The Curious Thing about Self-Awareness

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As I prepare for my vacation to South Korea, I am bombarded with curious questions from friends and colleagues about my upcoming trip. Do I have any family there? (Not that I am aware of since I was adopted by an American family as an infant.) Am I afraid of the political situation with North Korea? (North Korea has been a constant threat to South Korea so much that the average South Korean is not that worried about an attack from the North. Besides, I’ll be staying with well-connected people who have ties to the US Embassy in Seoul, the US Army, Navy and other security entities.) Will it be nice for you to finally be in a place where you will physically blend in? Yes! And the most curious of all questions I have fielded, Do you think you’ll find your dopplegänger there?

It’s an interesting question on many fronts. First of all, it’s just an usual question to begin with and secondly, how would I know if I found my dopplegänger, even if she was sitting right next to me on the subway? For do we not see ourselves differently from how others do, and are we perhaps less objective about how we look and appear to the public compared to how our friends, family and colleagues perceive us?

Coincidentally, The Guardian recently published an interesting article on the topic of self-awareness, happiness, and the cold hard truth, focusing not so much on external factors as much as on internal ones:

My research shows that while 95% of people think they are self-aware, the real figure is closer to 10-15%. Not only are our assessments often flawed, we are usually terrible judges of our own performance and abilities – from leadership skills to achievements at school and work. What’s scary is that the least competent people are usually the most confident in their abilities.

How can we avoid this fate? We must work on two specific types of insight. Internal self-awareness, an inward understanding of our passions and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses and so on. And external self-awareness, knowing how others see you, means understanding yourself from the outside in.

While the article focuses on abilities and internal qualities, I think the same can be said about how we see ourselves physically and outwardly as well. A photographer friend of mine once snapped a photo of me that was unrehearsed and very much “in the moment.” I was laughing, my body language and facial expression were natural, I was not posing for the camera and was completely oblivious to the fact that she was even taking a picture. When I saw the photo, I was horrified. Is this how I appear to the people I interact with on a daily basis? God, I hope not!

My friend, on the other hand, was very complimentary of the photo and loved the candid shot. She seemed to see something in that picture — and in me — that I am incapable of seeing. That is one of the many curious things about self-awareness, self-perception, and reality. Oftentimes we need another person to accurately see what we cannot.

The tricky thing about this is that oftentimes we have to be our own champions, especially for times when we need to sell others on our abilities. This issue can be reflected in the experience of another friend of mine, Amy, who recently negotiated her salary for the first time in her life at the age of 40. She has an ivy league education, which she has translated into an impressive career; she is published in her area of expertise and has experience working at various levels of her sector, whether it be on-the-ground implementation or policymaking at the federal government level. So when she decided to leave an illustrious career in Washington, DC for a different path at a lesser known university in the Heartland of America, she did an honest self-assessment and calculated her worth as it related to her next job opportunity. When it came time to accept or reject an offer for what could be the dream job of her life, she was able to do so effectively, negotiating $8,000 more than what was originally offered to her. Know your self-worth. Know yourself.

So back to the question of being able to recognize my dopplegänger in Korea. I still don’t think I would be able to do this. It would have to be a third party to make that distinction for me, at least physically, and I fear it’d be hard for me to accept the results for I clearly see myself in a way that differs from how others see me. But that’s the curious thing about self-awareness. While we may not always be the best judge when it comes to how we really are, being aware of the fact that we have an altered view is at least a good first step in acknowledging our true selves. When we are able to accept our true selves, that is when sincere happiness begins to grow.

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