Self-Awareness & The Fine Line Between Self-Consciousness

Do I look smart and sophisticated, like I’m thinking something profound? Wait! Can they tell I’m thinking about whether I look smart and sophisticated? OK, let’s try and look like we’re not trying. Having recently gone to a public space to write in my journal, I found myself transported to a time in my late teens and early 20s when I would be overcome with thoughts like these while sitting in a café.1 There I would be, trying to write or read and instead be completely distracted from the task at hand. The whole process would become a discouraging confrontation with my own insecurities and self-consciousness.

While teaching undergraduate students has subsequently revealed to me that this is a common affliction of youth, social media has taught me that it is one that continues to plague many us well into our advancing years. Even I must admit that I still endeavor to free myself from what I see as an unhealthy preoccupation with the perceptions of others.2 Yet, for as much as we may desire to free ourselves from external validation, isn’t it necessary for us to remain mindful of others and their concerns? If being self-aware is a virtue, how do we cultivate it while avoiding that step too far over the line into the deleterious state of self-consciousness?

In this article, we explore this question.

In defense of social approval

Before proceeding, I would like to take a moment to defend our desire for social approval and make the case that it is, in general, a good thing. As we are, first and foremost, animals, it is important to consider the environment in which we as a species exist. We are not solitary hunters that come together only for mating purposes, but rather social animals that have evolved to conduct all aspects of life within the context of groups. Evolution is not accidental and if humans in all corners of the earth live in groups, then we must conclude that there are advantageous reasons for doing so.

In practice, we can accomplish things in groups that are simply not possible in isolation. Among numerous other benefits, group existence improves our chances at survival and provides a setting that ensures for effective rearing of offspring. This latter point is particularly salient because humans – unlike most species – are born exceptionally premature and require an extraordinary amount of time before being able to fend for themselves.3 A nursing mother by herself in the wild would be incredibly vulnerable to attack and would struggle to balance the requirements of childcare and food gathering. Yet, in the context of the group, both her and the child’s chances for survival increase exponentially.

I could go on at length regarding this fascinating subject, but the point is clear: groups are good and we have evolved to live in them. As a result, we have also developed a number of traits that promote social cohesion. We are designed to want to be around people and research has consistently shown the pronounced mental and physical health repercussions that arise from being subjected to prolonged periods of social isolation.4 In the pre-industrial age, moreover, one of the greatest punishments that one could receive was to be ostracized from the group as this would have meant almost certain death. Because we cannot survive if the group dissolves, it is essential for it to be populated by individuals who are not self-interested sociopaths. We must care about others and develop empathy and we must be willing to sacrifice our egos (and even our lives) for the benefit of the group. For this to happen, we must care about what our friends, family and neighbors think about us. This is not simply a utopian wish, but a reality of what are as a species.

Moreover, our very individuality is intrinsically linked to the group. While the famous Zen Koan asks that you consider the sound made by a tree that falls in a forest with no one there to hear it, I tend to think it is more interesting to ask: “who would you be if you grew up on an island completely devoid of any social contact?” What kind of person could you possibly be without others? Even those who define themselves as innovative or original are only able to construct that identity in comparison with others.5

This is all to say that we are designed to seek social approval because it promotes behavior that is beneficial to the group. If groups are also beneficial, then it logically follows that seeking social approval is, overall, a good thing. It is, therefore, somewhat counterintuitive that we should be hardwired to care about what others think, while simultaneously wishing that we didn’t give a damn.6 

How do we navigate this contradiction? While I don’t claim to provide definitive answers here, I believe that valuable insights can be gained by exploring the concept of self-awareness. Before doing so, however, it is useful to define what it is and how it is distinct from self-consciousness.

Self-awareness v. Self-consciousness: What’s the difference?

While self-awareness and self-consciousness have been used interchangeably in some academic disciplines, each has come to reflect a subtly distinct manifestation of how we understand ourselves as individuals within the context of a group. Self-consciousness, as it is commonly used today, represents the more negative side of this understanding – where a person becomes overly sensitive of herself in the context of others, resulting in a range of unpleasant, obsessive and discomforting feelings.7

While this definition is well-established, it is mildly surprising to find that there is less consensus on what it means to be self-aware. According to my cursory, non-exhaustive research, our modern conceptualization of self-awareness can be traced to the early 1970s with the work of the social psychologists Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund. As outlined in their book A Theory of Objective Self Awareness (1972), self-awareness is seen as a process by which one’s consciousness is directed inward (as opposed to being directed outwardly, towards the external world) in an effort to determine the extent to which that person’s external actions and behavior align with her internal beliefs, values, principles, standards, etc. In other words, under this definition, self-awareness occurs when a person evaluates whether she (objectively) is doing what she (subjectively) should be doing.

Building on this narrowly defined version of self-awareness, Dr. Tasha Eurich expands upon it to include both an internal and external dimension. While the former is largely consistent with that posited by Duval and Wicklund, external self-awareness broadens the concept to include an awareness of how one is perceived by others. So, whereas internal self-awareness (the Duval and Wicklund conceptualization) reflects the alignment of your actions with your beliefs, external self-awareness represents how well your evaluation of yourself aligns with how others view you. 

To tie this back into self-consciousness, it is essential to note that each is concerned not just with “the self” but rather the self in the context of others. Having already established that one’s self cannot properly exist without being embedded in a network of other social relations, it follows that such a concern with the self is not necessarily a bad thing. Both forms require some degree of empathy towards others (and empathy is, I would argue, an essential component of group survival). Where these two concepts differ, however, is that self-consciousness represents a dysmorphic manifestation of the self vis-à-vis others while self-awareness portends a healthy relationship between the self and the group.

Since each of us should, therefore, strive to be self-aware while ensuring that we don’t cross the line into self-consciousness, the question becomes: how do we do that?

Navigating the fine line between self-consciousness and self-awareness

Based on these two forms of self-awareness, Eurich constructs a two-by-two matrix that characterizes individuals according to how much of each they possess (reproduced below). Of the four “archetypes” she develops, each of us should endeavor to become what she terms an “aware” person (with both high external and high internal self-awareness).

This requires knowing who you are and what you want while being mindful enough to understand that you might not always be projecting your inward values onto the world in the manner that you think. It requires acceptance of the fact that you are imperfect while desiring to be a better person – not just for yourself, but rather for the benefit of others. 

To elaborate on the nuanced challenges of self-awareness, it is useful to consider the differences between the “introspector” and “pleaser” archetypes identified in the matrix. The introspector – with high internal but low external self-awareness – can be viewed as one of these infuriatingly frustrating people who have an overly inflated sense of self and seem immune to the numerous external signals suggesting otherwise. All of us have probably come across such a person, but I might offer the example of Donald Trump as a prototypical introspector. Such a person seems incapable of admitting that they are wrong. They may have an exceedingly difficult time incorporating criticism (regardless of how constructive it may be) and, in the extreme, may view themselves as infallible. When such a person is placed in a position of power, these shortcomings can be catastrophic. Without question, it is good to possess self-love and faith in oneself, but we must be able to entertain the idea that we can be wrong and we must be willing to apologize. People who cannot do so will find it difficult to grow because they cannot confront their own shortcomings and cannot seek out sources of new information that would facilitate such growth. Further, while these people likely won’t fall victim to the problems associated with self-consciousness discussed in this article’s introduction, they may lack empathy and be harmful to the overall well-being of society.

The research is supportive of the fact that most of us are fairly bad at evaluating our own strengths. A 2014 study of 22 meta-analyses, for example, found that there is only an average correlation of 0.29 between self-evaluations and those conducted by others (with the majority of us greatly over-estimating our own skills). This suggests that most of us are lacking in external self-awareness and would likely benefit by seeking to better understand how others view us.

At the other extreme we find the “pleaser”. With high external, but low internal self-awareness, such a person is empathetic and sensitive towards the views and needs of others, but lacks a deeply rooted set of beliefs and principles. This type of person becomes too reliant on external validation and struggles when the winds eventually blow and the opinions of others change. In the context of relationships, these are the types of people who find themselves too often being abused because they lack boundaries. They have not yet taken sufficient stock of who they are and what they have to offer and have not fully determined the limits that they are willing to endure. Whereas the “introspector” over-values herself, the “pleaser” is a victim of under-valuing.8

Taken together, both forms of self-awareness present elements that can be usefully applied toward the pursuit of a meaningful existence, while also presenting unique challenges. If we are internally self-aware while lacking its external counterpart, we might be professionally successful; but it might also result in us becoming some huge egomaniac with tremendous orange skin and ridiculous hair who is a bigly cancer to society and an existential threat to humanity. If, instead, the opposite occurs, we would likely become prone to bouts of overly neurotic self-consciousness while exposing ourselves to abuse. While we might be helpful to others, it could very well come at the cost of our own well-being. It’s a dilly-of-a-pickle. So, what’s the path forward?

In resolving this, I find it useful to quote the Rabbi Simon Jacobson, who advises us to “Learn to live your life from the inside out, in which your inner identity guides your choices and actions, instead of living outside in, in which your circumstances control your life and identity.” While we must live for others (and have been biologically programmed towards such ends), the very definition of self-awareness shows us that we cannot possibly be of service to others until we have anchored ourselves to a deeply rooted set of beliefs. The key is taking the time to first formulate what these are. If we in turn base them on some system of collective morality, the social good will come and we will find that being true to ourselves can alone generate benefits for others. From here, you must also engage in this process of internal self-awareness and review the extent to which your actions align with your beliefs. I would argue that this process should be enough to keep you from becoming self-conscious for you will find it sufficient to know that you are living according to the values that you hold.

While this is the most significant part (and may take decades for you to arrive at), the lessons from external self-awareness remind us that we must remain humble even when self-assured. We must be willing to seek out the advice of our peers and welcome criticism. It is, in turn, essential that we be willing to admit when we are wrong and apologize when we have hurt someone. Without these elements, we cannot grow – and life reminds us that it is incumbent upon us to do so, for we are never finished products.

In his poem The Voiceless, Oliver Wendell Holmes writes: “Alas for those that never sing, But die with all their music in them!” If a tree doesn’t make any sound when it falls in an empty forest, what good is that music inside of you when it is not sung for another? We all have a light inside of us that we must shine onto the world for the benefit of others. This requires knowing who you are, which requires knowing that in which you believe. Through the pursuit of internal self-awareness, we ensure that we adhere to these principles. By similarly seeking to cultivate external self-awareness, we ensure that our values serve the interests of others. The internal process helps us compose the notes, while the external process ensures that we sing them aloud.

Concluding remarks

Let’s be clear: self-awareness is a noble quality and a public good – one, I would argue, that is incumbent upon each of us to cultivate. Practically speaking, it is a form of empathy that considers whether you and your actions are conducive to the well-being of others. A person who is self-aware doesn’t play her music so loudly during hours when others might be sleeping; he cleans up after himself and puts the equipment at the gym back in its proper place. A person who is self-aware doesn’t stand in a location where others may be trying to pass; refrains from talking too loudly in the quiet areas of a library; and drives carefully through residential areas. Put simply, a person who is self-aware considers how his or her behavior might – to put it in Jung’s terms – be coming across as a bit dickish.

All of us will, at times, behave like massive dicks.9 While we must accept our imperfections, we should also seek to understand when we are behaving poorly, admit wrong-doing and seek to rectify this behavior and limit its re-occurrence in the future. To admit fault is not the same as admitting that you are somehow different from the person you claim to be. I hope you remember that because the truly self-aware person will understand that this is not the case.

Despite popular sentiment, it is good for you to be concerned with how others view you. Where we go astray, however, is in where we direct this concern. While it is flattering to be seen as attractive or cool and to have people providing positive reinforcement by liking your social media posts, a genuine concern with these things is a one-way path towards destructive self-consciousness. Instead, the lessons of self-awareness teach us that there is really only one thing that should concern us with respect to the way we are perceived by others:

That other people see you as a person who adheres to the very principles and beliefs that you profess.

None of this, however, will be possible until you take the steps of identifying what your principles are and ensuring – however inconvenient and difficult – that they are being followed. When you realize this and you make a promise to be honest with yourself regarding how well you personally practice what you preach, you’ll find greater satisfaction with yourself and your life. It can require some heavy lifting at times, but exercising your soul requires the same amount of work and consistency as required by your body (and there are similarly no short-cuts). As you watch your feelings of self-consciousness disappear, you’ll also come to realize that those times when you are most concerned with what others think are those times when you are personally disappointed and frustrated with how well you are adhering to your principles. In these moments, the solution will again be the same: to look inward.

In closing, while it should be clear, it is worth noting that the process of self-awareness is not like turning on a light-switch and will likely require many years of trial-and-error. Even if I can now successfully sit in a café and write without concerning myself with how I might appear to others, I still feel the hand of self-consciousness on my shoulder every time I find myself concerned with my reflection in a storefront window.  

  1. If there was an attractive woman nearby, it could get exceptionally bad
  2. and even made it one of my new year’s resolutions heading into 2021
  3. one theory as to why this is the case posits that we are born so prematurely because of the limited girth of a woman’s birth canal. If human infants gestated for longer periods, the theory argues, the increased cranial size would likely lead to exorbitant maternal death rates. Another theory, developed recently, instead suggests that the premature stage at which human infants are born is due to the rapid growth in caloric requirements that occurs at the onset of the 2nd trimester and which continues until birth. In the low and inconsistent caloric environment in which humans evolved, continued increases may have likely been unsustainable, requiring that birth to be made after “only” 9.5 months.
  4. Covid, unfortunately, has likely made you acutely aware of this fact
  5. And, indeed, any of these “original” ideas almost certainly could not have been developed without the influence of others.
  6. Though there is, I suppose, a parallel to be found in the common desire to be in a relationship while simultaneously wishing to be single.
  7. The “everyone is watching me” sensation that some people experience when in a public setting.
  8. In the example about me in my earlier years, I would have likely been classified as a “pleaser”. While I had no shortage of strong beliefs and principles, I wasn’t sufficiently anchored to them and remained too reliant on the external validation of others. It wasn’t enough for me to know that I was adhering to these principles and living according to them.
  9. which, I can assure you from personal experience does not mean that you have a massive dick