My understanding of the 3 levels of self-awareness

Estimated reading time: 5 min 27 sec

Each human being is like an onion. We have layers on top of layers and with different life experiences, we get to discover another layer.

This article reflects my opinions and perspectives on the article, ‘The three levels of self-awareness’, by Mark Manson where he mentions the concept of layers of an onion and self-awareness.

Setting the stage:

Reading articles, like the one above, makes me stop and think about my life, the choices I made and those I am making. When I read this article, I could picture myself going through all these levels.

For me, until I was 18, I feel that I used to go through life, unaware of myself, not asking questions about what I was feeling. I was just looking at life pass by without observing and thinking critically, accepting whatever people would feed me. I was oblivious to the external world. I was like a robot, programmed to do one thing, and not aware of what’s going on around me.

If I analyze myself, then I think that being exposed to different opinions, meeting different types of people, and talking to them made me more self-aware in the long-run.

Becoming self-aware does not happen overnight. After a while of going through life like a robot, you meet people and experience events that make you question yourself, and that makes you rethink your status quo.

The first level is ‘what the hell are you doing?’. You need to analyze your actions and find a pattern. Observing yourself but not judging and finding the links. Here’s a personal example of the pattern that I found.

  1. We feel pain.

For instance, when I was in my second year of university, I felt very lonely. Most of the friends that I made during my first year had transferred overseas for the 2 + 2 program. So, I felt lonely when I was in class. This affected me quite a bit, taking a toll on my grades. At that time, I didn’t put two and two together to link the event with the feeling.

2. We drown our pain in distractions.

Instead, I distracted myself from this feeling by enrolling in different activities around campus. I did the bare minimum in my classes and didn’t realize that my priorities had changed.

Whenever I felt lonely, I would go out of my way to find a social activity to suppress and eliminate the feeling.

This had become a habit. There was a cue – loneliness, the routine was to distract me with social activities and the reward was the elimination of loneliness and temporary joy. Charles Duhigg’s book introduces this concept in his book, The Power of Habit.

The Power of Habit4

3. We arrive at a point where something clicks; at a tipping point where we become aware of what we are doing and how it negatively affects us.

Nothing done in excess is good.

Mark Twain

Everything in moderation, including moderation.

Oscar Wilde

The second level is ‘What the hell are you feeling?

It takes a lot of courage to admit that you cannot understand what you are feeling and you are overwhelmed by the constricting emotions. For some, they can share with their significant others or their closed ones, for others, it requires them to meditate and follow mindfulness practices. For some, it requires them to go to counseling or therapy. The third way is considered taboo in some cultures, religions, regions, and countries. Very few people can gather the guts to open up to a stranger. Some people resort to the former two while the rest just aren’t able to level up.

This level is where we realize what we are feeling and why we are feeling whatever that emotion is. Mark explains self-awareness through the analogy of peeling an onion, one layer at a time as well as through a story.

There’s an old apocryphal story from 16th-century India where a young man climbs a large mountain to speak to the sage at the top. Supposedly this sage knew, like, everything and stuff. And this young man was anxious to understand the secrets of the world.

Upon arriving at the top of the mountain, the sage greeted the young man and invited him to ask him anything (note: this was way before Reddit threads). The young man then asked him his question, “Great sage, we stand upon the world, but what does the world stand upon?”

The sage immediately replied, “The world rests upon the back of a number of great elephants.”

The young man thought for a moment, and then asked, “Yes, but what do the elephants stand upon?”

The sage replied again, without hesitation, “The elephants rest upon the back of a great turtle.”

The young man, still not satisfied, asked, “Yes, but what does the great turtle rest upon?”

The sage replied, “It rests upon an even greater turtle.”

The young man, growing frustrated, began to ask, “But what does–”

“No, no,” the sage interrupted, “stop there–it’s turtles all the way down.”

In the story, if the sage hadn’t interrupted the young man, the conversation would have spiraled into an infinite loop. After a certain point (an earlier point than we think) we cannot go elsewhere we will keep converging to the same/similar answer.

What I find useful to use here is the 5 whys method. This lean method allows us to find and analyze the root cause in a very effective way. It is mostly used as a lean manufacturing tool but nowadays it can be used as a continuous improvement tool. This method allows us to get to the root cause fairly quickly. See the example below.

5 Whys method2

Once you get the root cause from this method, there is clarity in your mind. It’s like seeing those optical illusion photos of an old and young woman and you can see either one, but not both. Going through the 5 whys allows you to see both and to know how to differentiate between them. That becomes an extraordinary ‘aha!’ moment.

The last level is ‘What the hell are your blind spots?’

Once we are aware of our emotions through this process, we also become aware of how flawed we are. Mark elaborates more on our flawed consciousness. One main flaw that we can find is this:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.

Bill Gates, The road ahead

This quote by Bill Gates is an extremely powerful one once you understand it and use it to act on your life.

I see similar analogies in different concepts from different fields, especially from psychology and behavioral finance. This article delves right into how we overestimate the short run and how we underestimate the risk in the long run. Another article points out a graph that accurately depicts what this means.

The S-curve – a sigmoid function (Carlota Perez and others3)

While this quote stands true, another concept that is related to overestimation is ‘impact bias’. We keep overreacting and overestimating what happened to us in the short run without realizing that whatever we felt at that moment will not be and cannot be transferred to another moment. After that moment of scare or happiness or sadness passes we are going to return “back to normal”. This is termed as the impact bias1, James Clear successfully explains it more clearly in his article How to be happy when everything goes wrong.

Once we are aware of our weaknesses, we reach the ultimate destination of self-awareness, which is self-acceptance. We have to find the patterns in our actions, then observe our feelings attached to the actions to be able to figure out and accept our weaknesses. This helps us vanquish the weakness and we can use this opportunity to improve on them.

There are several experts out there who can give you advice. This Forbes article covers Tasha Eurich’s (organizational psychologist and author of Insight) advice on how to become more self-aware. Just remember that different tips work for different people. You need to find, through trial and error, the advice that works for you.

I hope that this article was informative for you.

Please do share your thoughts and comments!


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