The Self-Awareness Onion

Self-awareness is like an onion. There are multiple layers to it, and the more you peel them back, the more likely you’re going to start crying at inappropriate times.

Let’s say the first layer of the self-awareness onion is a simple understanding of one’s emotions. “This is when I feel happy.” “This makes me feel sad.” “This gives me hope.”

Unfortunately, there are many people who suck at even this most basic level of self-awareness. I know because I’m one of them. My wife and I sometimes have a fun back-and-forth that goes something like this:

HER. What’s wrong?

ME. Nothing’s wrong. Nothing at all.

HER. No, something’s wrong. Tell me.

ME. I’m fine. Really.

HER. Are you sure? You look upset.

ME, with nervous laughter. Really? No, I’m okay, seriously.

[Thirty minutes later . . . ]

ME. . . . And that’s why I’m so fucking pissed off! He just acts as if I don’t exist half the time.

We all have emotional blind spots. Often they have to do with the emotions that we were taught were inappropriate growing up. It takes years of practice and effort to get good at identifying blind spots in ourselves and then expressing the affected emotions appropriately. But this task is hugely important, and worth the effort.

The second layer of the self-awareness onion is an ability to ask why we feel certain emotions.

These why questions are difficult and often take months or even years to answer consistently and accurately. Most people need to go to some sort of therapist just to hear these questions asked for the first time. Such questions are important because they illuminate what we consider success or failure. Why do you feel angry? Is it because you failed to achieve some goal? Why do you feel lethargic and uninspired? Is it because you don’t think you’re good enough?

This layer of questioning helps us understand the root cause of the emotions that overwhelm us. Once we understand that root cause, we can ideally do something to change it.

But there’s another, even deeper level of the self-awareness onion. And that one is full of fucking tears. The third level is our personal values: Why do I consider this to be success/failure? How am I choosing to measure myself? By what standard am I judging myself and everyone around me?

This level, which takes constant questioning and effort, is incredibly difficult to reach. But it’s the most important, because our values determine the nature of our problems, and the nature of our problems determines the quality of our lives.

Values underlie everything we are and do. If what we value is unhelpful, if what we consider success/failure is poorly chosen, then everything based upon those values—the thoughts, the emotions, the day-to-day feelings—will all be out of whack. Everything we think and feel about a situation ultimately comes back to how valuable we perceive it to be.

Most people are horrible at answering these why questions accurately, and this prevents them from achieving a deeper knowledge of their own values. Sure, they may say they value honesty and a true friend, but then they turn around and lie about you behind your back to make themselves feel better. People may perceive that they feel lonely. But when they ask themselves why they feel lonely, they tend to come up with a way to blame others—everyone else is mean, or no one is cool or smart enough to understand them—and thus they further avoid their problem instead of seeking to solve it.

For many people this passes as self-awareness. And yet, if they were able to go deeper and look at their underlying values, they would see that their original analysis was based on avoiding responsibility for their own problem, rather than accurately identifying the problem. They would see that their decisions were based on chasing highs, not generating true happiness.

Most self-help gurus ignore this deeper level of self-awareness as well. They take people who are miserable because they want to be rich, and then give them all sorts of advice on how to make more money, all the while ignoring important values-based questions: Why do they feel such a need to be rich in the first place? How are they choosing to measure success/failure for themselves? Is it not perhaps some particular value that’s the root cause of their unhappiness, and not the fact that they don’t drive a Bentley yet?

Much of the advice out there operates at a shallow level of simply trying to make people feel good in the short term, while the real long-term problems never get solved. People’s perceptions and feelings may change, but the underlying values, and the metrics by which those values are assessed, stay the same. This is not real progress. This is just another way to achieve more highs.

Honest self-questioning is difficult. It requires asking yourself simple questions that are uncomfortable to answer. In fact, in my experience, the more uncomfortable the answer, the more likely it is to be true.

Take a moment and think of something that’s really bugging you. Now ask yourself why it bugs you. Chances are the answer will involve a failure of some sort. Then take that failure and ask why it seems “true” to you. What if that failure wasn’t really a failure? What if you’ve been looking at it the wrong way?

A recent example from my own life:

“It bugs me that my brother doesn’t return my texts or emails.”

Why?

“Because it feels like he doesn’t give a shit about me.”

Why does this seem true?

“Because if he wanted to have a relationship with me, he would take ten seconds out of his day to interact with me.”

Why does his lack of relationship with you feel like a failure?

“Because we’re brothers; we’re supposed to have a good relationship!”

Two things are operating here: a value that I hold dear, and a metric that I use to assess progress toward that value. My value: brothers are supposed to have a good relationship with one another. My metric: being in contact by phone or email—this is how I measure my success as a brother. By holding on to this metric, I make myself feel like a failure, which occasionally ruins my Saturday mornings.

We could dig even deeper, by repeating the process:

Why are brothers supposed to have a good relationship?

“Because they’re family, and family are supposed to be close!”

Why does that seem true?

“Because your family is supposed to matter to you more than anyone else!”

Why does that seem true?

“Because being close with your family is ‘normal’ and ‘healthy,’ and I don’t have that.”

In this exchange I’m clear about my underlying value—having a good relationship with my brother—but I’m still struggling with my metric. I’ve given it another name, “closeness,” but the metric hasn’t really changed: I’m still judging myself as a brother based on frequency of contact—and comparing myself, using that metric, against other people I know. Everyone else (or so it seems) has a close relationship with their family members, and I don’t. So obviously there must be something wrong with me.

But what if I’m choosing a poor metric for myself and my life? What else could be true that I’m not considering? Well, perhaps I don’t need to be close to my brother to have that good relationship that I value. Perhaps there just needs to be some mutual respect (which there is). Or maybe mutual trust is what to look for (and it’s there). Perhaps these metrics would be better assessments of brotherhood than how many text messages he and I exchange.

This clearly makes sense; it feels true for me. But it still fucking hurts that my brother and I aren’t close. And there’s no positive way to spin it. There’s no secret way to glorify myself through this knowledge. Sometimes brothers—even brothers who love each other—don’t have close relationships, and that’s fine. It is hard to accept at first, but that’s fine. What is objectively true about your situation is not as important as how you come to see the situation, how you choose to measure it and value it. Problems may be inevitable, but the meaning of each problem is not. We get to control what our problems mean based on how we choose to think about them, the standard by which we choose to measure them.