How I Found Out That I’m Not Very Self Aware

Or, how I learned to let go of ‘why’ and fall in love with ‘what’


Aaron Nichols

2 years ago | 5 min read

Back in 2011, A co-worker I’d known for 2 weeks called me, asked me to say goodbye to his family, and stepped in front of a semi on the interstate without so much as a “thank you” or a “goodbye.”

five months ago, I wrote about this trauma in detail, and it dredged up some undealt-with feelings. I started asking myself: would there be a way to insulate myself against this ever happening again? Of course, not completely. The people in our lives are often unpredictable. But I wanted to make sure I could trust the people I’d meet in the future.

This sent me down a strange rabbit hole: self-awareness research.

Surely, someone who was self-aware wouldn’t have done what Mark (name changed) did to me, I thought.

“ The beginning of knowledge is something we do not understand.”
-Frank Herbert

Dr. Tasha Eurich has spent years trying to bring the science of self-awareness into one place.

In her book Insight, psychologist Tasha Eurich speaks to the struggles she had to even find a cohesive definition of what self-awareness is within her own field:

“When I set out to summarize the current state of scientific knowledge on self-awareness, I honestly came up with more questions than answers, starting with the most central question: what was self-awareness, exactly?… When I began my research program, I was surprised to discover the astonishing lack of agreement about how to define it.”

Eurich went through a Herculean effort to bring together the standard research on the subject and then collected 50 self-awareness unicorns to study (people whose peers and families had rated them as highly self-aware) And undertook a massive study of them. Through the course of her research, she discovered that:

  • There are two distinct types of self-awareness, internal and external (understanding yourself versus understanding the impact you have on others). Surprisingly, these have zero correlation to each other. You can have high degrees of external and have no internal, or vice-versa.
  • There are seven pillars that make up self-awareness that self-aware people possess, and unaware people do not: values, passions, aspirations, fit, patterns, reactions, and impact.
  • 95% of people rate themselves as highly self-aware when surveyed, but only 10% actually are (Eurich likes to joke that on a good day, 80% of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves). Only 10–15% of us are actually self-aware, according to her research. 10–15%!

Hearing that, the reaction that most people have is to place ourselves in that 10–15% in our heads. I know I did! That’s the other side of the self-awareness coin. We all assume that we are, that it’s the plebeians out there who aren’t self-aware.

Essentially, when it comes to self-awareness, we’re just a bunch of headless chickens running blindly through society.

Unfortunately, 95% of us can’t all be right. If we were, our society would have solved all of our major problems by now.

When I took Tasha Eurich’s Insight quiz, I went in assuming that I would rate highly in internal self-awareness, but low in external self-awareness. I filled out the quiz and sent it off to my girlfriend at the time (this is a major plot point of the quiz, you must send it to someone who knows you well). We can’t measure our own self-awareness objectively. We need outside help.

When we got our results back, after my girlfriend and I had taken the quiz for each other, my jaw dropped.

Spoilers: I wasn’t very self-aware

My girlfriend was in the highest category of self-awareness, and I was in the lowest. The lowest! My head reeled, but I knew I needed to sit down and do the work required to fix this. It made sense. There’s a string of unfulfilling flings and broken relationships in my wake.

Over the past seven years, I’ve put myself in a myriad of situations that have made me miserable, that could have easily been avoided if I’d understood how I fit into the world.

A spiral ensued as I looked over the emotional baggage that I was carrying. How did this happen? How could I not be self-aware? I reasoned. I’ve been to so many places! Experienced so many different cultures. How could this test say this about me? I’m so introspective! Me?! Not self-aware?! It’s the scandal of the century!

Turns out introspection was the culprit

In her TED Talk, Dr. Tasha Eurich makes the distinction between why questions and what questions, and the kind of people who ask them.

Why questions make us miserable. They trigger an emotional response, rather than a logical one.

I’d been living as a why question fiend in those days.

Why am I not happy?

Why do I not feel loved?

I, I, I, I, I! Ego! Me!

Introspection cannot change you or your life on its own. Unless you’re running things by the people that you love/pay for therapy to test them out, introspection is just you doubling down on nonsense.

I had to learn to ask what, not why

So there I was, nowhere near as self-aware as I thought I was.

I was faced with a choice. I could give in to victimhood or fundamentalism, either of which would mean burying my head in the sand and ignoring these results.

Luckily, Tasha Eurich’s research shows that self-awareness is a strengthenable skill.

I made one small switch:

I started asking what, not why. This has paid massive dividends in my life!

Why questions draw us to our limitations; what questions help us see our potential. Why questions stir up negative emotions; what questions keep us curious. Why questions trap us in our past; what questions help us create a better future. Indeed, making the transition from why to what can be the difference between victimhood and growth.
-Dr. Tasha Eurich

The question “why am I like this?” will never lead to a productive answer. You’ll end up going down roads like “because my mother never loved me” *shudder*.

The question “what can I do to improve myself?” is addressing the same issue, and will yield much better results. There’s potential for a solid, concrete plan there. ‘Why’ is shifting sand. ‘What’ is rock solid.

The people we meet deserve our trust, and they deserve to be able to trust us. If we become ‘what’ people, we can be the foundation that the people we love desperately need.


Created by

Aaron Nichols

4x top Medium writer, educator, and vagabond. Newsletter: Email or send a raven south to contact him







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