Some things will help you go far in life. Like saying “thank you” and “please” with regularity. Getting a good education and leveraging it with a great work ethic. Creating good karma by letting cars merge in front of you when traffic is jacked up.
And right there, at the top of the list, is developing a keen sense of self-awareness. Because understanding, accepting and supporting yourself will always help you get unstuck and thrive.
“Self-awareness is hugely important since when you know who you are, when you know what is holding you back or what areas you need to develop, you’re going to succeed,” said Caroline Stokes, Certified Executive Coach and author of Elephants Before Unicorns: Emotionally Intelligent HR Strategies to Save Your Company.
“You can admit mistakes and learn from them,” continued Stokes. “Your verbal communication, body language, perspective and behaviors become more effective, attractive and endearing to others.”
With recent global upheavals, honing one’s self-awareness can be really helpful in navigating our new reality. Even when things get better, many aspects of life will be different moving forward.
“Post-pandemic, our world will have changed so significantly,” she noted. “If people think that we will return to normal, whatever their normal is, they’re going to be very disappointed. We need to learn how to adapt to potential situations and demonstrate flexibility. Building healthy, productive personal and professional relationships will require demonstrating acceptance, compassion and empathy.”
Dealing with Anxiety
TJ Ventre knows a lot about acceptance and empathy. Nearly a decade ago when he was a college freshman, a close friend committed suicide. So stressed he couldn’t eat, Ventre developed anxiety. His rapid weight loss made him realize it was time to get some help.
He says that self-doubt can arise, taking form in consuming thoughts or playing the “what if” game about worst case scenarios. Throughout the pandemic, Ventre was fortunate to keep his job, his home and stay healthy. Besides his dog though, he lives alone.
Isolation isn’t great for anxiety; it creates a loop for your mind to race. But Ventre has become acutely aware of himself and his needs. “No matter how much you ask other people for reassurance or an ego boost, the only person that can get you out of that hole is you,” he added.
Bullied as a small, skinny kid, Ventre ended that cycle by fighting back one day. With the help of his counselor, he started thinking of anxiety as another bully to stand up to. It has become an effective coping strategy.
“Anxiety is one of those bullies that you have beaten before and will again when you believe in yourself,” said Ventre. “One of the exercises my counselor gave me is to write down a motivational speech, a pep talk to deliver to someone in your shoes where you know that they’re going to be okay.”
That assignment resonated strongly with Ventre. A certified spin cycling instructor, he delivers those inspirational pep talks during his popular classes each week. Talking openly about his anxiety helps Ventre and others around him.
“People need to realize that it’s okay to have anxiety and depression,” said Ventre. “Because 95% of the time, there’s somebody around you that’s dealing with the exact same issues. The more you know that you are not alone, the better off you will feel.”
Self-awareness has become one of his superpowers. Focusing on his strengths instead of weaknesses helps Ventre have a better outlook, as does realizing that nobody’s perfect. No matter how intense the anxiety may become, he sticks to his routine and counts each step as a win.
During the lockdowns, Ventre dealt with the loss of playing team sports and socializing with friends by picking up a guitar, getting more into gaming and streaming, and continuing regular exercise.
His advice to others dealing with internal or external challenges is succinct. “Find something that you truly love to do,” urges Ventre. “That puts your mind in a constructive focus and eventually you’re going to get through this. People, especially my generation, like to have instant gratification. But it’s not going to happen right away. It takes time.”
Looking within has helped Amii Barnard-Bahn navigate career ups and downs. Back in the mid-1990’s Barnard-Bahn was working as an attorney at a law firm in San Francisco three years after graduating from Georgetown Law School. She did some work as a student for the ACLU, lobbying through the American Disabilities Act, and loved it. But faced with massive student debt, she took a litigation job that made her miserable. Stress escalated as Barnard-Bahn juggled her job, planned a wedding, and started a non-profit arts group all at once. She decided to take a long honeymoon and quit her job.
“So I wound up jumping off the cliff, which people thought I was nuts for doing without a plan in a not great economy,” said Barnard-Bahn. “It was really humbling because I didn’t realize how much of my professional identity and ego was caught up in the trappings of being an attorney.”
She ended up doing lots of odd jobs and volunteer work. A temporary role in Human Resources helping people and solving workplace issues made her feel fulfilled. Barnard-Bahn caught a break, convincing a small environmental engineering company that did Superfund and other environmental disaster cleanups to serve as their HR person in exchange for using her legal background to improve their employment law practices.
This whole experience taught Barnard-Bahn to look at herself and her career differently. Taking three sabbaticals over several decades as she ascended to senior leadership taught Barnard-Bahn to recognize when it is time to move on. Today she capitalizes on those experiences to coach others.
“The risks I have taken helped me realize that no situation is forever,” she explains. “Being thoughtful about my choices keeps doors open so I can go in and out. If you do the work, have grit, and take the right risks, you can design the best life and career for you.”
Want to gain more self-awareness? Here are 4 ways to do just that:
Almost as if you are looking at yourself from the perspective of another individual, identify what you are like and where you stand. Are you quick to hold a grudge or feel overlooked and hurt when not invited to social events? Do you get an inordinate amount of joy tweeting the endings to hit shows before most people have had a chance to watch?
There is nothing wrong or right about those factors. Being curious without judgment allows you to better understand yourself and determine what you would like to reinforce or change.
Actively seek feedback
Think about who you trust in your personal and professional life. Asking these individuals to provide you with honest opinion feedback about a circumstance, behavior or decision allows you to grow and improve. Just be fully open to receiving the insights you requested.
“That can be painful as hell, but you’ve got to get comfortable with receiving uncomfortable truths in order to move forward,” noted Stokes.
For example, let’s say that during a staff meeting, you told five direct reports at work that their roles are going to be restructured. If a co-worker responds to your request for feedback saying, “you sprung that news abruptly and didn’t think about how people could be scared about losing their jobs,” don’t get defensive.
Instead, acknowledge their input by asking, “so if I spend more time anticipating the reaction of others, and giving more reassurance about this development, would that make it better next time?” That approach lets people clarify what they mean while reinforcing that you value their unvarnished insights.
Become an enthusiastic learner
There is a tremendous amount of great content available — books, podcasts, videos, webinars and more — that focus on building self-awareness. Check out what’s available, paying attention to reviews from like-minded souls to ensure the content could be a good fit for your needs.
Working with a trained therapist or coach can be a terrific investment in learning more about yourself.