I've been thinking a lot lately about the things that stop us, the things that prevent us from taking the steps to get what we really want from life. There are very real things in our external world that hold us back: time, money, access, gatekeepers, systems of oppression, etc. These things can be frustrating and harmful in and of themselves. But we also face internal barriers that compound these external barriers that prevent us from moving forward. Our internal barriers are the messages going through our heads that tell us we are not good enough, or that we should be afraid, or that we should doubt things about ourselves and our abilities that we intuitively know.
There are a lot of ways that we develop these messages throughout our lives. We mess up. We make mistakes. We are harsh, unforgiving critics of our past actions. We start to look for all the ways these messages can be confirmed by our relationships and in our careers. We hear or interpret these messages directly or indirectly from people we know and often love. Especially for women and people of color, these messages are reinforced in the media and popular culture. They are institutionalized by what is taught in schools or what we learn in our jobs. With years of practice, we get really good at sending ourselves messages that we are not enough and too much at the same time. We are not smart, not good-looking, not worthy, not anything. We are bad people, bad friends, bad parents, bad at everything. We are too loud or too big or too small, too everything. Who do we think we are to possibly want something else out of life? Over time, we might even come to believe these messages to be true.
The difference between whether or not these messages are true is the difference between self-consciousness and self-awareness. We do ourselves a disservice when we confuse these two things or when we let our self-consciousness get in the way of developing our self-awareness. To me, self-consciousness is the judgmental assessment of our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. We over analyze and over think until we get stuck, can't move forward, and convince ourselves of all the things we can't or shouldn't do. We listen to the messages that are overly present in the external world until they are internalized and become what we believe about ourselves. We feel self-consciousness in our bodies like the ways in which we experience stress, and that can have long term impacts on our health and wellbeing. Self-consciousness actually blocks our ability to be in touch with our bodies and what we need. Symptoms of self-consciousness look like:
The thing about self-consciousness is that these messages are not always active thoughts. They are often hiding out in our subconscious. Rather than interrogating them as to whether or not they are true, we let them dictate our behavior so that we are passively engaging with life, rather than proactively taking steps to live the life we want.
On the other hand, Daniel Goleman and others have described self-awareness as the nonjudgmental assessment of our feelings, thoughts, and behavior. Self-awareness is tapping into what our bodies are telling us about what we are feeling. With self-awareness, we act consciously rather than passively. We raise our thoughts and feelings to a level of conscious reflection where we are able to pause and ask "Where did this message come from? Is it true?" And it's in that place in the pause where we get to choose how we react and move forward. We are now driving our thoughts rather than our thoughts driving us. Outcomes of self-awareness look like:
Over time, we can even replace those old messages that no longer serve us with messages that keep us proactively engaged in our lives. Increased self-awareness leads to greater efficacy and knowledge that each step we take is leading us closer to our purpose. The more we are able to pause and reflect on what we are really thinking and feeling, the more we are able to make conscious decisions for how to move forward, rather than letting our self-consciousness decide our behavior for us.
The next time you are feeling self-conscious, pause. Take a deep breath. Notice what message you are telling yourself in that moment. Reflect on where that message came from. Then really challenge yourself to think about whether or not it's true. Try this several times over a week or so and notice if you start to take different actions because of your increased self-awareness.