Why is it So Difficult to be Self-Aware?

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“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” — C.G. Jung

The following is an excerpt from my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You, a detailed examination of the importance of self-awareness for good leadership.

If self-awareness is so important, why do so many people have difficulty with it? Part of the answer to that question, other than a person’s unwillingness, is the influence of self-deception, “blind spots” and biases.

Self-awareness avoidance may take many forms, including watching TV, engaging in social media, escaping into alcohol, drugs or other addictions, or even committing suicide.

Defense Mechanisms

Researchers Cam Caldwell and Linda Hayes explain how defense mechanisms such as projection, displacement, undoing, isolation, sublimation, and denial are virtually universal phenomena and can lead to feedback-avoiding behavior. Other researchers suggest that anticipating a desired conclusion and viewing the world through a self-serving bias can directly affect the way in which people gather evidence and reach conclusions about themselves.

Self-Deception

The problem of congruence in how we assess ourselves is essential to self-awareness, one’s individual identity, and the degree of self-deception. As a form of cognitive dissonance, self-deception has been described as a discrepancy between the way in which we know how we ought to act and how we actually behave. Self-deception is one of many defense mechanisms that enable us to maintain self-esteem and our identity.

The tendency to believe in faulty preconceptions is consistent with several types of self-deception identified by University of Washington psychologist, Frederick A. Ziegler, as eight rationalizations that frequently occur. Those eight perceptions and their respective meanings are:

  • A pretense to others. Claiming prior knowledge about the likelihood of an uncertain outcome may be either a rationalization or an attempt to look good in others’ eyes.
  • Discount of a failure. Claiming to have known in advance that failure was likely may be an attempt to persuade oneself that one truly knew about an uncertain probability.
  • Articulation of past fears. Unwillingness to deal with uncertainty may result in claiming foreknowledge of a likely failure — but after that disappointment actually occurs.
  • Inability to understand. Although evidence of a fact contrary to what we may want to believe may be present, our failure to acknowledge a situation may legitimately reflect something we cannot emotionally deal with or understand.
  • Wanting reality to be different. One’s biases affect how we see the world and affect the formation of our beliefs so powerfully that we get dissuaded by wishful thinking.
  • Intentional averting of attention. We know intuitively that something is unbearably distressing and deliberately avoid addressing a painful issue so that we do not have to deal with it.
  • Resolving to change. At times, we acknowledge that we have not dealt with issues that we ought to have addressed in the past.
  • Acknowledging regret. We may express the fact that we should have been attuned to key information in the past, but overlooked key clues.

Understanding how we deceive ourselves can enable us to avoid those tendencies that erode relationships with others and that lower our self-esteem. In writing about self-deception as a coping mechanism, Daniel Goleman explained that self-deception was often a sub-conscious effort to avoid pain and anxiety, skewing our conscious awareness by filtering out painful information. Psychiatrist Scott Peck, author of the book The Road Less Traveled, noted that frequently those who deceive others or themselves do so unwittingly and often without a conscious awareness of their motives for their deceptions.

In writing about the dissonance of self-deception, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee describe it in their book, Resonant Leadership, as follows: “We end up seeing the world in very black-and-white terms, and we slowly lose the ability to see ourselves, or those around us, realistically.We miss a lot. Then, when things do go wrong, it is very easy to continue to blame others, and feel sorry for ourselves as things deteriorate — especially when the downturn feels like a surprise and follows a period of denial.”

Another reason we can deceive ourselves about reality and are not aware, is because we are “not present” a good part of the time, but rather, our minds are in the past or the future. Another way is saying this is that a person is not mindful.

Psychologists Matthew Killingworth and Daniel T. Gilbert found, in their research, almost half of the time our minds wander to somewhere or something else other than here and now, noting that our brain’s tendency — particularly as we get older — operates on an unconscious “automatic pilot.”

Blind Spots

In the book by Ann E. Tenbrunsel and Max H. Bazerman Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do About It, they argue good people do bad things without knowing that they are doing anything wrong. This can also create motivational blindness, which is the tendency to not notice the unethical actions of others when it is against our own best interests to notice. Blind spots also create the “want” self — that part of us that behaves according to self-interest and, often, without regard for moral principles.

Robert Bruce Shaw, in his book, Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter, describes the 20 most common blind spots he has seen while working as an executive coach for hundreds of professionals. Shaw describes how blind spots hinder leaders from being effective by:

  • Overestimating their strategic capabilities. Shaw says this is often the blind spot of leaders who have strong operational experience, but then get promoted to higher more strategic, visionary positions.
  • Valuing being right over being effective. This blind spot, Shaw argues, occurs when a leader thinks he or she has all the answers, and is unwilling to listen to others’ viewpoints.

In addition to experience, executives’ positional power can hinder their self-awareness. Studies have shown that people don’t always learn the right lessons from experience. Expertise doesn’t always guarantee seeing the right information or making the right decisions. Overconfidence can often be the result. Business professor James O’Toole has observed that, as one’s positional power grows, one’s willingness to listen to others shrinks.

Critical to a leaders’ success is to develop their self-awareness as a fundamental part of their emotional intelligence, and become keenly aware of their blindspots and biases.

You can read more in my book, I Know Myself and Neither Do You.

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Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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