Can self-awareness be taught?

There is a 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. A twitter conversation with Alyssa Fox reminded me of this challenge.

It’s funny how sci-fi movies like the Terminator center on the fear of computers becoming self-aware. It’d be bigger news if most people became self-aware. Most of us aren’t aware of ourselves at all. Just ask our neighbors, coworkers and spouses. We laugh at other people who seem unaware of their own nature yet magically believe we are immune.

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 demoralizing. Discovering limitations is in most people’s psychology a kind of failure rather than the beginning of greater awareness.

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 often 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 fault. Anyone who offers the complete and difficult truth is easy to avoid in favor of those who tell us what we want to hear, even if it’s limited or untrue.

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. 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 help us see.

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?

41 Responses to “Can self-awareness be taught?”

  1. LondonHPFS

    For millenia people all over the world have used psychotropic substances exactly to that end.
    I don’t mean to advocate the experience is for everyone, but certainly these substances are one of the few tools that have proven effective by putting the subject’s brain in a sort of different “mode”.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Anthropology shows many other ways too. Rites of passage play a critical role in self-discovery, or at least in defining identity. In many ancient cultures psychotropics were part of those rites of passage.

  2. Abby

    Traveling is said to broaden ones horizon, more so for those who are ’open’ to new experiences, but there is no doubt that visiting cultures different from ones own provides more of a learning experience, and consequentially, new angles for self-observation. The greater the variety and degree difference to the culture of ones upbringing, the greater the potential self awareness expansion. However, living in, and being immersed in, several different cultures has an incomparably more profound impact on the receptive individual than touristing the globe while remaining firmly rooted in the secure, familiar soil of home. Culture shock, in its most intense form, is deeply unsettling. Such a shake-up of the mind will force a painful overhaul and reevaluation of all of ones values and beliefs about self and the world, with expanded self awareness and nonjudgmental openness to continued learning as a result. Ask any anthropologist.

    1. Scott

      I agree about travel, but as you point out it depends how you do it.

      I’m sure you’ve seen tour buses where people travel in homogeneous groups, with every meal and visit orchestrated and controlled. You can travel around the world and never experience much of the places you visit.

      For many people that’s what ‘travel’ means. I guess we all have to work very hard to experience anything truly authentic and new.

      1. Abby

        I don’t know about working hard… Living in a culture much different from the familiar one for a year or two will have a more than noticeable impact on an individual’s worldview and ‘self view.’

  3. Ian

    Obvious relation to the Dunning-Kruger effect. :)

    And thus it has a happy answer – the solution to helping people realize they’re not good at a meta-cognitive task to simply to teach them about the meta-cognitive task.

    The group that looked through a pamphlet on symbolic logic before the symbolic logic test performed better, were better able to identify their own mistakes, and performed better at self-evaluating their performance than control.

  4. Dan

    For some people, introspection is scary but they can overcome the fear. For others, introspection is unbearably, morbidly terrifying.

    Curious people look in the mirror and ask good questions. Incurious people would never think to do that.

    Even those who are comfortable going there have some bias and self delusion.

    As for teaching self-awareness, you may have to start with what and why before how. Again, the curious will embrace new hows. The incurious will have to be dragged kicking and screaming and some will abandon ship.

  5. Per Rosing Mogensen

    I guess it can’t always be taught or learned, but from personal experience I’d say it is possible for most people. This is just my understanding of it, not an expert opinion.
    It may also depend on your definition of awareness.

    One problem of learning mental skills is that it is hard for others to relate to and therefore make sense or meaning of if they have not experienced it themselves. Even when we do have experiences we forget or distort how much we benefit from practicing it. I guess in some ways it comes down to salesmanship. If you take exercise for example, loads of people say they love it when they’re doing it regularly, but if they get out of the habit they just can’t seem to convince themselves to get back into the habit today, maybe next week. So how does one “sell” the message to exercise more? Same as education I’d expect, point out how important it is to your success in life, and how much you miss out on if you don’t get an education/improve self-awareness/exercise. Explain as much as possible how it works. All these are unfortunately not one-size-fits-all answers, a lot of individual preferences/biases apply as in any sales prospect.

    For a bit of context, I might put learning to be self-aware in a “difficulty to learn category” with programming, hardware digital design, and drawing realistic pencil drawings. I think most people could learn any of those. I would even say that even though most people probably wouldn’t reach beyond novice level a majority would benefit from just practicing, simply because it expands their mental models and brings new ways of perceiving things to their lives.

    The key to awareness, including self-awareness, is attention.
    Attention has been shown to work much like a muscle, you can practice your attention. The more you do so, the more growth of neural connections in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) can be seen in brain scans. The PFC is also called the executive center of the brain. This growth also affects awareness, among other mental processes.

    But what strategy works for any specific individual? It depends. Some people just need the promise of experiencing a lot of pain if they don’t change, some people might need to learn about how the mind/brain works to realize the benefits, and others may simply need to feel secure and have experiences of good relationships.
    It all depends on what factors in a person’s life lead them to disowning, or distrusting, aspects or sensations of self. A lot of research has been done on children’s attachment to primary caregivers, and they pretty consistently show that parental attachment patterns are important for the formation of a secure self. This is often described like a secure base that a person can rely on being able to return to when venturing into the unknown territory of self-exploration.

    To me the main issue would be motivation, can you motivate people to learn, in particular to learn to pay attention to what they are aware of, and then learn to direct this awareness to towards the self?

    I’d say mostly yes, but you would at times have to have a close personal relationship with the person in order to understand what would motivate them to confront their own vulnerability that insights about themselves might reveal.

    At least for me that was how it worked. As a shy person I didn’t want to be aware of my social anxiety, mostly because I didn’t have any framework, or means of getting a handle on it, to deal with it, so I felt helpless about it. As in any overwhelming fear-inducing situation this leads to fight, flight, or freeze strategies. one might try to ignore it, fight it, or just shut down mentally. All of these strategies reduce awareness, as they all override executive functions. When higher cortical functions are shut off it is sometimes called amygdala hijacking.

    Now if this was the whole story no one would be able to overcome bad experiences of the past, simply associating a present perception with a bad memory would lead to amygdala hijacking. Fortunately awareness doesn’t seem to be a one way process, but rather the integration of a top down process(higher cortical functions) and a bottom up (basic instincts and feelings) process. So, by training attention you can strengthen the bias towards top down processes, and with intention slowly change the meaning of your perception from paralyzing threat to maybe a minor discomfort, and from there you might even move steadily towards seing things with renewed curiosity. It takes a lot of work, and often seems like it is not helping, not worth it, especially in the beginning. But I’d say it is the same for the other subjects I mentioned earlier, like programming. Like with programming I think it also depends on learning style, some people are social learners, some very visual, some learn by doing, etc.
    What worked for me was a combination of learning about brain anatomy, using Nathaniel Branden’s “Sentence Completion” techniques to prime the mind to change awareness towards specific aspects of my life, and simply being fed up with not understanding what’s going on in my own brain and mind.

    Another thing to consider is the research on PTSD patients, where it has been shown they can intentionally use attention to intercept the amygdala hijacking with training. In PTSD patients the problem is often an issue of memory encoding going wrong, a specific event should normally be encoded explicitly as a conscious memory, but in traumatic situations people often distract themselves from the trauma by diverting consciousness, or awareness to something irrelevant that gives them the illusion of comfort. Unfortunately memories are still being formed of all the trouble going on by implicit emotional memory processes, so the traumatic memory is never associated with the specific circumstances and might be randomly retrieved and presented in consciousness at unpredictable times, and without the usual “explicit memory” encoding pattern attached it may even appear as reality rather than a memory to the PTSD patient – a vivid flashback. Even with these complexities it is my impression that teaching PTSD patients self-awareness is possible, and probably necessary for them to overcome their disease. If I was to sell self-awareness I might use PTSD as an example for some people, as self-awareness makes you more resilient to stress and trauma, it gives you a distinct edge in tough situations.

    My understanding is mainly based on the works of Dan Siegel’s Developing Mind, Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, and Richard J. Davidson’s The Emotional Life of Your Brain

  6. Scott Dempsey

    I do think self-awareness can be taught, and have been trying to teach people for quite some time. I think a good place to start is with the simplest of tasks. I’ve found that to generally be sensations. Starting with physical self awareness seems to be a good introduction. A pin prick. The feeling of hot or cold on the skin. The taste or feel of something in your mouth. Even the feeling of air rushing into your nose as you breath. Breaking those smallest of sensations down to the point of minutia allows someone to gain just a little bit of self-awareness without being overwhelmed. Small steps and actually working at it, like many pursuits in life. And I do agree that a person will have to want to be self aware to truly find that awareness. I also think that you can sell someone on the idea of it, but have to be willing to put yourself in their shoes to understand what their motivations are. Everyone is capable, but everyone has a different trigger, because no one has lived the exact same life as anyone else, so what has brought any person to where they are now is unique.

  7. Per Rosing Mogensen

    Thinking a bit more about it, it seems to me some people resist self-awareness because they confuse the concept with self-control, or confuse the boundaries of self.
    This would typically lead to bad experiences with trying to become more self-aware, as oblivious confusion leads to more confusion.

    Often when we’re young we’re told to exert more self-control, and this is often linked to being aware of what we’re doing, and this can easily be interpreted as being self-aware.

    Personally I think self-control is unattainable, the harder you try to control things the more things will control you.
    To remind myself of this I use this phrase: “self-controlling subsumes self-trolling”.

    A simple example, have you ever tried to consciously control how you walk, really control the way your entire body moves? It never worked well for me, the outcome is usually a poor Monty Python reenactment, a lame silly walk.

    So if we confuse self-awareness with self-control we probably get rather confusing experiences and resist, or even reject, trying to work a bit more on it.

    Some people seem to expand the boundaries of self-awareness beyond themselves. That is they somehow are convinced that objects, or some aspect of the environment, reflect on themselves.
    An example here might be someone who has stain on their shirt and didn’t notice until it’s too late an someone points it out after an important meeting. Someone with distorted boundaries of self might tell themselves if they had more self-awareness they would have avoided the embarrassment.
    Unfortunately we cannot be aware of stains on shirt through self-awareness, only through external examination, if we confuse these I’d say odds are you quickly give up because you will not find it meaningful most of the time, just frustrating.

  8. Dan

    With this post in mind, now for something you can easily reject or take on board and use to your own improvement: the link on your site’s blog feed images don’t work.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Hi Dan: The site just had a major redesign today and we’re still fixing things. I just fixed the RSS link – thanks for reporting it.

  9. Sean Crawford

    Last night at an area level Toastmaster competition the guy who won the humorous speech contest, for his bio sheet about hobbies, seriously put “growing.”

    What he meant, of course, was not gardening but personal growth. He planned to keep growing for the rest of his life. Which might sound obvious to the sort of keener who comments on blogs but I say seriously the majority of people do not intend to grow. (I very recently got reminded of this, and I still haven’t fully integrated it)

    They won’t set an intention to grow visibly as in, say, taking classes, nor grow invisibly as in facing fears and becoming aware. They, not us, are in the majority. By which I conclude self-awareness will never be taught in any significant numbers. (Yes, but can it be taught at all?)

    Nevertheless my peers at work and I teach each other by example. (I suppose not much gets out past our filters, nor get in past other’s filters, but something is better than nothing) You probably know what I mean. If not, if I might exaggerate to explain, then please think of the monologue used by a subject for a technical writer or user interface designer, where the guy keeps saying out loud what he is realizing as he is confronting his tasks.

    I work in the field of community disabilities. While a dancer would say, “My body is my instrument” our demanding work requires that our whole being is our instrument. For us, blind spots have consequences. Hence it is ok to speak up about our struggles to each other.

    For my part, in my outside life on weekends and so forth, I try to teach by being a living example of sharing “where I am at.” After all, the way to learn is to teach, and I want to grow… …Say, sometimes I get embarrassing awareness just by hearing my own words coming out. Ouch!

  10. Mark

    I love this blog. Thanks for all your insights. You have a great gift, Scott. Where does faith fit into your continuum ? Personally I became aware I needed to be self aware through divine revelation. I felt a deep longing for truth, and that longing led to first discovering the truth about myself, which admittedly was a painful exercise, before i could comprehend the truth about anything else

  11. Aurelio

    It’s very simple: have someone videotape you while giving speech or during a meeting, or even while playing sport. The first time I saw myself in a video, just like when I heard my voice through a casette recorder, was a shocking experience.

  12. Paul

    My test for Self Awareness is to check a persons confirmation bias. If they claim to be self aware but aren’t able to readily and easily accept that they could be and probably are bias … Then my BS detector would be screaming.

  13. Pawel Brodzinski

    I’m not sure if you’re asking the right question. I’d say that definitely self-awareness can be developed and I’m a perfect example. If you ask about teaching you imply that it is pushed/enforced on someone and this is really bad strategy in terms of building self-awareness. Usually, the result is opposite to whatever was planned.

    – You aren’t self-aware, let me teach you…
    – I’m not!

    That’s of course a joke, but it illustrates a pattern. I guess it is really, really difficult to deliver such a message in a non-offensive way.

    On the other hand if I’m self-aware enough to know I need more self-awareness we’re back to the tricky point you mention. And to development, not teaching.

    1. Scott

      Pawel – I’m not sure it’s the right question either :)

      It’s fair to ask if anything can be ‘taught’ in the sense that the teacher gives something to the student. The student always has to be giving enough attention to be taught, even though teachers, especially for children, are seen as being in control.

      Socrates is always apt in questions of learning – the best assumption is always that we know nothing, then at least we’re open to whatever a teacher, or the world, can show us that we don’t already understand.

  14. Scott

    The trick to being self aware is assuming you are not self aware at all.

  15. Abby

    Important to mention in this context, and helpful to be aware of, is that people on the far end of the psychopathic scale—but not necessarily the very far end—are not disposed towards introspection. These are the people who are sane but amoral.

  16. Kenneth Vogt

    We know what we know. (At least we think we do. Let’s go with that for now.)

    We know what we don’t know.

    Where the real access to self-awareness lies is in the things we don’t know we don’t know. If we will remember that what we see is a perspective and not The Truth, we have a much better shot at self-awareness. There’s more to be said about perspective here:

  17. Dev

    Scott, I feel you cannot teach anything to anyone, unless they are ready to unlearn what they already know and be free. As far as my awareness is concerned I am not defined by my ego or by my mind. You may say I am so and so, but I say I am “Nothing”.

  18. Guy Farmer

    Great article Scott. You bring up an essential paradox of self-awareness: To be self-aware you have to able to understand yourself well enough to realize you can discover more about yourself. I’ve found that people are able to build self-awareness when they are permitted let go of the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that don’t work and replace them with ones that help them learn about themselves. They have to feel safe enough to step outside their current perception of themselves, be vulnerable and take the risk to move in a different direction.

  19. Keiyi Maxcy

    How did self-awareness can affect education?

  20. Traci Lepore

    I think self awareness can be taught. I personally learned great self awareness in my theater training. By nature going through that kind of work makes you self and other aware. Successful acting requires it. Many of the basic exercises and activities you do in training are all about learning this. And I learned best how true this is in grad school for theater education. Was in an education class and we were talking about learning styles. The teacher had us all take the test to determine our learning styles. And in that room over 90% of us turned otu to be highly inter and intra-personal. Which the teacher said normal in a group of people is probably less than 20%. We were a testament to what we had learned!

    1. Scott

      I agree that theater and performance forces certain kinds of self-awarness. But consider the question a different way – there are certain people who would never desire to take theater training. You (and I) had an interest in it, so perhaps we were both more inclined to be self-aware before we took the training?

  21. Phil Simon

    My favorite quote on self-awareness as it relates to AI:

    “Siri doesn’t know that Siri is Siri.”
    —Alex Garland

  22. Michael

    The argument taken to its extreme is that we can never know who we truly are until we take a life. In times of war, soldiers pay for and learn the ultimate price. By extinguishing another, they paradoxically increase their self awareness and diminish their expressiveness and willfulness in civilian life.

    1. Human

      “…we can never know who we truly are until we take a life.”

      Nonsense. Where in the world did you pick up such a loony notion?

  23. Sol

    Great article, interesting point about the paradox. I think self-awareness can be gained and can be taught. The easier way would be to teach children to pay attention to their feelings, thoughts, emotions and encourage them to talk about it. It would require parents and teachers to be open minded and not judgmental.

  24. samreen

    Thinking a bit more about it, it seems to me some people resist self-awareness because they confuse the concept with self-control, or confuse the boundaries of self.
    This would typically lead to bad experiences with trying to become more self-aware, as oblivious confusion leads to more confusion.I totally agreed.

  25. Steven Scotten

    I’m skeptical that true self-awareness is possible at all, but I’m also having trouble defining it in a meaningful sense.

    However, it is possible to become aware of our beliefs and about the narratives we tell ourselves about ourselves. This gives the option not to follow those storylines or cling to those beliefs. In one sense that is examining aspects of one’s self so maybe that’s a sufficient definition.

    I think a better way to describe it would be peeling away layers of not-self in order to better be one’s self. (Of course, we are always necessarily ourselves, but our skill at doing so authentically is quite variable. At least, mine seems to be.) That necessarily improves awareness of everything else other than self.

    The methods you list are all good ones, I think. The only shortcut trick I can think of is paying attention when I am annoyed with someone else. I can hypothesize what false thing that person might believe that would lead them to behave in a way I find upsetting. Then the important step is asking whether I believe that same false thing, or whether I believe some different thing, and examining whether that belief might be false.

    Certainly, when I’m upset with someone, that’s a sign that there are beliefs I hold which ought to be navigated skillfully.

    And like I wrote above, this is at best a trick. It doesn’t replace any of the things you listed.

    1. Scott Berkun

      “paying attention when I am annoyed with someone else”

      I like this even for the first two words alone – paying attention. Part of the mystery of self-awareness is tied to the ability to pay attention to ourselves in a specific way. On the one hand it seems entirely unnatural to ask so many questions about our own thoughts or feelings (do sharks or hawks do this?), but on the other hand it seems the only real tool we have to improve our negative impulses, or the assumptions we make in the moment that are wrong, is to have that kind of attention.

      1. Steven Scotten

        Sure. I can’t disagree that paying attention ought to be a year-round sport.

        As you say, it seems unnatural to constantly ask questions about our thoughts and feelings. It’s not productive to second-guess every impulse. It’s hard to examine and *do something* at the same time. It leads to paralysis.

        Certainly there are other opportunities for reflection and examination, but “when I’m upset” is an important one, because obviously somehow I’ve gotten off the path. I may not have done anything wrong, but I’ve at least carried some expectation that empirically was not realistic.

        You take the car into the shop periodically, and also when something seems wrong.

      2. Human

        Improve self awareness and integrity through dispassionate self observation, as if looking at your behavior from an outside vantage point. Then, consider to what extent your behaviors correspond with who you (believe) you are. And vice versa.

        1. Scott Berkun

          That’s a good place to start, but there’s still the trap: how do you know you are dispassionate? How do you know for sure you are truly looking from an outside vantage point, without any important blind spots?

          It’s hard – some of what helps is getting other people to tell you about the things you don’t see (that you don’t realize).

  26. Nikki Shaver

    No, I don’t really think that self awareness can be “taught” but one can collect a lot of different resources to help them on their own path to becoming more “aware” of themselves.

  27. Yang Yanlin

    I feel that I am a self aware person to some extend, but I still need to work hard to do more reflections. I think some methods of self aware can be taught, but teacher can’t help students to complete all these processes, because this is relative with self issue.

    I agree that one person can easily blame others and see the shortcomings of others, but it is not easy to clearly understand own deficiencies and accept criticism from others. Regarding the criticism of others, what I want to say is that critics also need a reasonable approach. One person wants to achieve the best communication effect. Most of the time, he/she needs to adopt euphemistic persuasion and inspiration instead of direct accusation.



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