What Exactly is Self-Awareness?

I said to myself towards the end of 2011 that apart from being true to myself and who I am, I would like to increase my self-awareness. But wait a minute, what exactly is self-awareness? How can I blog about self-awareness without even knowing how to define it or what this concept encompasses.

Of course, my gut reaction was to resort to Google and read about the psychological and sociological definitions of self-awareness. My research led me to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that to achieve self-actualization, which is according to this psychologist, the highest form of self-awareness via fulfilling other basic needs as physiological, shelter, a sense of belonging, and aesthetic needs progressively. Other theories as Carl Jung’s postulate between the real self, the perceived self, and the self we would like to be. Yet others discussed the links between our egos and super egos with what we would like to achieve.

I got slightly muddled up and confused with all the different theories. Every one of them seemed to make sense. Yet, I couldn’t quite pinpoint what it meant for me to apply in my life day to day. It wasn’t until an ah-ha moment during my Chinese calligraphy class that I discovered what self-awareness meant to me. Let me try to illustrate this concept with my practice in Chinese calligraphy.

Every week I look forward to classes at my teacher’s home. There’s an indescribable sense of tranquility and zen associated with the place. It gives me a feeling of purpose for my life I suppose, that I have something to do. In addition, every time I leave his home I feel somewhat lighter, clearer, and at peace with some enlightenment about my inner self. I just hope that the serenity would last till the next class for I still am not very disciplined at being consistent in practicing my calligraphy and taichi at home to keep this sense of relief a constant.


One day, we were practicing the character 覺 (pronounced jue, means sensation, feeling, awake, enlightenment, aware) during class. The character, as usual came out a bit wobbly at first. But by the 10th time I was starting to get frustrated, and a little desperate – why wouldn’t the brush spread out the way I want it to?


Teacher asked me to recall what my state was when writing that stroke. I looked at him perplexingly, “How do I remember?” I wondered, “I was just writing.”


He asked, “Was my wrist too tight? Did I grasp the brush too closely with my fingers? Was I breathing normally?”


I didn’t know. And felt defeated.


Teacher prompted me to continue with writing the next character. However, this time, Teacher asked me to pay attention to different parts of my body and my breathing as I wrote the different strokes. And, if I had to, stop and bring myself to become aware of my physiological changes.


So, I continued repeating the same strokes. This time, I wrote much slower. With every stroke, I focused on the writing, and also how my palm, elbow and even my legs were positioned.


Surprisingly, when I paid attention to what I took for granted, I noticed that I was tapping my feet slightly, my shoulder was all tensed up, my elbow lifted too high. Ah! I was also slightly short of breath here. Teacher nodded his head.


“But why was my body tense?” He queried. I looked at him again like a deer in headlights.


I wrote again. This time my physical body wasn’t too tense it seemed, but my strokes was a bit too thin.


Another mini analysis – “Hmm,” I pondered. “I started holding my breath and my fingers closed in on the brush too forcefully, so the ink didn’t flow out quite as well since the brush couldn’t spread out.”


Right. But why?


Teacher told me to go back in time for a few minutes and remember what I was thinking while I was writing.


Oh. Bingo. I was thinking about the errands I had to run after class, I admitted sheepishly. And I also started to worry that the stroke would turn out at the wrong angle, and that I could not achieve finishing the character aesthetically the way it is supposed to be.


He smiled. That’s why.


I was distracted. And I worried unnecessarily. My thoughts interfered, or rather guided my physical sensations: I started breathing shallow and hence had to hold my breath for fear I could not finish the stroke whilst I thought about something else over the task at hand.


Consequently, my body also became tense as I worried about not accomplishing my character the way I would like to. As a result, the more nervous I got, the tighter I gripped my brush and over exerted the force required. And voila, a lopsided character!


The thoughts of errands to run, the emotions of worry and nervousness, the physical sensations of a rigid body, shallow breathing and tight fingers, and the behaviour of calligraphy writing were all inextricably interlinked.


One affected the other. The behaviour is what only we see on the surface; the physical sensations were guided by my emotions, which were in turn, affected by my thoughts.


This seemed to tie in somehow with the psychological theories I read. It made sense to me that Maslow believed self-awareness was a progressive, bottom up process: one had to attain and fulfill physiological needs before one could start thinking about a sense of belonging and so on. However, to look at the same situation, my example of calligraphy writing was an introspective process, that by identifying a phenomenon of outward behaviour, we determined what it was aesthetically and emotionally that caused such an action and result.


Theories I came across are not mutually exclusive with our own individual interpretations of self-awareness. We could also take what works for us to apply in everyday life.


My way is as follows:


  1. 1. Take note of the physical behaviour and / or result

What was the action I took? How did I behave? Was I yelling and screaming? Did I just sit without saying a word?


  1. 2. Recall how I felt during that action

What was my emotions at that moment – was I upset, hopeless, frustrated, elated, in a rage, nervous, anxious etc?


  1. 3. Link the emotion underlying the behaviour to any specific thought(s)

What was I thinking as I felt the emotion – was I worrying about anything, occupied with errands to run, imagining a result?


In the beginning, it took a bit of time to recall and analyze the situation. By now, however, I’m in a habit and it takes me perhaps only a minute or two to understand my own behaviour, emotions and thoughts.


Through repeating this process in myriad situations, I’ve come to understand more about my personality, what makes me happy, what makes me sad, what I would like to do and who I am at the core


Thus, this is self-awareness for me – to discover my values, passions, and who I am through empathizing the thoughts I have to the emotions I feel that underlies a particular behaviour.


What is self-awareness for you?



Raised in Hong Kong and Australia, Noch Noch was a young, overachieving executive for an international corporation, working and living in the world’s most premier cities. After seven years of living the life she dreamt of, or so she thought, she suffered a serious episode of stress-related depression that turned her life upside down. As she battles with depression, Noch Noch is on a quest to be the wake up call for others in similar plights. She strives to be true to herself, jotting down her reflections on living with depression and self-awareness at “Be Me. Be Natural.” (





  • The Vizier

    Hi Noch Noch,

    Good to see you everywhere nowadays haha!

    Did you know that Maslow was an Aries?  I always found it easier to absorb the ideas of a fellow Aries.

    I think it is wonderful that you are learning calligraphy and taichi.  I always liked tranquil and zen like houses so I envy you for having a teacher with such a home.  But yeah, we need discipline to manage our natural impulses and it does come with practice.  So don’t give up!  :)

    I agree with the steps that you have shared to be self-aware.  Given my emotional nature, I need to be constantly aware of why I am feeling the way I am or else I would lose myself to my dark thoughts and feelings.  It did not come naturally to me at first, but nowadays I can do it easily enough.  I can understand what I am feeling and why.  Meditation certainly helps.  But if you are practicing calligraphy and truly in the moment, that is a form of meditation in itself.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

  • watson ix

    Noch Noch,

    Thank you very much for this post. This is superb. Though you don’t mention anything about buddhism or meditation, this is essentially mindfulness meditation through caligraphy. i love the idea of tracing karma (in the true sense of that word: action) back to a root through a simple, structured (but artistic) physical exercise. does anyone know whether traditional caligraphy always incorporates such a practice? i wonder: what other physical exercises would be appropriate mediums for self-observation? dance springs to mind immediately.


  • Markkiefaber

    I have always been a believer that self-awareness was something you built and clarified through introspection and feedback from others. That’s still a big part of it, but another big influencer of our our self-awareness is the situation we are in at any moment and the people around us in that situation. In other words, self-awareness is an “in this moment” think and varies from moment to moment.

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  • Anonymous

    Hi Noch Noch,
    I have a question or two. Are you constantly self-aware or you have to remind yourself? Lately, I’m trying to be more aware of my behavior. So far, I can only track my eating  behavior. But that is kinda easy to do.

    But when I have to study and learn something new, I back off many times. And I do useless things instead , promising to myself  – “I’ll do it later”. When it’s time to go to bed I realize I didn’t do much (or nothing) and I wasn’t aware, so I didn’t catch my feelings while avoiding what I actually want to do. I don’t understand myself. I can’t realize why I avoid programming while it is something I love to do. And I also avoid awareness at that time . Like whole awareness system is shut down.

    Excuse my English,and I hope you can give me a tip how to be aware when I need to be. I feel like a rusty machine that doesn’t work anymore. Is there a way to train myself to be aware all the time ?

    Thank you for sharing this article. You used a great example to explain awareness.


  • Jared Akers

    Thanks for sharing that enlightening story. I particulary liked #3: “Link the emotion underlying the behaviour to any specific thought(s)”Self-awareness for me has come through self-acceptance and becoming emotionally connected with self. It took a lot of hard work initially as there were a lot of things I just simply didn’t know. Like the saying, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” A lot of the physical self-awareness came as a result of the emotional awareness, finding love and acceptance for self. Which in turn created gratitude for self. And then I see gratitude as an action, in that we take care of things we’re grateful for. So I take care of my body, exercise, and my mind through meditation and other mental exercises. All keep me connected with self. Being completely aware of my physical and emotional self helps keep me in the moment where my actions really matter. Thanks for sharing this story and experience.

  • Self-Awareness

    Thank you for the insights. It’s amazing what can happen when we take the time to look at ourselves. Building self-awareness helps us treat ourselves and others better and enjoy life more.

  • Frank Trovato

    your words have given me, at the least, a starting place inwhich to ponder the concept and benefits of self-awareness. I’m still at the crossroads of “the truth & trying to sound correct”.  I will continue my quest and hope for the best. I’m 53 years old and have been overwhelmed with “mind noise” since this past June. (4 yr relationship ending)….badly. look forward to future posts….Frank T…  

  • Self-Awareness Guy

    Great insights Noch. I really like the idea of examining one’s thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and behaviors in order to build self-awareness.