Illustration by Erin Taj

Perfect Self-Awareness Is These Two Things

Most people think they are really self-aware, but few of us actually are

Much as everyone thinks they have good taste—but that can’t possibly be true of all of us—so most people mistakenly assume they are self-aware even when they actually have the insight of bong water. Some “95 percent of people think that they’re self-aware,” psychologist and author Tasha Eurich told New York magazine’s “Science of Usblog about her research on self-awareness for her book Insight. “But the real figure is closer to 10 to 15 percent.” Yikes. Does that mean most of us are running around thinking we know what we’re like and what others think of us, when we probably have no idea? Yes. Yes it does. Sorry.

In a world where soft skills in the workplace and in life mean more than ever for achieving success, it’s frightening to think a lot of us are bad at something so essential to dealing with other people. But Eurich says self-awareness is really about two things: Knowing who you are, but also how you are. Eurich tells “Science of Us”:

So, there are two types of self-awareness. There’s something I call internal self-awareness, which is understanding inwardly who am I, what makes me tick, what do I want to do in my life. And there’s another kind called external self-awareness, which is knowing how people see me. And what’s fascinating about those two things is that they are completely unrelated. You can be high in both, you can be low in both, and you can be high in one and not in the other.

You might, in other words, be super cognizant of what you want, but have no idea how you come off. Or conversely, you might be really really aware of how you’re perceived, but without ever actually catering to your true self and what you need. Both of those combinations can lead to some serious life misery.

Eurich and her colleagues asked thousands of people from across the globe to take a survey ranking themselves on questions concerning whether they know what they want out of life, or if they see any recurring patterns in their own behavior. Then the hard part: Someone else the person knows also takes the survey to rank these same aspects about them. This is how she came up with the number, roughly, that only 10 to 15 percent of those perceptions match up.

Again, that’s because self-awareness requires knowing about more than yourself, but also how people see you. Eurich stresses that it’s a balancing act:

Sometimes people say things like, Other people’s opinions of me be damned! It doesn’t matter what people think of me! They’re welcome to feel that way, but the second part of their statement isn’t really true — it actually does matter what people think of you. If you want to be successful in your career, if you want to have strong and lasting relationships, if you want to have a happy and fulfilling life, a lot of that is dependent on you understanding how you’re perceived.

The seemingly tricky part of this nowadays is that we live so many lives — a domestic life, a workplace life and a social media life, plus the life in our own heads. While some of us might be great at taking the temperature of our relationships, we might be horrible at realizing we are hard-to-approach dicks at the office. We may be great at taking feedback about our work performance, but highly defensive when a loved one tells us we’re more selfish than we realized.

It might be mildly reassuring to know that self-awareness can be cultivated in life just as it can be at work. In both cases, it involves taking the time to ponder why you turned out how you did, making connections about your behaviors and motives, and being open to not just how you think it affects other people, but to hearing other people telling you how it affects them. This seems obvious, but it’s the sort of thing that should be broadcast on billboards across the universe: When someone tells you how you’ve made them feel, whether you meant to elicit that feeling or not, listen. If you can manage that without falling to the floor weeping or storming off in a fit of defensive anger, you would be the rare bird with a fairly healthy grasp on human relations.

That’s because like most things in life, there’s a sweet spot. In this case, it’s how much of you to unleash on people, and how much of everyone else to let take up real estate in your brain. It’s living in the world on your own terms, but in a way that doesn’t seem like you’re a self-serving jackanapes. Besides, what’s the alternative? Being in that mortifying 85 percent. Bong water.