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Emotional Self-Awareness: A Subset of Awareness

Emotional self-awareness is essential to self-knowledge and necessary for successful communication and relationships.

Often when there is a problem in the workplace, one or more of the people involved have no idea how they affect the others. If they did, no doubt they would act differently.

This is why leadership development, team building, interpersonal skills, conflict management, and communication programs include some form of assessment that helps create an “Aha” moment for the individual taking it.

Emotions inform and drive our behavior. Discovering the root of our feelings has the power to calm us or stir us to effective action. We can brave self-discovery by embracing the neutral validity of our feelings as vital information. When we open up to feelings, they enrich our process. We increase our flexibility and authenticity, along with our health and wellness.

How to become more emotionally self-aware:

It is a matter of noticing feelings and thoughts. When I first practiced this noticing, I often pondered which came first. I was distracted by the “chicken or the egg” problem and decided it didn’t matter. Either was an entry point for understanding and taking responsibility for my feelings and actions—body-mind cues that drive behavior and decision. But it requires a decision to notice and practice to develop the skill. That’s the simple answer.

To delve into the complexities and science behind this, I read some articles. I watched videos in which leading neuroscientist Lisa Barrett Feldman describes how we generate our emotions through thoughts, sensory input, and recalling past experiences. She provides an excellent explanation of the “conundrum.” Here are some key points:

1. The organic activities of the brain (chemical, electronic exchanges of information) have the primary purpose of prediction. Analyzing what is going on in our bodies and the world outside of us and predicting the most efficient response.

2. The body-mind process that forms body sensation (feeling) and evokes mental perception (thought) is almost imperceptible, possibly simultaneous, and rapidly produces “affect.” Affect is a general mood from which we behave. It can change and move like the weather. It can also form or be tied into long-term beliefs and values and become characteristic.

3. When we notice we are operating from affect, we can decide to be curious about it and any emotion that may be part of it.

To expand on the weather analogy in point #2, imagine that a large low-pressure area is coloring our day, within which a storm line has begun to form. This signifies that I’m experiencing anxiety around a project that has put me on a learning curve. As a result, I feel uneasy and imagine others may think I’m under-skilled. This general discomfort is the low-pressure area. And I find myself reacting sharply if a team member asks me a question, namely increased discomfort and resulting emotion.

How can we practice becoming more emotionally self-aware?

When we allow ourselves to become curious about our emotional state, we might notice that we are feeling uncomfortable and be able to experience the sensations of, i.e., anxiety and label our sharpness as irritability. Then we can take action.

For example, I might breathe deeply, stretch, or take a walk (because my body-mind has produced this energy jam that I need to release). I might notice that anxiety is part of my creative process and remember times when it has helped me succeed and acknowledge that it’s normal and valuable. I might also reach out for information or help. I might inform my teammates that I’m feeling pressured and apologize for my sharpness. All of which can increase my comfort and capability while also easing stress in the work environment I helped create. Each of these actions is what is called emotional regulation.

This is not a matter of dwelling on problems or indulging emotions. It’s often a “touch and go” process that brings you present to the task at hand.

Human beings have been self-regulating for many years. Stress reduction, mindfulness, “confidence” techniques, hypnosis, etc., are all forms of regulating the mind-body system. Athletes, performers, successful business leaders, soldiers, criminals... most of us have learned some aspect of working with our emotions to succeed.

We have reserved these skills for citable achievement rather than consistent calibration for personal growth and refined relationships. When assessing people’s emotional self-awareness, it is common to focus on characteristics, preferences, and values. Even in some emotional intelligence assessments, emotional self-awareness is de-emphasized. This presents a glaring example of our general reluctance to acknowledge the importance of feelings.

The result is that only positive feelings are deemed valid. Workplaces require both high pleasantness and high productivity. But the combination omits essential feelings and experiences necessary for healthy work processes. Emotional self-awareness is our most direct route to engagement and results.

The application and practice of emotional self-awareness can empower most other concepts and models we use to create awareness and growth. I recommend following the simple points described below daily, and especially when learning or navigating change:

• Use values as north-stars to direct your behavior. If we examine how often we bypass a value, we can increase our consistency by noticing when we do, identifying the feeling that stops us, and developing the habit of regulating that feeling.

• Learn to express traits by noticing the feelings that drive them. Consider empathy. Although some people have a natural warmth and openness that enables an empathetic response, it is also true that the brain is wired to avoid pain. Fear and perhaps disgust are examples of emotions that may inhibit an empathetic response. Simply noticing that impulse and working with it can lessen it. The skill can also apply to over-empathy.

• Some habitual expressions assume we have unchangeable characteristics. “That’s just the way I am.” Quite often, if you notice the root trigger for a behavior, you can break it down. I admit that I indulge in irritability, making life at home unpleasant. Using the skill of noticing, I take joy in catching the habit, and I become much more pleasant to live with. I give myself a break on this one because I imagine the habit of dissatisfaction is central to many of humanity’s problems.

• We can add flexibility to preferences just as well, though we are sometimes told that they are hardwired. I test as a “Thinker” in an assessment that reports preferences. Noting what feeling is driving my exclusion of feeling, whether fear, impatience, stress, enthusiasm, or apathy, helps me take a breath and remember that these two, feeling and thought, strengthen each other.

• Assessments often reveal delusion. Working with the feeling that inhibits self-awareness can soften the blow. I once worked with a senior manager who believed he had strong relationships with his team. His evidence was that they loved it when he served them pancakes on fourth Fridays. An assessment revealed they thought he was aloof and avoided communication. He had a lot of explanations for his behavior. He thought people should do their jobs and that they didn’t want him micromanaging. He believed his friendliness and their civility were proof of supportive relationships and caring. And their performance was good. But when we boiled it down, we discovered the inhibiting emotion was fear. He was afraid that engaging in a discussion about their work would reveal his ignorance. He was then able to reconcile the feeling by willingly learning more detail about their work and asking them more about their process. Discovering and working with that fear greatly enhanced his management skill and enabled him to form genuinely satisfying relationships.

You can advise a client to take the logical action of meaningful communication with their reports, but for the client to experience the feeling driving the inhibiting behavior and work through it creates lasting learning.


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