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When Too Much Self-Awareness Harms Instead of Helps

Self-awareness is a good thing, no? It allows us to recognize when our audience is no longer interested, when we’ve offended someone or when we’ve crossed a line. It is fairly essential for self-improvement, because we need to know when we’ve made a mistake in order to learn from it and change our future actions to avoid making the same mistake again. Through self-awareness, we can critique our own actions, constantly evolving into a better version of ourselves, without the uncomfortable process of having someone else criticize us. Indeed, being around self-aware people is quite beneficial to others and affords them a sense of comfort knowing that the self-aware individual only requires subtle feedback in order for them to adjust their actions the next time. In most jobs, self-awareness is a desirable quality to have.

© The Mighty Illustration of man holding his head

Yet, as we peer inside the mind of a highly self-aware individual, we begin to see what’s actually happening. On a nearly second-by-second basis, the individual is assessing, critiquing and modifying their behaviors in response to the feedback they detect. In other words, a self-aware individual walks into a bar. He immediately looks around, assesses the tone of the room, the outfits people are wearing, the overall volume level and the actions and demeanors of the other patrons. Within seconds the individual is assessing his own clothing, presence and actions to fall in-line with the patrons, so as to fit in. Or, the individual could decide to clash with the ambience of the room.

Regardless, every step of the way, the person is calculating peoples’ responses to his actions and adjusting his behaviors and his speech accordingly. He looks towards a woman and notices her eyes move quickly past his. He marks this as a sign of disinterest and immediately moves away from her. He sees across the room a group of tough-looking guys talking loudly and acting rowdy. He decides whether he wants to ramp up his testosterone traits at the moment or seek a softer group of people with which to integrate.

Alas, as one plays this game inside the mind of an overly self-aware person, we can quickly see how self-awareness can turn debilitating. No matter how perfectly executed any single action or idea, eventually there will be some resistance or mistake. This individual might receive positive eye contact from a woman across the bar. He may approach confidently, lead strongly with a nice greeting and even throw out a solid joke. But inevitably something he says or does will miss the mark. In this slight setback, if the individual dwells on the miss, analyses it and starts adjusting his actions and words accordingly, it could slow him down, and possibly lead to becoming immobilized. Without a filter for when to turn off this introspective critic, it can become a deafening and debilitating relentless assault of feedback and criticism. Given all the time in the world, this could theoretically lead to perfected responses to all situations, but in the real world, it can lead to unnatural and halted conversation.

Moving away from the bar scene for a moment, consider a career track for the self-aware individual. Every step he takes along this path he is evaluating his performance against his own internal feedback, as well as the performance of others. He is constantly critiquing, judging and modifying his behaviors to improve his overall success. As each mistake is made, the self-aware individual dives into full assessment mode, looking for the flawed response or thought process that led to this mistake, determined to find the root cause of the mistake and reprogram it so that an ideal response can be achieved next time. Suppose the root cause is not changeable, but rather hard-wired into his DNA. He sees a flaw, he can’t “fix” it and he can’t ignore it. The ever-aware individual dwells on this flaw, and sees it as a limiting factor in his career path. Ultimately, it drives him to leave the career path, convinced that he cannot achieve perfection with his current makeup.

The real problem here is extremes. Self-awareness is a valuable tool, and one that can lead to dramatic levels of self-improvement. But like most traits in life, without balance, this tool can wreak havoc on the mind, becoming debilitating and leading to a tendency to flee the situation. Most great thinkers and achievers faced monumental resistance to their ideas, and they had to ignore this inner critique and resist the immobilization that could ensue. They had to ignore the obvious resistance they faced all around them and believe in something that seemed doomed. They had to push through the discomfort of inner criticism, quiet the mind and almost adopt an optimism in order to achieve success. This optimistic ignorance, in a sense, actually provides a necessary balance to the overly realistic self-awareness. Without a healthy dose of optimism, seemingly “crazy” ideas like landing on the moon probably never would’ve been realized. Danny DeVito becoming an award-winning actor might never have happened. An Austrian-born bodybuilder might never have become governor of California.

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing, and that is completely true with regards to self-awareness. It’s only fair you get a break from that all too critical inner mind occasionally. Sometimes our inner critic needs to go to sleep and let our optimistic ignorant child dream big and defy reality for a moment, no matter how illogical it seems. Take a chance and risk reality slapping you hard in the face. Ask the person out at the bar even if she doesn’t seem 100 percent into you. Pursue an idea that may seem “crazy” to many. Follow your dreams, even if you end up on your face.


By Jesse Lang


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