In this in-depth discussion with Dr Patricia Thompson of Silver Lining Psychology we learn about self-awareness, and how it helps us grow. She also discussed how self-awareness has guided her through difficult times in her personal life. For those new to the topic, she lays out a good framework to understand self-awareness, mindfulness meditation, and emotional intelligence.
What is self awareness? How does it differ from emotional intelligence?
Self awareness is as it sounds, it's having a deep understanding of yourself. Understanding your strengths, your weaknesses, your triggers, your values, your habits, everything that makes you you. So it's understanding your personality and how you tend to respond in different sorts of situations.
Emotional intelligence is like self awareness. But you take it a step further. Emotional intelligence is being able to recognize your emotions, and being able to manage them appropriately. There is also a social element to emotional intelligence, where you are able to recognize other people's emotions and adjust your behavior accordingly.
Was there something that happened in your life that led you to self awareness?
I've always been pretty self analytical, even as a child. But almost ten years ago, I had an experience that really challenged me, and brought me closer to myself. I was four years into a relationship with someone who I thought I was going to marry. But instead of being committed to me, it turned out he was actually dating his co-worker.
I needed new coping strategies to help me deal with the betrayal, because I hadn't dealt with that kind of stress before. That’s when I began mindfulness meditation. It taught me to observe myself in a different way. I learned to observe myself without judgment.
When I was being mindful, I wasn't critical of myself, which allowed me to be far more observant of what was going on within me and around me. Taking judgment out of a negative situation allows you to avoid assigning a lot of fault to yourself. It really helps you understand who you are.
This was very important for me, because I’ve seen people go through similar situations and become really bitter. I didn't want to be a bitter person - I really wanted to learn from this situation and grow from it. So in a way I'm actually grateful that happened to me. In retrospect, it offered me a lot of personal growth and helped me become more confident, more willing to take risks and do different things.
How do we deal with stress when it’s not caused by someone else? What if our own habits are the cause of our stress?
When clients say they're really stressed, I often ask them how they’re contributing to their own stress. This is because I think we often look for external sources, and we're quick to blame other people instead of looking at our own role.
For example, one thing that stresses a lot of people is the feeling that they don't have enough time. I think the truth is most people aren't necessarily as productive as they think they are. So they think they don't have enough time, when they actually do.
What they need to do is be more efficient. One study found that people in a workplace interrupted themselves anywhere from 17 to 27 times an hour. Most of these interruptions were not from other people, it was them interrupting themselves to do things like check their smartphone, or check an email, or check social media.
I think the other thing that creates stress is how we choose to look at situations. For example, I’m based in Atlanta, and we have horrible traffic. I look at the cars beside me and people are just miserable. I get it, you’re stuck in a car. But you can use that time to decide you're miserable, and get mad at every person driving too slowly, or you can recognize “this is a highly stressful situation for me - and instead of getting stressed - I’m going to use this time to listen to music or a podcast I like.” The next day you could even leave 20 minutes earlier so you don't end up in the worst part of rush hour traffic. Trying to figure out what factors are at play, and making active choices can make your environment less stressful.
Going one step further, how can I break a habit?
You have to be really intentional and disciplined to break a habit, because if it were easy to break, it wouldn't be a habit in the first place. You have to be committed to doing it. And the one thing I would recommend is picking one habit to break at a time.
So for people changing their diet, for example, they need to avoid having foods around the house that they're going to binge on. Or for those struggling with productivity at work, they can put their smartphone on the other side of the room while they’re working.
However, if you find you're still getting pulled towards a habit, you want to set small goals for yourself. Train yourself to not look at your smartphone for 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, until you can work your way up to an hour. Start small but set really strict guidelines for yourself that you can stick to. Then ratchet it up over time.
Speaking of habits, have you found that it is more successful to meditate in the morning? Or is it better towards the end of your day?
It's best to meditate whenever you're most likely to do it. If someone isn’t a morning person, but decides they're going to mediate as soon as they get up, this could ruin their morning - and then they won’t do it at all. Like all new habits, you have to find the time when you are most likely to do it, and then stick to that time as best you can. For some people, it might be as simple as taking 10 minutes during their lunch break, when they know they’re not going to be interrupted. It's not going to become a practice unless you make the time to do it, so you need to figure out how it will fit in your schedule.
As someone who has practiced meditation for for some time, can you help us understand what you think about when you're meditating?
There are different approaches to this. One is known as Mindfulness Meditation. One way of doing this technique is to try to focus on your breathing. You might also give yourself something to think about. Some people like to count their breaths so that gives their mind something to do. Others like to repeat a mantra. Anything that gives your mind something to do can be helpful as a means of managing runaway thoughts.
I think a lot of people think that if they have a thought when they’re meditating then they're not doing it right. But the fact is your brain thinks. It's what it does. What you learn to do is as a thought comes up, you notice it and then you let it go, and focus back on your breathing. Then another thought will come up, and you let it go, and focus back on your breathing.
Every time you do this you’re teaching yourself to let the thought go and focus back on your breathing. In the process you're building the skill to be able to get rid of a distraction or let go of a lingering thought. This can really help you in other stressful situations because you can calm yourself down, let the thought go, and focus on what it is that you want to focus on. It takes practice, and I can't say I always have a clear mind just because I meditate, because I don't. But it's still very helpful for me.
Everyone, as you said, believes they’re too busy to make time for themselves. What advice about self awareness do you have for the super busy person being pulled in every direction?
Self awareness is a process and I think we're always learning more about ourselves and peeling back the onion. Honestly, I think that's what makes life so enjoyable, the process of really figuring out who we are, and what makes us tick. So more than anything, I encourage everyone, even busy people, to do just that. Be curious, really curious, about yourself. You’ll learn a lot about yourself.