How well do you know yourself? If you're like most people, you're probably familiar with the basics: You like this, hate that, and have a knack for a certain skill. But what about your behaviors and thoughts—and how they affect your life? You know, the deep stuff.
That's where self-awareness comes in. "Self-awareness is about looking at who you are in a way that acknowledges how you impact others [and] how they impact you," explains therapist Marcelle J. Craig, LMFT. It also involves understanding your emotions and internal narrative, allowing you to lead a fulfilling life. "It's the first step to changing and growing," says Craig.
On that note, the practice of self-awareness is just that: a practice. Learning how to be self-aware is a life-long journey, and it's never too late to start. Here are some therapist-approved strategies for understanding yourself and who you truly are.
Seek out new experiences.
One of the best ways to boost self-awareness is to immerse yourself in new experiences. This lets you step outside of your comfort zone, giving you a chance to learn how you act, think, and feel in unfamiliar situations. What’s more, it creates opportunities to discover more positive qualities about yourself, notes Craig.
After all, your comfort zone is a familiar space. It’s the psychological state where you exist on autopilot, complete with predictable thoughts and emotions. This limits your perspective to just part of who you are, rather than you as a whole person.
Fortunately, a new experience doesn’t need to be complex or expensive. It can be as simple as trying a new hobby, chatting with new people, or exploring a neighboring town. Heck, even cooking a new-to-you recipe counts as a new experience. Whatever you choose to do, these experiences will help you gain new outlooks on yourself.
Ask people for feedback about yourself.
Often, learning about yourself means stepping outside of your own shoes. Ask someone you trust—like a sibling or close friend—to share their perspective on your attitudes, traits, or behaviors. This can help you become aware of the things you do and say, as well as how others perceive you. From there, you can use this info to explore aspects of yourself that you’d like to change or nurture. Sometimes, an outside perspective is necessary to dispel negative thought patterns or fortify positive ones, says Keischa Pruden, LCMHCS, LCAS, CCS, therapist and founder of Pruden Counseling Concepts.
Admittedly, accepting feedback gracefully isn’t easy. Remind yourself that truly constructive feedback isn’t an attack on who you are as a person. Instead, it’s a valuable tool that provides guidance for potential growth and self-development. While you’re at it, do your best to fully listen without getting defensive. This will make it easier for the other person to provide truly honest feedback.
Identify what triggers your negative emotions.
Understanding what makes you mad, sad, stressed, or jealous can go a long way in terms of self-awareness. The reason? When you recognize what sparks your negative emotions, you can become more selective of the people, places, and situations you choose to engage with, says Pruden. It also helps you become more conscious of how you respond to your environment and things you can’t control.
To learn more about your triggers, Pruden recommends examining any situation, person, or thing that prompts a negative emotion. For example, you can ask yourself, “What did the other person say that caused me to feel (insert emotion here)? What was my reaction? Is this something I want to feel regularly?” You can then use your responses to make informed decisions that facilitate a more peaceful life, she says.
Question your opinions and beliefs.
Challenging your opinions and beliefs is an amazing way to learn about who you are. It increases your awareness of your own thoughts, along with the biases and behaviors that stem from those thoughts, says Pruden. It’s worth noting this isn’t about trying to prove yourself wrong, though. Rather, it’s about recognizing the possibility that your opinions and beliefs can change—and giving them a chance to grow.
If you’re unsure where to start, Pruden suggests asking yourself questions like: “What is the origin of this opinion? Is this opinion beneficial to me or people I love? Is there any truth to my viewpoint?” Asking these questions will allow you to identify and assess your thought patterns.
Get clear on your core values.
Your core values are the principles that guide your life. They’re the “why” behind all that you say and do. And, when it comes to enhancing self-awareness, identifying those core values is key. “When you’re clear on your values, you know more about what you’re seeking [in life]—as well as what you’re not,” explains Craig. On the other hand, if you’re not clear on your values, “you’ll [engage] in things that aren’t beneficial to you and maybe even unhealthy,” she notes.
To clarify your core values, “reflect on times in your life when you felt happy, uplifted, and empowered,” says Craig. This can help you recognize what is most meaningful to you, and ultimately, provide guidance for your future self.
Write in a journal.
“Journaling is an excellent way to increase self-awareness,” says Pruden. In fact, it’s the perfect method for exploring the other strategies on this list. For example, when you write down negative emotions, you can reexamine scenarios and identify common triggers. Journaling can also help you challenge your thoughts, says Craig, as it’s easier to catch yourself saying untrue statements on paper (versus thinking them in the moment). Moreover, as you reread your journal, you’ll be able to see just how much you’ve grown, adds Craig.
Remember: There’s no right or wrong way to journal. Don’t hesitate to experiment with different journaling methods to cultivate self-awareness. Examples include writing one line a day for a set amount of time, or in a guided journal with built-in prompts.