NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Relationship Skills: What is Self Awareness?

The ability to be self aware is an important skill.  It's a necessary skill in all relationships, and it can be especially challenging in romantic relationships because there are so many emotional layers in terms of what's going on between the two people.

What is Self Awareness?

There is what's happening now between the two people as well as what each of them bring from their family history, history in other relationships and other significant emotional experiences, including positive as well as traumatic experiences.

What is Self Awareness and How Does It Develop?
Self awareness is the ability to:
  • tap into your own feelings, thoughts and actions
  • recognize your own strengths and challenges
  • recognize how your own feelings, thoughts and actions affect how you feel about yourself and others
  • recognize other people's emotional needs and feelings
  • recognize how you affect others
  • recognize how other people see you

    Early Childhood Experiences
Self awareness starts in childhood when parents and other people close to the children reflect back to them the emotions they are experiencing.

Let's start by looking at an early childhood example in Scenario 1 when parenting goes well i and Scenario 2 when it goes wrong.

For instance, a child of three or four, who is experiencing a temper tantrum because their mother just told them that they can only choose one toy and not two in the toy store, is not at a developmental stage yet to understand their emotional reaction.  

They don't have the ability yet to self reflect or have self awareness in this situation where they're upset, so they depend on the parent to help them.

Scenario 1:
The mother responds to the child, "I know you're really sad and angry that you can't have this other toy and that's why you're so upset." 

She is doing more than just trying to calm the child down.  

The Parent Helps the Child with Overwhelming Emotions

She is helping the child to identify what they are feeling by putting words to the child's emotions. 

By framing the child's experience with words, she is also providing a metaphorical container for the overwhelming emotions the child is experiencing so they can feel more manageable.

Let's say, as part of comforting the child, she is holding the child so she is physically soothing the child.  

At the same time, she is also letting the child know that, even though they are upset now, things are going to be okay.  She is also letting the child know that, even though they might be angry with the mother at that moment, she still loves them.  Their relationship remains stable.

She is also normalizing the child's reaction at the same time she is still setting a boundary with them.  So, she's not changing her mind and giving the child the other toy just to get the child to be quiet, which would be inconsistent parenting.  She's communicating in a way the child can understand by comforting the child at the same time she sets limits with the child.  

Over time, with the help of the mother (or whoever is the primary caregiver), this child learns that they can get upset and survive the upset.  This is an internal experience of knowing from many prior similar experiences.

This isn't a concept the child can put into words at such a young age.  Instead, it's something they internalize at a deep level that will continue to develop over time throughout their life if they are parented in this way.

Over time, if all else goes relatively well, this child will develop the ability to name their emotions as well as a tolerance for frustration in ways that are manageable.  

When this child becomes an adult, they will have internalized this self knowledge many times over.  It will be a comfort during challenging times ("I've gotten through other hard experiences") and contributes to their self awareness.

Scenario 2:  Same Situation (Child is upset about not getting a second toy)
The mother responds, "I'm only buying you one toy! Stop being such a baby!  Don't be selfish! You're driving me crazy!"

How Problems With Self Awareness Begin

Obviously, this isn't an appropriate or helpful way to respond to a child.  But more than that, this child isn't being soothed.  Instead, the child is being criticized and made to feel like an emotional burden ("I'm not lovable").

In Scenario 2 the child is left on their own to fend with overwhelming feelings of sadness and anger.  

On top of that, the child not only has to cope with their own feelings alone but the child is also being told indirectly that they are responsible for the mother's feelings.

There is no emotional support, no emotional containment or framing of the experience for this child.

If this is an ongoing experience, the child will grow up without developing self awareness. They would probably also feel they are an emotional burden to people who are close to them, including romantic relationships (see my article: What is Your Attachment Style?).

They will also probably suppress uncomfortable emotions because they never learned how to tolerate these feelings in manageable ways when they were younger with the help of a caregiver.

This second scenario isn't about blaming parents.  Usually when a parent responds in this way, it's because their own feelings were also dismissed when they were younger.  This is what they internalized and, without any other mitigating factors, this is how they parent their own children.

Next Article
This article is the first in a series about self awareness. 

I'll continue this to discuss this topic in my next article:

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.