Daniel Goleman: Self-Awareness Is an Essential Life Skill

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How do we initially realize our purpose and values? What is “meta-awareness”? Why is self-awareness easier for some?

According to Daniel Goleman, self-awareness is an essential life skill. Developing an awareness of your physical and emotional sensations and accurately interpreting them is key to forming a strong sense of “self” and living a meaningful, healthy life.

Continue reading to learn how self-awareness enhances your life.

Daniel Goleman on Self-Awareness

According to Daniel Goleman, self-awareness allows you to:

  • Live a life directed by your values and purpose. We first become aware of our purpose and values because of the emotional signals our body sends our minds.
  • Follow your gut. Physical and emotional sensations are intuitions about the world our bodies send us, which we must first notice to understand.
  • Pay attention to attention itself. Meta-awareness is being aware of our mental states, which helps us monitor ourselves and adjust our behavior accordingly. 
  • Accurately perceive how others perceive you. How we think others perceive us deeply affects our sense of self. Having a good understanding of how other people see us helps us work well in a team environment.
Trauma Makes Self-Awareness Difficult

Developing an ongoing, strong awareness of your physical and emotional sensations is, for some, not as easy as simply deciding to pay more attention to how you feel. In The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk explains that people who have experienced trauma in their lives are more likely to feel disconnected from their bodies and struggle to have an awareness of their physical and emotional sensations. Therefore, trauma survivors may have a difficult time with the following:

Living a life directed by their values and purpose. Van der Kolk agrees with Goleman that recognizing sensations in your body forms the foundation of your sense of self. With this ability diminished, trauma survivors may feel disconnected from what they want, enjoy, and value.

Following their guts and having meta-awareness. Because trauma survivors are often in a state of fight-flight-or-freeze, they unconsciously repress their physical and emotional sensations and do not trust anything they can feel. This numbness can make it difficult to “hear” what your gut is telling you. It can also be challenging to notice your state of mind when your attention is always on alert for threats in your environment.

Accurately perceive how others view them. Because trauma can make people’s nervous systems sensitive and reactive, survivors often struggle to accurately interpret whether someone’s intentions are positive or threatening. Accurately perceiving how others view you requires a grounded self-awareness and an ability to interpret the subtle feedback that people may give you. 

Exercise: Discover Your Self (Awareness)

Keen self-awareness—awareness of your physical and emotional sensations and your state of mind—forms the foundations for other attentional skills like empathy and social awareness. Examine the state of your self-awareness to discover how it is impacting your life and if it may need some improvement.

  • Reflect on your experience of your body. Describe what your physical sensations are like on a typical day. How “loud” or “quiet” are they? Then, on a scale from 1-10, rate how sensitive you think you are to the messages your body sends you (1 being mostly unaware and 10 being extremely aware to the point of distraction).
  • Reflect on your experience of your emotions. Describe what having an emotion is typically like for you (for example, do you feel emotions in certain parts of your body? Do you tend to block them out? Do you think about them more than you feel them?). Then on a scale from 1-10, rate how sensitive you think you are to your emotions (1 being mostly unaware and 10 being extremely aware to the point of distraction).
  • Reflect on your experience of your mind. Describe what you notice about your mind on a typical day (for example, does it hop from topic to topic quickly? Does it frequently wander off daydreaming? Does it depend on different factors, like the time of day?). Then on a scale from 1-10, rate how conscious you are of your mind’s activity (1 being mostly unaware and 10 being extremely aware).
  • Now, reflect on the ratings you gave yourself for feeling physical sensations, emotional sensations, and being conscious of your mind. How self-aware are you? What, if any, areas of self-awareness do you feel need some improvement? (Goleman highly recommends practicing mindfulness meditation to improve all areas of attention, including self-awareness.)
Daniel Goleman: Self-Awareness Is an Essential Life Skill

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  • How to understand, strengthen, and use your attention to lead a more fulfilling life
  • The three directions you can aim your attention: inward, toward others, and outward
  • How spending time in nature restores your attention

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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