Self-consciousness versus self-awareness

As the title would suggest, the purpose of this particular article is to look at the difference between self-consciousness and self-awareness. The two terms sound pretty similar, and they must have something in common, which they do: they both have to do with the self, obviously. The words “consciousness” and “awareness” also are closely related. In fact, in some instances, they are practically interchangeable. Consider these two sentences: “Jane was conscious of a vague sense of unease.” “Jane was aware of a vague sense of unease.” They mean pretty much the same thing. But the terms self-conscious and self-aware mean something very different from each other.

Let’s look at that first one: self-conscious. When we use this term to describe someone, what we usually mean is the person is shy or nervous or socially awkward, which is very likely a good description. But the term means something more specific than that. I’m going to define it as, “consumed with thoughts of the self.” Here’s an example: Jason is a 38-year-old gay male client who can be very outgoing, as long as he is talking to someone whom he doesn’t find intimidating. He can chat merrily away with women all day long. However, when he is around another man, especially one whom he finds attractive, he becomes extremely uncomfortable, and will often find a reason to leave. Many times I have headed to my office waiting room to bring him back for session, only to find him standing in the hallway. He then goes on to explain that there was a good-looking man in the waiting room, so Jason simply got up and walked out.

Why does he do this? Jason explained that he assumed the other man was judging him negatively, even if there were absolutely no evidence to support this belief. It’s even worse if the other man attempts to engage Jason in conversation. Jason estimated that, while speaking to another man whom he doesn’t know well, about ten percent of his attention is focused on the conversation, and the other ninety percent is focused on thoughts like, “What does he think of me? Does he think I’m weird? Does he think I’m ugly? How am I coming across?” It’s very difficult for Jason to be present in the conversation, because he is multi-tasking. He is extremely self-conscious. He knows this about himself, he doesn’t like it, and he is gradually starting to change this behavior. (In fact, the last time I saw him, he was very proud of himself for not only staying in the waiting room with another male client, but he also struck up a conversation with him. True story.)

Most of us can be self-conscious from time to time, especially if we are called upon to do something that we’re not very good at, or comfortable with. It’s normal to feel self-conscious when we’re out on a date or at a job interview or making a speech, etc. However, some people are painfully self-conscious. They are consumed with thoughts of how others perceive them, and they usually assume that others are perceiving them in a negative light. Very often, the people whom they assume are judging them harshly are in fact not thinking about them at all.

Not surprisingly, the painfully self-conscious person typically doesn’t have sky-high self-esteem. He has a low opinion of himself, and he assumes others will as well. So it turns out the core issue isn’t what others think of him – it’s what he thinks of himself. I’ve said it before, and here it is again: how we think of ourselves might be the single biggest determinant of how we feel in general – whether we are reasonably happy, or depressed.

Okay, so now let’s look at the other term: self-aware. What does that mean? The person who is self-aware possess a fairly good understanding of how her mind works. She has learned the reasons why she thinks, feels, and behaves the way she does. Another term for this is mindfulness. This does not mean the self-aware person has necessarily done away with all her own personal issues and baggage, but she is at a point where they are not running her life. Here’s an example: For years, Kate would become extremely angry whenever anyone made any sort of comment at her expense, even if it was a harmless joke made by a friend. Eventually, everyone around her learned that “you don’t kid around with Kate” – no teasing, no ribbing, because if you did, she was going to go off. For a long time, Kate did this with barely an inkling of the reasons why, but eventually she embarked on a journey of self-discovery, and the reasons became apparent. Kate was raised by a mother that was loving and supportive, but her father was critical and impossible to please. Naturally, as a child, Kate wanted very much to feel loved and accepted by her father, but no matter how hard she tried, this proved to be an impossible task. Eventually, Kate learned to believe that she was a defective kid, which explained why nothing was ever good enough for her father. As a result of this, she accumulated a great deal of emotional pain, in the form of shame, sadness, and anger. As she went through life, any time someone made a critical remark to her, even in jest, those painful feelings were activated and came rushing to the surface. Kate learned an effective way of preventing this from happening, which was to become extremely angry and unpleasant around people who made such remarks. This had the effect of making them not want to ever go through that again.

Kate might have gone through her entire life without ever figuring out why she became so angry whenever anyone teased her. Fortunately, however, she was able to learn the reasons why she reacted as she did – maybe from a book, or a therapist, or a friend who was able to see what was going on. Through some hard work, which was painful at times, Kate learned a great deal about how her mind worked. She discovered the reasons why certain things triggered strong emotional responses, and she learned the unconscious defense mechanisms she had picked up as a way to avoid such pain. She became increasingly self-aware.

Again: self-awareness is not a cure. It’s more like turning on the lights down in the basement. If you need to clean out your basement, turning on the lights isn’t going to do it for you; however, it will make the job a heck of a lot easier, because now you can see what you’re dealing with.

A large part of my practice is helping people to become more self-aware. When some of our behaviors are unconscious, there’s not a whole lot we can do about them. However, as we learn more about the reasons why we think, feel, and act as we do, we are given the power to make better choices. Sometimes this type of work is painful, sometimes it’s kind of fun, and sometimes it’s somewhere in between. But it’s always worth the effort.

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