Self-awareness: Getting in touch with your thoughts, emotions


Most people think that their level of self-awareness is pretty high. But Jane Coyle, LCSW, a psychotherapist who’s been in private practice in Vero Beach since 1992, says that’s often not the case.

Self-awareness is the ability to tune into your own feelings, thoughts and actions, and is related to the practice of mindfulness, which is gaining traction in the traditional medical world. When people are self-aware, they understand their strengths and challenges and know what helps them thrive. They also understand that how they see themselves may be different from how others see them.

An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that when we see ourselves clearly, we’re more confident and more creative. We make sounder decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.

Sounds good, but Coyle says our society doesn’t encourage people to be in touch with their thoughts and emotions – particularly men. “Many parents influence their kids to hide their emotions. They’ll tell a crying child to ‘buck up.’

“If your bigger child knocks your smaller child down, it’s sad if you say, ‘you’re not really hurt.’ You should pick him or her up … take them on your lap” and let them know it’s OK to be afraid or angry. Let them know you are there to protect and accept them and “help your child build a foundation where they can grow up and feel OK about expressing how they feel,” Coyle says.

“People who were raised in families where emotions weren’t cared for develop their own ways to not feel their feelings,” that often are not good for them.

“For example, they might engage in avoidance, which means they try to avoid places, people or situations that remind them of their distress, or take their negative feelings out on others,” according to Medical News Today.

Other coping strategies can include excessive screen time, binge watching television to experience other people’s emotions instead of their own or passing hours lost in TikTok reels. Excessive drug or alcohol use and other addictions such as sex addiction and exercise addiction are other ways people avoid facing and dealing with their feelings in healthy ways.

A recent report on NBC News offered suggestions from mental health experts on how to cultivate or enhance your self-awareness. Included were such topics as:

  • Be curious about who you are. To be self-aware, a person needs to be curious about themselves. Everyone has roads they do not wish to take and some roads they feel are worth exploring. Understanding yourself depends on what you’re ready to explore and experience.
  • Let your walls down. Try to let go of judgment and the instinctual urge to protect yourself. Sometimes this means you must be willing to see yourself in a less-than-positive light.
  • Look in the mirror – literally. When people first look at themselves, they are often very critical. If they learn how to shift their perspective and use their reflection for deeper self-awareness, they can learn to track their attention and emotions and gain new insights into how their thoughts are affecting them in real time.
  • Keep a journal and note what triggers feelings. Journaling helps you learn how to be mindful.
  • Substitute people time for screen time. Science tells us that we need reflections to develop our sense of self in relation to others. As we spend more time on devices, we miss this essential human mirroring. The symptoms of lack of mirroring include increases in anxiety, lack of empathy and intense self-objectification (as in the selfie craze).
  • Ask others how they see you. Talk to friends and loved ones and be courageous enough to ask how they perceive you in various situations. Getting perspective on how you behave or come off in certain situations can help you to be aware of something that was previously invisible to you.
  • Keep checking in with yourself. The most effective method for the development of self-awareness is a pause and brief check-in with oneself: ‘How am I feeling right now? What do I think might be driving that feeling?’”

Coyle says one of the exercises she uses most effectively when she’s teaching patients mindfulness is diaphragmatic breathing, which means the stomach, rather than the chest, moves with each breath, expanding while inhaling and contracting while exhaling.

Deliberately paying attention to each breath serves to calm and quiet the mind.

“At first, many of them think, it’s nuts, but I can’t tell you how many say later that learning deep breathing is one of the things that helped them most.

“I tell them to practice whenever their anxiety goes up, whether they’re on line at the grocery store or stuck in traffic. No one knows you’re doing it, but it allows you to step back and give yourself permission to take care of yourself.”

Besides providing a calming focus of attention – that might otherwise be focused on upsetting or anxious thoughts – deep breathing has direct effect on brain waves through various pathways in the nervous system, making the mind quieter and calmer via changes in brain chemistry.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychological treatment that is effective for a range of problems, including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, marital problems, eating disorders and severe mental illness.

“CBT is based on the realization that psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking and on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior,” according to the American Psychological Association.

People often tell themselves very negative stories about their feelings and circumstances that are not accurate. By learning better, more accurate ways of thinking from a therapist, simple techniques, patients frequently are able to cope much better, relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

It’s another of Coyle’s tools for treating her patients. “I use CBT a lot. It helps people learn how to be aware of what their thoughts really are.” Mayo Clinic says that CBT can be an effective tool to help anyone learn how to better manage stressful life situations., a science-based, learning environment for helping professionals, outlines benefits of developing self-awareness.

  • Perspective-taking. For effective social interaction, you must understand that you’re separate from others and that they have different needs and thoughts. Increased perspective-taking enables increased empathic responses, which improves relationships and connections with other human beings.
  • Self-control or improved self-regulation. When people understand the expected social norm behavior, it’s typically internalized. They feel shame when social standards aren’t met. Self-awareness can restrain anti-social impulses and increase personal responsibility to keep you on track to meet higher personal and social standards.
  • Increased creative achievement. Highly creative people often go through a long process in the creation of their projects. For the best outcomes, artists deeply reflect on their work so they can make adjustments and improvements.
  • High self-esteem and pride. If you see yourself as falling short of social standards, the effect will be negative. However, the opposite is true if you see yourself as a good, responsible person. Children who realize that success in tasks is internally accomplished will have higher self-esteem.

Coyle says we each have a rational mind and an emotional mind. The emotional mind is quicker, imprecise, and more suited to situations requiring spontaneous reactions. The rational mind is more precise, but slower. We make thousands of decisions every day, from the most trivial to the most important. “The healthiest people allow both sides to work together. Self-awareness helps us reach that point.”

Jane Coyle is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety disorders, relationship therapy, and narcissistic personality disorder. She has a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College, a Master of Science in Social Service degree from Boston University School of Social Work, and is certified in clinical social work by the National Association of Social Workers. Her practice, Coyle & Mattern, LLC, is located at 2770 Indian River Blvd., Vero Beach. The phone number is 772-569-9300.

Correction: In the April 4 issue of this paper, Vero Beach therapist Jane Coyle’s photograph was accidentally included in an article about lymphedema, which she does not treat. The person who should have been shown in the article was medical massage therapist Jane Coyne. 

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