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Thursday, 10 September 2015

Does it pay to be self-aware?

Last week, I found myself drawn into a conversation with a colleague about a self-help book she'd once read on the merits of being "self-aware".  She couldn't remember the name (and a subsequent search of Amazon* didn't help much - there are hundreds), but the basic assertion seemed to be that self-awareness is universally a Good Thing for everyone. To be honest, this seems to be a pretty common theme in most self-help / management bible type literature (not that I've read much - money for old rope mostly, if you ask me). If you know yourself - so the thinking goes - you can strive to take action and improve yourself, which in turn improves your relationships with others, your life prospects and ultimately society as a whole. Hooray!  I have no doubt that there is an strong element of truth in this, and God knows the colleague in question needs a bit more self-knowlege. Since having Duckling, I've definitely felt the need to critique my own behaviour more too, primarily to ensure I don't set a crap example. However,  despite what the books say, I remain to be convinced that being really self-aware is that great for the individual concerned. Some of the happiest people I know are also some of the most blinkered, shallow and clueless, and they seem to bumble through life just fine, precisely because it never occurs to them that they should strive to be anything other than what they are now. Yes, the more unpleasant types piss other people off, but because they don't realise it, they just aren't bothered. It almost makes me jealous...

There seem to be a host of different ways of defining self-awareness.  At its most basic level, it is the ability to look in the mirror and recognise oneself as distinct from the surrounding environment; a conscious and autonomous individual in the crowd. Delve a bit deeper, and you discover more complex layers. The ability to recognise your own personality and key character traits. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and your "place" in family, work and social structures. Understanding your emotions, thoughts and memories, and the fact that they might not always be accurate reflections of reality (at least not reality according to other people)... The list goes on.

When you think about it, it's actually quite a slippery concept. I consider myself reasonably self-aware under all the above categories (but then I would, wouldn't I?!), but it's difficult to be sure that I really am because self-awareness, as used in common parlance, doesn't actually have all that much to do with the 'self'. Herein lies my first issue. When we state that someone has no self-awareness, we generally mean that they have a poor grasp of how others (we) see them, not that they don't have a strong sense of who they are. That weird guy in accounts who always makes inappropriate comments about your outfits may be universally known as "Creepy Chris", but in his mind's eye he is "Cheeky Chris", and describing your new boots as 'kinky' will make your day (no Chris, it really won't).  Furthermore, character traits are socially constructed, and because we do not live in a vacuum, we can only really be defined when placed within a particular context and compared to those around us. So Chris is creepy, but only because we're in the office; in a nightclub he might get away with it. What's more, in comparison to Pervy Pete, Creepy Chris is just mildly inappropriate and a bit socially awkward. 

Poor old Chris struggles because we can only really understand ourselves by listening to the discourse around us and observing the reactions of others, and he's not very good at that.  He finds it tricky both because people lie (or at least don't reveal the whole truth for fear of hurting his feelings / embarrassing him / showing themselves up) and because his interpretation of their reactions is coloured by his own internal reasoning, which in turn is influenced by his past and personality. Chris sees us blush and turn away, but because of the way his Dad always talked about women and his Mum behaved, he thinks it's because we're flattered but shy, not, as is actually the case, weirded out and squirming. To be properly self-aware therefore, you ironically have to be a really good reader of other people, and this is far from straightforward.

The next problem: to be really self-aware, you have to question how and why you do things. A lot. If you're not careful, this can tip you into becoming either self-conscious or self-obsessed. You know your weaknesses and fret when these are tested. You know some people see you as bossy, and thus scan every utterance and every reaction to that utterance for signs of people being put out by your domineering style. Eventually, you can become so inhibited and guarded, that your fundamental personality and spontaneity can be warped. Alternatively, you constantly ask people "oh God, did I offend you?", which is actually more annoying than whatever it was that you thought might have been offensive in the first place. I struggle with the self-aware / -conscious / -obsessed balance regularly. 

Then you have the fact that being self-aware doesn't necessarily mean you can change your behaviour, which is very frustrating. I am perpetually late for everything and it really annoys me and everyone else I know, but recognising this and the causes for it doesn't seem to make me any better at leaving the house on time. I am also shy, some might say standoffish, when I meet unfamiliar people, mainly because I am afraid to let my more extrovert, know-it-all side out (years of being branded an uppity teacher's pet will do that to you). I worry that my new acquaintance will decide I'm really annoying or show-offy or weird, will call me names and won't want to play with me anymore, boo hoo hoo. I recognise being shy doesn't do me any favours, and yet I can't seem to change it because the alternative - irritating people - seems much worse.

Finally, in part because of the above, self awareness means you have to experience lows as well as highs. If you're a real happy-go-lucky type, chances are you're either not very self-aware (you just pootle through life unconcerned about looking like a fool or about your impact on others) or you're a bit of a egotist (you only notice your strengths and the times other people say you're great). Conversely really downbeat people often only notice their weaknesses, failures and less attractive characteristics, or fail to consider their own influence at all and blame their woes on fate, their crappy lot in life, or on other people. Thus they never see that they have the power to improve things.  Or at least that's what the books would say, I sure.

A truly self-aware person will sit somewhere in the middle.  They can recognise when they've really contributed to a job well done, and can feel good when they've consciously avoid causing offence, or actively made someone feel great about themselves. But they also have to stare the reality of the times they've been a bit shit square in the face. And that's HARD. Particularly when you're prone to guilt (i.e. female) and when you can't be certain how shit you've actually been. In some respects it would be great to be able to give everyone you know a survey about their impression of you to understand more about yourself. But the results would have the potential to completely shatter your self-esteem, and those with no self-worth are even worse for social harmony  than those with no self-knowledge. 

So while self-awareness is probably good for society as a whole, I think a bit of self-delusion is ultimately necessary to get us, as individuals, through life, help us achieve things we might otherwise think we couldn't and keep us from constantly being paralysed by anxiety and the knowledge that we are but an inconsequential speck of sand in the great desert of space and time...  I can never be sure how self-aware I really am, but I know for certain that if I didn't have some self-delusion about others' interest in my ramblings, I probably wouldn't be writing this blog. Though I might not be running quite so late for our flight right now.  I know it usually takes forty minutes to get to Heathrow, be we can do it in ten, right?

Maybe I should read that self-help book after all...


*just as a random aside, my quick search of Amazon inexplicably came up with this absolute gem at the top: Shiatsu Therapy For Horses.  Had me giggling for ages.

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