I lead the social-emotional learning curriculum for a K-8 school with a mission for gifted education and I wonder sometimes if self-awareness is a burden. I wonder this because some of our most successful students seem to lack self-awareness — they bring a kind of blind confidence to their studies and to their social interactions. They’re the kids who score goals by choosing not to pass the soccer ball at recess and the kids who do well on math tests in part because they seem unaware of their potential to fail.
I guess we could call that the “heads” side of the self-unawareness coin. On the “tails” side of the coin are kids whose lack of self-awareness fuels a lack of self-regulation, in which kids seem at the mercy of their emotions, blindly following their anger or impulses.
Between these two extremes are kids who have some degree of self-awareness. And as kids in late elementary and middle school start to look at themselves — at their “self” — as if from an outside perspective, they often look through a lens of self-criticism. It’s as if self-awareness can start with a question mark rather than an exclamation point or a period. In part, that’s because the first questions that come from a first exploration of self-awareness don’t necessarily have answers.
What do I believe? How do I experience the world? How does the world experience me? Who am I?
The early stages of self-awareness can look like a crisis in confidence. Kids wonder if they’re good enough. They ask if the emotions they experience are normal or natural. They can seem to be unsettled in their exploration of personality and place and belonging. Rather than being empowered by self-awareness, some of these kids can seem trapped by it.
Then all these kids become teenagers. And this is when their trajectories start to cross. Of course, let’s take a step back and say that all kids are different and there are as many paths through human development as there are neurons in a human brain. But it does seem as if lack of self-awareness eventually catches up with most kids, even those whose self-unawareness drove their early success.
Without self-awareness, teenagers can be like feathers and even kids who are blown high can be prone to dramatic changes in course, driven by reckless decisions or lack of resilience or a too-fast lifting of the curtain of self-awareness to reveal very little behind it. Others continue to be carried along, pushed and pulled by winds they can’t see and don’t control.
It’s during the teenager years that kids who were burdened earlier by the difficult questions of self-awareness tend to find their center.
I’m not saying that in order to be successful, high school students have to find self-actualization and an unshakable sense of self-worth. But during the high school years, some students who have been asking the questions of self-awareness start to find answers. Okay, not “ANSWERS” but at least answers: Subject to change throughout life, but at least solid enough to guide young people through some of the challenges they face.
As parents, teachers and professionals, we know these kids: They’re the ones who pause before speaking. They can say no. Or they can say yes. But either way, their decisions and actions are measured against their beliefs and consistent with their understanding of their own personality. As they become more confident in their self-awareness and self-understanding, they become magnetic and others are drawn to them. Self-aware kids may not be popular in high school, but they are able to develop deeper friendships, often with only a few people. And self-aware kids aren’t always straight-A students (though they tend to do well), but they pursue the activities and interests that are meaningful to them, whatever those may be.
There are many mental, physical and emotional skills that combine to create a successful human being and many experiences and influences that shape who we become. In this ocean of competing and often contradictory factors, self-awareness can be an anchor. Early on, this anchor can seem to hold kids back. Later, the “anchor” changes its meaning and its connotation, from an anchor that is a burden to an anchor that keeps young people centered in themselves even as the world pushes and pulls around them.
And kids who seemed trapped by their self-awareness end up being propelled by it.
To help young people develop self-awareness, please consider this workbook, which I recently helped to develop and whose cost is kept low by generous philanthropic support from the Digging Deep Project.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.