Can you learn to become self aware

A twitter conversation with Alyssa Fox reminded me of the self-awareness paradox. To become more self-aware you have to be self-aware enough to realize how self-aware you are not. It’s a bootstrapping problem. Unless something happens that forces you to realize how inaccurate your view of yourself is, you can go through life never even knowing who you are.

It’s funny how sci-fi movies like the Terminator make a big deal about a computer becoming self-aware. It’d be bigger news if most people became self aware. Most of us aren’t aware of ourselves at all. We have an imagined version of who we are, but it’s at best incomplete. And while I can’t claim to be self aware, I can claim to be serious about trying. That commitment is what I think answers my question: you can maybe teach someone to be self-aware, or help them along the way, but only if they are serious about the pursuit.

We all tend to reject negative things we hear in favor of positive ones, even if the negative ones are more accurate. Learning about our blind spots, weaknesses or insecurities is emotionally difficult. For some people even reading about cognitive bias, which effects all of us, is shocking and depressing. As children we develop ways to avoid uncomfortable situations and information, and it’s part of how we’re able to survive. But those patterns grow too strong. It’s easy to blame other people, at least in our own minds, for many disappointments we experience in life that are our own damn fault.

Anyone who offers the complete and difficult truth is easy to avoid in favor of those who tell us exactly what we want to hear, however limited or untrue it is.

Of course some elements of self-awareness are positive. We all have the potential to do things we don’t think we can. Discovery requires risk and life provides chances for everyone to make their own positive discoveries. But there are natural rewards for seeking those kinds of self awareness. It’s easier for people in our lives to reach out and tell us the good things about us we don’t notice, rather than the weak spots they bet we’re sensitive to and are therefore afraid to try and tell us.

There are many methods that can help an interested person in learning more about themselves:

  • Meditation
  • Keeping a journal (and reading it periodically)
  • Traveling alone
  • Trying new experiences that challenge you
  • Seeing a therapist (a safe person you can be completely honest with about yourself)
  • Asking close friends ‘What am I not aware of about myself?’

Many of these are scary and for good reason as more self-awareness, for better and worse, awaits on the other side.

But for any of these to work requires you to want to be more self-aware. A teacher can only provide the opportunity, not the commitment. It’s easy to do any of these things without conviction. “Yes, I tried meditation. Didn’t work.” But why didn’t it work? That’s the question someone serious would ask. Or what does the teacher suggest might work? What if the thing you need to become aware of is that you give up too easily? How can you ever learn that if you don’t know it?

Even with persistence, it’s convenient to wait until the hard parts of an experience arises, right where a discovery is available to us, and reject it before we risk getting hurt. We’re great at inventing logical reasons to cover for the things we’re scared of. Fear is twice as powerful when we call it by other names.

Having spent many years in teaching roles I’ve experienced enough students who simply did not want to learn that I can’t put the burden on the teacher. Or perhaps I simply wasn’t a good enough teacher for them to want to learn? I have no doubt that’s true. But no teacher can reach every student.

Self-awareness, the trickiest thing to develop, is a paradox: to become more self-aware, you have to be aware enough about yourself to know you need to know yourself better. How can anyone possibly teach this to anyone else?

Do you think you are self-aware? Do you think self-awareness can be taught? How?