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Self-awareness is the ability to be cognizant of one’s lived experiences, thoughts, and abilities. While self-awareness is something that most humans have the capacity for (and is sometimes considered a major distinction between humans and other animals), self-awareness can be used specifically in counseling sessions to help both the therapist and client.
This article will cover what self-awareness is, how it can be beneficial instead of hurtful in a therapy session, and how one can cultivate it.
Self-awareness has been defined as:
“an accurate appraisal of a given aspect of one’s situation, functioning, or performance, or of the resulting implications” (Clare et al., 2008).
Self-awareness has also been defined as:
“a mental state in which the contents of one’s consciousness refers to a given aspect of knowledge about oneself” (Tacikowski et al., 2017). Self-awareness is also thought of as a “hallmark of the human mind”.
To put it simply, we can say that self-awareness is an awareness of the self, with the self-being what makes one’s identity unique, including thoughts, experiences, and abilities. One example of self-awareness would be the ability to self-reflect on our identities or our personalities, such as knowing what makes our experience different from someone else’s experience. Recognizing this difference is a key part of self-awareness, as it can be used in an empathetic manner.
What are the Benefits of Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness is important because “accurate self-awareness is essential for optimal daily life activities, as it allows adapting individual behavior to different situations according to one’s actual abilities. Accurate self-awareness thus prevents risky or withdrawal behavior” (Chavoix & Insausti, 2017). In other words, self-awareness allows us to know what our limitations are and allows us to make choices based on our capabilities.
An investigation by Sutton (2016) examined the component parts of self-awareness and their benefits. This study found that the self-reflection, insight, and mindfulness aspects of self-awareness can lead to benefits such as becoming a more accepting person, while the rumination and mindfulness aspects can lead to emotional burdens. Mindfulness, interestingly, led to both benefits and costs, indicating that more psychological research should be done regarding mindfulness. As for self-awareness, it seems to be important to self-reflect without brooding about one’s negative memories and traits.
Why is Self-Awareness Important in Counseling?
Self-awareness is crucial for psychotherapists because “therapists need to be aware of their own biases, values, stereotypical beliefs, and assumptions in order to appropriately serve culturally diverse clients” (Oden et al., 2009). Self-awareness has also been called a “precursor to multicultural competence” (Buckley & Foldy, 2010). In other words, self-awareness allows counselors to understand the differences between their lived experiences and their client’s lived experiences. This can help counselors be more nonjudgmental towards their clients and help them better understand their clients.
Self-awareness in a counselor can also help a therapy session be more effective. For example, therapists who rated themselves as more self-aware during a session felt more positive emotion towards their clients, and their clients felt that their sessions were more helpful as well (Williams & Fauth, 2005). The researchers suggested that the therapists’ abilities to manage their self-awareness are specifically what helped the session. This is important because self-awareness can have negative consequences in a therapy session.
Downsides of Self-Awareness
While self-awareness is a crucial part of counseling, it is important to bring some nuance into the situation. “Momentary” states of self-awareness in which therapists suddenly become more self-aware can actually be distracting to counseling patients and harmful to the session (Wiliams & Fauth, 2005; Williams, 2003). That is if a counselor is not self-aware for most of the session but suddenly makes a connection to themselves (perhaps by discussing their own feelings seemingly out of nowhere), this can hinder the therapy session. A possible explanation for the fact that some research shows counselor self-awareness is bad while other research shows self-awareness is good is the difference between self-awareness and “self-focused attention”.
Self-Awareness vs Self-Focused Attention
For our purposes, let us say that self-awareness consists of being mindful of our identities and lived experiences (and how they relate to those of other people), while self-focused attention consists of simply thinking about ourselves. For example, self-focused attention might mean that a counselor thinks about how anxious they are about the therapy session, which leads to the client feeling that the counselor is not paying attention to them. Self-awareness, on the other hand, would mean that the counselor realizes that the fact that they are anxious about the session may indicate that the client is anxious about the session, and uses this to try to help the client’s anxiety as well as their own.
In other words, “self-awareness might be [a tool] to decrease the negative impact of hindering self-focused attention on counseling self-efficacy” (Wei et al., 2017). That is, being self-aware about all aspects of one’s thoughts is crucial, rather than simply being aware of the current emotion one is feeling. Some of the strategies that therapists can use to stop self-awareness from being distracting (by simply being self-focused attention) include remembering to focus on the client, their needs, and the goals of the counseling session (Wei et al., 2017). Another strategy is using self-awareness as a way to better understand the client, rather than only being self-aware of one’s thoughts and appearing distracted.
How to Cultivate Self-Awareness
One study interested in training self-awareness in counseling students actually had the students attend at least ten counseling sessions for themselves (Oden et al., 2009). This succeeded in raising self-awareness and led some participants to claim it also helped them understand the role of a counselor more. This is similar to a study showing that medical students can increase their empathy by roleplaying a visit to the doctor as a patient (Kelm et al., 2014). These two studies show that empathy is an important part of self-awareness, and can lead to an increased understanding of one’s role.
The Kelm (2014) findings also indicate that practicing aspects of self-awareness such as self-reflection and insight are actually themselves ways to increase self-awareness. Indeed, a study examining the use of
the Birkman Method in pharmaceutical students confirmed this (Maxwell et al., 2016). The Birkman Method is a psychological self-assessment that was shown to increase levels of self-awareness in pharmaceutical students.
Mindfulness has also been proposed as a way to train counseling students to be more self-aware, but more research needs to be done to see if it is an effective training option or not (Stella, 2016). That said, mindfulness is sometimes considered an aspect of self-awareness in psychology research (Sutton, 2016). This indicates that it is certainly worth exploring a connection between the two.
A Take Home Message
Self-awareness is an important human trait that can benefit oneself and their social relations. Self-awareness is particularly important in a counseling setting, as therapist self-awareness can make a therapy session more effective. There is not as much research on the importance of client self-awareness in counseling, and since some mental health issues and brain diseases can affect self-awareness this seems to be an important point to investigate (Steward et al., 2017; Vannini et al., 2017)
At the end of the day, if you are a therapist, it is important to cultivate self-awareness to maximize the effectiveness of your sessions. If you are not a therapist, however, the prosocial benefits of self-awareness show the importance of everyone being self-aware. Whether you want to be more accepting of yourself or more accepting of others, cultivating self-awareness is a good place to start.