A few years ago, a parable from Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, an Indian mystic and yogi of 19th-century, touched my heart.
There was once a lion that died soon after giving birth. The newborn, not knowing what to do, made its way to a nearby field and mingled with a herd of sheep. The mother sheep raised it as its own. The lion cub grows up along with the other sheep and thought and acted just like a sheep. It would bleat like a sheep and even eat grass!
But it was never happy. It always felt that there was something missing. And the other sheep would constantly make fun of it for being so different. The lion would always feel sad.
One day, an older lion from a far off jungle saw the herd of sheep and attacked it. It saw the young lion running away along with the other sheep. Curious, the older lion stopped chasing the sheep and pursued the young lion instead. It pounced on the lion and asked, why it was running away with the sheep? The younger lion shook in fear and said, “Please don’t eat me. I am just a young sheep. Please let me go!”.
The older lion growled, “Nonsense! You are not a sheep, you are a lion, just like me!” The younger lion repeated, “I know I am a sheep, please let me go”.
The older lion dragged the younger lion to a river nearby and asked it to look at its reflection. Upon looking at the reflection, the lion much to its own astonishment realised who it really was, a mighty lion! The young lion was so thrilled that it let out a mighty roar. The sheep hiding behind the bushes, fled away.
The older lion in the story is a metaphor for ‘self awareness’ and looking at the reflection in the water is a metaphor for ‘self reflection’.
Before getting into BUET, I had no active participation in any extra-curricular activities. As an introverted kid, I used to feel like I am of no service. Students of my age were achieving so many things, making friends, going places while I was looking for ways of avoiding people’s attention. My father once even shared this with my hostel teacher when I was in Class Nine. I used to prefer going out or travelling at night. All these led to low self-esteem. I had always underestimated myself to an unhealthy extent. But after getting into university, I was getting out of my shell, subconsciously. Then I never looked back. It was an exhausting roller-coaster ride of around five years there. I had literally pushed myself towards psychological burnout. And both the journey and the result uncovered many strengths, blind-spots, lessons and realizations for me.
At this age, many of my choices are not parallel to those of my fellows, but that doesn’t make me feel weaker or any less of myself. I know my strengths, weaknesses, values and purposes in life. I know why I do what I do, what else I can expect? The self-discovery and awareness empowered me, and transformed me into an exceptionally bold, confident and strong self. So I know how critical it is for oneself.
One of the worst sides of not being self-aware is causing different troubles to others while thinking you are fine. If you ever wondered why we tend to fight the most with the ones we love the most, this is partly why: we can use them as an emotional punching bag to validate all the crap that we are feeling, if they deserve it or not–usually not. I have realised many times that when my mind is calm, free from anxiety, worries, and disappointments, I respond to unexpected behaviour with a smile, efforts to understand, kindness and compassion. But when I am not okay, I react to even the slightest bit of aberration.
Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel T Gilbert found that almost half of the time we operate on “automatic pilot” or unconscious of what we are doing or how we feel, as our mind wanders to somewhere else other than here and now. So we are not aware of our emotions in most cases. The problem is when we’re on autopilot for so long that we forget we’re on autopilot. Because when we’re not even aware of our own habits, routines, impulses, and reactions, then we no longer control them, they control us. A person with self-awareness can exercise a little meta-cognition and take measures accordingly.
Read, meditate and explore different things alone each day. Practice mindfulness. It is the key to self-awareness. Keep a journal. Writing not only helps us process our thoughts, but also makes us feel connected and at peace with ourselves.
In 2017, I discovered something interesting. When I am internally disturbed, I forget wearing my watch before leaving home. After that, I worked backward to detect internal imbalances. Whenever I notice my wrist without a watch, I feel that something is not okay. I immediately slow myself down and strengthen my surveillance over my emotions. I deal with them to bring me back to a calm state of mind. If I don’t bother about this emotional imbalance, I would react to things and lash out at anyone. My relationships would suffer, the quality of my decisions would deteriorate, and I will feel exhausted and frustrated.
So the self-awareness is being aware of your emotions, standards, values, autopilot mode and evaluating yourself objectively. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman once explained how we feel about the experience at the moment and how we remember that the experience can be very different and share only a 50 percent correlation. This difference can have a significant impact on the story we are telling ourselves, the way we relate to self and others, and the decision we make, even though we may not notice the difference most of the time.
Several researches have shown self-awareness as a crucial trait of successful business leaders. Green Peak Partners and Cornell University jointly studied 72 executives at public and private companies. They all had revenues from $50 million to $5 billion, and a high self-awareness score was the strongest predictor of their overall success. And the self-awareness is a requirement for emotional intelligence.
So how can you cultivate self-awareness? Create some space for yourself. Read, meditate and explore different things alone each day. Practice mindfulness. It is the key to self-awareness. Keep a journal. Writing not only helps us process our thoughts, but also makes us feel connected and at peace with ourselves. Practice being a good listener. Gain different perspectives. Ask for feedback.
And know that there are differences between self-awareness and self-focused attention. Self - awareness comprises being mindful of our identities and lived experiences and how they relate to those of other people. Self-focused attention comprises thinking about ourselves.
Nazmus Sadat is a Generation Change Fellow, United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and can be contacted atNazmussadat.email@example.com