Your sense of self shifts when you’re at a peak or in a valley.
During great moments, we are liable to have an inflated sense of self. We believe we are right more often than we actually are. As both a defense mechanism and the presumption that we should just continue doing what we’re doing to keep climbing, we become less open to the advice and signals around us. We start to believe the nice things people say about us and become too confident in our own abilities and less in touch with reality.
Similarly, in difficult periods when we are struggling to find the motivation and direction to move forward, we can become less aware. When we stress, we regress. As our strengths become weaknesses, our superpowers turn against us when we feel vulnerable. We blame people and forces around us a way to maintain our confidence and the soundness of our plans.
Self-awareness starts with the realization that when you’re at a peak or in a valley, you’re not your greatest self. When things are going well, ego gets the best of you. When times are tough, insecurities run rampant for everyone involved. Only by recognizing these shifts in ourselves and others can we manage them and protect the integrity of our judgment and actions. We are not necessarily the cause of the situation, but we are the cause of how we see it. Our perspective is our promise or peril. With such insight, you can more carefully vet your reactions and decisions when things are going very well or poorly. Effective advisers and boards are most helpful at the extremes, when the tough questions are less apparent but critical.
Self-awareness means understanding your own feelings enough to recognize what bothers you. Whatever triggers your frustration or irritates you is rooted in a core value you have, something you vehemently stand for or against. For example, injustice really bothers me. Whenever I see unfairness, I need to right it. When I am taken advantage of, I will opt to right the wrong even if the economic cost of doing so exceeds the economic impact of letting it go. This behavior could potentially be destructive, and it is tied to one of my core values. But now that I have made myself aware of it, I can see it bubbling up in myself and learn how to mitigate it. At least I try. Being conscious of your triggers helps you take your finger off that trigger.
Self-awareness means being permeable. An undeniable theme among founders I’ve worked with is that the less defensive they are, the more potential they have. Those who are able to openly absorb and selectively integrate what they hear consistently outperform those who are impermeable to suggestion. I deeply admire founders and designers I have worked with who seek feedback proactively. But being open-minded while receiving constructive criticism is challenging. When you feel criticized or attacked, what happens? Do you immediately try to explain yourself? Do you go on the offensive and try to fight back? Do you become reclusive and try to avoid the conflict altogether? Do you become more steadfast in your ways, or are you too shaken and too impressionable? Self-awareness helps you achieve balance between these tendencies. If you acknowledge your behavior when it happens, and then investigate what is driving it, you will become more open to the right insights from others.
Self-awareness comes from chronicling your patterns. The insecurities, brash reactions, and self-doubts that emerge in difficult times are reflexes that started long ago. The leaders I admire most have invested a great deal of time understanding their own psychology and unpacking their past. Whether through executive coaching, psychoanalysis, or some form of group therapy, your effort to understand how your own mind works is the only path to reliable self-awareness during times of stress.
Understanding the sources of your own negative tendencies also helps you make sense of others’ behavior. As psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who founded the field of analytical psychology, once said according to numerous accounts, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of other people.” Being in touch with your own flaws helps you support others with their flaws. Discussing your flaws invites others to do the same.
Self-awareness means dispelling your sense of superiority and the myths that people believe about you. With any achievement, we’re liable to overestimate the role we played in it and underestimate the role of others—and of luck. By doing so, we alienate those who did contribute and become less relatable. We obsess over ourselves a bit more and tune into others a bit less. I have watched a number of successful artists and entrepreneurs I know become more isolated and paranoid as they became well known. Perhaps they begin to question the motives of everyone around them, or perhaps they start to believe they are superior. Regardless, the result is a loss of genuine connection with the people who helped launch their careers and, with it, empathy. Without empathy for others’ problems, ideas become less viable solutions.
The trick is to integrate humility in your life. It could be a sense of spirituality that keeps you open, a partner who keeps you grounded, or an insatiable sense of curiosity that keeps you inquisitive. Attribute your wins to those around you, and be the first to take responsibility for losses.
Ultimately, self-awareness is about preserving sound judgment and keeping relatable and realistic. However big your project or ambition, your journey is nothing more than a sequence of decisions: You’re probably many decisions away from success, but always one decision away from failure. Clarity matters. The more aware you are of yourself and your surroundings, the more data you have to inform your decisions, and the more competitive you will be.
This article is an excerpt from the book The Messy Middle. It has been published with permission.