When asked to enumerate the critical components of a healthy relationship, most people appropriately include “communication” on their list. Communication certainly is critical to a healthy marriage; partnerships that depend upon mind-reading or are characterized by either raised or silenced voices rarely allow for intimacy and mutual support to develop.
Yet something is often missing from the discussion about communication – no matter how skilled a person is at delivering information in a clear and kind manner, they cannot convey what they do not know.
And so when it comes to relationships, self awareness is a vital precursor to communication. Before you can help somebody else understand you, you have to first know yourself.
What is Self Awareness?
Self awareness is an ability to observe and reflect upon ones feelings and responses. Anybody can feel an emotion; a self-aware person can name or describe the emotion. When somebody is self-aware, they are able to take a step back and describe themselves from a more objective viewpoint.
As with most things, self awareness exists on a continuum. Rather than being entirely present or entirely absent, it’s something that we all have to some extent. It begins when the infant first recognizes themselves in the mirror and continues when they learn to identify their agitation as “mad” or “sad.” Some people never advance much beyond those simplistic labels while others become quite adept at being able to describe their inner landscape and motivations. And for all us, self awareness tends to be easier in some areas than others.
Self awareness takes courage; you have to be willing and able to see the negative traits in addition to the positive ones. It requires curiosity, a willingness to ask questions and explore your reactions and assumptions. There is a certain humility that often accompanies self awareness because the imperfect nature of humanity is on full display whenever you look inward.
Awareness is separate from the ability to control an emotional response or make healthy decisions, but it is the first step. A self-aware person may not always act in their best interests, but with some effort, they will likely be able to identify the underlying cause of their behaviors. For example, two people may respond to a break up by drinking too much. The self-aware person will be able to identify that their fear and isolation from the break up is prompting them to look for an escape whereas the person who lacks this insight will fail to understand the reason for their imbibing.
Knowing yourself is never a perfect science. We all change (often below the conscious level) and we are all subject to the myriad fallacies of the human brain. We may reach conclusions that are not valid or neglect to face more undesirable characteristics. Self awareness is not about perfection. It’s not a goal to be reached and forgotten. It’s the consistent attention of a curious and questioning eye turned inwards.
Why Do Some People Lack Self Awareness?
One of the more common reasons that people may lack self awareness is from exposure to a traumatic experience. Trauma teaches people that their body, their self, is not a safe place to be. So after trauma, people often try to distance themselves from themselves. Looking too closely means having to face some painful and difficult truths, so instead they turn away. A knowledgeable therapist can be invaluable here in helping to reunite the person with themselves.
Others may have never been provided the instruction in developing a language to describe the inner working of their mind. And language is powerful. Without the words to describe what you’re feeling, there is a limited capacity to fully explore it, much less express it to others. The good news is that this language can be mastered no matter your age.
Some personality disorders also impact an ability to develop self awareness. Consider the classic narcissist whose inflated outer ego is a shield for a wounded and delicate inner self. They rarely seek therapeutic assistance because they cannot bear to see – or admit – the underlying pathology.
Why is Self Awareness Important in Relationships?
We all want to be seen and accepted for who we are. But first, it’s critical that we fully understand – and can communicate – who we are. A self-aware person has the tools to choose an appropriate partner, has the ability to reflect upon their own strengths and weaknesses and has the capacity to explore their role in the relationship dynamics.
Self awareness is key in boundary setting. Without an understanding of your own needs, it’s all-too-easy to subjugate them to others. You can’t stand up for yourself if you don’t know yourself.
You can equate a relationship to a dance between two people, an interplay of moves that requires a certain amount of cooperation and anticipation. Self awareness in a relationship is the equivalent of a dance partner knowing where their own body is in space; without this information, it is impossible for the couple to move in synch.