A lot of people say they feel more content and confident as they get older. There’s a sense of knowing who you are, being content with your own satisfaction in a situation and having a clearer picture of what you want and how you as an individual can make that happen. For the very fortunate, they achieve a sense of authenticity or self-awareness that allows them to understand who they are at the very core of their being. And perhaps most crucially, what brings them joy in life. It’s a happy person who is able to articulate what brings them joy and make a practice of inviting that into their life every day, or better still, making that their vocation.
I am most definitely still on this journey seeking my authentic self, but feel I have come a lot closer in recent years having introduced a number of deliberate practices into my life that have developed my self-awareness. I spent quite a few years adrift, not really knowing who I was or what I was good at. I relied on other people to tell me what my strengths were and what I should celebrate as my successes, which limited my ability to make myself happy. This is not to say that I wasn’t doing good work or enjoying myself during this time, but it felt somewhat hollow and I wasn’t sure why. Without really understanding myself or what I wanted, my actions lacked integrity and meaning.
It’s only in recent years as I’ve integrated more mindful practices into my life that I’ve started to build a better sense of who I am and with that knowledge comes the power to make positive changes for myself and for my family. To develop ways of living and loving that make us all happier.
- I’m noticing and letting go of bad habits.
- I know my strengths and limitations better and can allow for them.
- I have a much better idea of what brings me joy and I’m working on how I can make this my vocation.
- I find it easier to let go of the activities and situations that don’t bring me happiness so I can focus on more important things.
- Understanding who I am and how I react allows me to respond to my family in a more loving and constructive way.
Other than allowing for the natural passage of time, there are a number of things I have been doing to improve my self-awareness more deliberately.
Observation of thoughts and emotions
When we start to meditate, and incorporate mindful practices into our lives, we begin to observe the well-worn grooves in our brain. The little tracks that take us places without us even realising. We begin to question the definitiveness of these tracks. What are we auto-piloting? What lies beneath our reactions? How does our body respond? What is our reaction to stress? Is that the reaction we want? Can I travel a less worn path?
If you read my post on anger for instance, you can see that a mindful approach inserts a pause before we set off down our habitual reaction to the emotion ‘anger’. That pause gives us time to both create a different response in the immediate moment but also to observe how our body reacts and what our mind wants to do so that we are able to reflect on it later.
Once we’ve observed how we think and react, the next stage is to understand why we think and react in this way. What happened in our early years? What were the formative experiences that shaped our thinking? How have our reactions served us since then in life? Which of our behaviours do we want to keep and which do we want to change?
This isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do on your own so you may want to talk to someone else about this. Either a friend/partner or a professional. Lori Fitzgerald is awesome and works in my local area but she’s also available on skype and has lots of downloadable worksheets and programs that can help you on the path to self-discovery.
I’ve also found journaling to be incredibly useful for me in this process. Writing down my thoughts and feelings has been both a cathartic experience and a way to get to know myself better. When we’re thinking, we’re not necessarily conscious of our thoughts or questioning them, but when we write them down, we have the opportunity to explore them more objectively. Equally, tracking even the most mundane of activities in my journal has lead me to understand some of my behaviours more. Why do I not drink enough water? What is stopping me from being more active?
If you want some help getting started with a journal, there are lots of journal prompts on all manner of topics available on Pintrest and they can be a great way to start thinking about yourself in ways you haven’t yet considered. Here’s a good example.
Sometimes we need honest feedback from an outsiders perspective to stretch our understanding further. At work, at home, with our friends, in our creative/physical endeavours; external coaching can be invaluable, but not always easy to hear. My own tendency is to be defensive when it comes to criticism so receiving honest feedback isn’t always easy. If you find this to be case too, then I’d recommend the following.
- Seek the opinion of someone you trust. You don’t have to rely solely on your line manager at work for example. It’s fine to approach someone, explain that you’d really value their opinion and ask how they would most like to do that. Starting with someone you trust means that you’re better able to be vulnerable and open to critique than you would otherwise be.
- Set the intention to listen and understand. If you’re asking for feedback as part of a process of self-awareness, you don’t have any agenda other than understanding yourself better so you can make positive changes. If you start to notice yourself feeling anxious, angry or defensive, then try to observe these feelings in the body. What does it feel like? Where do you feel it? Try not to react immediately to these emotions, but go back to your original intention to listen and understand.
- Write it down. Try writing down the feedback and your associated reactions afterwards so you can start to explore the feedback in a less emotionally charged state. Often when we have some time to reflect, we realise that there is some truth to negative feedback, even if it’s difficult to receive. Writing down our reactions also allows us to explore why we react that way. I feel like my defensiveness stems from the need to wear a protective cape of ‘perfection’. Hearing negative feedback feels like someone ripping holes in that protective cape and I feel vulnerable. It’s taken a long time to understand that I can be loved and valued without being perfect, but understanding it has been the first step.
- Gather feedback from more than one person. Once you start to feel more confident receiving feedback, try to gather as much honest feedback as possible from different people. There won’t be one definitive opinion of you and hearing from multiple people will allow you to develop a better understanding of yourself overall.
I’m still very much a beginner on this journey, but I already feel a much greater sense of contentment and wellbeing just in knowing myself that little bit better. Taking charge of your own happiness starts with understanding yourself and it’s a powerful journey. I’d love to hear more about yours.