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Understanding the Why and What of Self-Awareness

This article was based on the TEDxMileHigh Talk, “Increase Your Self-Awareness with One Simple Fix,” by Tasha Eurich: 


Increase your self-awareness with one simple fix – Tasha Eurich


Tasha Eurich has spent many years studying people as they search for self-awareness. She wanted to understand what defined self-awareness, where it comes from, why we need it, and how to get more of it. Her research team surveyed thousands of people and analyzed nearly 800 scientific studies. They also conducted dozens of in-depth interviews with people who made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness.


What is Self-Awareness

As Eurich defines it, self-awareness is the ability to see ourselves clearly, to understand who we are, how others see us, and how we fit into the world. Self-awareness gives us power. We might not always like what we see, but there’s a comfort in knowing ourselves. In her research, she found that is has been proven that people who are self-aware are more fulfilled and have stronger relationships. They’re more creative, more confident, and better communicators. They are less likely to lie, cheat, and steal. They perform better at work, are more promotable, and they’re more effective leaders with more profitable companies.

In the world of self-awareness, there are two types of people: those who think they’re self-aware, and those who actually are. Eurich’s team found that 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but the real number is closer to 10 to 15%.


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The Self-Awareness Study

In order to be part of the self-awareness study, participants had to meet four criteria. They had to believe they were self-aware as measured by an assessment the team developed and validated. Using that same assessment, someone who knew them well had to agree. They had to believe that they’d increased their self-awareness in their life, and the person rating them had to agree.


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Out of the hundreds of people who applied for the study, the team only found 50 people who met the criteria. They were professionals, entrepreneurs, artists, students, and stay-at-home parents. There were no patterns by industry, age, gender or any other demographic characteristic.


Introspection and Happiness

As the team was looking at the relationship between introspection and happiness, stress, and job satisfaction, they found something surprising.  They had expected to find that people who introspected would be better off, but data told the exact opposite story. People who introspected were more stressed and depressed, less satisfied with their jobs and their relationships, and less in control of their lives. These negative consequences increased the more they introspected.

Thinking about ourselves isn’t related to knowing ourselves. To understand this, they looked at the most common introspective question, “Why?” People are often searching for things like the cause of a bad mood, perhaps they are questioning their beliefs, or maybe they are trying to understand a negative outcome. Unfortunately, asking these questions does not lead us towards the truth about ourselves. It leads us away from it.


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Don’t Ask, “Why?”

The first reason we shouldn’t ask, “Why?” is that no matter how hard we try, we can’t excavate our unconscious thoughts, feelings, and motives. Because so much is hidden from our conscious awareness, we end up inventing answers that feel true but are often very wrong.  The second reason asking “Why?” is a bad idea is that it leads us away from our true nature. We like to think of our brains as supercomputers rationally analyzing information and arriving at accurate conclusions. Unfortunately, our brains can sometimes create alternate facts based on recent events that can cloud self-perception.


Ask, “What?”

If we shouldn’t ask “Why?” then what should we ask? When Eurich’s team looked at how the self-aware subjects approached introspection, they saw a very clear pattern. Although they occasionally asked themselves “why,” the word “what” appeared more than 1000 times.

Eurich shared the example of Nathan, a brand manager who got a terrible performance review from his new boss. Instead of asking, “Why are we like oil and water?” he asked, “What can I do to show her I’m the best person for this job?” It changed everything. People now point to Nathan and his boss as proof that polar opposites can work together.


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A Never-Ending Journey

Research shows that self-awareness gives us a better chance at finding happiness and success. To begin your self-awareness journey, you just need to change one simple word. Change “why” to “what.” Why-questions keep us stuck, while what-questions move us forward to our future. As human beings, we are blessed with the ability to understand who we are, what we want to contribute, and the kind of life we want to lead. Life goes on. It’s up to us to choose to learn and grow from our mistakes, our tragedies, and our successes. The search for self-awareness never ever stops.


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