How to improve self-consciousness

understand yourself to understand others

July 11th, 2018

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. I just try my best to write something that may help others, so please take this post with a grain of salt.

I try to train my ability to interact with a variety of people to help them achieve their goals when working with them. One big aspect of interacting with others is to clearly see things how they truly are. Most of the time, we see things how we want them to be.

To train the skill of seeing things clearly, we have to focus on ourselves first because our perception shapes our reality and having an inaccurate model due to cognitive biases decreases our accuracy to analyze social situations. We can't completely eliminate this bias, but we can reduce it through self-reflection, discipline, and a habit of scepsis with regards to our own perception.

I want to share these tips with you that might help you in any situation. In short:

  1. Question your emotion. Is there anything that it wants to tell you? Is there anything that you try to hide from yourself?
  2. Look at the facts, especially when you're very emotional.
  3. When meeting new people, focus on them and don't talk about mentally demanding topics until you know how they feel.
  4. This process will teach you real self-confidence.

Start with the emotion

You need emotions to feel what others feel, but you also need to understand the emotion to truly understand them. Problem is that your limbic system can't talk (this area of your brain is responsible to create emotions). Therefore, we resort to rationalizations - explanations for our behavior that we basically get through guessing. But most of the time, the rationalization is highly inaccurate. Why? Because our unconscious side has a lot of information about negative things about us and we try to avoid it because it doesn't help us feel good (this emotion exists solely so that mental health can be preserved and cognitive dissonance gets reduced).

Example situation:

You are angry that your wife/husband is late.

Possible explanation for your anger:

You are angry because s/he's always acting selfishly and doesn't respect you.

Another possible explanation that could be more accurate but contains negative aspects that the consciousness hides (drive attention away from) to reduce cognitive dissonance:

There is a deep fear to get rejected. Maybe there are experiences in the past where trusted people just left you. This deeply rooted fear triggers anger as a reaction because your unconscious side sees a threat (an indirect increase of likelihood of death through social rejection).

But be cautious! Before you resort to self-conscious introspection, don't forget to look at the facts first. Especially for compassionate and caring persons, there is a tendency to undermine their own needs. Looking at the facts is again a way to rationalize, so you'll need to find a middle ground depending on the intensity of the emotion and the situation in question. If you're highly empathetic and caring, I would suggest that you should lean towards the factual side to account for your emotional depth. This prevents you from getting exploited by others and rationalizing the exploitation by your own empathy.

How to use this information

Analyze your emotions and try to ask: "What useful information does it contain?" and "What are the root causes for this emotion, what is the incentive system behind it?". The hardest part is that you have to know about your deepest insecurities, deficits, negative experiences, and fears ("I'm objectively not very attractive", "My mother never showed me her love in unconditional ways", ...) and regulate your emotions (instead of acting out that anger, you analyze it on a meta-level and extract information from it for a more accurate analysis). This requires extreme self-reflection and years of struggling. When one finally masters this, s/he's considered enlightened which basically means that s/he's able to not only analyze her/his own behavior and emotions but can also use this knowledge to act accordingly.

Let's look at another example - managing cognitive resources:

One date, two impressions

Maybe you've witnessed the situation in the past or heard about it: A guy and a girl have a date. First, they talk about superficial things and begin with small talk and slowly progress to deeper topics and start to talk about work, joy, happiness, and life goals. From an outside perspective, you can clearly see that he is more engaged in the conversation than she is. Her body language is expressing clear disinterest while he enthusiastically talks about his last holidays, but for some reason, he doesn't read the cues she's sending. After the date, he tells us that "this was a great date, there's clearly something going on between us", while she is completely indifferent. Why is that?

Because his cognitive resources are mostly used to vividly remember his holidays, he can't concentrate on her while she's able to analyze him unconsciously. All aspects like the jawline, odor, his height, the sound of his laugh, the way he talks, the way he moves his arms, and his body posture. All of this gets analyzed simultaneously. This happens mostly unconscious and results in an emotional reaction e.g. that she feels uncomfortable around him. She will send out subtle cues to indicate this e.g. reaching to her throat and changing the direction of her body.

But the thing is: He needs to have cognitive resources to understand and analyze those cues and decode them to understand her emotional state. It's not because he's unwilling to do this, but because it needs mental energy he currently uses for different tasks. If you want to learn more about this, I can recommend Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" (although many of the cited studies are not replicable).

Tip: Don't talk about difficult topics or things that take focus away from your conversational partner (e.g. vividly remembering details about your holidays) when you first meet a person. The first meeting is entirely devoted to getting to know your partner better. Especially when working with clients, work should always come after some small talk has been done. Stress levels, mood and therefore the appropriate complexity of the chosen topics for the meeting can be determined after the first minutes of small talk.

Another problem is that he would have to admit that she clearly isn't interested. If you have low self-esteem, the fear of rejection can induce a feeling of anxiety that you want to avoid. It's therefore very possible that his subconsciousness hides those clear cues (which show that she doesn't like him) from his consciousness. This cognitive bias exists to ensure that his self-image doesn't get damaged and to reduce cognitive dissonance. If you want to learn about the ways our own consciousness tricks ourselves, read about cognitive biases - the Wikipedia article has a pretty big list.

It's also important to understand that cognitive biases are not necessarily bad. They are good heuristics that help us to analyze a big amount of data (i.e. social situations) in a fraction of seconds. But they are inherently inaccurate and we can correct their estimates using knowledge about ourselves and cognitive biases to improve their accuracy. There are some cognitive biases e.g. hindsight bias that is hard to correct even if you know about them, so this is not a cure-all. Another thing is that you need enough cognitive resources (which sounds very abstract but can be measured using brain scans i.e. brain metabolism).

  1. Sleep well so your cognitive resources are available
  2. Eat well and drink enough - focus on healthy food and avoid too much processed food and meat
  3. Exercise and get enough sun light - sun exposure creates Vitamin D which is important for general health and mood
  4. Learn about the effects of your clothing, your posture and the tone of your voice - dress well and authentically
  5. Understand that most things that seem "superficial" (e.g. looks) are actually cues for evolutionary relevant factors - don't ignore them, but don't let them control you, either

Benefits of challenging yourself

This is a truly painful (at the beginning) and never-ending process, I have to admit. But the goal is to improve compassion and your Theory of Mind. If you understand your unconscious side better, you can understand others better because your mind won't get in the way of seeing things clearly - it won't be possible to achieve this state in a pure form, but you can improve this ability like everything else using knowledge, training, and habit-building.

Another positive side effect of this is that you develop a thick skin and you can't get hurt easily through words. If you know your weaknesses and face them, no one can harm you with them and you can help others much more effectively. Most people have deep insecurities that they aren't open about. This creates a huge area where people can (oftentimes involuntarily) hurt you which is difficult for both to resolve. Better than hiding these weaknesses is accepting them and also working on them openly. Another positive effect is that you can develop a strong self-confidence through this process because you really learn what your strengths and weaknesses are. This makes it easier to make promises that you can keep which in turn makes you more reliable and trustworthy. All these aspects help you to be a stronger person. You don't need to show fake confidence using humiliation or insults and don't become anxious when somebody doesn't like you or reacts negatively towards you or your ideas.

You benefit those around you, the people who rely on you and especially yourself.

This post is extremely simplified, but I think it gives a better introduction to the world of cognitive biases than referencing a bunch of psychological studies. If you're interested in more, I can recommend "Psychology" by P.G. Zimbardo (a must-read for psychology students), "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by D. Kahneman, "The Invisible Gorilla" by Simons and Chabris (especially funny - I've tried this with a school class and were amazed that half of them didn't notice the gorilla), all types of books about biopsychology, evolutionary psychology, computational psychology (especially for computer scientists), communication books (e.g. about communication models and the different aspects of communication) and a lot of other resources. I've also enjoyed the Unified Theory of Psychology where a psychologist tries to embed the current knowledge in psychology in a coherent framework.