Emotional Self-Awareness: How to Avoid Things that Go Bump in the Night

Imagine yourself waking up in the night and heading to the kitchen for a midnight snack. You’re halfway across the pitch dark room when suddenly a monstrous howl erupts at your feet. Filled with adrenaline you cry out in terror. And then it sinks in that the “monster” is your dog – whose tail you just stepped on.

This illustration is a metaphorical parallel to what happens when we operate without Emotional Self-Awareness. If we’re unable to see what crosses our path, how are we to know it is there? Let alone consider or respond to it effectively? Making our way in the dark, we’re vulnerable to stumbling into surprises that leave us reeling and reacting. In this blog, we explore Emotional Self-Awareness, which we liken to motion detector lighting. PAIRIN describes it as follows:

Emotional Self-Awareness is reading one’s own emotions and recognizing their impact on personal choices and interactions with others.

People with high Emotional Self-Awareness realize what’s happening in their inner world and how this impacts others. They can discern subtle shades of feelings (sad, hurt or embarrassed) and the underlying causes. Attuned to their internal signals as they arise, they can reflect, interpret and respond with conscious choice. They avoid emotional “ambushes” and instinctive reactions. Prone to openness and optimism, they tend to relate positively and with confidence.

So, what will this motion sensor bring to light? There is intense scientific debate around the topic of emotions: How many are there? Which are primary versus secondary? How do they link to feelings? Let’s just say that like colors, emotions form different shades and like words, they carry various meanings. The human eye can discern 10 million colors given a single lighting condition and there are over 3,000 feelings listed in the English language alone. Just as with colors and words, many scientists have made it their life’s work to “go figure” the infinite possibilities of emotions.

But let’s focus on what’s practically important in life and the workplace. Our emotions and connected feelings are the driving forces behind our behaviors. Therefore, the first step toward changing our behaviors – and how they affect others – is the development of Emotional Self-Awareness. Skills that might seem unrelated like Empathy, Teamwork and Conflict Management all begin with the cornerstone of Emotional Self-Awareness. Furthermore, research has shown this attribute to be a key contributor to effective work climates:

Korn Ferry Hay Group research found that among leaders with strengths in Emotional Self-Awareness, 92% had teams with high energy and high performance. In sharp contrast, leaders low in Emotional Self-Awareness created negative climates 78% of the time. (Goleman, 2017)

It can be difficult for individuals to detect emotional signals for several reasons: (1) Our emotions often change from one moment to the next, (2) We may experience several emotions at any one time, (3) The most critical times for awareness are when we’re least likely to show awareness—under stress; and (4) We can have historical mental blocks and which inhibit readiness to recognize certain emotions.

However, there are many strategies for learning to understand our emotions and to consciously think before taking deliberate action. The components of fully developed Emotional Self-Awareness include: Sensing the onset of a feeling, acknowledging its presence, identifying it by name, accepting it, reflecting on its cause and forecasting its future reappearance. We will typically need to respond (to a person or event) somewhere along that timeline, but the more awareness steps we can ultimately achieve, the better. All of them are important!

Developing Emotional Self-Awareness

Begin with exploration: How are my feelings showing up in my body? Am I experiencing tenseness in my shoulders, clenched teeth, fear or anxiousness? How strong is this emotion? Why do I feel so anxious about ______ ? Why do I become angry with this person? Did I intentionally resist or put off what my co-worker asked me to do? What is it about our brainstorming sessions that makes me shut down? What else might I do to control my reaction? When is the next time I might face this emotion?

Here’s a simple emotion logging format that PAIRIN recommends:

  • I felt ______.
  • I felt this way because _______.
  • This is what I did with it: _______.
  • Something else I could have done is _______.
Tip: Making use of one of the various online “List of Feelings” will help you to expand your ability to label your emotions. Start with a basic list and then learn to recognize emotions at increasing levels of detail.

Interpreting emotions means understanding that emotions can be useful or not useful. So, it is best not to judge or “invalidate” them, but to examine their benefit. For example, fear can move us out of the path of an oncoming train or sadness may allow us to connect to those we love. It is also important to note both responses that went well in addition to those that could have gone better. This way, you will give yourself objective and constructive feedback in a manner that will lead to accurate Self-Assessment and build Self-Confidence.

Once established, Emotional Self-Awareness is an internal light—detecting the motion of our emotions and shedding clarity on the path to our goals. It will give us the freedom to respond rather than react. Reacting is instinctual, but responding is making a conscious choice. With the help of Emotional Self-Awareness, we are happily able to let the sleeping dog lie rather than bump into those “monsters” in the night.