How aware are you of your own feelings, thoughts, beliefs, motives, and desires? Using these self-awareness questions, you can work towards gaining conscious knowledge and understanding of who you are and what the heck you’re up to.
If we don’t put in the work to get to know ourselves and our minds, we won’t ever be able to live a life dedicated to virtuous action. As the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy, Zeno of Citium, says, “man conquers the world by conquering himself.” While this quote also implies the necessity for self-discipline and courage, conquering yourself is simply not possible without self-awareness.
When you are self-aware, it means that you are able to perceive and understand the aspects of yourself that make you who you are. These things include your personality, values, emotions, beliefs, thoughts, and actions.
“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest… It succeeds in its own purpose…”
– Marcus Aurelius
If we are truly motivated to improve ourselves, self-awareness is absolutely key. When we are willing to look at ourselves– really look at ourselves– we receive major clues into our own strengths and weaknesses. Though it can be difficult to confront who we really are and take a long hard look at ourselves, one can reach a point where the benefits of self-awareness transform the exercise from a daunting task into one that is truly delightful.
We like to think of ourselves as naturally rational beings, but all but the most sage-like people are actually far too comfortable deceiving themselves and holding opinions they never question.
These patterned behaviors and responses, as well as the opinions we hold in order to justify those behaviors and responses, are quite comfortable. What isn’t comfortable is breaking free from them and taking a long, hard look at the reality of our daily experience.
Many of us run on autopilot without even knowing it.
It is scary to think about it, but even scarier to imagine continuing on this way for the rest of our lives.
“The world will ask you who you are, and if you don’t know, the world will tell you.”
– Carl Jung
Becoming aware of who we are, how we think, and why we do what we do is terrifying. But the alternative is even more frightening.
The Stoics teach us that we should always be critical and even suspicious about our own perceptions and opinions when they first arise and until we have tested them.
“First off, don’t let the force of the impression carry you away. Say to it, ‘hold up a bit and let me see who you are and where you are from—let me put you to the test’...”
When we witness other people’s behavior, though, they advise that we are sympathetic toward their actions before we are suspicious.
“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”
– Marcus Aurelius
As a final note, before we jump in, it’s important to recognize that there can be a lot of overlap between the categories the questions have been divided into. Your feelings and thoughts are intricately related to your actions, for example, and the way that you view yourself and what you want out of your life is highly connected with your values. The separation into categories only intends to help break down the different aspects of self-awareness and make it easier for you to hone in on the questions you feel are most relevant to you at this point in your life.
Who are you? Do you know? Do you really know?
Becoming self-aware involves stepping outside of yourself and looking at your life objectively. This doesn’t just mean looking at all of the things you’re proud of or all of your accomplishments. It doesn’t mean just reflecting on the nice things you’ve done for other people or all the money you’ve donated to charity.
It means getting in touch with what Carl Jung referred to as the shadow. This is the part of our personality or character that doesn’t align with the type of person we are trying to be and that we, therefore, don’t let ourselves see. In other words, this is our blind spot of our selves.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely. Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.“
– Carl Jung
This list of questions is just a starting point– the interrogation between you and yourself is something that can and should go on for the rest of your life.
One of the primary ideas in Stoic philosophy is that the pursuit of virtue is the only way to a happy life. There are four cardinal Stoic virtues, which are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance, each of which has many sub-virtues as well as opposing vices.
While this might sound like a nice list of virtues to hang on your office wall, actually living by them means a radical change in our thinking, attitudes, and actions. Our culture preaches– explicitly and implicitly– that material things are the path to happiness. Even though many of us know that this is a fairly superficial read on life that likely won’t get us where we want to go, it’s a tempting enough proposition that it’s easy to fall into.
The Stoics remind us of what many of us know to be true, even if that knowledge isn’t conscious. We must be wise to understand what should be done and what shouldn’t be done, we must have the self-control to know what is worth choosing and what is worth avoiding, and we must be just to have the knowledge of treating others properly and acting rightly in each situation, and courage to be able to hold to our principles even when it would be much easier to disregard them.
Living by these virtues can help you get where you’re trying to go in life. However, that’s only useful if you know where you want to go and what you want to prioritize. What do you value, and what are you trying to accomplish while you’re alive?
As you go through each day, how aware are you of how you’re feeling? Are you acting certain ways because of your emotions without even realizing it?
Many people mistakenly believe that being a Stoic means that you transcend having emotions. Nassim Taleb tells us that the philosophy isn’t about the elimination of emotions but instead “the domestication of emotions.”
Taming your negative emotions isn’t something you can do if you aren’t aware that they are happening. Self-awareness in relation to your emotions is key if you want to experience apatheia– “a state of mind in which one is not disturbed by the passions.”
“In the same degree in which a man's mind is nearer to freedom from all passion, in the same degree also is it nearer to strength.”
– Marcus Aurelius
The Stoic passions are a number of different types of emotional suffering, which Zeno of Citium arranged into four categories: distress, fear, pleasure, and lust.
According to Pseudo-Andronicus, a Greek philosopher from Rhodes around 60 BC, these passions can be explained in the following way:
Once you start paying attention to your emotions and feelings, you might be surprised how often you go about your day, unaware of what is driving your thoughts and actions. Some people are better aware of their emotions than others– whether naturally or by the nature of the family or society they were raised in– so you might find this to be a very simple exercise or an incredibly difficult feat.
What do you believe to be true about the world? Where do those beliefs come from? Were you born into a system of beliefs that you still follow, or have you picked up a smorgasbord of beliefs somewhere along the way?
Beliefs don’t just encompass big questions like whether God exists or what happens to us when we die, or even human-level concepts like the notion of whether people are capable of changing. The modern notion of belief also includes mundane things like the fact that, for example, I believe I am currently typing on a computer in the 21st century.
To contemporary Anglophone philosophers, then, the process of forming beliefs is considered to be one of the most important and basic features of the human mind.
“If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone.”
– Marcus Aurelius
It is difficult– if not impossible– to be fully self-aware if we don’t take a long hard look at our beliefs. This can be a difficult thing to do, and the point isn’t that you should rip out the foundation that you’ve been standing on and leave yourself hanging over an abyss. If you aren’t able to recognize that you are not your beliefs, going hog wild questioning your beliefs can leave you in quite a distraught state.
At the same time, though, it’s important always to be willing to question the things that you’ve come to believe, either purposefully or otherwise. In the above Marcus Aurelius quote, we see that he is able to separate himself from his beliefs and perspectives. Admirably, Aurelius is stating that he is willing and able to change if someone can point out where his thinking or actions were wrong, as he is committed to the truth rather than the comfort of always being right.
As people, our default way of being is to not even realize what we are thinking. We are simply caught up in our thoughts, and we tend to act from the standpoint that what we are thinking is true.
One of the most famous quotes from Marcus Aurelius reads, “you have power over your mind– not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
We cannot learn to have power over our minds, however, if we aren’t aware of what they are going on about all day.
When we start to watch our minds, we gain priceless insight into ourselves. What are we spending time thinking about? What is the nature of our thoughts?
Being aware of our thoughts can help us understand the way that we feel and the reasons that we act the way we do. We can notice that we tend to have negative thoughts about a certain topic or in a certain setting. We can notice that we tend to have optimistic thoughts when certain people are around.
Another reason why it’s important to become self-aware of our thoughts is that we actually spend a ridiculous amount of time thinking about something other than what we’re actually doing. Believe it or not, researchers have found that our minds wander for about 46.9% of our waking hours.
“No loss should be more regrettable to us than losing our time, for it’s irretrievable.”
– Zeno of Citium
Seneca makes the same point in a different way, noting how strange it is that we are so wasteful of our time (which we can never get back) but protective of our personal property (which is not nearly as precious and nonrenewable.)
“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.”
– Seneca the Younger
When we think about wasting time, we often think about what we’re doing or not doing. We are less inclined to realize how much time we can waste thinking about things that don’t matter to us, aren’t necessary, or are only perpetuating our negative emotions and unvirtuous behavior.
Why do you do what you do?
If you don't know the answer to this question, you’re not alone. In a series of surveys, an organizational psychologist named Tasha Eurich found that only 10-15% of people are truly self-aware, even though 95% of them believe themselves to be self-aware.
In the following quote, Marcus Aurelius gives simple advice to himself about how best to go through life. He urges swift action rather than procrastination, as well as avoiding wandering thoughts or unclear speech.
“In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.”
– Marcus Aurelius
What’s interesting is that he both states that one shouldn’t procrastinate in actions but also that one shouldn’t “be all about business.” If you’ve been a severe procrastinator and you’re trying to get your life together, it’s all too easy to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction and focus on all business all the time.
Being self-aware can give you the ability to find balance in life and to choose how you’re spending your time with each action. Aurelius also gives us a deceivingly simple way to determine whether or not we should do or say something:
“If it is not right, do not do it, if it is not true, do not say it.”
– Marcus Aurelius
In a recent post, we discussed a number of good habits to have and build in your life. Habits can make your repeated tasks more efficient and less stressful while also allowing you to incorporate healthy and beneficial actions into your daily life. At the same time, they can free up the rest of your time for deliberate and well-chosen action.
Before we sign off, let’s look at a few more tips to help you cultivate self-awareness in your life.
When you decide that you want to become self-aware, it can be useful to sit down and do a thorough audit of your life. You don’t want to stop there, though. A great habit of building into your daily life is questioning yourself regularly throughout the day about how you’re feeling, thinking, and acting.
Marcus Aurelius was a person who probably could have gotten away with acting however he pleased– he was the emperor, after all. Instead, though, he watched himself carefully. In his journal, he asked himself questions like:
“Am I behaving like a child, a tyrant, a sheep, a wolf, or am I fulfilling my true potential as a rational being? For what purpose am I currently using my mind? Am I being foolish? Am I alienated from other people? Am I letting myself be dragged off course by fear and desire? What passions are there right now in my mind?”
– Marcus Aurelius
In his Meditations, we also see him asking himself, “What use am I now making of my soul?” and “Whose soul do I have now?”
As you work to build self-awareness throughout the day, it’s important to course correct when you realize that you’re making excuses, acting based on negative emotions, or being lost in unnecessary thoughts. It’s also useful to notice the way that different thoughts and actions impact your overall well-being, productivity, and ability to be the best person you can be.
“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?”
For example, let’s say that you have noticed that coffee in the afternoon makes you so jittery that you struggle to get your work down and later have a hard time falling asleep. This becomes a vicious cycle, where you don’t sleep enough during the night and are tired during the day, so you are tempted to grab a cup of joe around 2:30 pm.
Once you notice this pattern, it’s important to determine what the right course of action is and then exercise self-discipline in order to improve your life. While being self-aware is the first step, it isn’t much help if you aren’t willing to follow through and make the necessary changes.
There are a lot of good reasons to begin a journaling practice, one of which is the fact that they can be great for increasing self-awareness. In fact, your journal is the perfect place to use the questions above as prompts and explore your own mind like the wild and complex landscape that it is.
Rushing around all the time makes it really easy to be un-self-aware. There are a lot of different types of meditation out there, and you might find that one is more useful to you than others.
You can try one of these daily Stoic meditations, or you can simply spend a little time in the morning or evening sitting quietly and focusing on your breath.
When you pick up a meditation practice, you’ll start to notice new things about yourself that had escaped you before. If self-awareness is one of your goals, regular meditation is the perfect habit to add to your routine.
In the 1920s, a group of American writers that were known as the Lost Generation made Paris the center of their literary and intellectual activities. Coming of age during the devastating First World War, it has been said that these writers were able to provide a truly unique perspective on the American experience because they were outside of their home country.
The point is, sometimes, you have to get some distance from your normal patterns of life to really see who you are and what you’re up to. When you travel to a different country, you see your home country in a new light. When you put yourself in new experiences, new aspects of yourself and your mind rise to the surface for you to notice.
If you really want to know who you are and what you’re up to, you’re probably going to need to shake things up a bit, when you have a choice to make between a comforting option and a challenging option, lean towards challenging yourself as much as possible.
Remember, cultivating self-awareness isn’t something that you do overnight. Like most good things, it takes time, patience, diligence, and determination to increase your self-awareness. The more able you are to understand that self-awareness is the key that unlocks taking control of your own mind and the things you have power over in life, though, the more motivation you will have to put in the hard work and achieve increasing self-awareness over time.
Looking for more information about Stoicism and quotes from the greatest minds of history? Be sure to check out our Stoic Quotes blog.
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