Self-awareness seems like a good thing because it allows you to know yourself, understand your motivations, and ultimately make better decisions. But it can also lead us to second guess ourselves and spin out into an excruciating state of self-consciousness, micro-analyzing every nuance of our thoughts and actions. Let’s take a closer look at the two components of self-awareness and see how they work.
Internal or private self-awareness is a metacognitive process in which we take an observer’s perspective of our own thoughts. Internal self-awareness occurs when people become aware of some aspects of themselves, but only in a private way. For example, seeing your face in the mirror at home is a type of private self-awareness. Noticing that you can’t stop thinking a certain thought. Feeling your stomach drop when you realize you left your phone at a restaurant or feeling your heart skip a beat when you see someone you are attracted to are examples of internal self-awareness.
External or public self-awareness emerges when we become aware of how we appear to others. We take the perspective of a public observer. That is, we’re aware that others can see us – and we may start to speculate on what we think they are seeing. External self-awareness often comes on line in situations where we are at the center of attention, such as when giving a presentation or talking to a group of friends. This type of self-awareness is often what compels people to adhere to social norms. When we are aware that we are being watched and possibly evaluated, we are more likely to try to behave in ways that are considered socially acceptable and desirable.
Both types of self-awareness are necessary to maintain our sense of self and to navigate complex social interactions. For instance, in a conversation at a social gathering, we need to be aware of our thoughts and feelings so we can decide whether or not to share them. We also need to be aware of how others are perceiving us and reacting to what we are saying. However, certain habits of self-awareness can make us self-conscious.
People who tend to be internally self-conscious have a generally higher level of internal (or private) self-awareness, which has both benefits and hindrances. People who focus their awareness internally tend to be more aware of their feelings and beliefs. So they are more likely to stick to their personal values because they are acutely aware of how their actions make them feel. However, they also tend to focus on their negative internal states like unpleasant thoughts and body sensations. These negative internal states may then become magnified through intense internal focus and can lead to increased stress and anxiety.
People who tend to be externally self-conscious have a higher level of external (or public) self-awareness. They tend to focus more on how other people view them and are often concerned that other people might be judging them based on their looks or their actions. As a result, they tend to stick to group norms and try to avoid situations in which they might look bad or feel embarrassed. So they might not take risks or try new things for fear of looking stupid and wrong in public. External self-awareness can also lead to evaluation anxiety in which people become distressed, anxious, or worried about how they are perceived by others. Habitual intense public self-consciousness can lead to chronic conditions, such as social anxiety disorder.
For most people, the uncomfortable feelings of self-consciousness are only temporary and arise in situations when we are “in the spotlight.” Most everyone experiences self-consciousness from time to time. Have you ever felt like a person or a group was watching you, judging your actions, and waiting to see what you will do next? This heightened state of self-awareness can leave us feeling awkward and nervous in certain situations.
How can you better manage states of uncomfortable self-consciousness?
First, realize you have a choice on where you put your attention. Then, deliberately shift your attention outward.
If you are in a state of external self-consciousness, shift your attention off yourself onto others. For instance, if you are giving a presentation focus your attention on your audience and building a rapport with them. Don’t focus on yourself and how nervous you are or how you are feeling moment to moment. Focus your attention outward instead. In a conversation in which you start to feel uncomfortably self-conscious, shift the focus to the other by asking them an interested question. When we feel anxious we tend to focus on ourselves and that tends to make us even more anxious. In conversation, remember to volley the attention back and forth–don’t hold the ball of self-consciousness.
If you are in an uncomfortable state of internal self-consciousness such as a self-conscious thought loop, shift your focus outward. Look at your surroundings, find something beautiful, find something blue—play a game with yourself to see the world anew. Engage your senses: feel the texture of a velvet pillow, smell the grass, listen for a bird, feel the pressure of your feet on the ground, and the air brush against your cheek. This might seem a bit silly if you’re worried about important matters—but it works to take your attention off yourself in the moment and take a break from self-scrutiny. When we are in an uncomfortable internal state we tend to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Remember you can always choose where you put the focus of your awareness.
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