Self-Awareness: Change Your Thinking and Overcome Challenges: Part I

Using Self-Awareness to Change Your Thinking and Overcome ChallengesI am very passionate about leadership, self-development and personal growth and have been on my own personal leadership journey for the last 15 years. I’ve read countless self-help books and followed multiple improvement programs for the mind and body. I’ve gone through therapy and still do when I have a particularly vexing issue. I’ve been coached extensively and attended leadership coach training. All of which has led me down a path to become a certified leadership coach and to share with others what has helped me turn my life into a positive, productive and happy existence. On this path, challenges and obstacles still bump me around. I wouldn’t be human or normal if they didn’t.

After my last bout of difficulty and challenge, I decided to look back and see what were the practices that allowed me to come out on the other side with direction, purpose and resolution. This exercise led me to look back even further at other points in my life where I had challenges and how I overcame them. After digging through the data, what I discovered is a pretty simple system, which produces clarity around my emotions, thoughts and feelings, and gives me more choices.

Creating choices

Creating choices and seeing other avenues to deal with my challenges and blocks was and still is the launching point to move forward. Depending on how tough I perceived the challenge to be or how big of rut I put myself in determined the amount of time and the amount of work required before these choices became apparent to me.

The work required is the practice of slowing down thoughts long enough to able to see them from a different point of view. With new perspectives you can begin to see what is prohibiting you from moving forward. When you break out of your thought, feeling and emotional patterns, you can use your conscious mind to objectively create new pathways forward (aka choices).

Through a process of creating presence and self-awareness, using self-observation and analyzing emotions, thoughts and language you can begin to see what has been prohibiting you from moving forward. Because once you can see what the thought is, you can make a choice. Once it is out in the open, you can use your conscious mind to make a different decision, choose a different thought and achieve a different outcome.

Here is the process I follow to help me get out of my own way, to create choices, move forward and overcome my challenges:

  1. Be present and self-aware of my thoughts
  2. Be a self-observer and collect data on my thinking
  3. Analyze and assess the data through my observer self (objectively)
  4. Create a desired outcome with emotion
  5. Make a better decision based on my new options to overcome my challenge/block

Presence and self-awareness are the keys to unlocking your thinkingWell this is great and all, but exactly how do you do this? This seems like a lot of work? How long does this take?

Exactly how you do this is by following the above steps repeatedly…practicing until it becomes habit and second nature. Yes, it is work, but a lot of work depends on how you look at it. It’s not a lot if it really helps you move forward. In the beginning it takes a bit longer as you mentally walk through each step. With practice it becomes faster until it is second nature and you now have a way of thinking which radically reduces stress, time wasted and improves decision-making.

Think about it,  if you could overcome your challenges and obstacles faster, what would that mean to you and to your life? What would it mean to your leadership to be able to execute more decisively and more clearly than ever?

To make this more digestible and to give you time to practice the steps, I am breaking this process out into a series of posts. Starting with creating presence and self-awareness.

Step 1: Be present and create self-awareness

“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”― C.G. Jung (Tweet this quote)

Presence and self-awareness are the keys to unlocking your thinking. They are the cornerstones to the entire system and must be understood and practiced to really make the self-observation and data collection successful.

The Oxford Dictionary defines presence as: the state or fact of existing, occurring or being present and defines present as: in a particular place or existing or occurring in a place or thing. To have presence and or to be present is being here (existing) at this exact moment in time. Not just physically, but more important, mentally. Being mentally present is what I am talking about here. Yes the Buddhism type of present. I am not going to ask you to dive into the philosophical beliefs of Buddhism or sit on a pillow; I merely request you keep an open mind and stay present.

Being in the present moment is what allows you to cultivate self-awareness. What is self-awareness? My favorite definition is again by Oxford Dictionaries, it defines self-awareness as: the conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives and desires. I would add being conscious of your body is just as important.

I would sum it up like this: be present in the now to be fully conscious of your feelings, thoughts and emotions.

Cultivating, in real time, the ability to know your thoughts, emotions and feelings in your mind and body opens the door to observing these thoughts and feelings and the resulting actions. This is easier said then done, as our thought processes are extremely fast. John Hart M.D. of Johns Hopkins University clocked a human thought between 250-450 milliseconds!  In his article The Brain: What is the Speed of Thought, Carl Zimmer states, “In fact, reducing the speed of thought in just the right places is crucial to the fundamentals of consciousness.” This is your goal.

Why is this important? Your ability to reduce the speed of your thoughts by being present in order to view them objectively instead of acting immediately on them is how you create choice. With choice comes the ability to make a different decisions and obtain different results. The key is to be present in the moment for long enough to catch your thoughts.

How do you slow down the freight train of thoughts? The tool I’ve used and the one I share with my coaching clients with great success in creating presence and becoming present is a simple breathing exercise.

Using the breath to create presence and self-awarenessExercise: Using the breath to create presence and self-awareness

Part I – Where to do it and how to breathe
  • Find a quiet place in your home, apartment or office with no distractions.
  • Sit comfortably upright in a chair with your feet planted on the floor about hip distance apart and close your eyes. Feel the gentle S-curve of your spine, no slouching.
  • Take couple big deep breathes through your abdomen. Can you do this? Does abdominal breathing feel a bit uncomfortable? Probably because you have never really experienced it or you are out of practice. Let’s take a quick look at how to breath through your abdomen:
    • To start, take a few deeps breaths and pay attention to where you feel them and for their quality. Are they in your upper chest? Are they short? Or, are they long and full coming from your entire abdominal/chest area?
    • Next place your hand on your abdomen (both hands on your belly button, below your ribs).
    • Start breathing with your hands on your abdomen and allow your abdomen fully expand when you inhale. For a minute don’t worry about your tight abs. When you exhale fully contract your abdomen and push the air out.
    • Keep focusing on [inhale/abdomen/expand] and [exhale/abdomen/contract] for a few minutes until you sense the difference in breathing this way.
    • Take your hands away from your abdomen, continue breathing and see if you can keep it up.
    • Practice this for as long as you need until you start feeling more comfortable with abdominal breathing.
    • Abdominal breathing is very important for our purposes as it focuses your mind on your breath, which in turn slows the mind and your thoughts. This is just one of the many benefits.
Part II –The art and practice of breathing
  • Once you have the feel for abdominal breathing, start focusing on your breath…one breath at a time. Focus on the inhale then the exhale.
  • As you try focusing on your breath, you may notice your mind wandering, don’t worry this is totally normal and expected, keep coming back to the breath.
  • Try this: Count from 10 down to 0. With the first abdominal breath say 10 to yourself, with the next breath say 9 and so on until you reach 0, then work your way back up to 10. Repeat this until you can eventually focus on your breath for 1 minute. (Note: start slow and do not worry about losing focus or your mind exploring. This is what the mind does).
Part III – Learning to observe
  • After breathing with your eyes closed for a few moments or minutes, open them and continue breathing.
  • What do you observe?
    • First, notice what you see, look at the colors in the room, look at the sharpness and or the contrast. Do this for a few moments and just take stock of what objects look like without judging them. Just mentally describe them as they are.
    • Second, bring awareness to your body and sensations. How does it feel? What do you feel? Is it cool? Is it warm?  Again without judgment.
    • Third, bring awareness to your mind, what are you thinking? What are you feeling? Can you name the thoughts and feelings? Try and be objective.
    • The order above is what I have found to be easiest as you begin to practice creating presence and awareness. You may just want to start with noticing objects or the few sessions, then after some practice move on to your body and thoughts.
    • Lastly, write out the entire experience (data collection) from beginning to end. I want you to get in the habit of observing and writing out what you see, feel and experience.

Becoming more self-aware of your thoughts takes practice and patience

Be patient with yourself and try not to judge how you are doing. At first, you will only see results during and directly after the exercise. Your mind will be calmer thoughts will be slower and you will be able to more clearly define what you are experiencing.  After a few sessions, I challenge you to shorten the practice and try it with your eyes open, and then while you are standing, then practice where there is some noise or distraction. Beginning this practice of presence and self-awareness will become easier with the goal of being able to go straight to the awareness of your thoughts, emotions and feelings in the moment. It is in this space of awareness where you will begin the next step in our process to help see and deal with your thoughts objectively and that is self-observation.

In the next post we will dive into what is means to be a self-observer, how to practice self-observation and what to do with the data that comes of it. For now, take the next week and begin practicing the exercise above.

Images courtesy: west.m, Esparta



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