It’s both clichéd and pretentious to trot out a Benjamin Franklin quote at the start of an article, but here it comes anyway: “There are three things extremely hard: Steel, a diamond and to know one’s self.”
In Franklin’s day, displaying a crushing lack of self-awareness in public was more forgivable — all people had to go on back then were 18th-century mirrors and the cutting testimony of their fellow patriots. But here in the 21st century, we have access to so many more sources of external data about ourselves — performance assessments at work, health checks, school reports, social likes and follows, self-Googling (for the brave) and Tinder scores (for the really brave) — that there’s no longer an excuse for self-deception on this sort of scale:
And yet, according to Sara Canaday, executive coach and author of the book You According to Them, people are just as blind to their own failings as ever. “Much of the time we have a false sense not just of how we come across but of our own abilities,” she says. Further, people often have a paralyzing aversion to hearing negative truths about their personalities: “People say they like and want feedback,” Canaday adds. “But when it comes to getting it, they don’t pursue it.”
Studies bear that out. In 2006, researchers at Yale University found that nearly 80 percent of people believe themselves to be among the top 50 percent on standard tests for emotional intelligence. It’s an example of the phenomenon known to psychologists as the “superiority illusion,” or “Lake Wobegon effect”: An unshakable suspicion held by most of us that, for any particularly positive quality or ability, we rate above average. Essentially, the majority of us will give ourselves at least a 7, for everything.
The tragedy of a lack of self-awareness, though, is that it’s the nature of the problem to make you utterly oblivious to the fact that there’s a problem. In Canaday’s experience, “It’s the person who has convinced themselves [they’re okay as they are], the person who doesn’t seek to be self-aware and isn’t open to any feedback, that most needs it.”
So how can we tell if (gulp) we are that person? According to Rob Pasick, an organizational psychologist based at the University of Michigan and author of Self Aware: A Guide to Success in Work and Life, a good place to start is by paying more attention to others. “An irony of this is that it’s hard to become self-aware just by yourself,” he says. “Being self-aware comes from talking to other people, getting feedback about how they perceive you and what their lives are like; it’s asking questions about others, about comparing yourself to others, which is the way we learn.”
One sign of obnoxious obliviousness, Pasick says, is struggling to differentiate between kindred emotions, such as anger and frustration or love and lust. “When I talk to people who are lacking self-awareness they say they have two feelings — good and bad. There’s no nuance; it’s black and white.”
Another tip: Pay attention to those social cues, says Canaday. If you find you’re consistently having the last word before conversation grinds to a halt around you, it might not be due to your showstopping Oscar Wilde wit.
To narrow the gap between how you intend to present yourself and how you actually come across, Canaday also suggests a program of “applied self-awareness.” First, gather as much of an objective view on you as you can; for this you could use standard psychometric tests available online, or submit yourself to a 360-degree assessment from colleagues at work (“You can’t argue with the data, and that’s the kind of thing that moves some people to take action,” says Canaday).
Then, once you’ve identified those personality traits that vex people most, take action to change them. Find a trusted friend or co-worker — someone Canaday calls an “alert buddy” — who you can rely on to keep bringing you back into the room when your ego’s flying you elsewhere. This step — simply telling someone you’re confronting the issue — is one of the most effective things you can do, says Canaday. “They’ll cut you a lot of slack. They’ll admire and respect you for facing it and addressing it.” You can also back up a self-awareness wingman with phone alerts or sticky notes: “You could tell yourself to ‘breathe’ — or whatever small reminders you need to jog you into different habits.”
“It’s like a muscle,” Canaday continues. “You have to build it over time. That’s why people avoid it — it’s going to take practice, and it’s going to take dipping your toe in the water. It may be awkward.”
With enough persistence, though, the discomfort might just pay off. Been working on your tendency to drop smug historical quotes at the slightest opportunity? Well done, that’s good self-awareness. Give yourself a 7.