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?
These are questions I’ve asked myself when cultivating awareness, and noticing its shadow, and its light. For the most part, self-awareness has served me well. But there’s a detrimental aspect of high self-awareness that can exacerbate traits such as anxiety or paranoia, or fortify the ego.
Psychology has a number of definitions that categorize self-awareness and its nuances. Self-consciousness is unpleasant but tolerable, a universal sense of insecurity that surfaces in certain situations. Hyperreflexivity, defined as “excessive self-preoccupation usually connected with more or less severe self-alienation,” is intrusive and extreme, and associated with a number of mental disorders.
In addition, interoception, the awareness of bodily processes, is undergoing significant research due to its role in wellbeing. Theories are developing around the relationship between bodily signals and emotions. High interoception and poor interpretation of signals are linked to anxiety. Low interception, or “feeling nothing,” is linked to depression.
This makes me think of the so-called quietest place on Earth, an anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota, famous for the fact that people can’t stay longer than 45 minutes. In a chamber of extreme silence, bodily processes, such as the repetitive thud of the heart, or oxygen entering the lungs, are amplified, driving people to run for the exit.
Awareness, then, is a carrier of information. What you do with that information — how you interpret it — makes all the difference.
Mindfulness and Acceptance
To be mindful is to be aware; not only of the self, but of your environment and surroundings. Greater Good defines mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.” But if more awareness can be detrimental, can you be too mindful?
In Buddhism, mindfulness is interdependent with compassion, acceptance, and equanimity. The Buddha knew of the risk of that without those qualities, self-awareness casts a shadow. The issue isn’t awareness — the notion of pure awareness talks to its spacious quality — but conflating awareness with judgment. Greater Good adds that mindfulness:
“Also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them — without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
Awareness captures data. How that data is interpreted is what counts. As you develop awareness, content surfaces from the unconscious. With mindfulness, this data (such as troubling memories or realizations about your behavior or judgements) is approached with equanimity; not judged as good or bad. Equanimity allows you to see more, about yourself and the world, without losing your mind.
Judgements and commentaries are forms of metacognition. The balance between awareness and metacognition is nuanced. Subtle thought-forms can hijack the process by becoming invisible, evading detection because they’re camouflaged. In meditation, you may not notice a subtle commentary about how relaxed you feel, which is not the direct experience of being relaxed, or a self-congratulatory note of how Zen you are, which isn’t the direct experience of Zen.
Mindfulness is a skill to be refined. Without learning this skill, and its nuances, self-awareness becomes self-monitoring, another way the mind can hijack the process with its own judgments. Rather than illuminating or enlightening, self-monitoring is suffocating and restrictive. Go without noticing this layer of metacognition for a while, and spiritual ego will develop. Sure, awareness improves, but it is judgemental awareness.
High levels of awareness, with judgement of what is seen, becomes harmful, rather than helpful, entering territory of hyperreflexivity.
Instinct and the Centipede Effect
Instinct, if not hijacked by fight-or-flight or unconscious prejudices or unhealed trauma, connects you to the flow of life. But the mind can easily get in the way. In the 1920s, psychologist George Humphrey presented Humphrey’s law, also known as the Centipede Effect. It describes the negative effect of consciously paying attention to unconscious processes.
Humphrey noticed how performance is often impaired when conscious thought is put towards it — at least when you’re able to perform the action well on autopilot, such as driving or walking, or a well-developed skill, such as a musician playing an instrument. The name is inspired by a poem that tells the story of a centipede who was unable to move after a toad, playing the role of a trickster, asked: which leg moves first?
The Centipede Effect captures another pitfall of self-awareness: the disconnect between instinct and action. The centipede can’t move because it’s focused on smaller parts, not the intelligence of the whole system. There’s a Zen proverb: “when walking, walk. When eating, eat.” The proverb isn’t: “when walking, think about how you’re walking, when eating, think about how you’re eating.”
And yet, in the words of Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Is this a contradiction? I don’t think so. The wisdom of awareness is knowing when to zoom in to spot reactive patterns and choose differently, or when to surrender to instinctual behavior, to walk, to eat.
Returning to our earlier definitions, self-consciousness and hyperreflexivity could be attempts to interpret and adjust behavior in the moment, disrupting the flow of instinct, conscious reflection that impairs natural harmony. This is overthinking or over analyzing, not mindfulness. Sometimes immersion in activity is the best course of action.
Know Thyself, Witness Thyself
I’ve focused mostly on self-awareness as a mindful in-the-moment practice, but there is a broader application of awareness in terms of personal growth. Many insights are retrospective, emerging in situations such as journaling sessions or conversation with a therapist. Well-rounded self-awareness combines mindfulness with Socrates’ ethos of “knowing thyself.”
To know thyself requires reflection. Not only in-the-moment-awareness, but plunging into the depths and squinting into the light, a journey of self-understanding, informed by dreams, patterns across time, tendencies, feedback from others, and other sources of insight. Those insights then inform the present, into what could be called “witnessing thyself.”
Having experienced many traps of self-awareness, or at least my ego’s attempt to conceptualize it, I’ve come to realize that the best option isn’t trying to be self-aware, but focusing on compassion, acceptance, and equanimity. When focusing on these qualities, awareness isn’t confused with hyper-vigilance or judgment towards the self.
Like learning an instrument or how to drive a car, awareness gives access to more data, breaking what can seem mysterious and automatic, into smaller, comprehensible parts. It adds a sense of control, and perhaps that’s why it’s such an alluring ego trap. True spiritual growth isn’t control, it’s surrender.
Learning when to be aware of stimulus and ego-driven responses, and when to trust in the automatic, instinctive qualities of simply walking, simply eating, simply being, is part of the challenge. Then, awareness of the self and the world, of action and non-action, thinking and doing, all merge into one.