Self-Awareness Isn’t Just Knowing Your Myers-Briggs or Star Sign. Here’s What It Really Is
“Be open, be curious, be accepting, because no matter what you learn, you will have more power to have the life you want.”
READ ON TO DISCOVER:
The 7 pillars of self-awareness
Why no one is as self-aware as they think
How to have a (slightly terrifying) “Dinner of Truth”
Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and the New York Times bestselling author of Insight: Why We’re Not as Self-Aware as We Think, and How Seeing Ourselves Clearly Helps Us Succeed at Work and in Life. She recently joined Tiffany Dufu, catalyst-at-large in the world of women’s leadership and author of Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less, for a conversation about why truly knowing ourselves yields major rewards in all areas of our lives.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Tiffany: One of the things that I’ve been saying since I read Insight is that if I had your book seven or eight years ago, I would’ve cut my Drop the Ball journey by half, because a big part of dropping the ball is about being self-aware. So can you start with what self-awareness is? I know my Myers-Briggs score, I know that I’m an Aries and that I’m all about fire—[and] felt that I was someone who’s very self-aware. But it wasn’t until I read your book, particularly understanding the seven pillars of self-awareness, that I got a much more robust sense of what it really means to know yourself. And the fact is, most of us don’t.
“Almost no one is as self-aware as they think they are.”
Tasha: One of the things that I learned in the four years of researching self-awareness is that almost no one is as self-aware as they think they are. Part of it is that we have blind-spots and live in a society that’s making us less and less self-aware. But it’s also just a basic misunderstanding of what self-awareness is.
Our team interviewed people who made dramatic improvements in their self-awareness and found seven different types of self-knowledge that self-aware people have. [First,] self-aware people understand their values. They know what’s important to them, the principles they want to live their life by. They also understand their passions, what they love to do, what gets them out of bed in the morning with a smile on their face. [Third,] they understand their aspirations, what we want to accomplish and experience in our lives.
They also understand [what] I call “fit.” Fit is the environment that you thrive in. What are the types of environmental factors that help us sustain our energy? So, [the first four types of self-knowledge are] values, passions, aspirations, fit. Then it’s onto personality. I tell people to take as many personality assessments as you can get your hands on, because there’s so much to it.
Then the sixth is what I call “reactions.” Basically that means understanding our momentary reactions, and strengths and weaknesses within those. “Something just happened and I’m really mad.” Or, “Something just happened, I’m really happy.” Last but not least is the impact we have on others. That is something that I think a lot of people neglect when they think of self-awareness.
Those are the seven pillars of insight. The two angles that you can look through [at the pillars] are both equally important, too. What we’ve found is there’s something called “internal self-awareness,” which is understanding from [your] own perspective. But there’s also something called “external self-awareness,” which is, “How do others see me in each of those areas?” It’s easy for people to prioritize one or to feel like one matters more. But our research has shown that the way I see me and the way you see me are almost never related. And in both angles, we each have uniquely valuable information.
Tiffany: I think this is so important for a couple of reasons. Understanding these pillars can help serve as a filter for how you manage the overwhelming things in your life, which is largely what I talk about. If you have self-awareness, then you have a sense of, “What should I be focused on right now?” versus, “What should I not be focused on right now?”
It was very helpful for me to know that. Just because I’m really clear that my life’s work is advancing women and girls, doesn’t mean that in my interactions with other people, the passion of that purpose is coming across. What I’ve learned from reading your books is that sometimes I come across as being really abrasive, and actually not being as supportive of women and girls. I care so passionately about it that I can be a bit overbearing.
One of the other things that I think is so helpful, and was a part of my journey of dropping the ball, is developing an ecosystem of support. I call it “my village.” These are the people who helped me to achieve clarity through guidance and encouragement.
“If you have self-awareness, then you have a sense of, ‘What should I be focused on right now?’ versus, ‘What should I not be focused on right now?’”
Tasha: They’re very important in the ecosystem.
Tiffany: We have to learn from these people. I work for a company that’s founded and run by millennials, called Levo. It’s the fastest-growing network for millennial women professionals. I’ll never forget my first performance review. The feedback that I got from our CEO, Caroline Ghosn, was personal feedback that had nothing to do with my job. She told me that she was concerned about the amount of sleep I was getting, particularly the lack of sleep. And I remember my first response being very defensive. Then later that night, I went home and said to my husband, “Can you believe that she said that I need to get more sleep?” I’ll never forget his line, which was, “Tiffany, I think the world would be a better place if you got more sleep.” One of the differences between my ability to receive feedback from Caroline, versus my husband, is that I had identified [him] as a loving critic.
Can you talk about feedback that we receive from other people? How to be more discerning about what kind of feedback we’re getting and how we use it? And how to identify people in our lives who we really should be listening to, and for what reason or what purpose?
Tasha: I am so glad you brought that up. We talk about feedback in an almost superficial way. What’s implied there is that everybody’s feedback is equally valuable and we should always listen to everyone, because they’re probably right. It’s not that simple. One of the most surprising findings was when we talked to these highly self-aware people that didn’t start out that way. They told us that they actually don’t listen to most of the feedback that they get. Most of them rely on just a handful, five or so people, that we have named “loving critics.”
These people had to fit two criteria. One, they have to be completely on your side. Not all feedback is well-intentioned, like with the co-worker that really doesn’t want you to be successful and [tries] to get in your head. That is not someone who we should be putting a lot of stock into. And two, they have to be honest and objective. I’ll give the [counter]example of my mom, God bless her. She thinks that I am the best writer that’s ever lived, and I can’t do anything wrong. I know she loves me, and has my best interest at heart. But if I want to get critical feedback on my latest manuscript, she is not going to be a valuable source.
If people don’t fit both of those criteria, I would be very wary about listening and putting a lot of stock in what they say. That doesn’t mean we should ignore 100% of the feedback we get from everyone else. What I typically tell people is, “Let’s say your co-worker gives you feedback that you’re abrasive in meetings. And you know that maybe she doesn’t really want you to be successful.” That is a hypothesis that you can now test. Then you go to your loving critic, hopefully you have ones at work and at home, and you say, “Hey. Samantha told me that I was abrasive. Do you see that showing up in our interactions or my interactions with others?” That way you can start to calibrate.
Tiffany: One of the things that I loved about Insight were these exercises, these strategies in being intentional about soliciting feedback from others. And one of the most difficult exercises is called “The Dinner of Truth.” It was a bit of an “ouch” moment for me, as I’m sure it is for a number of the people that you work with. Intentionality in my own Drop the Ball journey was really important in helping me to become more self-aware. But also knowing the impact that I’m having on other people.
Tasha: That’s it. We could be clear about what we want to accomplish in the world, but if we’re not getting feedback about how we’re showing up and how we’re doing that, we’ll never achieve what we want to achieve. The Dinner of Truth actually isn’t something that I came up with. There’s a communications professor named Josh Meisner who has done this exercise with his undergrad communication students for probably a decade now.
You want to find a loving critic. That’s probably the most important part. The reason it’s a Dinner of Truth is that you could have a nerve-diffusing adult beverage if you choose, but you don’t have to, maybe some camomile tea. And the question you ask is, “What do I do that’s most annoying to you?”
Then the even harder part is to listen. You resist that huge temptation to justify, to explain, to defend. If you need to ask questions, say, “Tell me how that shows up.” Or, “Wow, I never knew I did that. Can you be a bit more specific?”
You mentioned it was a little stinging. I would never put anything in my book that I hadn’t done many, many times. Because obviously, you can’t tell people to do something that you don’t live yourself. And every time I’ve done this dinner of truth, it’s been tough. But what I hear is never as bad as what I’m afraid I’ll hear. My husband and I did this recently as part of our Insight challenge Facebook group. He said, “Sometimes you can be dismissive.” I thought, “I’ve never even heard that. I’ve never thought about it.” He gave me more detail, [like] I’m on my phone, checking email and I’m just always working. But that was actionable, it was specific, and wasn’t an indictment of me as a person.
That’s where those dinners can be really helpful. It’s an affirming experience. If you pick the right person to sit down with, it might be tough, it might be uncomfortable, but I can almost guarantee that the way the conversation will end will be positive. I’m curious—how did it go for you?
Tiffany: Ultimately it went well. Because the beautiful thing about the Dinner of Truth is the way in which it opens up the other person to really value and appreciate the fact that you’re going through this exercise. That enables them to feel even more of a sense of connection and love as if, “Tiffany really cares about what I think. So much so, she’s going to let me speak my truth to her at this dinner.”
It’s part of the reason why I encourage people to meaningfully engage people in conversations about expectations, because you never know what you think is important, versus what they think is important. I’ve actually done [these dinners] multiple times. One of the first ones was the most difficult one, and it was a conversation with my kids. One of the things that I asked them to do—I have an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old—was for them to have a meeting at which they discussed what they most needed from me as their mom. And to your point, the number one thing that my kids said they needed from me was for me to make scones on the weekends. I was so taken aback that they had discussed all the things that I could possibly do in the world to be a good mom—and at the top of their list was for me to make the scones from scratch. I thought, “I’ve been beating myself up over not solving world peace, when really I could just make scones.” So I do think that’s one of the most important parts of the exercise.
There are so many strategies to build self-awareness, and one of them is around mindfulness. I know it’s a bit of a buzzword now, but I think it’s really important, and I love the way you frame it. Can you talk a bit about mindfulness as a strategy to improve our self-awareness?
“You’re aware. You’re awake. You’re paying attention. That’s what mindfulness is about.”
Tasha: When I first started this research program, I had some hypotheses, but I was really trying to look at this whole swath of self-awareness with fresh eyes. One of the things I thought we would find was that mindfulness and meditation would be important. I was hoping that it wouldn’t be that important, because there’s so much out there about mindfulness. I think it’s misunderstood very easily, but it conjures images of week-long silent meditation retreats and all of these things that Type A people like me typically do not love to do. Lo and behold, it was actually really important. What we did learn though, was that it’s about more than meditation.
There’s a wonderful researcher, Ellen Langer, who’s been researching mindfulness for almost 40 years. She essentially defines it as experiencing new things. The first time I [heard] that I thought, “Well that’s not meditation. What does that really mean?” Ellen [analogizes] it to traveling to a new place—you’re going to be walking around completely in the moment at the sights, and the sounds, and the people, and the new dishes in restaurants. You’re aware. You’re awake. You’re paying attention. That’s what mindfulness is about.
Yes, we can meditate. There are a lot of people that find it to be very important. But for those of us that can’t sit still for five minutes, let alone 20 or 40, there are other ways of practicing it. A good tool for this is comparing and contrasting. It’s allowing yourself to not overthink a problem, and solve it more effectively. Instead of saying for example, “Why am I so miserable in my job?”and getting spun up, a better question would be to compare and contrast [to past experience]. To say, “Okay. I feel bad today. When was the last time I felt this bad? And what did those two things have in common?” Maybe I realize that every time I’m miserable at work, it’s when I’m giving a presentation, and I realize I hate public speaking. That pattern detection, that ability to notice what we’re feeling in the present and go back and say, “How is this similar and different from other times that I’ve experienced this?” is an example of one of the many tools where you can be mindful without [meditation].
Tiffany: I want to talk about self-acceptance. There’s a line in Drop the Ball, from the very end of the book, where I come to what I now call a “Tiffany’s Epiphany”: That loving myself as imperfect is the prerequisite to dropping the ball. I used to be someone who was terrified of ever dropping a ball. I basically re-appropriated the term to mean that dropping the ball is dropping these unrealistic expectations of doing it all. But one of the challenges of coming to a place where you can do that is that you’ve got to accept who you are, once you become aware about who that person even is. That self-judgment we hold against ourselves is a large part of what prevents us from accepting other people.
So it’s not just for yourself that self-acceptance is important. It’s almost as if when you get to a place where you won’t over-judge yourself, it’s impossible to judge others. Can you talk about the importance of self-acceptance and how we achieve that? For many women that I connect with, it’s one of the biggest barriers to being able to create lives that we’re passionate about.
“Loving myself as imperfect is the prerequisite to dropping the ball.”
Tasha: I think you hit the nail on the head, especially with women. A very common thing that I hear from people, particularly women is, “I know there’s more I need to know about myself, whether it’s internally or externally. But I’m scared. I’m afraid of what I’ll learn.” That is the most honest, human, reasonable feeling to have when you set out on this journey. According to our research, 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10 to 15% really are. Which is just stunning, isn’t it?
So it’s easy to start beating ourselves up and say, “Well, I thought I was self-aware. I guess I’m not. I guess I’m horrible.” But that’s not what this process is about. It’s about seeing ourselves more completely and holistically, while realizing and accepting that we’re imperfect.
“Be open, be curious, be accepting, because no matter what you learn, you will have more power to have the life you want.”
And interestingly, these people that made dramatic improvements in self-awareness, they had an equal amount of clearness and objectivity about themselves as they did acceptance and compassion towards themselves. You can think about those like two twin pillars. If you have one without the other, things get pretty crazy. You could be self-aware and not self-accepting, and then it’s an exercise in self-loathing, losing your confidence. Nobody wants that. But you can also be self-accepting and not self-aware—you might feel great about everything, but you don’t know what interactions you’re having with the environment and the way people really see you, and what you could do to have a richer, more fulfilling life.
There’s a wonderful self-compassion researcher named Kristin Neff who talks about [how] the fact that we’re imperfect makes us part of the world, and helps us feel connected to other people. I thought that was really lovely. Don’t be afraid of imperfection. Be open, be curious, be accepting, because no matter what you learn, you will have more power to have the life you want.