Do you understand who you really are? Or how others really see you? We all know people with a stunning lack of self-awareness – but how often do we consider whether we might have the same problem? Research shows that self-awareness is the meta-skill of the 21st century – the foundation for high performance, smart choices, and lasting relationships. Unfortunately, we are remarkably poor judges of ourselves and how we come across, and it’s rare to get candid, objective feedback from colleagues, employees, and even friends and family. Psychologist, researcher and bestselling author Dr Tasha Eurich shares tips from her latest book – Insight – on how to improve your self-awareness, along with your career, relationships and more…

Why insight matters

People who possess self-awareness – that is, who know themselves and how others see them – make smarter decisions, build stronger relationships, enjoy more successful careers, feel more self-confidence and acceptance, and live happier lives. Insight is therefore a noble goal, and many people try to gain it through introspection – that is, digging into our deepest thoughts, motives, and emotions. But rather shockingly, research (mine and others’) has shown that the act of thinking about ourselves very often doesn’t result in knowing ourselves. The good news is that introspection can be effective—it’s just that so many people are doing it incorrectly! Below, I’ll bust a few myths of introspection, and show how approaching it a bit differently can have a powerful payoff.

Be intentional about how you journal

Though it’s often seen as one of the most effective ways to get in touch with our inner selves, a growing body of research suggests that introspection via journaling has some surprising traps that can suck the insight right out of the experience. Though there are a lot of nuances to this, let me share a few key takeaways. First, we shouldn’t use journaling as a method to discharge our negative emotions – instead, we should look at both our feelings and the facts of a situation – for example, we might describe what happened, or how other people viewing the situation might have seen it. Those who learn the most from journaling find new ways to view their negative experiences, leading to growth and change. Second, and though this may be surprising, we should write less to learn more. Writing every few days or only when you are trying to make an important decision has been shown to be more effective than writing every day.

Don’t get stuck in an endless loop of self-scrutiny

Though rumination is the enemy of introspection, almost everyone does it. We might endlessly replay a conversation in our minds or beat ourselves up about something we did (or didn’t do). In addition to being a mental hell, rumination is also a barrier to insight. But it can be squashed with the right approach. Let’s say you’re beating yourself up about a recent mistake. One way to move past it is to remember that other people don’t generally care about our mistakes as much as we do. Ask, If someone I knew did the same thing – would I even be thinking about it now? Another approach is to adopt a learning mindset—instead of focusing on the mistake itself, focus on what you learned. But if you really can’t stop ruminating, you can use a tool I call “hitting pause” – find a distraction that will give you a fast, positive reward, like cleaning, seeing friends, or exercising. Getting some distance very often makes things feel much less upsetting and much more manageable.

Practice non-meditative mindfulness

When we get in the habit of mindfully noticing new things in ourselves or our world, it dramatically improves our self-knowledge. Try to look at circumstances, behaviours, and relationships from a different angle, both the good and the bad. You might ask yourself what opportunities you can find in a difficult situation, or how your weaknesses might be reframed as strengths. You can use this same technique to gain valuable insight by reframing your experiences from a more objective angle. For example, if you and your partner are having a disagreement, take a moment to mentally step outside of yourself to “watch” what’s going on – instead of being an angry spouse, for example, become an detached observer.

Don’t stop using social media – just use it differently

Researchers have discovered that people who use social media generally fall into one of two categories: 80% are so-called ‘Meformers,’ who like to post messages that are all about telling everyone what’s going on in their lives. The remaining 20% are ‘Informers’ who tend to have more friends and enjoy richer, more satisfying interactions. They use social media as a way to truly engage and stay connected with others – their goals are to inform, entertain and inspire rather that to rack up ‘likes’. They might post an article they found interesting, an amusing observation, or a funny or informative video. To move from Meformer to Informer, when you are about to post something, ask What am I hoping to accomplish by doing this? Then, ask Is this action about me or about others?

Seek and hear feedback

Psychologists have found that generally, other people see us more objectively than we see ourselves. They can also anticipate our future behaviour better than we can (a fact to which you can attest if you’ve ever met a friend’s new, obviously ill-suited love interest and correctly predicted that the relationship wouldn’t last). Even strangers have been found to see us disconcertingly accurately. It takes courage to consider that other people might see us differently than we see ourselves, and to actively seek out that information. It might feel intimidating or terrifying, but the insight we gain is well worth it. Seeing ourselves from multiple angles—that is, examining our own perspectives and comparing them with how others see us – gives us more context, more information about how we can improve, and more control over our destiny.

Ask What, not Why

Asking why we do things creates a negative impact and permits us to justify or rationalise bad behaviour. It also reduces the quality of our decisions as we invent reasons that confirm our existing beliefs. To better understand our true thoughts and emotions, we need to stop asking “why” and start asking “what.” Asking “what” questions keeps us open to discovering more information about ourselves and moving ahead in a productive way. What’s going on? What am I feeling? What is the dialogue inside my head? What’s another way to see this situation? What can I do to respond better? Making the transition from “why” to “what” can indeed be the difference between victimhood and growth.

Insight: The Power of Self-Awareness in a Self-Deluded World by Tasha Eurich is published by Pan Macmillan, priced £18.99. Insight is available to buy online here.