Self-awareness is mostly considered a positive trait. More awareness equals more emotional intelligence, more clarity on life’s goals and values, more insight into behaviors or traits that limit potential, more understanding of how words and actions affect others.
But can you have too much self-awareness? Is it ever optimal to be less self-aware?
Fate unfolds in infinite ways; chance meetings, serendipity, sliding doors, chain-of-events arranged in meaningful order, as if an intelligent design operates behind life’s exterior. People you were destined to meet. Places and times planned to perfection. An intelligent whole able to, against all probability, provide meaning to each individual part.
If the universe conspires, do atoms, too? Does quantum probability make fate possible?
Erik Erikson’s life’s work occurred during the golden age of depth psychology. The Danish psychologist built upon Sigmund Freud’s theories of ego development as a student of Freud’s daughter, Anna. Erikson’s legacy, the psychosocial stages of development, explains psychological growth as the result of navigating conflict between individual and social needs.
Erikson’s model has eight stages, with each stage focusing on a theme and age group. The model presents two outcomes, one desirable, one undesirable. Stage six, intimacy vs. isolation, occurs roughly between the ages of 20 and 30. The conflict of this stage is balancing intimate relationships with self-connection. The theme reached a pinnacle in my life between 29 and 32.
Spiritual bypassing was identified by John Welwood in the early 1980s. Welwood’s experience as a transpersonal therapist and Buddhist teacher gave him a unique insight into how spirituality can become an escape mechanism. Despite good intentions, Welwood noticed “a widespread tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks.” He adds:
“When we are spiritually bypassing, we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it. And then we tend to use absolute truth to disparage or dismiss relative human needs, feelings, psychological problems, relational difficulties, and developmental deficits. I see this as an ‘occupational hazard’ of the spiritual path, in that spirituality does involve a vision of going beyond our current karmic situation.”
Spiritual practices aren’t only misapplied to avoid difficult or challenging psychological work; they can also be misapplied to enhance the ego, rather than transcend it. As philosopher Alan Watts noted, “egos have the subtlest ways of pretending to be reformed.” One way the ego pretends to be reformed is through spiritual narcissism, when spirituality leads to increased self-centredness, superiority, or specialness. In the words of Chögyam Trungpa in Cutting Through:
“Walking the spiritual path properly is a very subtle process; it is not something to jump into naively. There are numerous sidetracks which lead to a distorted, ego-centered version of spirituality; we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are developing spiritually when instead we are strengthening our egocentricity through spiritual techniques.”