Why Self-Awareness Is The First Step Toward Empathy


To better understand others, we must first better understand ourselves.

This is according to a new study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement titled “Know Thy Selves: Learning to Understand Oneself Increases the Ability to Understand Others.”

Psychologists spent 3 months collecting data from 161 participants between the ages of 20-50 and had them take a “contemplative training” course that’s based on the Internal Family Systems model, which teaches individuals that they are made up of different “sub-personalities,” such as your “happy voice” or “inner critic.”

The goal is that by better recognizing these different parts of our personalities, we become more aware of our own tendencies and patterns – and this can help us better navigate our relationships and how we connect with others.

The results of the study showed that participants who improved the most at identifying the different parts of their personality also improved at their ability to infer the mental states of others, a skill known as “theory of mind” or empathy.

Thus, self-awareness and empathy are very intimately connected. Once we become more aware of what makes us who we are, we are better able to understand the differences between ourselves and others, and what makes them who they are.

Not surprisingly, both “self awareness” and “empathy” are considered to be two of the main pillars behind emotional intelligence. “Empathy” is technically “other-awareness,” so it’s literally the direct counterpart to “self-awareness.”

By definition, when you become more aware of yourself, you also become more aware of others. Because the self/other dichotomy becomes clearer and you begin to recognize the ways you are both similar and different from others in your thinking and feeling.

That’s a very important aspect of empathy – it’s not just about recognizing the ways you are similar to others, but also recognizing the ways you are very different from others.

It’s impossible to empathize with others if you believe that everyone is exactly the same as you – that’s not trying to understand another perspective, that’s just projecting your own perspective onto others.

For example, I know that I’m an introverted person. But I also know that not everyone is the same as me, so when someone is more extroverted than me I don’t get surprised, frustrated, or judgmental. I just recognize that we both have different personalities and tendencies, and I need to keep that in mind when I interact with them.

That’s a very simple example, but it shows how recognizing your own personality and tendencies makes you better able to accept and deal with the tendencies of others – a direct relationship between “self-awareness” and “empathy.”

How to Improve Self-Awareness

What are ways you can improve your self-awareness? Here are 5 effective ways to begin improving your self-awareness that you can begin practicing today.

  • Meditation – One of the best ways to improve self-awareness is to practice meditation. A beginner’s exercise like a simple 100 Breaths Meditation is a great way to begin becoming more aware of your internal world of thoughts and feelings and begin accepting them in a nonjudgmental way. Meditation will also teach you how to observe yourself and your surroundings without needing to react to it, which is an important aspect of self-regulation – another fundamental pillar of “emotional intelligence.”
  • Personality Quizzes – Learning more about your own individual personality is also key to better understanding how your mind works and how it might be different than others. You can find many free personality surveys online that can help you get a clearer understanding of who you are. You can start by checking out the Psychology Quizzes on this site, which measure various different personality traits like “Introversion” vs. “Extraversion,” or “Detail Oriented” vs. “Big Picture.” How you score on these quizzes will give you insight into what type of personality you have.

  • Contemplation – While meditation will teach you how to watch your thoughts and feelings, contemplation is another important aspect of analyzing your mind and learning more about your thought process. For example, The Power of Asking Yourself Questions can be a very valuable way of digger deeper into your beliefs and values, and why you hold them. Even just taking 10-15 minutes to sit down and analyze your beliefs and thought processes can be a great way to become more aware of how your mind works.
  • Roleplaying – One counter-intuitive way to discover more about yourself is to temporarily pretend to be someone else for a little while. When you practice role-playing, or Pretending to Be Someone Else, it often reveals hidden aspects of yourself that you weren’t previously aware of. It could also reveal to you the ways you are NOT – try being someone radically different than you and it shows what does or doesn’t “fit” into your individual personality.
  • Ask a Close Friend – Often times our close friends and family can know more about ourselves than we do – especially certain personality traits that are so deeply ingrained in us that we take them for granted. One important way to develop self-awareness is to simply ask a close friend, “How would you describe me as a person?” This can sometimes reveal certain patterns in ourselves that are easier to see from an outside perspective. According to one interesting study, friends can be particularly good at assessing our intelligence, creativity, and extroversion.

These are all valuable ways to begin improving your self-awareness.

Can we ever fully know ourselves? That’s a difficult question to answer. We are all complicated beings and it’s possible that we can never completely grasp who we are as a person.

However, actively building more self-awareness is a worthy endeavor. And it won’t just help you improve yourself, but also improve your ability to empathize and connect with people in a genuine and meaningful way.

Keep in mind the importance of self-awareness and consider trying out some of the exercises above to begin improving it.

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