Self-awareness seems to have become the word of the year since 2020 — and for a good reason. While we spent time at home wondering about our lives, many of us started turning inward. According to researchers, those of us who believe we are aware of our inner self feelings say we are more confidant and more creative. We make better decisions and build better relationships and communicate more effectively. We’re less likely to lie, cheat or steal. We are better workers who get promoted over others, and we’re more effective leaders and partners with more satisfied employees and spouses/partners.
But research revealed many surprising roadblocks, myths, and truths about what self-awareness is and what it takes to improve it. They found that even though most people believe they are self-aware, self-awareness is a very rare strait. They estimate that only 10%–15% of the people studied fit the criteria.
It is also assumed that introspection — examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors — improves self-awareness. looking inward on why we are the way we are?
Yet one of the most surprising findings shows people who introspect are less self-aware and report worse job satisfaction and well-being.
The problem with introspection isn’t that it’s ineffective — but that most people are doing it wrong. Let's get a better understanding of the question: “Why?” When we feel hurt we ask (Why do I like friend A so much more than friend B?), or our behavior (Why did I fly off the handle with my partner?), or our attitudes (Why am I so against others ideas?).
So if “why” isn’t the correct introspective question, is there a better one? A research team studied hundreds of pages of interview transcripts with highly self-aware people to see if they approached introspection differently, Although the word “why” appeared fewer than 150 times, the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.
Therefore, to increase positive self-insight and decrease negative thoughts, we should ask what, not why. “What” questions help us stay aware of goals, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.
I found some examples from Harvard Business Review: consider Jose, an entertainment industry veteran we interviewed, who hated his job. Where many would have gotten stuck thinking, “Why do I feel so terrible?” he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” He realized that he’d never be happy in that career, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling one in wealth management.
Similarly, Robin, a customer service leader who was new to her job, needed to understand a piece of negative feedback she’d gotten from an employee. Instead of asking, “Why did you say this about me?,” Robin inquired, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” This helped them move to solutions rather than focusing on the unproductive patterns of the past.
Self-awareness isn’t one truth. It’s a delicate balance of two distinct, even competing, viewpoints.
A final case is Paul, who told us about learning that the business he’d recently purchased was no longer profitable. At first, all he could ask himself was, “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” But he quickly realized that he didn’t have the time or energy to beat himself up — he had to figure out what to do next. He started asking, “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?” He created a plan and was able to find creative ways to do as much good for others as possible while winding down the business. When all that was over, he challenged himself to articulate what he learned from the experience — his answer both helped him avoid similar mistakes in the future and helped others learn from them, too.
These qualitative findings have been bolstered by others’ quantitative research. In one study, psychologists J. Gregory Hixon and William Swann gave a group of undergraduates’ negative feedback on a test of their “sociability, likability and interestingness.” Some were given time to think about why they were the kind of person they were, while others were asked to think about what kind of person they were. When the researchers had them evaluate the accuracy of the feedback, the “why” students spent their energy rationalizing and denying what they’d learned, and the “what” students were more open to this new information and how they might learn from it. Hixon and Swann’s rather bold conclusion was that “Thinking about why one is the way one is maybe no better than not thinking about one’s self at all.”
What does this conclude? When we focus on building our self-awareness, We seek honest feedback from loving critics like family, friends, and co-workers, and when we ask what instead of why . We can learn to see ourselves more clearly — and enjoy rewards that a higher self-knowledge delivers. No matter how much we learn, there is always room to grow. That’s one of the things that makes our journey to self-awareness so exciting.