There is a saying that is repeatedly shared when people talk about their experiences with substance use disorders – the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
We don’t need to have a substance use disorder though to know that this can happen. It often takes me about three or four times before I realise that a Diet Coke before bed time is not the brightest idea. Or that exercise makes me feel good. Or that when I try to do something I feel that it is only worthwhile if I do it perfectly. Even if I’m trying something new.
But I wouldn’t say that ‘insanity’ is the cause. It’s usually just a case of lacking self-awareness.
Self-awareness has got to be the most pivotal component to managing our mental health. Yet so many of us overlook its value. In simple terms, self-awareness is about trying to understand who we really are and why we do the things we do, in the way that we do them. By becoming more self-aware, we can gain a greater degree of control over how we are operating in the present - instead of reacting to something conditioned by our past experiences. When we are self-aware we are conscious of our emotions and our thoughts and our behaviours. And only then do we have some control over the results.
In the absence of self-awareness, we can find ourselves exposed to people, situations and environments that seem to drain the energy out of us - physically and mentally - which in turn can have an effect on our mood and stress levels.
Self-awareness is not the same as self-obsession. Or self-absorption. There’s not a lot of naval gazing going on here. Contrarily, self-awareness helps us to become less self-absorbed as it teaches us not to be taken over by obsessive thoughts and feelings. With observation and awareness of our self we develop internal clarity and can become more open to the emotional lives of those around us.
The capacity to observe and listen to our feelings and bodily sensations is essential for optimal mental health. We need to be able to use our feelings but not be used by them. If we are our emotions, rather than an observer of them, we veer into a pretty chaotic place. On the other hand, if we press our feeling altogether, we can swing into total rigidity. There is a massive difference between saying ‘I am angry’ and saying ‘I feel angry’. The first is a description that is closed. No room for movement. The second is an acknowledgment of a feeling, and does not define the self.
In the same way that it is useful to be aware – but separate – from our feelings, it is also necessary to be able to observe, but separate from our thoughts. Then we can notice the different kinds of thoughts we have, and examine them, rather than be them. This allows us to notice which thoughts work well for us, and whether any of our internal mind chatter is not serving us particularly well.
I’ve just started a new day job and for the last week I have had the privilege of working in a very intensive long-term treatment service. The patients in this service are remarkable. Every single day I am amazed and inspired by them. During their treatment they have worked towards becoming self-aware and really seeing their true selves without any blinders or defences. As they hold up their own awareness and present a summary of their behaviour based on their past and current emotions, those around them observe them and offer their own perceptions back. This process requires empathy, patience, strength, humility and love. It’s probably one of the most intense therapeutic processes I have ever been witness to.
One of the hardest things we do is see ourselves as fallible. But we all are. We all make mistakes and we all have our triumphs.
But it’s something that the majority of us can be really poor at. We rely so heavily on our thoughts and feelings to navigate our way through our daily lives, but repeatedly I see so many around me that are completely unaware of the emotions that are guiding them.
There are so many ways we can improve our capacity for self-observation and awareness. And probably the one that will have the best outcomes for the longest period is therapy. But there are other ways too – grounding exercises, focused attention, journaling, meditation. There really is no limit to the number of ways we can continue to develop our self-awareness. Practicing self-observation can give us more insight into the emotions that play such a huge role in our behaviour. When we become more sensitive towards ourselves and more knowledgeable about our own feelings, we are more able to attune to, and empathise with, the feelings of others. But most importantly, it can help us to see when things might be going a little bit astray.