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you don’t know what you don’t know

Or: How to be Self Aware in 5 easy steps.

Ok, maybe not easy.

I have always been drawn to people who are more self aware than others. I didn’t realize how rare this was until my early 30s when I was struck by how very many people don’t even begin to know how they really tick or how they come across to others. Maybe it’s that they don’t care (which should be enough cause for introspection) or that they are too self protected from the fear, anger, resentment, and hurt that gets stirred up by looking at themselves in the “mirror” for too long.

But you’d be hard pressed to convince me that there aren’t more problems caused by not looking at yourself and the payoff for all of us is great. So here are some of the ways I think are most important for learning more about yourself…

1. Do you say what you mean?

One common trait among people who are not very self aware is that they tend to speak without thinking. They blurt out, spout off, ramble. You could chalk this up to personality type and I would argue yes, their personality type is clueless.

Being reactionary aside though, the words a person uses to react are telling. We all know a person who tends to “speak her mind” but ends up correcting herself every other sentence. She may a string of thoughts like “I hated that movie. But I like that one actress. But she was so annoying. But she did save the day.” It’s an innocuous example, but it holds true to the more personal conversations of life, whether talking about a family issue or problems with a spouse or that elephant in the room, and the words that are chosen to speak out loud often do more damage overall than help resolve anything.

There are those types who tend to “think out loud” and don’t formulate a logical rational calm argument before opening their mouths. And this is where the self awareness for both parties comes in. The listener needs to be aware enough of himself to realize how he reacts, while the speaker needs to be self aware of how she just speaks her mind but what she says gets interpreted by others. She may find that she says things that aren’t true even to herself and aren’t quite what she meant to say, but once things are said, you cannot take them back. Being self aware means owning that. Owning up to the damage you do with your words in the heat of the moment and recognizing the patterns you set.

On the flip side of this personality trait is the one who never says anything and holds everything in. This person may gloss over the importance of addressing problems, or may agree outwardly to things that will cause great emotional harm.

2. Can you give a reason for everything you do?

I’m not talking about excuses and blameshifting. If that’s the m.o. for you, than it’s not being self aware, more self deceived. We are so quick to say, yeah I was wrong but it was because of what YOU did. It was that woman you gave me. It was that serpent in the tree. It was my parents’ fault because they did/didn’t spank and/or hug me.

Being self aware involves using these points as STARTING points, not ending points and definitely not conclusions. We start with what happened to us, but we don’t stop there. We continue on to what it did to us, what we felt, what other triggers contributed to how we reacted, what we thought about, how we rationalized our behaviors and where we ended up with it. And it isn’t an easy journey, in fact it sucks big time. It’s difficult to really see yourself, past all the excuses and the finger pointing, past all the wrongs that have been done to you. If you come up with any other conclusion than you have sole responsibility for your actions, then you need to start over again until that’s the place you end up.

3. How do you react to criticism and personal attacks?

Are you the kind of person who starts out defensive? The person just barely gets the words out and you are already talking. It gets personal. You hurt and lash out, like any number of wild creatures who have instinctive defense mechanisms, without even thinking the thought “I’m under attack! what do I do?”

A mature person takes stock of what is said about her and finds the truths that lie sometimes just below the surface. Sometimes we write things off because of where it comes from – a person we don’t like, or maybe that person tells us at the worst possible time and we resist her sense of timing. But instead of reacting, whether it’s shutting down or becoming defensive or even hostile, turning the attack back on that person, a mature person takes a step back, maybe even physically, and considers what is being said and why. Is there truth to it? Does this person have any point? Any point at all? Can I start with the assumption that this is a perfectly valid critique of me and how do I address it or change it? And after careful, open minded consideration, I still don’t feel it’s valid, can I be willing to accept that this is how someone else sees me and that to ignore it or belittle it is to disrespect another person entirely which is not the way of grace and love? Perhaps if you are self aware enough, you already have a way of explaining to this person in a helpful, mutually beneficial way, your side of the story and how that may change how this person perceives you. If all you do is yell back and finger point, you lose that opportunity and you both walk away misunderstood.

But even more to the point I think is that you learn a lot about yourself through confrontation. You learn what buttons you have and when you take the time to carefully consider what the conflict is and its validity, you are learning about yourself and what angers you, upsets you, saddens you, and what you do when you respond to these things. Regardless of how true or false the criticism may be, you are given an opportunity to put yourself to the test.

4. What kind of friends do you keep?

I am a strong proponent for having friends, good personal friends, who staunchly and completely disagree with you. at least on one significant thing if not multiple things. I love having friends who make fun of my beliefs whenever they get the chance. I say go for it. It will either make me rethink my beliefs or it will make me stronger. Maybe they will think of an argument that I haven’t thought of yet. Maybe they will alert me to something I hadn’t heard of yet.

What is the point of surrounding yourself with people who are exactly like you? How do you learn and grow that way? When you only hang out with people who have the same views as you, same interests, same experiences, you miss out on the richness of diversity and tend to get pigeon holed in your understanding and even your sympathies. You become only empathetic because your life views are so limited and your capacity to see beyond your own walls, if you will, diminishes greatly over time.  Your self awareness makes you realize that you only live one life and have one relatively narrow experience from birth to death – compared to the billions of people out there and even the hundreds of people you will come across as you go. Growing capacity for sympathy for all people from all walks of life only comes through first recognizing you don’t have such sympathy/empathy naturally, and that you cultivate it through listening and relating to others who are very much not you.

5. Do you read the Bible only for comfort or for reproof?

This one really stings me. We tend to go to God’s word for comfort. We want to be told how everything is good and He loves us and He is working everything out. And it’s all true and good and right, and there are times when we just simply cannot take any thing more than that.

But a self aware person realizes first that she is flawed and sinful, that she needs to change, that there is nothing good in her deserving of the honor given simply by being alive and made in the image of God. And we’ve learned this through the Bible. We’ve read it and seen ourselves in its mirror. And like James talks about (oh how I hate the book of James, so help me God) we often walk away from the mirror and promptly, willfully, defyingly forget what we look like there. We allow our vanity to deceive us into thinking we are better than we are, or at other times worse than we are. We use the wrong scale for the wrong measurements and like a funhouse mirror image of ourselves, we plod on through the day.

I’m kidding about James. Well, sort of. It’s like the quintessential self awareness book. Gack! It’s about not walking away from the hard work, that is the day to day living that wears us out, the stuff that hurts and makes us uncomfortable, the thoughts that we don’t want to chase down and would rather blow them away like bubbles. But it’s in the hard work of knowing ourselves as we truly are that we grow and become more like what we were made to be – both as God sees us and how we will see ourselves on that blessed day when we stand face to face and finally, fully see ourselves. Until then, we cannot be afraid of the hard work. We are stronger than that, better than that. We have been given a great gift of life and the grace to get through it. And not just to plod through it, but triumphantly, abundantly live through it, ever present in the beautiful, meaningful lives we were made for, becoming more and more aware of who we are meant to be.

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