How Others Can Help Increase Our Self-Awareness

How well do you receive feedback from others? Do you seek it out and learn from it, or do you ignore or even resent it?

This is the final post in our three-part series on self-awareness. Along with assessing our behavioral hardwiring and our belief systems, we must learn to seek out (and really listen to) feedback from others in order to become more self-aware. Trying to figure it all out by ourselves is like sitting in a cave, where all you really hear is the echo of your own voice. Often, we even hear several conflicting versions of our own voices: “Yes, I want that; no, I don’t. He’s a jerk. No, he’s not.”

Other people have the benefit of seeing our circumstances without all the emotion that can cloud our views of ourselves—just like it is often easier to clearly see the sources of our friends’ problems than to see our own. This is why we must be able to hear negative feedback and constructive criticism. We must invite it, welcome it, and seek it out in order to grow. Otherwise, we’ll remain stuck in our own paradigms.

One of my favorite conversations in my own head—one to which most people seem to relate—is about the balance between selfishness and selflessness. In other words, to what extent am I allowed to have or do something that makes me feel happy if I know (or think) it might hurt or upset someone else?

In this situation, the person who’s feeling hurt has a responsibility to examine why he/she feels that way. And I have a responsibility to ask myself, Do I care enough about this person to avoid doing what hurts him/her? Or could we at least be talking about it in a way that is not damaging?

It’s a fascinating tension between these two things. How do I distinguish between what is completely self-centered, bordering on abusive, and what is really just a matter of caring about myself? Then, how do I balance that with my desire to be liked and received well? And how can I adjust my behaviors if they’re causing difficulty for somebody else?

The only way I’m ever going to answer these questions is if the other person feels OK about giving me feedback—which will only happen if I’m secure enough to invite it and to handle it well.

That’s the cycle of creating a connection based on trust. I invite productive feedback—even if it’s negative—and receive it as a gift. I say “thank you” and make whatever adjustments I can. This teaches the people in my life that they can trust me not to be defensive or to attack them for sharing their thoughts with me—that I am a person of integrity who wants to keep growing and becoming a better, more self-aware person.

We can do great damage to our psyches by only listening to that voice deep down inside of us—the one that says things like, “I should’ve been better. I never should’ve done that. Oh, I’m such an idiot.” That’s the self-deflating kind of voice. Depending on your personality and mindset, you may also experience the flipside of that—e.g., “I’m amazing. Look how awesome I am. The world should bow down and adore me, because I’m incredible.”

Either one of those voices, without some kind of checks-and-balances system in place, is going to take you to a bad place. In fact, I’d argue that the highly-aggressive, cocky voice can do more damage than the self-deflating voice. People who beat themselves up don’t usually go around beating others up. But people whose egos are out of control can wreak havoc on their relationships and even their long-term career success.

In order to grow my self-awareness, I must be able to take the data (the negative feedback from others) and have a conversation with myself about whether I believe any of it to be true and how I can improve the way I come across.

Learning to receive feedback well is like the other two steps for increasing self-awareness. It’s a forever project. You’re never going to get it right all the time, because you’re always in a state of imperfection. Understanding this enables you to better empathize with others, because you cannot empathize with anyone until you’ve learned to empathize with yourself. It also teaches you humility and personal integrity, so that you can walk from the boardroom to the loading dock and be equally well received by the people you find there. That’s a rare package, and that’s how you really stand out—as a professional, as a leader, and as a human being.