In life, we can either respond like a thermometer—yielding to our environment—or take a more active role like a thermostat—creating an environment that better suits us.
Daily, we are presented with news and events that can leave us feeling hopeless, helpless, angry, frustrated, among other intense emotions. The pandemic has amplified everyday stressors, including long-standing issues such as racial injustices, global warming, political polarity, and ongoing wars between countries, which intensifies the threats we might be feeling.
Imagine how different our lives and the world would be if we started to adjust our behaviors, habits, and attitudes to address the multitude of crises and toxic emotional climate we’re living in today versus giving in to the pressures of the modern world.
We can start by developing our level of awareness and taking notice of how we are showing up with ourselves and in our conversations and interactions with others.
First, what is self-awareness?
Self-awareness is the ability to accurately define our emotions, identify the source of our emotions, and understand our emotions' effects on ourselves and others. It also includes our ability to know our strengths and limits.
If we fail to check in with our emotions and state of being, we may miss an opportunity to increase our self-awareness and the insight that awareness brings—allowing us to regulate our emotions.
There’s no magic strategy to increase our level of self-awareness. Tuning into our emotions and identifying the source of our emotional discomfort can be challenging. We may resort to strategies that help us avoid feeling our emotions like keeping ourselves “busy,” binge-watching our favorite shows, hanging out with friends, or altering our state of being through things like food, alcohol, excessive exercise, etc.
It takes self-compassion to view our thoughts, mistakes, and unfavorable behaviors with grace and objective curiosity. Similar to the pain you feel from working out your physical muscles, developing our self-awareness “muscles” can be uncomfortable initially. However, once you understand yourself better, it’s easier to understand the people around you. The short-term pain produces long-term insight and understanding.
Here are four things that are key when you are working to increase your level of self-awareness:
You must want to do it! The good news is that if you are reading this article, then step 1 is already done. Your desire will determine your ability to be resilient through the challenges that you will inevitably face. Know that discomfort is part of the process and worth the invested time and energy, which leads to #2.
You must make mindfulness and self-reflection a frequent practice. This requires a conscious effort to be deliberate about checking in with yourself.
Like any new habit, it may take time for a conscious and present state of mind to become second nature. You may find it helpful to use an app to remind you to check in with yourself throughout the day. The Mind Jogger App is an app that I’ve found beneficial and free. Mind Jogger allows you to write in questions for yourself and set alerts for routine check-ins.
Questions you could ask yourself to help develop awareness could be:
“What am I thinking about?”
“How do I feel right now?”
“What can I sense with my five senses?” – this is a mindfulness practice.
When we can identify and connect with our feelings, it helps us bring clarity to our thoughts and emotions.
Notice your bodily sensations. Are you feeling hot or cold? Do you feel any tightness in your chest, stomach, or shoulders? How is your breathing? Are you breathing fast or slow? Do you have any physical symptoms from your emotions, such as a headache, muscle pain, a feeling of lightness or heaviness? Can you feel the energy flowing through your limbs?
Record your progress, setbacks, and self-discoveries by creating a tracking system that works well for you. You can even track this in your daily planner through simple journaling, listing your emotions throughout the day, or using a feelings scale. There is no right way to rate yourself. For example, I will make 1 a calm and happy state and 10 a deeply stressed out and overwhelmed state. When we learn how to notice when we are functioning at an 8 versus a 2, it opens some choices for what we do next.
What is most important in this step is that you are checking in with yourself and being able to better understand, label, connect with, and feel your emotions.
Practice self-regulation strategies that work for you.
Self-regulation is our ability to move from flight/fight/freeze into a state of rest and digest. To do this, we have to move from the sympathetic state (fight/flight/freeze) of our nervous system to the parasympathetic state (rest & digest). We can’t be in both states at the same time. We are not meant to spend extended periods of time in the sympathetic state of our nervous system, but unfortunately, so many of us do. We need the sympathetic state to keep us safe from danger, but once the threat has passed, our bodies & minds work best when we can recover in a parasympathetic state.
By engaging in self-regulating activities that help you feel more present and grounded in the moment, you can learn how to rest and digest more frequently. Here are twelve strategies or practices backed by research to help you connect to the present moment, improve your overall mood, outlook, and reduce stress and anxiety.
Feeling hopeful about the future
Being in a loving relationship
Laughing and being playful
Walk around in nature
Pro-Tip 1: If you need a quick fix to ground yourself, you can try deep breathing. Make sure you allow your exhale to be longer than your inhale.
Pro-Tip 2: Try Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to help tune in to what is bothering you and then reduce it through tapping. EFT involves tapping on a series of acupuncture points while you identify what is upsetting you. Tapping on these points sends calming signals to the amygdala while you are “being with” the present emotion. You can find a lot of free meditations on The Tapping Solution App.
Self-awareness is a key ingredient in all interactions in life and with life. When we take the time to look within, we gain insight into ourselves and others. The world needs more people willing to be thermostats. What can you do today to be a thermostat in your interactions with yourself and others?