Ever have that feeling that you just don’t fit in?

Maybe it’s at work or with a new group of friends. You try really hard to impress them, you give up part of who you are to be like who they are, but at the end of the day, something doesn’t feel right.

That’s how I felt in my last day job. I knew the organization’s values were different from my own, but I didn’t want that to be an issue because I cared deeply about the work I was doing.

But it was always an issue because I wasn’t being true to myself. My confidence plummeted, I felt like I could never live up to who my boss wanted me to be, and I lost a sense of who I was.

That sense? That’s self-awareness. That feeling that what you’re doing isn’t matching up with who you are on the inside. That inner wisdom that you stand for something bigger, or you’re meant for something more.

Self-awareness is the most important quality any woman can have. When we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values.

Knowing and understanding ourselves are powerful guides toward living our best life. Improving our self-awareness builds confidence to help direct us on our life’s path.

What is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is knowing our internal norms, preference, resources and intuitions. Self-awareness is also having the ability to accurately monitor our inner world. As we pay attention to what’s happening inside our brains, we can acknowledge and accept these thoughts, emotions and reactions as the inevitable part of being human, rather than giving ourselves a hard time about it. Remember when we talked about that inner critic? If you have ever said to yourself “I should have known better” or “I shouldn’t have said that”, then you know what I mean.

Self-awareness goes beyond collecting information about ourselves. It is also about paying attention to our inner state with a beginner’s mind and an open heart. Our mind is extremely good at storing information about how we react to a certain event to form a blueprint of our emotional life. This blueprint conditions our mind to react in a certain way when we encounter a similar event in the future.

For example, if you’re stung by a bee and feel pain, our brain will condition itself so when you see a bee again, you will be afraid. On the other hand, if we’re afraid of public speaking, but we successfully presented on a topic before, our brain will be conditioned to say, “hey, it wasn’t so bad – you got this!”

Self-awareness allows us to become aware of these thought patters and how we will react to certain situations. It sets the foundation for building confidence because we know who we are, how we feel and what behaviors we might have.

Why we’re not more self-aware

The ability to monitor our emotions and thoughts from moment to moment is key to understanding ourselves better, being at peace with who we are and proactively managing our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Really self-aware people tend to act consciously rather than react passively, to be in good psychological health and to have a positive outlook on life. They also have greater depth of life experience and are more likely to be more compassionate to themselves and others. So why aren’t we more self-aware?

Studies show that almost half of the time we operate on “automatic pilot” or are unconscious of what we are doing or how we feel, as our mind wanders to somewhere else other than here and now. Think about it: when was the last time you really paid attention while brushing your teeth? Did you think about how the bristles felt against your gums, how the toothpaste tasted or how long it actually took? My guess is no.

So much of our day is built around these auto-pilot activities because we need to use our brain power to make decisions. We don’t spend time consciously thinking about driving to work because we’re thinking about what we’re going to say in the next budget meeting or who we need to email back.

In addition to the constant mind-wandering, confirmation bias also affects our ability to have a more accurate understanding of ourselves. Confirmation bias can trick us into searching for or interpreting information in a way that confirms our belief about something.

Here’s an example: say you’re interviewing for a job, and you believe that you’re totally unqualified because you’re missing one particular skill, like Excel. You get great feedback from the interviewer and the next day are offered the job. You then proceed to tell your friends and family “I can’t believe I got that job – they must be desperate.” Confirmation bias suggests that even though your friends and family try to convince you that you’re perfect for the job, you will dismiss that information and instead look for proof that you’re not fit. You start to avoid tasks that involve working with Excel, further confirming that you’re not good enough. Eventually this could bleed into your overall work performance, leading to unfavorable evaluations or even termination. Now that’s an extreme example, but you get my point. We do this to ourselves without even realizing it!

A third reason we’re not more self-aware is our resistance to receiving feedback. Come on, admit it. No one wants to get feedback on their skills or behavior. When was the last time you were excited for a performance evaluation? Probably never. But feedback is critical to our self-awareness because we aren’t living in the moment. We need that outside perspective to reel us in to either support or disprove our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves.

For example, if you’re giving an educational presentation to an audience, feedback will help you understand things like: could everyone hear you, was your message clear, did everyone understand the homework… If your message was on point, but the people in the back of the room couldn’t hear a word you said and left confused, you may think you’re a failure or your examples weren’t good enough or you didn’t explain things well enough. When, in reality, you just have to speak louder next time. But because we don’t want feedback, we don’t ask the audience what could be improved and we continue thinking we sucked. Can you see how that relates to confidence?

How you can improve self-awareness

If we want to be more confident, we have to learn first to be self-aware. Self-awareness helps us become at peace with who we are and better manage our thoughts, beliefs, emotions and reactions. Self-awareness is the foundation on which we’ll build confidence because it separates the real from the perceived. If we truly understand what’s real, instead of believing false things about ourselves, we have a better chance at being confident. So how do we improve self-awareness?

The first thing we can do is practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, with an open mind and open heart. It’s easier than it sounds; try this out – make a list of activities you tend to do on auto-pilot: showering, driving to work, eating. Then, throughout the day, make it a point to pay attention during those activities. What do you hear around you? What do you see/feel/sense? If your mind wanders to another thought, bring it back to the activity. Bonus points if you write down your experience.

You can build your mindfulness habit with meditation and journaling. These are two great ways to improve your focus because both activities force your attention on only one thing. Meditation helps you improve awareness of your wandering thoughts. You can meditate with a guided recording or by focusing on your breath. Journaling is particularly powerful because it not only helps us process our thoughts but also makes us feel connected and at peace with ourselves. Writing can also create more headspace as you let your thoughts flow out onto paper. I help you get started on journaling with prompts in my free BE Yourself Self-Awareness Workbook.

The next way to improve self-awareness is to – you know I had to do this – yes, ask for feedback. I know it’s scary, but we only grow from stepping outside our comfort zones! Think about a negative belief you have about yourself, something you know in your heart isn’t true but you believe it anyway. Something like “I’m a terrible parent” or “I’ll never get THAT job” or “I’ll always be overweight.” Write this belief down. Then, do two things. One, to overcome confirmation bias, disprove this belief. Look for evidence to the contrary – a time you made a great parenting choice, or a time you exceeded a career goal or a time you said no to that donut. Two, ask for feedback. Feedback doesn’t have to be about a particular skill or activity. You can practice asking for feedback by simply asking your friends and family what your best strengths are. If you really want to get wild, you can also ask them what you could improve. But I prefer to stick to the positive on this one. You can practice this in my free BE Yourself Self-Awareness Workbook.

And speaking of strengths, one of my favorite tips for building self-awareness is taking personality assessments. The two I use in my coaching business are StrengthsFinder and Myers-Briggs. I give all of my private clients a code to take the StrengthsFinder assessment, but even if you’re not coaching with me one-on-one, I strongly urge you to take this assessment. There are many free versions of the Myers-Briggs assessment, and here’s the version I use with my clients and coworkers.

Developing the picture of who you are

Once you understand yourself from taking assessments, asking for feedback, taking inventory of your false beliefs and practicing mindfulness, you’ll start to build a stronger picture of who you are. Identifying your personal values or developing a personal mission statement are two great ways to improve your self-awareness.

Understanding our strengths and values helps us form a strong picture of who we are. When we have that picture, confirmation bias is easier to overcome, we handle failure better, we’re more likely to take calculated risks, and decision-making becomes a breeze.

Gallup, the company whose researchers created StrengthsFinder, reports that people who use their strengths every day are three times more likely to live a higher quality of life. They found that people are happier, have less stress or anger, achieve their goals, have more respect from others, and even feel less physical pain.

Understanding our strengths gives us a new language for understanding and discussing what we naturally do best, because, let’s face it – it can be hard to talk about ourselves without sounding braggy! Myers-Briggs has been around for years. By now, most people understand what it means to be an ENFP or ISTJ, or at least understand the individual letters. Knowing what gives you energy, how you process information, how you make decisions and how you relate to the world are critical components to healthy self-awareness.

Understanding our values is equally important. Values guide our behaviors, decisions, and action. When you know what you value, you can live in accord with those values. This leads to greater fulfillment, clarity and self-awareness. Like Roy E. Disney said, “when your values are clear to you, making decisions becomes easier.”

Are you starting to see the theme, here? Understanding and fully using our strengths and values leads to better decision-making, which leads to more consistent action, which leads to greater self-awareness. Remember, clarity comes from execution.

Now, I could literally talk about strengths and values ALL DAY. But you’re probably wondering what this looks like or how you can use your strengths and values to improve your self-awareness. I’ll give you an example of how I use my strengths and values to improve my self-awareness and live a more confident life:

My Top 5 Themes from StrengthsFinder are: Competition, Futuristic, Strategic, Maximizer, Ideation, and I’m an ENFP – that’s Extrovert, iNtuition, Feeling, Perceiving. Basically, I’m a bleeding-heart idealist who will stop at nothing to change the world. My personal values are: creativity, flexibility, curiosity, courage and justice. But how do all these random words fit together?

These random words are actually data I use to help me process my world. For example, I use my strengths to help me overcome failure. I’m super competitive and hate to lose, so I’m always going to find a better way next time. This is where my Strategic strength comes in – I analyze the possible options and choose the path that makes the most sense. It’s kind of like an “if this, then that” scenario. “If I don’t land this client, then I’ll try something new next time.” But I only know how to do that because I paid attention to my StrengthsFinder report and used it to my advantage. When my brain learned that I got positive results from using my strengths, it solidified my internal blueprint to help me in future scenarios.

My values help me to make decisions that are right for me, and I know that as an ENFP, I rely highly on my “gut reaction” or intuition. If something doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. Or, if something will not give me the flexibility I crave (did I mention I’m also a Sagittarius? Change is my middle name) or allow me to be creative or is somehow unjust, I will find something else.

See how easy decisions are when you know your values? Here’s another example: I don’t smoke, never have, never will. It’s really easy for me to ignore the packs of cigarettes behind the checkout counter or turn down an offer from a friend because I already made that decision long ago. When we determine what will guide our decision-making, then we only need to compare our values with the choice to be made. If it’s a match, it’s a go! If not, is there an-other option? Trick question – there’s always another option.

Another great example of how I use my strengths and values is in looking for a job. I know I will feel more confident if I’m in a job where my strengths are valued and used daily. So, I’ll be looking for a strategic job, in leadership, where I can also be creative and help others. I know I want a flexible environment, so I’ll need to know if working remotely is an option, or if hours can be flexible, or if my boss will be a micro-manager. So for me, a job where I can travel, help set the strategy for the future, solve problems and teach others (including creating presentations and handouts) would be a great fit for me.

You can use your strengths and values to create a personal mission statement. Mission statements help us stay aligned with the values we find most important and ensure that we’re staying focused on the way we want to show up in the world. By living in accordance with our mission statement, we can build confidence.

A personal mission statement that sets clear boundaries is the number one tool for making tough decisions and taking powerful action. And taking powerful action is the best way to build confidence. You can understand your strengths, name your core values and craft your personal mission statement in my free BE Yourself Self-Awareness Workbook.

The Takeaway

Greater self-awareness leads to greater self-confidence. Being deeply aware of who we are, what we value and what we’re good at are the key foundations for building confidence and making it a habit. Remember that confidence is our ability to believe in ourselves. We often tell ourselves lies about our abilities, which keeps us in a state of low confidence. When we deeply know ourselves, we can differentiate between the truth and the lies.

Originally published at www.brightspacecoaching.com