Self-awareness is an ongoing attention to one’s internal state–knowing precisely how you feel at any point during the day and being able to think rationally about it. This may sound like a no-brainer (no pun intended) but in reality it is common for people to be unable to differentiate between emotions such as anger and frustration or anger and hurt in other people, and some people are unaware of the complexity of their own emotions.

Our emotions are warnings that signal us to get out of a situation that is not good for us or to spend more time in situations that bring a sense of well-being and contentment. Paying attention to what we are doing when we feel deep contentment can help tremendously in choosing a mate or a career, among other things. The key to sound decision-making is attunement to our gut feelings about a situation, based on what we’ve learned in the past.

On the other hand, a person who is unaware of his feelings is more likely to be dominated by them. The reason this is a problem is that in the heat of an emotional moment, what we feel like doing is not always a reliable fount of decision-making inspiration.  A person who has been irritated by their coworker for the fifth time in one morning may feel he’d be doing the whole office a favor by issuing a put-down strong enough to silence the annoying person. If he pauses to reflect on his feelings, however, he may decide that acting on his anger impulsively could result in worsening the climate at work.

The importance of self-awareness:

  • A self-aware person possesses “gut instinct” that is helpful in making good decisions
  • A self-aware person is able to think about the emotion he feels and choose the best response
  • A self-aware person is aware of her mood and can choose to do something to change the mood
  • A self-aware person can read emotions in others, a skill critical to all interpersonal contacts
  • A self-aware person recognizes strong feelings, but is not swamped or governed by them
  • A self-aware person can choose a course of action in spite of having feelings to the contrary
  • A self-aware person understands and enjoys the languages of simile, metaphor and poetry
  • Self-awareness is the root of self-control

Development of self-awareness:

Some of the first circuits that develop in the brain are those that control emotions. The first two emotions that develop are those of feeling content and of feeling distressed. By the time a baby is two months old, those rudimentary emotions begin to become more complex. The impact of the relationship of a baby to parents starts in the cradle. The three most significant factors are the parents’ attunement with baby, their encouragement, and their approval.

The role of parents in teaching self-awareness:

The parents’ role with a newborn is to respond to her needs lovingly, which will result in the right kind of emotional stimulation, leading to good connections in the brain. As the baby grows into enhanced awareness of other people, the parents’ role becomes one of mirroring back to the child what she is feeling. If she cries, for example, the parent will be sensitive to her and will try to find out what exactly is bothering her. A cry from an infant might signal hunger, tiredness, or a need for cuddling–all needs to which a parent responds. Their response to the infant’s needs will teach her that people can be trusted to see her needs and can be relied upon to help. This early attunement with her parents will lead to a positive view of life and a sense of confidence.

For a toddler, emotions are a bit more complicated. A sensitive parent sees her toddler crying and takes the time to figure out what is wrong. She can help him put his feelings into words and coach him into thinking about how to work through his distress. She might say, “Are you feeling sad because Jamie is going home now?” She can suggest that they will be seeing Jamie in a day or two and then they can play together again. In this way, Mom is modeling to her child how to recognize and verbalize what he’s feeling, and is modeling for him how to soothe himself rather than giving into the urge to cry endlessly.

Prevention works amazingly in helping babies with their emotions. There are situations where babies just don’t do as well as others, and we can set them up for failure without meaning to. (For example, long shopping trips, elaborate dinners in a restaurant, or any place that requires them to be quiet for a long period of time.) If a little one is tired or hungry, it’s in everyone’s best interests is to meet those needs before expecting anything more from the child.

A parent who is attuned to her child will recognize his feelings, will acknowledge them, give them validity, but will also model for her child how to think about his feelings and what to do to help himself not be controlled by them. An important role of parents is to guide their child into being a master of this skill of self-awareness; not to be governed by their wants and feelings, but to be aware and able to think rationally and wisely about them.

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