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The Three Levels of Self-Awareness

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The Three Levels of Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is like great sex: everyone thinks they have a ton of it, but in reality no one knows what the fuck they’re doing.

The fact is that the majority of our thoughts and actions are on autopilot. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing either. Our habits, routines, impulses, and reactions carry us through our lives so we don’t have to stop and think about it every time we wipe our ass or start a car.

The problem is when we’re on autopilot for so long that we forget we’re on autopilot. Because when we’re not even aware of our own habits, routines, impulses, and reactions, then we no longer control them; they control us. Whereas a person with self-awareness is able to exercise a little meta-cognition and say, “Hmm… every time my sister calls me and asks for money, I end up drinking a lot of vodka. That might not be a coincidence,” a person without self-awareness just hits the bottle and doesn’t look back.

Below are three levels of self-awareness along with a caveat. Why three levels? Who the fuck knows? Just go with it.

Level 1 – What the Hell Are You Doing?

There’s a lot of pain and suckage in life. Over the last 30 days, how many times have you:

  • Struggled with a relationship with someone close to you?
  • Felt lonely, isolated or unheard?
  • Felt unproductive or lost on what you should do?
  • Been underslept, under-fed, low energy, or unhealthy?
  • Stressed about work or finances?
  • Uncertain about your future?
  • Been physically hurt, ill, or debilitated?

Chances are if you add all of those up, you’re going to be pretty close to 30 out of the last 30 days. That’s a lot of suckage!

We avoid pain through distraction. We transport our minds to some other time or place or world, where it can be safe and insulated from the pain of day-to-day life. We stare at our phones, we obsess about the past or our potential futures, make plans we’ll never keep, or simply try to forget. We eat, drink, and fuck ourselves into numbness to dull the reality of our problems. We use books, movies, games, and music to carry us to another world where no pain exists, and everything always feels easy and good and right.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with distraction. We all need some sort of diversion to keep us sane and happy.

The key is that we need to be aware of our distractions.

Put another way, we need to make sure that we’re choosing our distractions and our distractions aren’t choosing us. We’re the ones opting into the distraction, rather than simply being unable to opt out of distraction. We need to know when we’re checking out. Our distraction needs to be planned and moderated in bite-sized chunks. We can’t binge on distraction.

Self-awareness BW double exposure portrait of a man with mohawk and a mountain

Most people spend much of their day drowned in a sea of distraction without even realizing it. I do it, too. The other night at dinner, I pulled out my phone to look at my calendar, and next thing I knew, I was browsing video game forums on Reddit. Meanwhile, my wife is staring at me as if I just had a lobotomy or something.

I’m getting better. This only happens about 23 times per day. Or sometimes I do that thing where I’ll have Facebook open, and then I’ll open another tab and instinctively type in the URL for… Facebook, the site I was already looking at. I don’t even realize I do it, but it’s my mind’s automatic move to disconnect (or in this case, disconnect from its disconnection).

We all think we know how we’re using our time. But we’re usually wrong. We think we work more than we do (studies show most people top out somewhere around three hours of actual work per day,1 the rest is just fucking around). We think we spend more time with our friends and loved ones than we do. We think we’re more present than we are, that we’re better listeners than we are, that we’re more thoughtful and intelligent than we are. But the truth is, we’re all pretty bad at this.

Now, some people take the hardline approach of trying to remove all distraction from their lives. This is a bit extreme. If time management and self-awareness was a religion, this approach would be like strapping a bomb to your chest and blowing up a mall thinking you’ve got a one-way ticket to 72 distraction-free virgins, when really, you’re just going to self-destruct (and probably harm a lot of people around you in the process).

The goal with distraction isn’t to defeat distraction, it’s merely to develop an awareness and control of our distractions. Instead of calling in sick to play video games all day, you’re able to allot video games into your free time in a way that’s satisfying and healthy. You let yourself drift away on your phone for a while if that’s what your brain seems to need, but you’re aware that you’re doing it and able to rein it back in when necessary.

The goal here is the elimination of compulsion. But to eliminate compulsion you must first become aware of compulsion. When are you engaging in an activity even though you don’t want to be engaging in it? When are you checking out mentally and why? Is it around family? Friends? Co-workers?

For years I used to carry around an iPod and put headphones on every time I went into public. Leaving the house without it felt like I was naked. For years, I just assumed I was really into music way more than other people, that there was some special need inside me for badass tunes that other people simply didn’t understand.

But eventually, it became clear this was a compulsion; I wasn’t in control of it. My headphones were a way of protecting and disconnecting myself from others. They were less about a bottomless passion and more about simple fear. Being around strangers without my headphones made me feel anxious and exposed.

Don’t judge these observations, simply have them. This is the first level of self-awareness, a simple understanding of where your mind goes and when. You must be aware of the paths your mind likes to take before you can begin to question why it takes those paths and whether those paths are helping or hurting you.

Level 2 – What the Hell Are You Feeling?

Have you ever been raging pissed and when somebody asks you why you’re mad, you’re like, “I’M NOT MAD! I’M NOT FUCKING MAD! I’M PERFECTLY FINE! I MEANT TO SMASH MY KEYBOARD THROUGH MY MONITOR! I’M NOT MAD! WHY ARE YOU MAD?!”

What people often find is that the more they remove themselves from distraction, the more they are forced to actually deal with a lot of the emotions that they’ve been avoiding for a long time. This is why meditating for a long time freaks a lot of people out; meditation is basically the practice of training your mind to become less distracted and more focused on your immediate experience. The result is that some people become overwhelmed by all of the feelings they’ve been bottling up forever.

Therapy has a similar effect, but rather than quieting your mind and staring at a wall for hours on end, you’re sitting on a couch and a really nice and friendly-looking man/lady is slowly guiding you back to how you feel, over and over, until your mind finally capitulates and you’re snotting everywhere and crying like an upset child.

This second level of self-awareness is where you really start finding out “who you are.” I hate using that phrase because it doesn’t really mean anything, but this is the level that people talk about when they say they are “finding themselves” — they are discovering how they actually feel about the shit going on in their life, and often they have been hiding these feelings from themselves for years.

Most people glide on the surface of life on Level 1 of self-awareness. They do what they’re told. They follow directions. They distract themselves with the same shit over and over. At no point have they allowed themselves to express individual emotions and reactions to what’s going on around them.

Once they’re removed from these contexts they start to realize things like, “Oh damn, I’m really sensitive and am sad a lot, and holy shit, I never allowed myself to feel that because I thought it made me weak or pathetic, but actually my sadness is part of what makes me different.”

Level 2 is an uncomfortable place to go. People often spend years in therapy navigating Level 2. It takes time to become comfortable with all of your emotions. Going back through those emotions and allowing them to take place is something that requires a lot of focus and a lot of effort.

But a lot of people also get held up on Level 2. They think Level 2 is as deep as it goes and they get lost wallowing in their feelings for the rest of forever. I think this happens for a couple reasons.

The first is that emotions are powerful, especially for people who have been suppressing their emotions for most of their lives. Suddenly opening up to them will feel life-changing and incredibly profound.

As a result, a lot of people start spinning up a bunch of stories about how this is the ultimate level of self-awareness, just feeling stuff all the time. They may even go as far as to consider it a “spiritual awakening.” They’ll describe it in all sorts of high-falutin’ terms like “ego death” or “transcendent consciousness” or “higher consciousness.”

But this is a bit of a trap. Emotions, as you eventually discover, are a) endless, and b) don’t necessarily mean anything. I mean, sometimes they do, but sometimes they’re also self-induced and completely arbitrary.

For instance, look at this puppy.

A cute puppy

You probably felt good looking at that2. Now does that feeling mean anything? Fuck no, it’s just a puppy. But a lot of people ascribe profundity to any and every emotion that arises. It’s a simple but often disastrous error. They assume that because some emotions are incredibly important and vital, that all emotions must be incredibly important and vital. And that’s simply not the case. A lot of emotions are pointless or — and here’s the kicker — merely distractions!

Yes, you heard me. Emotions can also be distractions. From what? From other emotions.

See, there’s another subtle little trap with emotions. And that’s the fact that analyzing one emotion will generate another. So you can end up in this endless loop of self-inquiry, which, after a while, will turn you into a really self-obsessed person.

But wait, hold on, this one deserves its own section.

Caveat – The Endless Navel-Gazey Spiral of Doom

There’s an old apocryphal story from 16th-century India where a young man climbs a large mountain to speak to the sage at the top. Supposedly this sage knew, like, everything and stuff. And this young man was anxious to understand the secrets of the world.

Upon arriving at the top of the mountain, the sage greeted the young man and invited him to ask him anything (note: this was way before Reddit threads). The young man then asked him his question, “Great sage, we stand upon the world, but what does the world stand upon?”

The sage immediately replied, “The world rests upon the back of a number of great elephants.”

The young man thought for a moment, and then asked, “Yes, but what do the elephants stand upon?”

The sage replied again, without hesitation, “The elephants rest upon the back of a great turtle.”

The young man, still not satisfied, asked, “Yes, but what does the great turtle rest upon?”

The sage replied, “It rests upon an even greater turtle.”

The young man, growing frustrated, began to ask, “But what does–”

“No, no,” the sage interrupted, “stop there–it’s turtles all the way down.”

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, I compared self-awareness to peeling an onion, that whatever you’re thinking/feeling, there’s always another layer underneath, and the deeper you go, the more layers you peel back, the more likely you are to spontaneously burst into tears.

The self-questioning involved in self-awareness can lead to this kind of endless spiral. Layer upon layer upon layer. And, in many cases, not only do deeper levels not elucidate anything useful, but the mere act of peeling them back can generate more anxiety, stress, and self-judgment.

For example, here’s me spiraling through layers of questioning while writing this section right now:

Layer 1: I’m aware that I’m writing this sentence right now — I feel tired, a bit cloudy-headed, but also anxious to make progress on this piece before I go to bed tonight.

Layer 2: I’m aware of my own anxiety and worried that this is a bad trend in my recent work habits. Why am I up working at 1:30 AM anyway? I’d probably write better if I got some sleep.

Layer 3: I’m aware of my self-judgment. Perhaps I am being hard on myself. What’s wrong with working at 1:30 AM? I have done this plenty of times.

Layer 4: I’m now aware that I am aware of my montage of feelings and feelings about feelings and feelings about feelings about feelings.

Layer 5: I’m also aware that my Layer 4 awareness is hardly comprehensible.

Layer 6: I’m anxious about the comprehensibility of my levels of awareness.

Layer 7: I feel that perhaps I am being over-critical, blah, blah, blah…

[…]

Layer 193: This shit is turtles all the way down, isn’t it?

A lot of people get caught in the trap of always looking one level deeper. Doing this feels important but the truth is that beyond a certain level, it’s just a navel-gazey spiral of doom. It’s turtles all the way down. And the act of looking deeper itself will sometimes generate more feelings of anxiety, despair, and self-judgment than it relieves.

Self-awareness turtle on the road
The secret of the universe is just a damn turtle.

When looking at layers of intention and motivation, it’s best to just go a few layers down until you start repeating yourself. You may be anxious about your relationship with your mother. Let’s say that anxiety stems from the fact that your mom is hyper-judgmental and you fall into this unconscious habit of desperately trying to prove to her that you’re not a piece of shit. This need to prove to her that you’re worthy is underpinned by your desire to be loved. This realization then makes you more anxious – an anxiety driven by the desire to please your mother, which is underpinned by your desire to be loved – we’re spiraling now. It’s time to just draw the line and say it’s turtles all the way down and move on. You want love from mom and that’s that.3

And with that, I’m going to stop thinking about this section and just go to bed.

Level 3 – What the Hell Are Your Blind Spots?

The more you become aware of your own emotions and your own desires, the more you discover something terrifying: you are full of shit.

We realize that a large percentage of our thoughts, arguments, and actions are merely reflections of whatever we are feeling in that moment. If I am watching a movie with my wife and I’m cranky because I had an argument with my editor that afternoon, I’ll decide that I hate the movie. And the more my wife tries to convince me the movie was good, the more I’ll relish the fact that I get to argue with her about it – because it suddenly becomes a way to justify my anger.

(By the way, if you ever wondered why we tend to fight the most with the ones we love the most, this is partly why: we can use them as an emotional punching bag to validate all the crap that we are feeling, whether they deserve it or not – usually not.)

We all think of ourselves as independent thinkers who reason based on facts and evidence, but the truth is that our brain spends most of its time justifying and explaining what the heart has already declared and decided. And there’s no way to fix that until you’ve learned to recognize what the heart is saying.

I’ve written quite a bit about how flawed our conscious minds are, both in my book and on this site. But to give a quick synopsis:

  • Our memories are unreliable and often flat-out wrong, especially when it comes to remembering how we felt at a certain time or place. Our ability to predict our thoughts and feelings in the future is even worse.
  • We constantly overestimate ourselves. In fact, as a general rule, the worse we are at something, the better we think we are, and the better we are at something, the worse we believe we are.
  • Contradictory evidence can often make us surer of our position rather than inspire us to question it.
  • Our attention naturally only focuses on things that already cohere to our pre-existing beliefs. This is why two people can watch the exact same event and come away with two completely contradictory memories of it (think of two opposing sports fans both convinced they saw the ball land in or out of bounds.)
  • Most of us, when given the opportunity, will tell small lies to improve our results. Sometimes (i.e., usually), we’ll even tell these lies to ourselves.
  • We are abysmal at estimating statistics, making cost-benefit decisions, or reasoning about large populations of people. It’s actually both depressing and hilarious how bad we are this.

I could keep going, but I’ll stop there. Basically, the point is that you suck, I suck, everybody sucks. Humans kind of suck. All the time.

And that’s OK. The important thing is just that we’re self-aware about it. If we know our weaknesses then they stop being weaknesses. Otherwise, we become enslaved to our mind’s faulty mechanisms.

Self-awareness double exposure concept with lady portrait silhouette and woman in forest

Most of this comes down to a few things:

  1. Hold weaker opinions. Recognize that unless you are an expert in a field, there is a good chance that your intuitions or assumptions are flat-out wrong. The simple act of telling yourself (and others) before you speak, “I could be wrong about this,” immediately puts your mind in a place of openness and curiosity. It implies an ability to learn and to have a closer connection to reality.
  2. Take yourself less seriously. Most of your thoughts and behaviors are simply reactions to various emotions. And we know that your emotions are often wrong and/or meaningless. Ergo, you should take your shit less seriously.
  3. Learn your bullshit patterns. When I get angry, I get argumentative and arrogant. When I get sad, I shut down and play a lot of video games. When I feel guilty, I word vomit my conscience all over people. What are your ticks? Where does your mind go when you feel sad? When you feel angry? Guilty? Anxious? Learn to spot your coping mechanisms because that will tip you off next time you’re distracting yourself from your feelings. I realized years ago that when I’m healthy and happy, I enjoy playing video games a few hours a week. But when I start binging on a game, staying up all night and skipping work, it’s almost always because I’m avoiding some problem in my life. This has become a huge cue for me to sit down and figure out what’s going on with myself.
  4. Recognize the problems you create for yourself. My biggest problem is probably not being able to talk about my anger or sadness. I either escape through video games or become passive-aggressive by sniping at people around me. Both of these tendencies don’t help me. And I’ve learned to recognize myself when I start doing them. I’m able to say, “Hey Mark, you do this shit when you’re sad and you always regret not talking to someone.” Then I go talk to someone.
  5. Be realistic. It’s not about removing your faulty psychological reactions. It’s about understanding them so that you can adjust to them. The same way we all have some skills and activities we’re better at than others, we all have emotions we’re better at than others. Some people are bad with happiness but good at managing their anger. Others are terrible with their anger but relish their happiness. Other people never feel depressed but suffer uncontrollable guilt. Others never feel guilty but struggle with feelings of depression. Where are your strong emotions and weak emotions? Which emotions do you respond poorly to? Where are your biggest biases and judgments coming from? How can you challenge or re-evaluate them?

Also, if you’re having trouble with this, one of the best ways to wrap your head around your blind spots is to get feedback from other people. Others often have a better perspective on us than we do, especially friends and family close to us. Asking them in a simple and safe way (by “safe,” I mean not exploding and threatening to castrate them with a spoon for insulting your honor) can lead to great gains in self-awareness.

This, of course, is much easier said than done.

The Result of Self-Awareness Has to Be Self-Acceptance

There’s a certain type of person who will read all this and think about it and recognize their shitty emotions and recognize their shitty thought patterns and recognize all the little selfish tricks and traps their mind places and do all the work and practice the self-discovery and open themselves to their emotions and their big takeaway from all this will be, “I’m a piece of shit.”

They will see all their internal flaws, and come to understand their biases and irrational mechanisms, and they will get a handle on their distractions and their weak emotions.

And they will hate it. All of it. It will cause them to hate themselves.

Obviously, walking around and calling yourself a piece of shit for every other thought or emotion you have is not exactly what we would call the zenith of emotional health. In fact, this tendency is, ironically, downright shitty itself.

Judging yourself for mismanaging your emotions or for having biased and selfish thoughts is a bit of a trap because when you make that judgment, it feels like you’re being self-aware. You’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, I was really kind of a dick at that meeting because my ego was threatened. I’m such a piece of shit.” And there’s a little round of applause that goes off in your head because you feel like such a goddamn saint for recognizing how flawed and shitty you are around others.

But no, that’s not the point. Self-awareness is wasted if it does not result in self-acceptance. The research bears this out, too: self-awareness doesn’t make everyone happier, it makes some people more miserable. Because if great self-awareness is coupled with self-judgment, then you’re merely becoming more aware of all the ways you deserve to be judged.4

These emotional outbursts and cognitive biases, they exist in everyone, all the time. You’re not a bad person for having them just as other people aren’t necessarily bad people for having them either. They’re just human. And you’re just human.

Plato said that all evil is rooted in ignorance. If you think of the evilest, shittiest people imaginable, they are shitty not because they have flaws — but because they refuse to admit that they have flaws.

I saw a news story recently about some looney conspiracy theorist who believes that all mass shootings are staged. This guy actually travels to communities where these mass shootings occurred and confronts the victims. He stands in front of parents of dead children and calls them liars.

I cannot imagine a greater definition of “evil” or “piece of shit human” than this guy.

Yet, his evilness is not a result of conscious choice so much as an unconscious choice. He’s unaware of the irrationality and derangement of his own thoughts. He’s barely on Level 1. Level 2 probably terrifies him because admitting the reality that mass shootings — these horrible and senselessly violent things — can occur all around him and without reason threatens him in some unspeakable way that his mind cannot handle. And he’s definitely nowhere near Level 3 where he’s able to actually recognize that his conspiracy theories are elaborate networks of irrational beliefs and impossible assumptions designed to protect himself from these feelings on Level 2.

When looked at this way, you almost feel sorry for the guy. You see how much he must suffer psychologically and how that psychological suffering drives him to do horrible, horrible things to the people who are legitimately victims around him.

Welcome to empathy.

Empathy can only occur in proportion to our own self-acceptance. It’s only by accepting the flaws of our own emotions and our own minds that we are able to look at the flaws of the emotions and minds of others, and rather than judge them or hate them, feel compassion for them. “Oh, he’s fucked up, too. I used to believe shit like that. I wonder what he’s running from?”

This isn’t to say that empathy and compassion will solve all the world’s ills. They won’t. But they certainly won’t make anything worse.

And here’s where that old cliche comes in, about only being able to love others in proportion to how much we love ourselves. Self-awareness opens us up to the opportunity to love and accept ourselves. Yeah, I’m a biased fucknut sometimes. Yeah, I mishandle my emotions on occasion. Yeah, I’ve got some vices. But that’s okay. And because I’ve come to terms with those flaws in myself, I’m able to come to terms and forgive those flaws in others. And it’s only in this way that any real love becomes possible.

When we refuse to accept ourselves as we are, then we return to the constant need for numbing and distraction. And we will similarly be unable to accept others the way they are, so we will look for ways to manipulate them, change them, or convince them to be a person they are not. Our relationships will become transactional, conditional, and ultimately toxic and fail.

Footnotes

  1. Curtin, M. (2016, July 21). In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours. Inc.
  2. If not, then you’re a terrible human being.
  3. In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich points out that people get caught up when asking “why” questions too much. “What” questions, on the other hand, get to the root of the problem faster. In this example: Why are you anxious about your relationship with your mom? Because I need love. Why do you need love? Because I need to feel secure and safe. Why…turtles turtles turtles… Instead, if you simply ask what you would need to not feel so anxious about your relationship with your mother, you quickly get to “I need love from my mother” and you’re both more self-aware in the situation and you have a tangible problem to solve instead of gazing at your navel in an endless turtle dive.
  4. Silvia, P. J., & O’Brien, M. E. (2004). Self-awareness and constructive functioning: Revisiting “The human dilemma.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(4), 475–489.
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