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Building self-awareness: 16 activities and tools for meaningful change

Self Improvement22 min read

Self-awareness is an important skill that we can cultivate to help us progress on our personal development journey… and we could all use a little more of it sometimes. 

In our stressful, modern lives it’s easy to react passively to our environment and fracture opportunities to connect. Possessing emotional intelligence and regulating our emotions should be one of the most valued skills; self-awareness is the cornerstone of that intelligence.

Read along for some tried-and-tested, science-based strategies to raise self-awareness.

How do we develop self-awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to monitor our inner and external world. Our thoughts and feelings arise as signals. Developing self-awareness allows us to be no longer swept away by those signals, but instead to objectively and thoughtfully respond to them. Self-aware people understand their internal experience and their impact on the external experience of others.

The ability to self-evaluate- has been criticized in the past for increasing negative affect. When stimulating self-awareness from the “cool” system of stimuli (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999), the increase in negative affect can be lessened. A rise in negative emotional affect is a hindrance to progress in self-awareness.

When working on self-awareness, it is essential to do so from a self-distanced perspective, with a focus on reasons underlying emotional experience rather than what was emotionally experienced (Kross et al., 2005).

An open, objective observation of feelings, senses, desires, and actions can help someone move up the flourishing continuum. There’s no need to relive negative emotions, but rather to notice them and learn from their presence.

Developing self-awareness requires higher-level cognitive processing. It requires an information-gathering perspective. This processing results in increases in adaptability and flexibility. Having increased self-awareness builds resilience. Self-awareness also improves our ability to empathize with others.

When compassion and empathy rise, so does the higher self. With intentions and purpose, a self-aware human can significantly impact the world around them. Self-aware people tend to show up with self-confidence, self-worth, and high success rates.

4 ways to increase self-awareness

thought diary is a foundational place to begin increasing self-awareness.

Keep track of thoughts that pop up in the form of an automatic reaction.

Track what was occurring at the time.

Track your level of emotion to the stimulus.

If time allows, analyze the underlying reason for the emotion experienced. If time does not allow, the diary will enable you to track the common thread that has developed to stimuli in your environment.

Introspection is not efficient in higher-order cognitive processes (Nesbit et al., 1977). Humans tend to have the inclination to reflect in favor of self-serving bias, rather than objectively analyzing situations for abstract learning. To be more efficient, the thought diary should be less of an emotional exercise and more of a fact-finding mission. In other words, leave judgment out of it.

Starting a mindfulness practice is another way to increase self-awareness. There are a variety of activities to include in mindfulness practice. Find a few ideas to inspire you to incorporate meditation, yoga, or some other variation to improve your presence. When mindfulness is practiced, behavior becomes more intentional, and increased self-awareness develops.

Asking a friend to clarify your strengths and weaknesses can be a significant pathway to self-awareness. While many people believe they are self-aware, having an outside perspective is helpful in a clearer understanding of external self-awareness.

Experience and power may be a hindrance to self-awareness (Ostroff et al., 2004). This is for those leaders out there. Ask your subordinates to rate your leadership skills. When people are at the top, they tend to overestimate their abilities because they don’t have as many opportunities for building external awareness.

3 tests, questionnaires and assessment scales

The Self Consciousness Scale (SCR-S) (Scheier et al., 1985) has been validated and translated into several languages. It helps to better understand one’s level of rumination and to shift it instead to objective reflection.

The Situational Self-Awareness Scale was designed to quantify levels of public and private awareness. It has been validated and translated many times. It has two sub-scales that help in validating differences and cues to these two forms of self-awareness (Govern et al., 2001). Use of this scale for scientific purposes must receive prior permission.

Tasha Eurich’s research on self-awareness leads to this interesting quiz. It measures internal and external self-awareness and places participants in quadrants, allowing for growth in understanding the power of knowing the ‘self.’ More on her interesting book below.

Various scales to measure mindfulness and increase awareness can be found on our blog.

6 activities, games, and exercises to build self-awareness

Knowing one’s VIA strengths (or other strengths), and intentionally increasing them is an important activity to build self-awareness.

Other personality inventories offer an increase in self-awareness too. Taking that insight into real-time practice is a vital awareness builder.

Becoming self-aware is not a single moment of inspiration. It requires continual, objective reflection, and experimentation in real-world settings.

Taking healthy risks is another way to build your self-awareness. Placing yourself in new situations and out of your comfort zone can offer unique personal insight. Here are a few ideas of healthy risks:

  • join a club
  • volunteer
  • begin a new activity (painting, exercise, etc.)
  • switch to open-ended questions

Ask your friends for feedback. By trusting a friend or relative to give you feedback about your qualities, helpful and unhelpful, you can gain insight into public self-awareness. Allowing a mirror to be placed in front of you by your loved ones can be illuminating.

Writing a regret letter is a way to build self-awareness and practice radical forgiveness at the same time. Write to your former self about regrets and forgive that self for mistakes that have been made. This activity permits you to be human.

Write your imaginary eulogy to illuminate how you’d like to be remembered after you’re gone. This exercise allows you to know how you want to show up in the world, and the necessary shifts that need to occur. This self-awareness builder will enable you to understand your higher self better.

Another great resource in our Toolkit is the Non-judgemental Reflection, for improving self-awareness by improving positive self-talk.

Useful worksheets and tools

A helpful tool for developing self-awareness by self-reflecting on emotions can be found in our Toolkit. As we know that people who score high in emotional intelligence tend to be more successful, becoming aware of emotions through reflection is a great place to start.

The feeling wheel, another excellent Toolkit resource, is a helpful exercise in reflection to track feelings for the development of self-awareness. This wheel has 72 feelings in a pie chart that can aid practitioners in getting specific with their feelings.

We all know when someone “pushes our buttons.” Who installed those buttons? We did! This tool helps to identify those buttons and deactivate them by mindfully responding.

We have more self-awareness activities on our blog for your interest.

The self-awareness wheel

There are variations of the self-awareness wheel used in counseling, mindfulness practices, and even education. Though the wheel has many variations, the version from Dr. Dan Siegel is evidence-based. His version can be found on his website. It is a visual metaphor for the process of integrating consciousness.

The core of awareness develops from a central “hub” containing the understanding of awareness or mindfulness as:

  • clarity
  • aware
  • receptive
  • open
  • peaceful
  • calm

The core of awareness is the goal, where one’s attention focuses on the surrounds of the “hub” while scanning for the body’s five senses (Touch, Taste, Smell, Sight, and Hearing)

  • interconnectedness (interaction with the environment)
  • cognitive processes
  • internal physical body

Another version of an awareness wheel was created in the book, Alive and Aware, in 1975.

In this wheel, awareness  is surrounded by:

  • thinking
  • feeling
  • doing
  • wanting
  • sensing

It’s basically the same concept as Siegel’s wheel but simplified. It can be utilized for improving communication in relationships.

awareness wheel

Some group exercises

A fun parlor game popularized by French essayist Marcel Proust can be used as an exercise to grow self-awareness. It is called The Proust Questionnaire.

A group activity that requires vulnerability and listening skills is a share circle. With participants, all in a circle, pass around the following questions on a piece of paper. Have participants listen deeply. Be sure that everyone gets a turn with a positive and negative emotion.

  • I feel angry when…
  • I feel joyful when…
  • I feel unhappy when…
  • I feel hope when…
  • I wish I didn’t have to…
  • I enjoy…
  • I feel afraid when…
  • Something I’d like to change is…
  • If I were (name the person), I would…
  • I feel like no one loves me when…
  • I know I am loved when…
  • Something I find boring is…
  • I know I can trust…
  • I admire (name person) because…
  • I feel serene when…
  • I am most interested in….
  • I am annoyed when…
  • I disapprove of…
  • I am optimistic when…

Another group activity that increases self-awareness is a body language exercise. Divide participants into partners. Give one partner a note showing the type of emotion they should display with only body language. Have the other partner choose what emotion is present in the body language.

To develop awareness in a team setting, help the group become aware of common goals. Team strengths and weaknesses can then be identified and transformed into action steps for team growth. In a group, brainstorm the answers to the following:

This team is great at…
This team struggles at…
This team supports each other by…
On a scale from 1-10, how much does each team member notice their emotional reactions?
Our common goals are…
We will grow by…
Our daily actions include…

Interview questions, techniques, and tips

Emotional intelligence is a growing area of expertise sought after in candidates for new positions.

As we know, self-awareness is the cornerstone of building that intelligence.

Here are some questions, techniques, and tips for assessing where someone might be regarding developed self-awareness.

What makes you angry at work?

A self-aware person would respond with an answer that shows how anger is handled in real-time. Speaking about how anger is a signal to an adjustment toward perspective-taking is a great way to highlight self-awareness capabilities.

As a manager, how do you handle a subordinate that enters your office crying?

A self-aware person would respond with an answer that shows the ability to respond with compassion and strong listening skills. A manager has to have the ability to handle emotions and likely has empathy for others.

How would you handle a subordinate making a mistake?

A self-aware person can take the perspective of F.A.I.L First Attempt In Learning, and can help the subordinate learn from that mistake.

What is your superpower?

A self-aware person can effectively articulate what unique offering they bring to the table.

Self-aware folks will typically value teamwork above self-promotion. They value collaboration and have the ability to respond, rather than passively react to stimuli. Self-aware leaders will lead with intention, empathy, and compassion.

A look at journaling for self-awareness

At the heart of any journaling practice for self-awareness is honesty. Allowing ourselves to recognize and redirect the self-serving bias enables journaling to increase accuracy in subjective emotional experience. Tracking triggers is quite powerful in decreasing the automated reactions to them.

Someone doesn’t have to be a writer to journal for self-awareness. A stream of consciousness journal won’t be reviewed or read by anyone but the writer. It can reveal and enlighten when reread.

Journaling offers insight into changes that could be made and tracked through personal experience. By writing daily, the thread becomes illuminated. It may even help to keep journals for different areas of life (e.g., work, home, fitness, etc.).

To get creative, it can be quite helpful to start journaling with prompts that ignite self-discovery. Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • If I could speak to my teenage self, I would say…
  • Can I come up with 20 things that make me smile?
  • Two of the most impactful moments of my life were…
  • When I’m in pain, the sweetest thing I can do for myself is…
  • Today, I used my strengths in the following ways…
  • I was most surprised when….
  • The scariest day of my life was…

Self-awareness and kids + activities

Getting kids of any age to understand the abstract area of emotions is a challenging task.

Developing emotional intelligence takes some effort, and it begins with self-awareness.

Speaking to strengths and accepting that emotions are temporary is helpful for anyone working with children.

Mindfulness for kids is an important practice used to increase self-awareness. The link will take you to games, worksheets, and activities to help those kids in your life.

Offering older kids sentence starters and encouraging them to complete the sentences as they make sense to them independently is a great activity for building self-awareness. Start with these examples:

When I’m bored, I like to…
In my free time, I enjoy…
I’m happiest when…
When I make a mistake, I…
When my day doesn’t go my way, I…

The emotional pie exercise is a way for kids to healthfully discuss their emotions if they’re willing to participate. Have the child create a circle. Help the child name eight emotions with individually chosen representative colors. If they have trouble, you can help them with the assistance of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

Once they are identified, have the child fill the circle with the emotions weighing the slices from most prominent to least prominent. Encourage them to use colors that might feel like they represent those feelings (e.g., red for anger).

A fun idea for younger kids is the emoji plate game. Help your kiddos develop the vocabulary to talk about their emotions by making paper plates into emojis created with self-determined labels. For little ones, emotions such as anger, frustration, or disappointment can be hard feelings to process. Yet, it is important to help them to develop the vocabulary to express them positively.

5 books on the topic

Improving self-awareness helps people improve their lives by offering an objective reflection. The topic has gained scientific evidence in improving overall emotional intelligence and success. With increased emotional intelligence, improved human connection and leadership are possible. Here are some great reads on the topic.

1. A Theory of Objective Self Awareness – Shelley Duval and Robert A Wicklund

Their book was foundational in social psychology for the understanding of self-awareness.

It offers links to cognitive processes.

While somewhat antiquated, it has bedrock theory that can help in understanding the concept of objective self-awareness.

2. Self-Awareness

The Harvard Business Review released a series of books including, Self-Awareness, that includes the work of Daniel Goleman, Robert Steven Kaplan, and Susan David.

This book teaches the concept of being human at work. Knowing your strengths, shortcomings, and potential helps leaders develop.

3. Emotional Intelligence – Daniel Goleman

Emotional intelligence, by Daniel Goleman, explores the scientific concept of two brains, the logical and the emotional.

This book outlines the skills needed to improve one’s EQ or Emotional Intelligence.

Self-awareness is the bedrock of these skills.

4. Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think – Dr. Tasha Eurich

Dr. Tasha Eurich’s book Insight is a look at self-awareness through the lens of an organizational psychologist.

Giving a pragmatic approach to professional development, this book serves leaders in becoming more self-aware and successful.

Grounded in the science of human behavior, this book offers readers the ability to uncover the invisible blocks to self-awareness.

5. How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of The Brain – Lisa Feldman Barrett

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of The Brain, takes readers through brain anatomy and helps readers to know that they may have some control over their own experience of emotions.

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