Self-awareness is the first step for personal growth.
To know ourselves allows us to take the reins of our life. Self-awareness helps you see yourself clearly — it illuminates your blind spots so you can live more intentionally rather than on autopilot.
Most of us are more unaware than aware. That’s why practicing self-awareness reveals what we don’t know we don’t know about ourselves. Self-awareness is a never-ending journey — even for those who know themselves well.
Increased self-awareness can turn you into a better leader — both personally and professionally. Self-aware persons make better decisions, are more creative and collaborative.
Enjoy these self-awareness exercises. Give them a try and see which work for you. Know yourself; lead yourself.
1. Who are you?
This is a simple, yet profound, exercise. It works better when you practice it with someone else, but you can do it on your own too.
You have to answer one question: “Who are you?” — over and over.
The exercise is pretty straightforward: one person asks “Who are You?” and the other responds whatever comes to mind.
The first person keeps asking “Who are you?” right after each answer. This goes on for two minutes, and then people switch roles– the person who responded now gets to ask “Who are you?”
It feels silly and simple, but most people struggle as they have to continue answering who they are. Initially, people share obvious things — their names, jobs, relationships, hobbies, etc. But, as the exercise progresses, it becomes harder and harder. That’s precisely the point — to peel the multiple layers of our identity.
Reflect on the experience. Do you tend to associate your identity to your profession or relationship status? Did any of your responses surprise you? What have you discovered about yourself? Did the exercise remind you of some forgotten or hidden areas of who you are?
We contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman wrote. Understanding that your identity is fluid and complex is essential to improve your self-awareness.
2. Monitor your inner voice
The words we use every day have a profound impact — language shapes our relationship with people, things, and ourselves.
Talking to oneself is one the most natural, yet undervalued, skills we have. It stimulates self-reflection, increases motivation, and connect us with our emotions. Research by Canadian professor Alain Morin shows there’s a high correlation between talking to oneself more frequently and a higher self-awareness and self-evaluation.
The quality of your inner speech is critical — the more positive your words, the better. Pay attention to your inner voice. Would you allow anyone to speak to you the way you talk to yourself?
Pay attention to the way you respond to both your successes and failures. Your inner voice creates feedback-loops — you can turn them into a negative or positive experience. The way you talk to yourself is the way you love yourself. Choose your words carefully.
Words like “I can’t,” “I should,” or “I have to” limit our potential by creating a negative attitude — either we don’t trust in our potential, or we are addressing a task as a burden. Check out the following post to learn how to reframe your negative inner-dialogue into a positive one.
3. Your superpower and kryptonite
Accepting our whole self — flaws included — is vital for self-appreciation.
The purpose of this exercise is to reconnect with both your negative and positive sides and understand that neither is good or bad — how we use them can help or harm us.
Write down what’s your Superpower and what’s your Kryptonite — just one in each case.
Let me share mine as an example. My Superpower is my ability to come up with an insight or idea that connect things that seem unrelated. My Kryptonite is being impatient — I get anxious when people take too much time to respond or do something.
Neither is good or bad. If I use my impatience wisely, I can drive people into action. However, if I’m always impatient, then I’ll drive everyone crazy. Same with my Superpower — it can harm me if I overplay it.
I suggest that you start with one first, and then build a full list of all your Kryptonite and Superpowers.
Reflect on what they say about you? How do you usually use them? How can you adjust your Superpower or Kryptonite, so they help you, not hurt you?
4. Write morning pages
This exercise comes from the book An Artist’s Way. There are many iterations out there.
Writing Morning Pages is very useful to produce insights, calm anxieties, and resolve problems. As soon as you wake up, grab a piece of paper and write everything that comes to mind. Don’t filter anything — you want to declutter your mind.
The recommendation is to compose three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Some people do more. Others set a time limit — 15 to 20 minutes. Doing it in the morning is ideal. You want to let everything out before your mind gets busy and starts filtering things.
Writing Morning Pages can help you unblock emotions, discover ideas that were at an unconscious level, or identify areas for development. When you let your words flow, without any rational filter, you set your creativity free.
Morning Pages are private; you don’t need to filter your words. Some people use them as a warm-up and then destroy them without checking what they wrote. Others use them as a source of inspiration or self-reflection. See what works for you.
This exercise is an unfiltered version of journaling — it will help you know yourself better and become more appreciative too.
5. Perception/ reality
The purpose of this exercise is to compare your self-image with what others think of you.
List the top five words that describe who you are. Then ask ten people — a mix of friends, family and work colleagues — to provide their list (the five words that best describe you).
It’s critical that people agree to be candid. I suggest they send their words via email or text versus doing it in person. Compare their responses to your own list.
What are the similarities? What are the differences?
What surprised you about people’s feedback? Why?
How do opinions from family and co-workers differ from each other? What does that tell you about how you behave in different environments?
6. The three whys
This technique was initially developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used by Toyota to evolution its manufacturing approach. It explores the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a particular problem. By repeating the question “Why?” you dig deeper into the root cause.
This exercise is a shorter version — you get to ask “Why?” three times only.
Ricardo Semler, a champion of employee-friendly and radical corporate democracy workplaces, suggests that we can gain greater wisdom by simply asking three “Whys?” in a row about everything we are doing.
He says that for the first ‘Why?’ you always have a good answer for. The second ‘Why?’ becomes more difficult to answer. The third one makes you realize that, most probably, you don’t know what you are doing.
You can apply this when you are about to make a decision, or you are feeling confused and don’t know what’s going on. Or to answer any question in your life. Or to come up with new ideas or solutions.
Semler says that by asking “Why?” three times, you get more clarity about who you are and why you are here.
7. Record your ABCs
Albert Ellis’s ABC Model is a significant part of his rational-emotive behavior therapy (REBT) — a precursor to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
The basic idea behind the ABC model is that external events (A) do not cause emotions ©, but our beliefs do (B).
Though this exercise is very effective for dealing with an adverse event, you can use it in ‘normal’ situations too. It will help you reflect on how you react to events so you can do better next time.
- Activating event that triggers your inner dialogue
- Beliefs you formed after the event
- Consequences or how you feel
This formula will help you understand your response to stressful situations. People react differently to similar events — the ABC model increases your awareness. The idea is to learn how to turn automatic negative thoughts into positive ones.
Imagine there’s a traffic jam, and you are running late to work. You may become anxious imagining that you won’t make it on time for a meeting with your boss. This might cause you to start shouting at others or blowing your horn. Alternatively, you might choose to relax and focus on what you can control — you might call and inform your boss you won’t make it on time or that you’ll take the meeting from your phone.
The ABC model is a very effective way to reflect on our behaviors and adjust how we react — especially to events we cannot control.
8. Your best and worst self
The purpose of this exercise is to help you acknowledge what drives you (or not) by getting input from other people. They just have to answer two questions:
When did you see me the most excited?
When did you see me the most frustrated?
It’s important that people choose one event per question. And that they provide a “Why?”
Invite people that know you really well — either personally or professionally. Get five to six answers at least. Compare findings and reflect on what motivates you and what gets you stuck.
What surprised you about people’s feedback? Why?
Is there any particular theme, either in what frustrated or excited you?
Are there any specific tasks, topics, people, or moments associated with frustrating or exciting moments?
9. Write your own obituary
The purpose of this exercise is to focus your life on what really matters to you. To live the way you want to be remembered. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
An obituary usually captures our best self — who we were, what we did, and what we achieved. Here you will write it while you are alive, rather than someone else doing it for you. Focusing on how you want to be remembered, will clarify what’s important to you.
I use this exercise in some of our change leadership workshops. Writing one’s obituary is not easy — people freak out a little initially. Thinking about one’s death is moving. However, being reminded that our lives don’t last forever, builds a sense of urgency — it provides clarity and focus.
Go on. Write your own obituary. Take the exercise seriously, not yourself. If you are humorous, let your epitaph be fun too. Use the following template.
- Start by writing your name the way you’d like it to look on your tombstone. You can add a nickname too.
- In one line, how did you make the world a better place? Be concise. The more focused, the more honest you’ll be with yourself.
- Write down how people will remember you. Avoid pompous language. Stick to the tone and words that regular people would use — especially those who know you well. The why is essential (once again, you don’t need the full laundry list).
- This part requires more introspection. Look yourself into the mirror and answer without filtering: “Who was the real you?” Not your masks or titles or roles. What was your essence? What made you unique?
- Saying ‘yes’ is easy. What we say ‘no’ to defines who we really are. Which was in your case? What were the ‘temptations,’ distractions, or possibilities that you said ‘no’ to because they would derail you from achieving your goals?
- Who will miss you the most? This seems easy, but it’s not. The answer is not about what you wish, but trying to understand who will really miss you. A lot of people will do for sure. But who were those people to whom you meant something special? Once again, avoid judging yourself. Being honest is what makes this exercise meaningful.
- Now it’s time to be creative. The previous steps provided the background; now it’s time to bring it your epitaph to life. Write down in one or two paragraphs the words that you would love someone to say about you once you’ve departed. This is the most critical part of the exercise. Connect with your true essence, not your vanity.
10. Ask for Feedback, Regularly
There are two types of self-awareness: internal and external. The first one is how well you know yourself; the latter is about knowing how others see you.
We all have blind spots that affect our behaviors — feedback is crucial for us to see our ‘unknown unknowns.’ Asking for regular constructive feedback helps fight self-deceit. Get input from different sources, not just your best friends or partner.
Pay attention; don’t filter what you hear. We tend to accept feedback that is aligned with our view of self and reject feedback that doesn’t match our view of reality. Writing down what people tell you — without judging what you hear — can help you overcome this bias.
The more interesting the questions you ask, the more productive the feedback. I’ve always loved the “What should I start/continue/ stop doing?” approach — it’s action-driven. Effective feedback should focus on your behavior, not on who you are or your beliefs.
Once again, find people that can provide an objective, constructive, and rich view. Feedback is like sex. Everyone does it, but few do it well.
11. Get an accountability partner
We cannot improve our behaviors on our own — the support of like-minded people helps us overcome barriers and limiting beliefs. Getting an Accountability Partner increases your chances of achieving your goals or developing new habits.
When you commit your goals to someone, your probability raises to 65%. If you create a specific accountability appointment with a person, the odds increase to 95%.
Marshall Goldsmith, the founder of the namesake coaching firm, is a perfect example of the power of having an accountability partner. Every night, a friend calls him to ask him 22 questions. This process helps Goldsmith reflect if he’s honest with himself, if he is doing his best, and identifying areas for personal growth.
You don’t have to go that extreme. But, the example is clear evidence that even self-aware people, like a longtime life coach, know that they must continually build self-awareness.
An accountability partner agreement is the foundation of a reciprocal relationship–each member coaches and helps the other achieve professional or personal success. The partnership is established by an agreement that defines how the relationship would work.
Start by committing to one behavior you want to change– focusing is critical.
- Choose one behavior you want to change/ improve.
- Establish clear metrics to measure progress.
- Define rules of engagement. What coaching style do you expect from your partner? Do you want your partner just to listen or also to challenge you? Do you expect feedback in the form of advice, tips or questions? Clarify what’s confidential. What other things should your partner know about you or the behavior you want to change?
- Establish regular touch points. Both partners need to agree on the frequency, date, duration, etc. Also, will you be meeting in person or online? Download your copy of the Accountability Partner agreement
12. The Johari Window
This tool is ideal for increasing self-awareness. It focuses on understanding what’s visible (or not) to us and others.
Our blind spots lie at the intersection of how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The Johari Window was developed by Psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham to help us become more self-aware.
I use it regularly when working with organizations to increase both self and team awareness.
ARENA: Traits and behaviors that both yourself and others are aware of. It includes anything about yourself that you are willing to share. This area drives clarity and builds trust.
MASK: Aspects about yourself that you are aware of but might not want others to know. It can also include traits that you are not sharing with others without you being aware of. What you show to others is a mask that hides your authentic self as I wrote here.
BLIND SPOTS: What others perceive, but you don’t. Important to note: not valuing your strengths can also be a blind spot. Feedback from others can make you more aware of your negative traits but also of the positive ones you are not appreciating.
UNCONSCIOUS: What’s unknown to both you and anyone else.
Though this matrix has four quadrants, the size of each is not necessarily equal. Each window pane will vary depending on:
- How much you share with other people
- How well others (try to) know you
- How well you know yourself
You can expand your “Arena” area by:
- Disclosing more about yourself, thus reducing the “Mask” area
- Uncovering more about your “Unconscious” area
- Becoming aware of your “Blind” area
The place to start in the Johari window is in the open area. Make some notes about yourself.
Involve other people and ask for feedback about yourself — ask each person to provide five phrases to describe you. Be prepared to seriously consider the feedback you get. That doesn’t mean that you have to do everything that people tell you.
13. The wheel of life
This tool is straightforward to use and increases self-awareness by assessing the key areas in your life. Don’t confuse it with the Buddhist’s Wheel of Life.
The Wheel of Life has eight categories: Career, Money, Health, Friends & Family, Significant Other, Personal Growth, Fun & Recreation, and Physical Environment. You can replace the names or categories to adapt it to your reality.
Use a 1–10 scale to assess each area, where 1 is closest to the center of the circle and 10 is at the edge of it — the highest level of satisfaction. You can also apply colors to highlight each area. Put yourself in a quiet place and remove all distractions. This exercise can take you between 15 to 30 minutes. Don’t rush it. And be honest with yourself.
Career: Is your career where you want it to be by now? Are you satisfied with what you are doing? Reflect on job satisfaction versus career satisfaction.
Money: Are you earning enough income to satisfy your current needs? Do you have a clear plan for the future? Are you saving money or suffering from high-debt stress?
Health: How physically fit are you? Are you satisfied with your eating habits? How would you rate your physical activity?
Friends & Family: Do you have people that you can count on? Do you have a support network? Do the people around you help you grow?
Significant Other: Do you feel loved, understood, and respected? Do you have a partner that satisfies you? How strong is your relationship?
Personal Growth: Do you have a clear purpose in life? What about your spiritual life? What are your goals and priorities? Are you satisfied with your personal development? Do you spend enough time to learn, reflect, and improve your knowledge and behaviors?
Physical Environment: Does the place you live in satisfy you? Do you take care of your environment to help you succeed? Do you have a safe space for reflection or relaxation? Are you satisfied with the places you usually visit?
The purpose of scoring is not to feel overly confident or sad about how each area performs, but to understand if you are living a well-balanced life.
Reflect. Are you putting too much energy or time into specific areas? Are others being neglected or postponed? Ask the 3 “Whys?”
Set up goals for improvement — 1 month, 3 months and 6 months. Rerun the assessment and monitor your progress. Self-awareness is not just about understanding who you are and how you live, but also to track improvements.
14. Name your emotions
We are continually experiencing emotions. Sometimes, we don’t pay attention to what we feel. Others, we overreact without realizing what’s triggering our behavior.
This exercise will help you familiarize with your feelings. Practice labeling your emotions as they happen. Close your eyes and focus on your emotions. Name them without passing judgment. Feeling upset is not the same as being angry, sad, or frustrated. Most of the times, we mix our emotions. Check this post to learn to discriminate different feelings.
Becoming more aware of how you feel can help you uncover what affects your mood but, most importantly, to avoid overreacting because you are not fully aware of what you are feeling.
The more you get to know your feelings, the less they will cloud your judgment.
15. Reflect on past decisions
Self-awareness also feeds from our past actions. Learn to reflect on the actual impact of your decisions. Reflect on what you can do differently next time.
As Peter Drucker wrote, “Whenever you make a decision or take a key decision, write down what you expect will happen. Nine or 12 months later, compare the results with what you expected.”
He called this self-reflection process feedback analysis and believed it was the only way to discover our strengths.
The Jesuits, a strict religious order within the Catholic Church, practice something similar. Whenever they are about to make an important decision, they write down what they expect will happen and how they arrived at a conclusion. Nine months later, they compare the actual results with their expectations.
Reflecting on past decisions will help you:
- Become more aware of how you make decisions
- Realize what worked and what didn’t
- Notice your usual biases
- Improve your decision-making process
Failing smart requires improving your perspective — learn from present mistakes, but also to observe things through times. Increase your self-awareness by reflecting on your past decisions.
This article originally appeared on Medium.