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The Complete Guide to Self-Awareness

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Neuroscience research shows that the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.” -Bessel Van Der Kolk

Trauma-informed care is impossible without self-awareness. Anyone who practices TIC needs self-awareness, and most of us would benefit from greater self-awareness.

In this complete guide to self-awareness, we’ll explore why self-awareness is core to the trauma-informed model and how to cultivate self-awareness with simple everyday practices.

Why self-awareness is central to the trauma-informed model

Trauma-informed care is made possible by self-awareness. Here’s why.

When we lack self-awareness, we often end up making matters worse, even when our original goal was to help whoever was experiencing a trauma response.

Why is that? Without self-awareness, we tend to become triggered in response to other people’s trauma responses. Our heightened state then adds to their dysregulation.

When we are dysregulated, a lack of self-awareness is common. We tend to be unconscious and unintentional with our actions and words.

You might relate to this yourself, or you might consider moments where you saw someone else having a trauma response. At that moment, they were completely unaware of what they were saying and doing. They didn’t know what they needed to calm down or if they were calming down at all.

However, with self-awareness, we become available to assist others in need—and help ourselves in the process.

Self-awareness helps us remain calm in intense moments. It enables us to regulate ourselves and those around us. With self-awareness, we make better decisions and access a deeper understanding of what is happening within and around us.

Trauma cuts our tie to self-awareness

If you follow our trauma-informed blog, then you’re familiar with the concept of trauma brain and executive functioning. These two mental states cannot exist at the same time.

When we are having a trauma response, we cannot access our executive functioning skills. We cannot think logically or make plans for the future. Our thinking is disorganized. We are not self-aware.

Emily Read Daniels clearly describes this concept in her article on Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. She states:

“People often fail to recognize that there is no reasoning, no rational cognitive process occurring in a state of heightened arousal. That comes after someone has regained composure, settled, or calmed down. This simple understanding is at the crux of being trauma-informed.”

In this article, she also emphasizes the importance of self-awareness in TIC:

“The work of being trauma-informed and trauma-responsive is complex. But there is a single great way to begin that is fairly simple – increasing self-awareness.”

So, if you’re interested in beginning your trauma-informed journey and don’t know where to start, begin increasing your self-awareness.

Considering balance when cultivating self-awareness

Self-awareness isn’t black and white. It’s not the type of trait you either have or you don’t. It’s a skill that you grow with time.

You can be self-aware of many things, including:

  • your strengths and weaknesses

  • when you succeed or fail

  • your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

  • your most common cognitive distortions

  • how each of these things interact and relate to one another

You can be very self-aware in one area and unaware in another. For example, consider someone who struggles with mental filtering, a cognitive distortion that causes us to see only the negatives and discount the positives. This person might be extremely aware of their weaknesses and failures but unaware of their strengths, successes, or thought patterns.

The result is a mindset that can fuel depressive episodes and rumination. So, when cultivating self-awareness, it’s important that you aim to create balance and focus on being nonjudgmental.

Self-awareness that comes from a place of non-judgment allows you to make informed choices without the burden of guilt or shame. It helps us access a clear vision of our reality without denial, and it can be extremely empowering.

The relationship between self-awareness and resilience

In trauma-informed care, the journey is complex, and the concepts are interrelated in countless ways. So, when we discuss self-awareness, it should come as no surprise that we touch on resilience.

A few major factors of resilience include accepting what we do not have control of and acknowledging what we do have the power to change. Having a clear grasp of where our power ends and begins is made possible through self-awareness.

The sentiment of “I can’t change how other people behave, but I can change how I respond to them” embodies self-awareness.

So, self-awareness is also an important component of radical acceptance and empowerment, which build resilience and help us heal.

9 Practices to Cultivate Self-Awareness

It’s common for people to say, “I’m self-aware,” and move on. But I urge you to change your perspective.

Instead of deciding whether you are or are not self-aware, ask yourself, “Can I become more self-aware?” The answer is almost always a resounding yes.

So, here are a few trauma-informed practices that you can consider trying to increase self-awareness.

1 - Disconnect from digital distractions like social media and television

Scrolling on social media, staying up to date with current news reports, and binging our favorite TV shows are common collective experiences. These commonplace activities can fill in all our spare time—especially when our phones are always in our pockets.

Keeping your mind constantly buzzing with new information prevents you from being self-aware. So, consider dedicating some time away from screens every day to unwind and reflect.

2 - Set aside dedicated time to connect with yourself

Being away from screens is a great time for us to connect with our inner selves. Connecting to yourself can look different for everyone. For some, it might mean putting on music and dancing around. For others, it could look like enjoying a hot tea over a good book. For others, both of those self-care activities could be draining rather than energizing.

Discovering what types of activities are most rejuvenating and restful for you is a part of your self-awareness journey. It’s important to be curious and notice how you feel. Just because a solution works for other people doesn’t mean it will work for you—but it’s worth trying!

3 - Embrace solitude and silence

When we experience trauma, we may be resistant to self-awareness. After all, if you take time to think about how you feel, you might realize that you don’t feel great.

However, it’s important to feel those feelings and process them, even if it’s a painful experience. Whether you avoid reflecting on your negative emotions or not, it’s important to embrace silence and solitude, especially in a society where the expectation of being “on” all the time is the norm.

Solitude and silence allow us to slow down, self-reflect, and cultivate self-awareness.

4 - Try guided meditation sessions

There are tons of great resources out there to help you meditate. From soothing sounds and soundscapes on YouTube to calming sleep stories on Spotify to guided meditations on the Calm App, there are lots of options for you to try as you discover what types of meditation work best for you.

If you struggle with meditation, the best advice I can give you is to let go of rigid expectations for what meditation looks like. Stay open and curious, try different resources, and focus on learning. That’s how you will access the benefits of meditation.

5 - Practice mindfulness through intentional living

Meditation and mindfulness go hand in hand, and meditation is only one type of mindfulness practice. You can also practice mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful exercise, mindful arts and crafts, mindful breathing, and the list goes on.

Intentional living refers to intentionally making decisions instead of functioning on “auto-pilot.” When we mindfully go about life, we live intentionally.

6 - Start a journal that focuses on your inner state, thoughts, and feelings

Journaling is a great practice for self-awareness because we can write down what we think and feel and then go back and read it later. This practice can help us gain a lot of insight.

Even if you already journal, consider journaling with the intention of cultivating self-awareness. When journaling, you can try to ask and answer powerful questions, like:

  • Why do I think, behave, or feel that way?

  • What can I do differently to produce the outcomes I desire?

  • What do/don’t I have the power to change?

7 - Commit to becoming a better listener

One thing most people struggle with is active listening, and it makes sense. It can be challenging to focus when someone else is talking and our minds are racing with thoughts. But active listening is a skill that benefits everyone involved.

Listening is a great place to practice nonjudgment. It can sometimes be easier to practice nonjudgement when thinking of others than when thinking of ourselves.

8 - Ask for outside opinions

The image we have of ourselves is usually different than the image others have of us. Although others can get it wrong, the people close to you tend to have great insight into your thinking and behavior.

Consider asking someone you trust and feel comfortable being vulnerable with what their opinions are about you. This is a great way to open up and reflect on yourself.

9 - Take a course and access a community

Personal development courses are a great place to intentionally work on growing your self-awareness and emotional intelligence. In the courses I offer, each group provides a unique and confidential community that supports one another in their journey.

So, if you’re serious about cultivating your self-awareness, a personal development course can be a great tool.

Cultivate greater self-awareness with free trauma-informed resources from Chefalo Consulting

If you want to improve your well-being and the well-being of those around you, then investing your energy into cultivating greater self-awareness is a great step to take in your trauma-informed journey.

The good news is that you don’t have to do it all on your own. There are plenty of free and affordable trauma-informed resources out there for you, including some from us. Access these free trauma-informed resources today:

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