Self-Awareness: A Mindful Look in the Mirror

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By John J. Murphy, Guest Contributor

“What are you feeling right now?” asked the executive coach. “Good,” responded Bob without a second thought. “Hmmm,” the coach pondered. Then she reminded Bob of what he had been learning about emotional self-awareness and added, “Bob, tell me what you are feeling – the emotion - because good is not a feeling.”

How often have we been asked how we are feeling or doing, and we replied in this way?  A friend asks how we are doing, and we say mindlessly, “Fine,” even though we might be struggling with a very challenging issue. To boost self-awareness, the foundational competency in emotional intelligence, we must learn to tune into our own feelings and become literate in the array of emotions we experience because these emotions influence us and those around us.  This ability becomes the basis for mindfully and effectively tuning into the feelings and needs of others (empathy) and relating to them in a more authentic way.

Our feelings may range from apathy to excitement, from grief to appreciation, from exhaustion to enthusiasm, or from doubt to pure bliss. We all experience a wide range of feelings and emotions throughout the day and mindful leaders are keenly aware of their feelings and the impact they have on perceptions, focus, interpersonal relationships, and overall health and well-being - physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and financially.

We reap what we sow, and a positive attitude is essential to unobstructed growth, prosperity, and leadership effectiveness.  Yet, without mindfully tuning into our feelings and how they are influencing our attitudes – both positively and negatively – we can “push them down” or block them.  This can come across as appearing superficial – with a “painted on” smile, detached from connecting authentically with others.  This is not mindfulness. It is numbness, and underneath the surface we can be carrying unsettled or unprocessed emotions that can trigger us in unproductive ways and detract us from effective leadership and team building.

For example, we can unknowingly project our emotions onto others, and be perceived as hypocritical.  Or we can become unable to appropriately be present to and empathize with another person’s emotions because to do so authentically would require us to first acknowledge our own.  Rather than be present to a person’s feelings of sadness, hurt, or frustration, we can subconsciously dissociate and appear detached or apathetic.  Research in social neuroscience reveals that this sends signals that inhibit building trusting connections in relationships.  We might be nodding and even smiling – yet not really emotionally present, not really listening at the feeling level. 

Self-Awareness:

Take a moment right now to do a short self-assessment.  

  • What emotion are you feeling right now?  Does it feel more like anger or annoyance?  Fear, worry, or apprehension?  Sadness or despair?  Happiness, appreciation, or love? 
  • What thoughts and perceptions are causing or triggering this feeling?
  • How well are you aligned with your core values and guiding principles?
  • Do you even know what your core values are? And if so, do you sometimes find yourself feeling like a fish out of water – misaligned with what you value most?

Contemplate what your most common tendencies are when dealing with challenging situations  These are all questions designed to help you become more aware of what drives you, what frustrates you, and what influence you have on others:

  • Do you work well under pressure, or do you become anxious?
  • Do you welcome honest feedback, or does it make you feel uncomfortable?
  • Are you mindful of your strengths and limitations and are you using this awareness to make better choices?
  • How do other people feel about you?
  • How do you know this?

Consciousness and The Energy of Emotions:

The late Dr. David Hawkins developed a “Map of Consciousness” (as detailed in his books, Power vs. Force and Transcending the Levels of Consciousness: The Stairway to Enlightenment), which shows a range of emotions from shame to enlightenment. Using applied kinesiology, he calibrated the energetic frequencies of feelings like shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, lust, anger, pride, courage, acceptance, love, joy, bliss, and enlightenment. These feelings affect everything we do and the people around us. Think of them like your “vibe.” At the low end of the scale is shame and guilt, a vibe that calls for more shame and guilt. You know the saying, “Misery loves company.” As we move up the scale by mindfully managing our perceptions and attitudes, we emit a more positive, inspiring vibe. The good news, of course, is that we can change our vibe just like we can change the channel on a radio or television. The catch is, we need to be aware of our feelings and the impact, positive and negative, they have on the environment and the relationships we are in.

Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, wrote, “Self-awareness is our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.”  Daniel Goleman, PhD, best-selling author of Emotional Intelligence, suggests that self-awareness is our guide in fine-tuning on-the-job performance of every kind. It’s the key to managing our unruly feelings, keeping ourselves motivated, tuning in with accuracy to the feelings of those around us, and developing good work-related social skills, including those essential for leadership and teamwork.

Minding Your Mind:

When I coach my clients, I teach them that the first step in mindfulness is minding the mind. What conscious thoughts and perceptions are flowing through the mind and how are they manifesting into attitude, behavior, and performance? And what subconscious thoughts (habitual programs) are driving behavior and performance? The conscious thoughts are easy to detect because they are conscious. However, it is our subconscious programming that runs most of our daily lives. The subconscious mind, according to research, can process over forty-million bits of data per second compared to the conscious mind, which can process only 40 bits of data per second – a million to one ratio. In other words, our attitudes and behaviors are driven by subconscious thoughts we may not even be aware of. Dr. Wayne Dyer referred to this as our habitual mind. The subconscious mind has no choice but to be present (in the now), and it runs solely on past experience, capable of multitasking many things at once. However, it has no capacity for creative thinking.

On the other hand, the conscious mind, or human will, is what we use to reflect on the past and envision the future. It has no capacity to multitask, and it is frequently “not present.” While the subconscious mind is running the show, the conscious mind is focusing on what we need to do tomorrow or what someone said to us two weeks ago that still upsets us. Have you ever been driving your car while talking on the phone and suddenly you arrive at your destination wondering how you got there? Your subconscious programming drove you there. Your creative mind was somewhere else.

So, a critical first step in mindful leadership is “minding the mind” – becoming self-aware of the thoughts, perceptions, paradigms, feelings, and beliefs running our lives, both consciously and subconsciously. We do this by examining our habits and tendencies, our relationships, our personality types, our “triggers,” our strengths, and our limitations. We can use a variety of tools to uncover subconscious programs, and we can engage a qualified coach to help us. The key is to reveal any limiting assumptions and beliefs - beyond any technical and intellectual competencies we possess – and transform them, freeing us to lead with more authenticity, empathy, passion, and emotional intelligence. It is here at the heart center that we relate with others in the most inspiring way.

Are you mindful of your strengths and limitations? How does self-awareness help you make better choices? Please share in the comments below!

John J. Murphy is an award-winning author and the founder (1988) and CEO of Venture Management Consultants, Inc., a firm specializing in transformational culture change, mindful leadership, Operational Excellence, and high-performance teamwork. 

5 comments

Holly Hagler

Thank you for this insightful article. 

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Betsy Gibson

A brilliant article to read and read again. Thank you

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Patricia Blighe

As always,  so informative and insightful. Thank you. 

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Thank you for this! Such a key topic in transformational leadership. 

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Being a cr3at1v3 mind is quite a task. Using powerful techniques and your newsletter insights make me grow day by day

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