Self-awareness is arguably the holy grail of inner peace, especially when you’re under pressure. But what is it? How do you achieve it?
As a teacher of self-awareness, I’ll be the first to admit that it does not always come easy. Given our human instinct to resist whatever challenges us to grow and change, the journey to self-awareness often involves a struggle. I know mine sometimes does.
To be more self-aware, I’ve had to cultivate a willingness to admit I don’t have it all figured out and that I might not always be right, especially when I feel really strongly that I am. I’ve had to make a point to look at my reality more objectively and admit when the way I’m doing something is just not working for me anymore.
These admissions never come easily. But I will say that addressing my emotional reactivity has been essential to getting me to a place of greater self-awareness.
When I was a young mother, I spent years trying to protect my kids from the impact of the dysfunction around them. Outwardly, we looked like the perfect family who had it all. My husband and I were pretty skilled at managing the family’s image, but the real story unfolding inside the four walls of our home was a marriage buckling under the weight of inauthentic emotional reactions like shame, blame, and guilt.
We lived like this for decades. If you could call it living.
For the longest time, I let my emotions run the show, relying on what felt like a satisfying reaction rather than reflecting on what was or wasn’t actually working.
Firing off a sarcastic remark felt like I was being heard.
Pushing the blame on others felt like a solution.
Launching impulsively into action felt like the surest and fastest way to get the problem behind me!
In the heat of the moment, a full-blown emotional reaction felt like it was protecting me. Ironically, all it actually protected me from was self-awareness, and the change and personal growth that depend on it!
Unaware that I was making the choice to act out my reactions, I couldn’t see the lack of wisdom in it. After the dust settled and the smoke cleared, the end result was nearly always the same: a truckload of pain, confusion, and an even bigger mess.
By the time I mustered the courage to seek a divorce, my children were adults. I knew it was time for a massive change, and I thought my newfound courage would empower me to close the door on the powerful and damaging reactive emotions I had been running on for so long.
But it wasn’t easy.
As I gained more and more clarity, it became obvious to me: the reactivity I had acted out during my marriage was still surfacing even after my divorce. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “Wherever you go, there you are!” Needless to say, this was a hard fact to face.
By separating myself from an untenable situation, I thought my shame and guilt would disappear with it. Boy, was I wrong!
I still had a debilitating fear of uncertainty and faced enormous self-doubt about moving into the world on my own. I struggled with guilt and shame about my past life choices.
I had been acting out some very specific patterns for decades, and over that long stretch those patterns had become habitual. So, whenever I faced a stressful situation, I fell right back into those same old patterns.
The hard truth was that, like the deep and gnarled roots of an old tree, these emotional patterns of reactivity weren’t coming out without real effort and determination.
A New Approach: The Practice
Eventually, it became clear to me that if I wanted real change in my life, I needed a new approach. And that new approach became the fundamental practice of my program, the Inner Peace Blueprint, backed by a key Harvard study on the benefits of mindfulness.
Researchers found that when practitioners of mindfulness focused awareness on their physiological state, it led to improved emotional regulation, which led to an empowered sense of self.
So here is what I did:
Every time I felt myself getting hijacked by shame, guilt, self-pity, insecurity, or fear, I interrupted those reactions by relaxing my physical tension and focusing on my breathing. This is the most basic technique I used—the practice of posture and breath.
When I felt I couldn’t trust myself (or others), I would do the practice.
When insecurity hit me as I imagined being on my own after thirty-six years of marriage, I would do the practice.
When fear and guilt washed over me as I listened to my children talk about their own reactions to the divorce, I would do the practice.
Remembering to do the practice took a lot of discipline, which was really not that surprising given the fact I had been reacting emotionally for my entire life, getting stuck in my head and going nowhere fast. My reactions were so familiar to me that they felt like who I was. They had become a deeply ingrained habit and really hard to break.
Not challenging this habit, however, was simply no longer an option. And the practice was the best way I could see to get the job done, so I stuck with it. Every time I paused to relax my body and breathe, I experienced myself calming down, even if just a little. Over time, I started to see how all the little bits of calm were adding up to a lot more calm.
What I Learned About Self-Awareness
With greater calm, greater self-awareness (which I define as “being able to see what I’m really up to”) came pretty naturally.
I paid close attention to what I said when I was under pressure and asked myself: Was it constructive or not?
Whenever I did something to get the pressure behind me and “make it stop!” I stopped to evaluate if what I did actually helped. Or did it just dig the hole I was in that much deeper?
The practice afforded me the self-awareness to stop and consider my emotional state before I opened my mouth. It also gave me the self-awareness to make sure I waited until I was calm and clear about what to do (or not do) before proceeding.
Today, the practice is still my primary self-awareness tool because it always brings me back to the now-moment. When I can focus my attention on my physical tension and release it through breath, I become more aware of my emotional state and can better regulate what I do and say as a result. This, to me, is the definition of self-empowerment.
Even when I lose sight of how my reaction is impacting and distorting my perception, behavior, and choices, I can be pretty sure that it is and that staying focused on calming down before I respond is always my best bet.
This new way of responding to my reactions with the practice helped me break the habit of acting out my reactivity and making things worse as a result. And this is what keeps me on a trajectory toward sustainable, lasting transformation.