The Qualities of Self-Awareness

For the purposes of Mindful Self-Discipline, awareness has three main qualities: clarity, neutrality, and acceptance.

Clarity means that you see things for what they are, without fooling yourself. It is radical self-honesty. You don’t avoid or color the truth, however painful. Even when you are breaking your own rules and want to “turn a blind eye”, you see it clearly and call it what it is.

For example, you may say to yourself: “I know I committed to not eat sweets for 30 days—as an expression of my aspirations. I can see I’m telling myself that today doesn’t count, because it’s my brother’s birthday. I can see that I’m rationalizing. I feel the craving for the cake and ice cream, and a pull to give in.”

That is radical self-honesty. It makes you more likely to say no to the excuse. Even if you break your rule, you are not fooled by your rationalization—you clearly see what is going on. 

Radical self-honesty means catching our procrastination, excuses, and self-sabotage. It shows us when part of us doesn’t want our goal, at least not right now. However painful that realization is, awareness doesn’t shy away from it. It sees it, accepts it, and works from there.

Quick Exercise: Think of three times this week/month when you fooled yourself with self-talk, rationalizing something that you knew, deep down, wasn’t right for you. Commit to being aware of it the next time it happens.

Neutrality means observing your experience with a sense of curiosity—without attachment or aversion, which blind you.

In very practical terms, for the purpose of Mindful Self-Discipline, neutral awareness means noticing what’s happening without adding stories of shame, guilt, or self-criticism. All of these forms of deprecating self-talk only make it harder for you to achieve your goal. They create emotional stress—which is a form of pain—and then the lizard brain kicks in wanting a dopamine shot to relieve that pain through instant gratification. The researchers Polivy and Herman aptly called this vicious cycle the what-the-hell effect.

Instead of shaming yourself, just notice what happened, and feel glad that you noticed it! That moment of awareness is a big step forward. And then realize that you now have a moment of choice again: do you want to give up your goal, or do you want to re-affirm it?

Many people fear that without self-criticism they will become lenient and lazy. But that is not the case. If your aspiration is strong and clear, you will have all the needed fuel for your best efforts. You won’t need to add shame and guilt to the mix in order to keep yourself motivated. 

Acceptance means that whatever emotions or urges come up, you see them and accept them for what they are. You accept them without repression, suppression, or any other form of self-violence. 

Scientific studies show that trying to suppress thoughts and urges doesn’t work. Smokers who were told to suppress all thoughts about smoking ended up smoking more, in the long run, than the smokers who were encouraged to think about smoking as much as they could.

Trying to suppress a thought has our mind constantly comparing each thought with the unwanted thought, to see if that is the thought that we are trying to get rid of. And when we stop doing that, the suppressed thought returns like a pressed-down spring popping up. “Don’t drink anymore”, “Stop doing that”, “Forget about your anger”—whatever you resist persists

The alternative is awareness—seeing your thoughts, emotions, and urges clearly, neutrally, and with acceptance. It opens up new possibilities that could not have existed before.

“All right, Giovanni, I got it! Self-awareness is one of the seven wonders of the world—but how do I actually practice it?” There are three core practices of awareness: meditation, reflection, and integration. If you practice them daily, you are practicing the Awareness Pillar in your daily life. To learn more, check out chapters 16, 17 and 37 of the book.

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