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How Much Can Self-Awareness Fix My Broken Brain?

Self-awareness is good for our mental health, but most of us screw up the execution

When Beth Gibbs was younger, she was really hard on herself, which she chalked up to being self-aware. “Frankly, growing up as a Black woman in the United States, I was forced to become socially self-aware in order to navigate my way through life in the face of prejudice and bias from others,” Gibbs tells me. Her mother and other role models in her life reinforced the notion that self-awareness would make her a better person, but it only made Gibbs feel worse over time.

Mistaking self-criticism for self-awareness is very common, according to psychotherapist Sarah Epstein. Many new clients who come into her office lead with everything that they think is wrong with them, and claim to be very self-aware, when, in fact, their perception couldn’t be more off. “They believe that because they’re willing to see themselves in a blunt, ungenerous way, they must be more self-aware and willing to be honest with themselves,” Epstein says. 

Plenty of Twitter users demonstrate how this mental Mad Lib works as well — tell everyone why you suck and then follow it with the phrase, at least I’m self-aware.

The problem is, being harsh and critical of yourself isn’t the same thing as self-awareness. In many cases, “these distorted beliefs and criticisms disguised as self-awareness can absolutely make depression and anxiety worse,” Epstein warns. Research echoes these sentiments, indicating that simple “self-reflection” can lead to depression. But self-awareness is defined as the “ability to know who you are, how you operate in different settings and how you think, feel and behave,” Epstein says. It’s far more nuanced than detecting your defects. 

As much as people tend to trust how they see themselves, they’re often too close to their issues to get any accurate information. Friends, family, colleagues and therapists comparatively get a more zoomed-out and accurate view, but might similarly struggle with their own sense of self. Part of the reason why none of us can nail self-awareness is that our beliefs about who we are “calcify early on,” Epstein explains. And so, we go through most of our lives unconsciously looking for “proof that the judgment about ourselves is true.” 

For instance, someone who grows up hearing that they’re lazy might focus on all the times they failed to follow through on things. A person who feels unlovable may learn to convert every romantic rejection into evidence of their unworthiness. “These memories become the proof that helps the person carry that belief into adulthood,” Epstein says. Very rarely are children and young adults taught about how easily their self-perception can be distorted, so we start to mistake “certainty for accuracy.” However, “being certain that you’re inadequate doesn’t mean that you are,” Epstein says. 

These early-ingrained patterns make it that much harder to see what our real flaws are. As such, our actual weaknesses rarely get addressed or improved because we’re too busy beating ourselves up to see or accept feedback as to what the issue was in the first place. Consequently, these negative biases become our “default mode network,” psychiatrist Sam Zand explains, or rather “highly trafficked neural pathways of the same repetitive and often disempowering thoughts, feelings and behaviors.”

In other words, we get stuck in a self-hating loop that isn’t self-aware at all — it’s just a trap for feeling bad about ourselves. After studying the neuroplasticity benefits of psychedelic medicine at Johns Hopkins University, Zand began treating clients with legal doses of ketamine through his clinic Better U to help disrupt this default mode. “It leads to a perspective shift and a more objective view of ourselves,” he explains.

But not everyone needs to go in a k-hole to become self-aware, Zand notes. He also recommends taking time to journal as part of your nighttime routine, outlining “your self-reflections, goals, dreams, conflicts and resolutions.” Additionally, having an “accountability buddy” can also be beneficial for building self-awareness, or “someone in your life who you trust to gently guide you with constructive feedback,” Zand says. 

Once you become less self-critical and more self-aware, it’s crucial to remember that self-awareness isn’t a constant, but rather something that’s “built in the moment-to-moment experience,” Epstein says. Likewise, just because you’re self-aware in one area of your life doesn’t mean you’re self-aware in others, so Epstein recommends focusing on one area at a time. “A person can read a book about the subject they’re trying to understand — say, their marriage — and start to see how they operate within that paradigm,” Epstein says. 

Gibbs ultimately stopped being so hard on herself, but only after becoming a parent. Stressed out and overwhelmed by motherhood, her friend recommended yoga. Soon, the sense of relief she felt started to shift her perspective of herself. Slowly, she moved away from her perfectionism, and after working in high-powered executive positions for the majority of her career, became a certified yoga therapist instead. 

Since then, Gibbs has written a book and developed her own five-layer model of self-awareness — physical, energetic, psycho-emotional, intuitive wisdom and spiritual. “If we move through our lives on autopilot with no awareness of our body, how we’re breathing, or our habits, routines, beliefs, emotions, impulses and reactions, we lose power,” she says. Looking at each layer individually, meanwhile, makes it easier to not lose sight of who we are.

As for which layer to start with on the search for self-awareness, Gibbs suggests where she inadvertently began — the physical layer. From her experience, when people struggle to separate their perception of self from what everyone else sees, feeling more present in their bodies can help mediate between the two. From there, you can work on other layers to develop a “larger sense of self that results in the ability to navigate life from a calm center,” Gibbs says. 

Either way, the goal remains the same: Becoming fully aware that your professed self-awareness might be anything but.