As I’m not a native speaker, it took me a while to realize that “self-conscious” isn’t the same as “self-aware” in the English language. But why? After all, “consciousness” and “awareness” are close synonyms when they stand on their own.
According to Google:
undue awareness of oneself, one’s appearance, or one’s actions.
conscious knowledge of one’s own character and feelings.
From the first glance at these definitions, it seems like “self-awareness” is a more accurate, while “self-consciousness” — an exaggerated perception of self. But are they really all that different?
On my personal growth journey, I have encountered both states: self-consciousness and self-awareness. After all, the core of what I am doing is trying to strengthen my connection to the present moment. That’s the pursuit of self-awareness: becoming more aware of what is happening in my mind, body and heart at any given point.
I have already experienced this ability to be helpful in how I relate to the world around me. Take relationships, for example. I am much better with empathising with my family and friends if I recognize what is going on inside of me in the first place. I am also more available for others if I am at peace with that which I recognized — for example, feelings of anxiety or agitation.
In this sense, self-awareness can be seen as a useful tool for tuning in to reality, rather than living based on what’s going on in our heads. But once you start consciously working on raising your awareness, this can produce a “side-effect”: self-consciousness.
This happened to me — especially at the beginning of my meditation practice and reading about the concepts of “no separate self” or “childhood conditioning.” These first startling insights that were supposed to bring me wisdom (and, eventually, did), first worked as a magnifying glass for my insecurities and ignorances.
All of a sudden, I saw a whole lot of things about myself that I was blind to before. I grasped what it would mean to live “from within.” The idea was thrilling. At the same time, it was immediately clear that on the way to “awakening,” I would have no other choice but to look at my personality and behaviours with a critical eye.
Boy oh boy, was it uncomfortable.
Because I started seeing myself in a new light, the perception of my previously unconscious behaviours was rapidly heightened. As I started “catching myself” falling for the same patterns over and over again, they became exaggerated in my awareness. I was constantly in awe of how I hadn’t been able to see those patterns before.
As a consequence, these new insights into my own personality grew huge in my awareness — or, my consciousness. I naturally thought that there’s no way other people don’t notice these things. A period of excessive self-absorption began for me — and, with some empowering breaks for self-awareness — it lasts until this day.
The period of self-consciousness. The period of studying my mind and soul so intensely that it sometimes twists my perception of reality, too. As a consequence, it seems that the content of my inner processing is also obvious to everyone around me.
One of the moments of truth may seem very mundane on the surface, but it was deeply profound to me. The moment I caught myself getting upset and distracted in an argument with somebody — and automatically resorting to making tea.
It was at the point when I was already carrying the kettle full of water to plug it at which the “aha moment” occurred. I realized that this was my unconscious method of dealing with the situation. I felt upset, victimized and angry — and I dealt with it completely unconsciously, by making tea. This reaction fired off regardless of my will.
I also recognized that this was not something that occurred once or twice — but was my habitual way of dealing with things. It was at this point that I immediately thought — how could other people not notice it? They obviously see these unconscious reactions of mine — and possibly even think of me as some sort of a “crazy tea lady.”
The truth was that— of course — no one noticed.
In reality, most people are so absorbed with their own insecurities, thoughts and feelings that they don’t pay nearly as much as attention to me as I once thought they did. I am only learning this now, but it already puts my self-conscious mind at ease.
We are all so preoccupied with dealing with ourselves that even noticing others sometimes becomes a real challenge. Not to mention getting a sense of their unconscious patterns or insecurities.
But in the state of self-consciousness, it’s easy to forget about this. That’s because we lose the sense of proportion between our own being and the rest of the world. When we start looking within, the size of our own experiences may overwhelm us. And because of that, it may feel like our thoughts and feelings are objectively bigger than they are.
I am now realizing that this is, possibly, a necessary part of my journey to self-awareness. To gain the “conscious knowledge about our own character and feelings” (as per the Google definition), there is no other way than to first look at our inner world through a magnifying glass. This enables us to inspect our being in detail and discover what was previously invisible — or even appeared non-existent.
As a side consequence, self-consciousness arises and causes us to feel all kinds of discomfort. At this stage, we may feel like the whole world is looking at our shortcomings, slips of tongue and blushes — and chuckles at them with disdain.
But this is a sign that we are on our way to self-awareness. We are already doing the work — it is just that, for now, we are getting the proportions wrong. We see our experiences as disproportionately meaningful in the context of the Universe. As if what happens to us had a great significance to the world.
Gradually, as we keep looking around, we adjust our perceived proportions to what they really are. We look at the other seven billion people on Earth and then, at the stars. We realize that what is meaningful to us is at the same time of little importance to the whole scheme of things. And that’s fine.
Once we learn to live with this paradox, authentic self-awareness arises.