Eurich, T. (2018, January 4). What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It). Harvard Business Review, 8. https://hbr.org/2018/01/what-self-awareness-really-is-and-how-to-cultivate-it

Frank, T., & Scharff, L. F. V. (2013). Learning contracts in undergraduate courses: Impacts on student behaviors and academic performance. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(4), 36-53.

Govern, J. M., & Marsch, L. A. (2001). Development and validation of the Situational Self-Awareness Scale. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 10(3), 366–378. https://doi.org/10.1006/ccog.2001.0506

Greenwood, S. C., & McCabe, P. P. (2008). How learning contracts motivate students. Middle School Journal, 39(5), 13-22. 

Luft, J.; Ingham, H. (1955). "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness". Proceedings of the Western Training Laboratory in Group Development. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Miller, K. (2020, March 13). Building Self-Awareness: 16 Activities and Tools for Meaningful Change. PositivePsychology.Com. https://positivepsychology.com/building-self-awareness-activities/

Ridley, D. S., Schutz, P. A., Glanz, R. S., & Weinstein, C. E. (1992). Self-regulated learning: The interactive influence of metacognitive awareness and goal-setting. The journal of experimental education60(4), 293-306.

Rochat, P. (2003). Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life. Consciousness and Cognition, 12(4), 717-731. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1053-8100(03)00081-3

Scheier, M. F., & Carver, C. S. (1985). The Self-Consciousness Scale: A revised version for use with general populations. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 15(8), 687–699. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.1985.tb02268.x

Silvia, P. J., & Duval, T. S. (2001). Objective self-awareness theory: Recent progress and enduring problems. Personality and social psychology review5(3), 230-241.

Silvia, P. J., & O'Brien, M. E. (2004). Self-awareness and constructive functioning: Revisiting “The human dilemma”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology23(4), 475-489.

Sutton, A. (2016). Measuring the effects of self-awareness: Construction of the self-awareness outcomes questionnaire. Europe's journal of psychology12(4), 645.

Sutton, A., Williams, H. M., & Allinson, C. W. (2015). A longitudinal, mixed method evaluation of self-awareness training in the workplace. European Journal of Training and Development.

Walach, H., Buchheld, N., Buttenmüller, V., Kleinknecht, N., & Schmidt, S. (2006). Measuring mindfulness--The Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI). Personality and Individual Differences, 40(8), 1543–1555. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2005.11.025

World Health Organisation. (1999). Partners in Life Skills Education: Conclusions from a United Nations Inter-Agency Meeting, Department of Mental Health. https://www.who.int/mental_health/media/en/30.pdf