From self-discovery to career mastery and success

Understanding yourself is the key to unlocking hidden potential and fostering personal and professional growth. In this article, learn about a staple skill within emotional intelligence: self-awareness, including what it is, the benefits it has in the workplace, and how to improve it.

What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is having conscious knowledge of your character, feelings, and motives. This shouldn't be confused with consciousness, which is about an awareness of your environment, lifestyle, and body. 

Self-awareness has been studied greatly over the last 50 years and there are two broad categories of self-awareness that emerge. Firstly, there's internal self-awareness, which is about how clearly our values, passions, and aspirations are in line with our own environment. Then there's external self-awareness, which is about how other people view us.

Objective self-awareness: Duval and Wicklund

Self-awareness theory was originally developed by Shelley Duval and Robert Wicklund in their 1972 publication A Theory of Objective Self Awareness. From a psychological perspective, they suggest that self-awareness can present itself in two forms:

  • Objective self-awareness: We can reflect on our behaviour, attitudes, and traits and consider how they align with our internal values and standards. We also acknowledge that our behaviour and image can be socially observed and evaluated.

  • Subjective self-awareness: We are the source of our behaviours and perceptions. The world adjusts to us based on our personal experiences. We do not consider the feelings of others or how our actions affect others.

Duval and Wicklund's theory focused primarily on objective self-awareness. In short, they say that if you're self-aware, you can interpret your actions, feelings, and behaviours objectively and can re-align them with your values or the society around you if required.

Public and private self-awareness

Objective self-awareness can be broken down further into two distinct kinds: public and private. This self-awareness split was documented by researchers William J. Froming, G. Rex Walker, and Kivin J. Lopyan.

Public self-awareness

Being in the presence of an audience, whether that's one person or several people, can manipulate self-awareness. How we feel we are being viewed by others when we are the object of their attention and can regulate how we behave. The most common reaction is to adjust our behaviour in line with the expectation of others or society. This is public self-awareness, and it can often make us feel a pang of anxiety or worry.

Imagine you're leading a brainstorming session at work, and you suddenly realise you've been dominating the conversation. You might respond to this realisation by stopping talking and encouraging others to share, while actively listening. This is an example of public self-awareness.

Private self-awareness

Private self-awareness is more about how we view ourselves privately. It's a self-reflection, like looking in a mirror. Like public self-awareness, it can make us feel worried, but it might also result in feelings of shock or cringe.

If you're feeling stressed and frustrated at work, you might practise self-awareness and realise that you're overcommitting, which is causing burnout and procrastination. With this realisation, you can begin to find ways of managing your workload better and prioritising tasks to reduce stress. This is an example of private self-awareness.

Ought and ideal self-awareness

We can also break self-awareness down into the ought and ideal, which was introduced by psychologist Edward Tory Higgins in 1997 as part of his self-discrepancy theory. 

Higgins posits that we possess different types of standards which we compare ourselves against. That standard could be an ideal self-guide, i.e. a standard that represents hopes and wishes, or it could be an ought self-guide, i.e. a representation of our current obligations and responsibilities.

If there's a discrepancy between the standard we hold ourselves to, whether that be an ought or ideal, and our actual behaviour in that current moment, it can result in sadness. You could almost say it's akin to perfectionism. If we're trying to be the best we can be, but we're falling short, it can make us feel uncomfortable. 

But actual self-guides are bedded in reality. The actual self is a representation of the attributes and behaviours we actually have. 

When we practise self-awareness, privately or publicly, the standards we hold ourselves to can be our ideal self, the self we think we ought to act as, or our actual selves.

The four keys to self-awareness

As you can tell, self-awareness is multi-dimensional and there's more than one lens to look through when analysing yourself. Self-awareness can be considered through four factions, or keys, which are:

  1. Mindfulness: Becoming more aware of ourselves in the present

  2. Self-compassion: Being aware of ourselves without passing judgement

  3. Reflection: Considering what we've learned to improve ourselves

  4. Feedback: Taking on board ways in which we can reach our full potential

The five elements of self-awareness

In addition to the four keys to self-awareness, you can also consider self-awareness through the following five elements:

  1. Consciousness: The ability to be aware of what's flowing through your internal mind, like your emotions and thoughts, in response to an experience

  2. Self-knowledge: Also known as self-concept, this is the ability to understand who you are and relates to the values, standards, beliefs, and ideas you have about yourself

  3. Emotional intelligence: The ability to understand how your emotions influence your thoughts and behaviours, and the ability to manage them

  4. Self-acceptance: Similar to self-concept, this is the ability to accept who you are regardless of the standard you hold yourself to and respect yourself with compassion and kindness

  5. Self-reflection: The ability to look inwardly and consider your feelings, experiences, and behaviours to better understand who you are and how you fit in with others around you

Why is self-awareness important?

Self-awareness is a leadership buzzword, but there's a lot of evidence to suggest that this emotional intelligence trait is a key part of becoming a better human and thriving in the workplace and our personal lives.

Ultimately, self-awareness helps us to understand ourselves better and make changes in line with our professional goals. In the workplace, this can help us to perform at our peak, become better leaders, cope better with stress, and control the way we present ourselves. Possessing and implementing self-awareness is likely the biggest opportunity for growth and development.

What are the benefits of self-awareness?

As you've likely guessed, there are many benefits to self-awareness. Here are a few ways they can manifest in your career and while looking for a job:

  • The ability to make better career choices aligned with your interests and goals, since you understand your strengths, weaknesses, and values

  • The ability to identify work environments and roles that are better aligned with your preferences, which can lead to increased job satisfaction

  • The ability to be a strong leader, since you understand your impact on others

  • Highly developed emotional intelligence, which is a desirable skill for leadership positions in particular 

  • Confidence in your abilities, which can make a long-lasting impression in an interview

  • A strong professional network, because you understand how to present yourself authentically and adapt to social situations

  • Effective and empathetic communication skills, which are highly sought-after by all employers

  • Career growth opportunities, since you have a solid understanding of where you are and where you want to progress

How can I tell if I'm self-aware?

Even though many people believe they're self-aware, research by psychologist Tasha Eurich and her team suggests that only 10-15% of us fit the criteria.

If you're a self-aware person, technically you're able to observe and accurately identify your thoughts, feelings, and impulses, determine whether they're grounded in reality or not, and then act appropriately based on your decision. But it's not as black and white as this.

Life advice expert and author of New York Times bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson, suggests that there are three levels of self-awareness, and you will likely fit into one of these categories for certain situations in your life. To summarise:

  • Level 1 – what are you doing? AKA self-knowledge: The foundation of self-awareness is understanding your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. It requires introspection and reflection.

  • Level 2 – what are you feeling? AKA self-responsibility: Moving beyond knowing yourself is engaging with your actions and emotions and taking responsibility for them. You acknowledge that you have control over how you respond to situations and can own the positive or negative outcomes.

  • Level 3 – what are your blind spots? AKA self-improvement: At the highest point of self-awareness, you actively strive to improve and grow as a person. You make a conscious effort to develop strengths, address weaknesses, and learn from life experiences.

Ironically, making your own judgement about how self-aware you are will depend on your level of self-awareness.

There are tools and assessments available to determine your level of self-awareness, and by proxy, your personality type. Here are a few suggestions:

How can I improve my self-awareness?

Even though there are two distinct types of self-awareness – private or internal, public or external – there isn't actually a relationship between the two and each individual can possess a bit of both, one or the other, or neither.

Eurich suggests that there are four leadership archetypes as a result, each with a different set of opportunities to improve: Introspectors, Aware, Seekers and Pleasers. However you categorise yourself, improving your self-awareness is a worthwhile journey and investing in yourself and having a willingness to learn is invaluable. Here are a few suggestions for how you can enhance your self-awareness journey:

Practice mindfulness

Those that are new to practising mindfulness may believe that it's an ordeal or a fad. This could be because the benefits of mindfulness are not understood or because silencing a brain is tough. 

Meditation is one of the primary ways to practise mindfulness. It's a type of self-care and it can be practised every day. 10 minutes daily is all it takes to develop a sense of awareness, calm, and greater self-control. 

If meditation isn't your jam, other mindfulness activities include deep breathing, naming what you can see, smell, and feel, cleaning and organising your space, drawing, writing a gratitude list, or gardening.

Talking therapies

If you find that you have negative thought patterns which are hindering your ability to act on any realisations from self-awareness, talking therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) could help.

CBT is a type of therapy that helps you to manage thought patterns by changing the way you think. It's based on the concept that your thoughts and feelings are interconnected with actions and that any negative thoughts can trap you in a cycle. CBT can help to break down any overwhelming thought patterns in a positive way.


Journalling is a well-known way to clarify thoughts and feelings in an organised way, which leads to a better self-understanding of what makes you confident and happy. Writing about feelings and experiences can also reduce stress and aid problem-solving. 

Try writing down things that bother you - after all, being conscious of your own character and feelings is at the heart of self-awareness. You could also try to keep track of your emotions and energy levels on a daily basis, to see if there are any situations which contribute to the peaks and troughs.

Ask for feedback

If you have the drive to grow and learn, asking for feedback is a key way to develop your self-awareness and enhance your potential. When asking for feedback, be as specific as possible. And remember, focusing on a few things at a time is best. You want to make sure the aspects you're working on are realistic.

For example, if you're looking to grow into a leadership position, you might ask what you're currently doing that demonstrates your skills as a leader, examples of those skills, and anything you can do to improve on those skills.

Self-awareness is an essential skill for any professional, especially if you're looking for a leadership position. It can be hard to showcase self-awareness in a job application, but it can be conveyed in a CV. Send your CV for a free CV review by the experts at TopCV, so that you can iron out any issues before you start applying. 

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