Improvement and Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is something I have been trying to practice for several years and recently I have been thinking about it a little differently as I have recognized just how hard it is to be aware of ones actions, desires, and honest thoughts. Our lives are so busy that it is hard to look objectively at who we are and where were are. It is hard to honestly ask yourself what you are doing and working toward, what is really motivating you, and what you are afraid of. But this is a key skill to learn and something that is worth constantly thinking about.

 

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday returns to the idea of self-awareness as a tool to help overcome arrogance. We become overconfident in ourselves and our abilities when we lack self-awareness and do not talk honestly about our strengths and the areas that we still need to develop. It is easy and more comforting to think of ourselves as being incredibly awesome and possessing great skills and work ethic that everyone else should recognize. I frequently find myself wanting to fall into this type of thinking and often tell myself I am the best even thought I truly have not been active enough in my life to develop skills and practice some of the work that is necessary to succeed in the areas where I want my life to move. But I know, if I truly want to grow and make a valuable impact in the world, then I will need to stop telling myself how awesome I am, and instead take steps to engage with the world and apply my skills to develop new talents. Without self-awareness, the application of talents and the development of new skills is not truly possible.

 

In his book, Holiday writes, “One might say that the ability to evaluate one’s own ability is the most important skill of all. Without it, improvement is impossible.” If we don’t practice self-awareness and make a habit of evaluating our skills and abilities without embellishment, we risk putting ourselves in places where we cannot be successful and we are less likely to pull in the people we need to help us learn, grow, and reach our goals collectively. This might not be a big deal when we are just trying to run a 5k race or crush that new personal record in the weight room, but if we are trying to help our company make smart business decisions, land a big sale, or complete a report that is going to shed insight into the operating inefficiencies of an agency, we must pull in the right people and put our ego aside as we honestly evaluate our strengths and recognize the areas where we still need to grow or the areas where we can learn from those who have skills we would like to emulate. Overconfidence will doom our work and harm the larger organizations in which we operate, whereas self-awareness will help us be more effective and make a larger impact on the world with the help of those around us.

Our Ego Creates a Story

An egomaniac is someone who is too overconfident in their own abilities, believes they are more worthy of praise than they actually are, and generally thinks too highly of themselves. What they believe about themselves and the reality of their skills and abilities is in a state of misalignment. The ego creates a false narrative about overcoming great hurdles, about being incredibly important in the world, and about achieving incredible successes. While everyone has undoubtedly faced many hurdles, is important in their own world, and has achieved some measure of success, the ego inflates all of these measures and creates a story that does not truly match reality.

 

“When we remove ego, we’re left with what is real,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday’s quote is meaningful for me because I often focus on the stories we tell ourselves and how disjointed those stories can be relative to our own reality. When we allow our ego to run uncontrolled, we start living in a world that does not exist and the decisions and choices we make are less sound. We filter the world and our experiences through the falsehoods of our story, and this can have negative impacts in our own lives and the lives of others.

 

Holiday generally takes a stoic approach to the world, following in the traditions of Marcus Aurelius and other stoic thinkers. Through self-awareness, Holiday encourages us to replace ego with humility and confidence. Looking at the stories we tell ourselves and being honest about who we are, where we are, and what we have accomplished on our own versus with the aid and assistance of others, helps us to have a more honest conversation with ourselves about how amazing we think we are. When we can get beyond these stories, we can start to recognize the advantages we that helped make us who we are. This allows us to start to see the ways in which we hype ourselves up in an attempt to ever increase our own status. By shedding our ego and the stories that go with it, we can also see other people more clearly, and hopefully be less judgmental of others and more open to connect with them and help them in the ways that other people have undoubtedly assisted us. This cannot be done if we chose to live in our ego bubble, constantly reassured of our greatness through false narratives that we create to feel good about ourselves.

Distortions of the Ego

Yesterday I wrote about ego. I looked deeply at how we see ego and how ego manifests in our lives. This post is about the ways that ego shapes our understanding and approach to the world. In my previous post I argued that our egos arise when we begin to believe the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. We tell ourselves we are more important than we truly are, that we have more skills and abilities than we actually do, and that we have some intrinsic value that sets us apart from everyone else.

 

Author Ryan Holiday further describes ego in his book, Ego is the Enemy, by writing, “It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us.” The important thing to consider here is that having a big ego gives us a false sense of reality. Rather than taking an objective view of the world around us and our place in that larger world, we risk seeing a distortion that we want to see, and not a reality that truly exists in front of us.

 

It is easy to see how our ego can inflate our view of our position in the world. We make ourselves feel more important than we are and assume that people are truly interested in what we say or do. This leads to us moving through our lives as though we were performing for others, rather than just living for ourselves. An inflated ego also risks the potential of allowing us to believe that what we think is always right, and that we have the world easily sorted out. With a large ego, we can flatten debate and reduce the world the black and white, making it easy for us to cast judgement on the world while praising ourselves for being so smart and insightful.

 

All of this is to say that our ego gives us a false view of the world around us and how we relate to that world. If we let our ego go unchecked, we can easily begin to adopt views and understandings of the world that promote ourselves and our positions in the world at the expenses of others. It is easy to discount the concerns of others when we are focused on ourselves and focused on always obtaining and achieving more personally so that we can continue to feed our hungry ego. This is why it is so important to build self-awareness into our lives and to be aware of the stories we tell ourselves to prop up our ego.

Completeness

Relationships are complicated and can be approached from many different directions. No matter how you approach a relationship, however, you will be more successful and authentic if you can be a complete version of who you are. I previously wrote about Colin Wright’s views of “The One,” the perfect person who exists for you and exists someplace else in this world for the sole purpose of completing you. Wright explains that this idea is dangerous because it implies that somehow we cannot be happy, complete, and lead fulfilling lives unless we magically find another other person who is a perfect fit for us.

 

Wright closes out his chapter on “The One” with the following, “You are the one. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness.” Continuing, “You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with in between.”

 

If we wait for the right person to come along to improve our life, open new doors for us, and make us happy, we will constantly be unfulfilled. Each person we meet will be judged along impossible dimensions of how well we think that person completes us. We won’t allow them to be complete versions of themselves, and we won’t be happy with the person that they are unless they somehow manage to meet every preconceived expectation we have for a partner who will fill all shortcomings.

 

To recognize that we are complete requires that we become aware of the pressures we put on ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about what matters and what does not, and the motivations behind our goals and desires. Completeness requires that we be honest about how we spend our time and the choices we make. Without honest self reflection we cannot recognize what in our lives contributes to a sense of wholeness, and what distracts us from achieving what we would like to achieve to feel complete. Building in habits of self-reflection and awareness will help us to be a more authentic version of ourselves, and then we can better connect with others in our lives to have more meaningful and honest relationships where we can both be complete versions of ourselves.

Rational Relationships

In his book Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright starts by examining what it means to be rational in a relationship. Often times we assume that relationships are built on emotional connections like love, fondness, and collegiality and we balk at the idea that we can bring a rational approach to a relationship or to anything that is driven by emotional feelings. Wright acknowledges the importance of emotions, but believes that bringing a rational approach to a relationship is key to having a successful relationship.

 

He describes rationality within relationships with the following, “Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Contrasting rationality is irrationality within relationships, which Wright describes as, “Being irrational means that you rely on a story line to make things right: that if you just believe hard enough, want it bad enough, or go through enough struggle, life will work itself out. No assessment possible, no change necessary.”

 

A rational relationship is one that requires awareness and requires that you get beyond your own perspective. You must interrogate your feelings and opinions and try to understand the thoughts, decisions, feelings, reactions, and behaviors of another person. Once you have worked through yourself and made an effort to view the world from the eyes of the other person, you must ask what factors contributed to the outcome you observed, and in a realistic and honest way ask how things could have been different in a different situation or if other factors had worked out a different way. Rational relationships are built on thought and observation which is challenging and requires concentrated effort to understand everyone’s needs, desires, feelings, and perspectives.

 

If we abandon these rational characteristics, we are left with the story we tell ourselves about the world. What we feel and what we believe is simply the way the world works. The problem is that our story and how we view everything the perspective from which we create our story is incomplete. A sense of injustice, insult, or injury is as serious as a direct threat on who we are. Our feelings constitute truth and the meaning we attach to certain things becomes iron clad.

 

The rational relationship steps back and pulls away the meaning we attach to events. It asks what happened, why did that happen, and how did everyone involved react? Was the outcome of the situation positive for all, damaging for me, threatening for others, or in some way less than desirable for all involved? If the view for any of these is that things could have been better, than a rational relationship rethinks how we interact and behave and seeks a way to improve the relationship for everyone, not just for ourselves.

 

If we choose to live our relationships without this rationality, we instead have nothing but what we tell ourselves and believe. We cannot change because we are simply stuck with another person who is the way they are and not capable of being anything different. The outcomes we face are unavoidable and people cannot be expected to improve their behavior unless you can fully change who they are.

 

Living irrationally is perfectly fine for an individual, but if we all approach the world in this way we will tear it apart. By bringing rationality to our relationships we can work better with other human beings to support their needs and to identify and build relationships that align with our needs and desires. We can better connect and recognize ways of interacting that further our connections and improve our interactions. Irrationality however, will create a world in which we are all building dishonest stories of the world to make us feel better about who we are or to create false narratives to make other people seem worse than they are. Each of us acting from our own limited perspective will have a net negative impact on the world as the micro-gravity of our own story pulls in and distorts the world around us.

Compassion and Awareness

I remember reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and highlighting a segment where Aurelius encouraged us not to judge others because we have the same propensity for negativity and mistakes as anyone around us, and often times it is not our will alone that stops us from behaving in the same way as those that we judge. Often we refrain from the activities we judge others for because we are afraid of losing status or reputation. Often it is because we had learned a hard lesson and someone else showed us why we should behave differently, and sometimes we behave differently simply because we have different life circumstances which allow us to avoid the behavior we criticize in others. No matter why we don’t behave the same way as those we judge, it is not because we are somehow superior to the other person, but just responding to different cues.

 

The idea from Aurelius helps me remember that life is hard and everyone (including myself) is under pressure, challenged, and limited by our own circumstances and struggles. Remembering this allows me to give myself and others a break. Aurelius has helped me recognize where I could improve or where I want to maintain positive habits in my own life, while simultaneously remembering how easy it can be to end up in the same place as another person that I would otherwise criticize.

 

This idea came back to me in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. The author writes about the benefits of meditation and of living a life that is constantly mindful and builds self-awareness into every step of the day. Keeping the mind open and cognizant of ones surroundings and experience helps one get beyond the ego, the stories we tell ourselves about success and happiness, and beyond our constant struggle to signal our virtues and value.

 

Hanh argues that mindfulness and self-awareness ultimately lead to more compassion for the people around us and for ourselves. He writes, “When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others.” Self-awareness and a more objective view and understanding of the world helps our minds to be more free and open to the experiences of the world. This allows us to step back and be more content with who we are and with the lives we live, ultimately allowing us to have more compassion for the people around us. When we better know and understand ourselves, we gain more insight into the lives and struggles of others and we can better appreciate and respect their humanity and the obstacles that we all face.

Attachment to the False View of Self

When we try to compartmentalize reality and split our experiences into separate categories, we end up with a view of the universe that is incomplete and incorrect. Everything that happens is interconnected, and how we experience the world at one moment is influenced by our experiences of the past and expectations for the future. The time of day, how much we have eaten, and the temperature all shape the way we experience and interpret the universe. We are unavoidably connected to the matter of the universe, and we are truly matter observing other matter.

 

When we think about ourselves, we put ourselves apart from the universe. We view the person that we are as separate from the natural phenomena of the universe, as someone who experiences reality with a rational mind that views the things happening around us. We create a story about our selves that helps us understand the world we live in.

 

However, this is not reality. We cannot stand ourselves apart from the universe and we cannot look at ourselves as individual, objective, observers of the universe as though we are immune to the happenings and occurrences around us. Through meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist monks through time, have come to recognize this problem with the way that we think about ourselves. They call this problem the false view of self. A view that creates a self as a rational actor moving through the world in control of ones perception, experiences, and outcomes. This false view can be dangerous and is formed on unfounded views of reality. As Hanh writes, “Attachment to the false view of self means belief in the presence of unchanging entities which exist on their own.”

 

What Hanh and Buddhists found through meditation, Amanda Gefter learned from the study of Physics, particularly from the discoveries of John Wheeler. In a previous post of mine, I wrote about a quote from Gefter where she explained that the universe can only be viewed from the inside, where everything is changing. Trying to view the world from the outside, from a Gods-Eye-View, violates general relativity and breaks the physics of the universe.

 

The view of self that we adopt as we move through the world (especially in the United States) is inconsistent with the view of the self described by monks who noticed their inability to control their mind during meditation. It is also inconsistent with the reality of physics which highlights the challenges of trying to the view the universe as an unchanging object outside the universe. Giving up the concept of self is difficult, but when you remember that there may not be a self, you can let go of stress and pressure to be the person your story is telling you to be. You are connected to the universe and you are a changing being within the universe. Your actions are not your own conscious choices, but the culmination of phenomena occurring within the universe. For me, mindfulness in this area helps me to think about my choices and decisions and react to the universe in a more calm and clear way, even though I am not standing apart from the universe and from forces around me to make the decisions that I make.