The concept of self-awareness is pretty darn trendy but often overused without any meaningful action. There are many layers of self-awareness and most of us barely scratch the surface.
This post will actually show you what self-awareness really means and three action steps for a very special group of people that, let’s say, I understand really well, the avoidant-dismissive. That’s avoidant of their own emotions and dismissive of everyone else’s experiences and feelings. Now, you may not identify yourself with this group, but keep on reading because I can guarantee you’ll find something helpful in here.
Narcissistic, emotionally unavailable, avoidant-dismissive, cold, selfish, unemotional, and a variety of other unflattering labels; some clinical and some just common sense. Some of us identify with these labels, some are in a relationship with them; some of them are our relatives, and some are our friends. This post is for all of those that can relate in one way or another.
Some of these individuals are proud of such labels, a few are uncomfortable with them, but most of them are completely unaware of these labels, what they mean, and how they affect other people, and how in turn it affects their own lives.
Just like any other personality traits, theirs come on a continuum, from low to high, but most of the people in this group possess characteristics that are so intense they are unforgettable to others.
For more information on emotional unavailability in a relationship, check out this free guide Are you in a relationship with an emotionally unavailable? Or this blog post.
Like I mentioned, we are generally talking about people who are avoidant of their own feelings and dismissive of other’s emotions because they ‘ve been conditioned to focus on their own survival and never really learned the skills of empathy. I will not dive deeply into how they got here. I explained some of it in the posts mentioned above.
But I do want to move on to some gentle action steps. I say gentle because it’s very important to this group. They will not move fast on something they don’t see a problem with and they will shut down when someone else (especially someone close) tells them they have a problem. Remember the hallmark of such personality traits is a deep sense of MISTRUST towards other people because their caregivers often ignored their emotional, mental, and even physical safety.
The first step just like with anything else is indeed self-awareness. We often talk about self-awareness, but most of the times we talk about it as related to other people, and we miss the connection to ourselves. I am not sure that most people really understand or practice it to the level of detail that will actually make a difference in one’s personality (which is very difficult to change).
At a glance, self-awareness is knowing one’s internal state, preferences, resources, intuition. That means knowing and understanding why and how you are feeling, thinking, and behaving, during good times, but especially during uncomfortable and unpleasant times.
But follow along here in this example to see the nuances that make a big difference:
Level 1: My spouse is too hard to take. She is nagging me all the time and annoying me with questions on everything.
Level 2: Last week, I got angry with my wife because her questions made me feel overwhelmed and like I couldn’t breathe. I snapped at her and then I had to get out of the house to get some space.
Level 3: I’m in the middle of a fight right now. My wife’s questions are reminding me of my mother when I didn’t do something right. I feel accused and like she doesn’t care about how I feel. My heart is racing, my head feels like it’s going to explode. I don’t want to yell at her, but I don’t know how to get her off my back.
Level 4: I’m in the middle of a fight. We are going through the same scenario again. I’m tired and don’t have the emotional availability or patience to deal with this right now. Honey, I want to hear you out and respond properly, not just get mad at you or walk out. I know you are upset. Can you maybe, take a few minutes as well and not attack me, and let’s come back and talk about it tomorrow? Maybe if it can’t wait, just write it down and I promise I will read it.
See the difference? That takes a lot of practice and taps into 3 big areas:
Step 1: Emotional awareness, which is recognizing your own emotions and their effects on your thoughts, words, and actions.
Step 2: Accurate self-assessment, which is knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses
Step 3: Self-confidence, which is a strong sense of self-worth and capabilities
Step 1: Emotional awareness
Learning how to talk is a big milestone for a child. Talking is really about labeling things, actions, information, and of course, emotions.
But, as a child, starting out, you need help from your parents to teach you how to talk and label things. Emotionally challenged and dismissive parents will teach you how to label food, clothes, toys, things you are supposed to do, but will not teach you how to label emotions. And without anyone intervening along your journey, you will not get any better as an adult.
At the beginning, it will be hard to identify emotions, more than I feel good or I feel bad, or I feel like being by myself, or I feel anger, lots of anger.
The best time to work on this is when you feel an intense emotion, positive or negative. Take a few moments to step away from the situation, find some privacy, print a list of emotions (also available in my 5-day email series, From Emotionally Challenged to Emotionally Savvy), and use the questions to guiding you through gaining new awareness:
- What are my sensations in my body?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how strong are they?
- What are the images in my mind?
- What feelings am I experiencing?
- “Name and tame” the feelings: I feel sadness , I feel envy, I feel disappointment.
- What thoughts are crossing my mind?
- What words are on the tip of the tongue?
- What patterns from your past is this experience triggering?
In today’s fast-paced society, we don’t have the time to think, let alone feel, and connect the dots between our emotions, words, and actions. But this step is the essential foundation for becoming more emotionally intelligent.
Tip 1: Take time to do nothing else other than play a game of connect-the-dots between your emotion, your thoughts, your words, and your actions.
Step 2: Accurate self-assessment
Avoidant-dismissive individuals don’t have an accurate sense of their strengths and weaknesses. They most likely grew up with two kinds of parents. One option is the type of parents who were negative, critical, and judgmental and focused too much on their weaknesses. This created an aversion toward any kind of feedback and resentment toward anything that’s perceived as weakness. And now, as adults, they are easily triggered by critical feedback because they are reminded by their caregivers’ parenting style. As no one appreciated their thoughts, feedback, ideas, growing up, they are not very inclined to listen to others, now as adults.
Or they grew up with parents who could not tolerate that their kids would have any weaknesses so they focused so much on pumping them up and telling them how great they are at everything, despite their limitations. Now as an adult, the idea of imperfection or weakness is intolerable and not acceptable to an ego that never had to be exposed to constructive criticism.
Either way, accurate self-assessment does not come easy, as they often underestimate or overestimate themselves. I see this every day, especially with highly successful people in the corporate world. The biggest strengths also become their biggest weaknesses: the blind ambition, not taking no for an answer, the need to appear right at all costs, the arrogance and the unrealistic goals, the relentless striving for more (compulsive hard working), pushing others too hard, the addiction to recognition, and of course, the need for perfection.
Avoidant-dismissive people are unaware of their biggest weaknesses: the lack of trust, the deep need to rely on others and yet everyone is so unreliable and often disappointing, the fear of getting hurt, rejected, let down, and judged. These are big triggers for anxiety and anger which will often read them into a highly reactive but unwise reaction. How do they change that? Very slowly by following the tip below.
Tip 2: Follow your gut and intuition (something that was not encouraged as a child); take one aspect of your life: relationship, work, parenting and write down 3 things you enjoy doing and 3 things you are not enjoying. Most likely, the things you enjoy doing are related to a strength, while the others are related to something you can improve on.
STEP 3: Self-confidence
This can be a little tricky! Avoidant-dismissive individuals APPEAR very confident on the outside. Narcissistic people (if you go to the extreme end of the continuum) appear straight up boastful and arrogant. You’d never think that any of these individuals are missing self-confidence.
But that’s because we are using the wrong definition of self-confidence. Unlike many managers, CEOs, high-powered lawyers, or presidents that believe that strength, power, and confidence come from having no weaknesses, being always right, and pointing the flaws in everyone else, the truly confident people are the ones that have a good, thorough, and realistic understanding of what they are good at, what they are bad at, and the ability to discuss that freely with their team.
Self-confidence is the ability to say “I’m sorry” when one screws up, but also the courage to say “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved” when something was done right.
Self-confidence is difficult for these individuals because they have been conditioned that a weakness makes you less of a person and that if you admit your weaknesses, people will use that against you. Again, the fear of failure and a deep mistrust of others are the main motivators to maintain these behaviors.
Tip 3: Get a journal (or just a plain notebook). Once a week, take some time to write down things you’ve done well, that you are truly proud of. But then, also write down a few things that you could have done better. Take this example: “I was able to give Bob a compliment on a job well done, and I didn’t make it about me” and “I lost my cool with Susan, and snapped at her when it wasn’t really necessary”
Emotional awareness, self-assessment, and building healthy self-confidence are the foundational steps of inner strength, genuine relationships, and true leadership.
I want to know about you: your experience with everything you’ve read; what resonates with you most? And do you know anyone that could learn from this?
ABOUT: ABOUT: Dr. Ruxandra LeMay is a licensed psychologist with experience and interest in family therapy, stress and anxiety management, emotional intelligence and executive coaching. She is the author of My Spouse Wants More Sex Than Me: The 2-Minute Solution For a Happier Marriage and My Spouse is Different Than Me: How to Mediate Irreconcilable Differences and Grow in Your Marriage. Check out her 5-day free email series, From Emotionally Challenged To Emotionally Savvy for people struggling with emotional availability and lacking a sense of connection. For more information, join her at ruxandralemay.com, a website for people who hate therapy, but still need it!