“Why can’t he just pick up his clothes for once?” you mutter under your breath. You’re not sure why, but you feel annoyed today for some reason. You continue to go through the motions of your day. The work gets done somehow, and you hold it together. Over dinner, when your husband strikes up a conversation, you find yourself tuning out inside while nodding your head on the outside. On the surface, things look OK. You figure it will pass.
Perhaps this day does pass, and you wake up feeling better. You realize you weren’t really mad at him. Maybe it was just a bad mood, or maybe it was because your mother criticized you. But he’s not so sure. He noticed you were off, and he feels like he’s to blame. “I can’t do anything right,” he silently seethes. Neither of you knows how to communicate what you are feeling, so you just keep chugging along on parallel tracks that don’t meet.
The problem is that going through the motions doesn’t work over the long haul. It slowly leads to a chasm that is incredibly hard to bridge. Anger gushes to the surface. You find yourself in a counselor’s office. Your inability to connect in small ways has created tiny splinters which have festered. And now, there are major wounds to address. Healing is possible, but surgery is required.
I see this way too often. And, I want to give you some tools to help prevent this from happening. You don’t have to grow a chasm. And, if you’re living in one, you don’t have to stay there. Instead, you can learn the benefits of self-awareness and why it is your best friend when it comes to forging healthy relationships.
What is Self-Awareness?
Self awareness is defined by Oxford Languages Dictionary as “conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires.” It’s the ability to reflect accurately and honestly upon yourself. When two people come together with honest self-reflection, amazing things can happen. However, a lack of self-awareness is one of the most common problems I see when it comes to marriage.
Many women were taught to focus on “other-awareness.” That means you are taught to tune in to what is happening in other people. You might be adept at gauging the feelings and desires of your children, your spouse, or your friends. For example, if your child seems irritable or down, you might start asking a list of probing questions:
- Did you sleep OK? Are you hungry?
- Did something happen at school to upset you?
- Are you worried about something?
- You don’t seem like yourself. Is anything bothering you?
As you gently engage your child you help them pay attention to what might be going on. They gain awareness, and you feel more connected. Your son might realize he’s taking a bad grade that he received out on you. Your daughter might come to understand that though she feels left-out, perhaps she’s better off without that group of friends. By engaging your child in a series of self-reflective questions, you are helping them gain the benefits of self-awareness.
The problem is that no one ever did this for you. You have no idea how to reflect on yourself or your circumstances in this way. The good news is you can learn.
What Keeps Us From the Benefits of Self-Awareness?
Most people simply aren’t taught how to be self-aware. It’s not a course you take in school. For some who were lucky, your parents helped you understand your feelings, motivations, desires, and needs. They helped you reflect on your strengths and your blind spots. By engaging you in this way, they taught you the power of self-advocacy. You learned to turn a “bad day” into an opportunity to understand yourself and your relationships better. Maybe you learned how to care for yourself when you’re hurting. Or maybe you learned when to take responsibility for your own actions.
But, many of you did not grow up in an environment that nurtured self-awareness. In fact, some of you were taught that self-reflection is actually selfish. You might have heard people talk about self-awareness as a form of self-centered “navel-gazing”. This message comes out in some of the following ways:
- Don’t think about yourself.
- You should only think of other people.
- Stop being so emotional.
- Just snap out of it!
It also comes out more silently in how you saw your parents engage their feelings and behaviors. A parent who is not aware of their feelings and desires operates unconsciously. That means, they are operating outside of conscious awareness. They still have needs, but they are not aware of what those needs are. As a result, they are left at the whim of their impulses and emotions. They might have an angry outburst one minute and be fine the next. Because they lack self-awareness, they don’t know what triggered the outburst. They can’t reflect upon what happened and own up to what was going on inside of them. If you were raised by parents who operated in this way, it is extremely disorienting.
Instead of consciously pursuing intimacy, you may have watched your parents fight, self-sabotage or stay quiet and detached. You might have seen them resort to subconscious, indirect strategies to stay connected. These strategies might have come out in the following ways:
Instead of learning to speak up assertively, they resorted to aggressive or passive-aggressive tactics. They bullied their way into getting what they wanted. Or, perhaps they engaged in the art of getting subtle digs in sideways.
Since they didn’t know what they really needed deep down inside, they focused all their energy on earning love in unhealthy ways. For example, you might have seen your mom or dad resort to people-pleasing, perfectionism, controlling others, avoidance, or overthinking. Instead of giving and receiving love freely, they put on masks for each other and for other people.
Instead of taking ownership for their areas of responsibility in partnership with God, they might have tried to pray away bad feelings, wait for God’s rescue, or minimize abuse. Sometimes, over-spiritualizing parents soothed themselves by judging the other person or blaming God.
Someone who is not self-aware does not reflect honestly on why they act, think, or feel in the way that they do. It’s hard for this person to take responsibility for his or her own actions. If you grew up in this environment, it makes it hard for you to learn how to operate differently.
The Benefits of Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is a mark of spiritual and emotional maturity. One of the key benefits of self awareness is healthier relationships. At first, it might seem selfish to focus on becoming more aware of what is going on inside of you. But, it is the best step you can take to nurture health in your relationships with other people. How can your loved one understand what you need, if you don’t understand it first?
When you become more aware of yourself, you gain confidence and power. You’re less fearful of what others might think of you, because you already know what you think about yourself. As you reflect more honestly on yourself, your capacity to understand others will grow in proportion. You realize that what you are thinking and feeling is unique to your experience. You can speak on behalf of your experience, and you can also listen well to the experience of your loved one. In fact, research shows that increased self-awareness leads to higher levels of:
- Relational Satisfaction
And who doesn’t want more of these qualities?
A Self-Awareness Tool
So, how do you start to enjoy the benefits of self-awareness if you never learned? I’ve discovered a simple tool to help you take the first step. Think of the questions you might ask a child or a friend when he or she is acting out of sorts. It’s taking that same gentle inquiry and turning it toward yourself. I call it a MEPS check-in, and here’s how it works:
Think of only one word to describe how you’re doing on any given day in each of these categories:
1.) Mentally. What is going on with my thoughts today? For example:
- Am I scattered or focused?
- Am I worried or calm?
- Am I stimulated or bored?
2.) Emotionally. What am I feeling today? For example:
- Am I sad or happy?
- Am I weary or confused?
- Am I lonely or fearful?
3.) Physically. How is my body doing today? For example:
- Am I sore or restless?
- Am I energetic or tired?
- Do I have a headache or am I hungry?
4.) Spiritually. How do I feel toward God? For example:
- Am I struggling with him or resting in him?
- Is God close or far away?
- Am I prayerful or distracted?
There are only 2 rules:
1.) Be completely honest with yourself.
2.) Keep it to 1 word for each category.
You can take this quick inventory during your time of prayer, while journaling, or even keep a tab by writing the words into your phone. You may find that spiritually you’re hopeful, but emotionally you’re struggling. Or physically you’re strong, but mentally you’re tired. The simple act of breaking down your overall sense of well-being into these 4 categories can help you gain greater clarity about 1.) how you’re doing; and 2.) where to focus some attention and care.
Next, try sharing your MEPS check-in with your spouse, and see if he’s willing to do it, too. You might do a check-in before dinner or when you first connect after spending time apart. It may lead to deeper conversation, or it may just be a quick way to keep each other in the loop on a busy day.
Remember the scenario at the beginning of this blog post? What if instead of vaguely feeling “off”, you said to your spouse: “I’m mentally distracted tonight. Emotionally, I’m irritable. I’m not sure what’s going on, but I wanted to let you know, so that you won’t wonder why I seem off.”
Can you imagine how this type of communication might open up doors for increased intimacy and connection? Instead of feeling confused or defensive, you each now have important data about the one you love. You’ve taken responsibility for your own feelings and experiences. You can move into deeper exploration as time allows. But, for now, you’re simply learning the freedom that comes with being honest with yourself and the one you love.
“Understanding is the basis of care. What you would take care of you must first understand, whether it be a petunia or a nation.” (Or a person, of course!) —Dallas Willard
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Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Were you taught how to become self-aware? What are your 4 MEPS words today?