I distinctly remember the first time I consciously realized the world didn’t revolve around me. A college friend of mine and I had moved to Boston and rented our first apartment together. We were 22, in graduate school, and living on our own in the big city.
Walking in and out of the shadows of skyscrapers downtown amidst crowds of busy people moving fast — always moving fast — I spent most of my time feeling small and anonymous. I loved it!
It was freeing and exhilarating. For the first time, I didn’t feel like I was under someone else’s eye. No one knew anything about my past (except my roommate), so no one made assumptions about me or put me into a box I didn’t want to be in. I didn’t need permission to do anything I wanted to do.
This was one of my fork-in-the-road moments.
A fork-in-the-road moment (or what Tony Robbins calls a “burn the boats” moment) is a moment in your life when you make a choice that defines your identity and cuts you off from a very different future that might have been. These are the moments when you’re reinventing yourself. You’re choosing a new identity (sometimes because you have no other choice). In these moments, self-awareness is your lifeline to happiness.
When Self-Reflection Disrupts Self-Awareness
When I compare my move to Boston with another fork-in-the-road moment in my life, I see an important difference. I was 13 and heading off to a different high school from all of my friends. I could have looked at this moment as a chance to reinvent myself. Again, no one knew anything about my past. I was free to create a new identity for myself.
Whereas I thrived when I moved to the big city at 22, though, at 13, I fought the change with all my might.
Maybe it was a maturity thing. Maybe I learned something important struggling with the reinvention of myself in high school that paved the way for an easier transition later in life. But I think it was self-awareness that made all the difference.
See, I’ve always been quite self-reflective. However, it’s important to point out that self-reflection is not the same as self-awareness. In fact, research shows that self-reflection, done incorrectly, can actually disrupt self-awareness.
In her book, Insight, Tasha Eurich offers the example of a woman, Karen, who goes through several breakups as a young woman and starts searching for an answer as to why she’s “unlovable.” She turns inward to find the answer and after hours of self-reflection comes to the conclusion that it’s because she has never gotten over the fear of abandonment caused by the trauma of having been given up for adoption as a newborn.
Not only is this type of self-reflection disruptive, it brings to the surface unproductive and unhelpful emotions that won’t help Karen move forward in a healthy way.
This is the kind of self-reflection my 13-year-old self engaged in during that fork-in-the-road moment. After I graduated from Catholic school and had to face going to a relatively bigger, public high school full of kids I judged as being beneath me for one reason or another, I turned inward.
I spent most of my time thinking about myself, comparing myself to others, and missing what I saw a key part of my 13-year-old identity. And guess what? All of that self-reflection actually distanced me further from the other high schoolers. It prevented me from being open to experiences that would have helped me make friends and eased my transition.
Don’t get me wrong. Self-reflection still continues to disrupt self-awareness for me almost 30 years later. I still find myself searching deep inside of myself for answers to some of the biggest mysteries, rather than reaching out to others. I still default to going into “turtle mode” and pulling myself inside my shell, rather than opening myself up to new experiences.
The difference for me now is that I am more likely to recognize what I’m doing and break myself out of the self-reflection spiral.
Back to Boston
Returning to my more fulfilling fork-in-the-road moment, then, what did I do to tap into self-awareness? I certainly wasn’t conscious of what I was doing. Other than that conscious realization that the world didn’t revolve around me, I don’t remember any kind of awakening or intentional identifying of my identity.
But I also remember being more attuned to what others needed and more aware of my own skills and abilities. I had a plan for my future (finish my Masters, get a PhD, and become a philosophy professor) and I was working my plan. I was in the sweet spot of knowing what I wanted without seeing clearly the challenges that lay ahead of me.
Here are the key things I did to tap into self-awareness:
- I enjoyed the freedom of anonymity
- I saw the fork-in-the-road as an opportunity to reinvent myself
- I mindfully chose the pieces of my past self that I wanted to carry forward
- I didn’t mourn the loss of my past self
- I trusted that I was on the right path and that things would work out
- I saw my work as purposeful and satisfying
I realize these fall short of being really actionable or practical tips. In the coming months, I’ll be playing more with experiments of self-awareness to figure out whether self-awareness is like a muscle that can be exercised.
I do believe I’m on a journey of increasing self-awareness. I do believe self-awareness can be improved. I’m less sure I believe it’s the kind of “project” one can intentionally undertake and make progress. If that ends up being my final conclusion, I will be disappointed. I’m hoping to answer questions, but perhaps the best I’ll be able to offer in the end is more precise questions.
Either way, I’ll continue sharing this journey with you as long as you continue following along. Or perhaps I need to dig out my rose-colored suit and keep it handy as my uniform for this journey.
Until next time…
Photo credit: masterhands