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  • Writer's pictureBritt Leigh

The Critical Nature of Self-Awareness in Goal Setting

Several years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a leadership course at a large state university. During one of my classes, I introduced my students to the concept of Ikigai, a Japanese term meaning “that which gives your life worth, meaning, or purpose.” This concept asks people to identify elements within four domains:

1. What you love

2. What you’re good at

3. What you can be paid for

4. What the world needs

After listing elements in each domain, it asks you to assess which elements overlap to help you identify your purpose.

I watched as students eagerly made their lists. It was one of the few activities I did that commanded complete silence. Students remained laser-focused – not one reaching for a quick glance at their phone. This should have been my first clue that something profound was happening in the room, but I chalked it up to my amazing facilitation skills.

Then, students began to share – and I was not prepared for what I heard. Student after student had epiphanies about their hopes, goals, and dreams. Several of them acknowledged feeling uneasy – their majors didn’t match what they’d identified as their purpose.

Some of them admitted that they’d chosen their major because it was what their parents wanted or what others told them they’d be good at. They’d never paused to have an intentional conversation with themselves.

I tell this story to every cohort of coaches I train. It perfectly illustrates the importance of self-awareness. According to recent research, self-awareness consists of two self-awareness types: the first, and most recognized, is internal self-awareness. This includes our awareness of our internal hopes, values, and passions. Being internally self-aware means understanding how these elements intersect with our environment and our relationships. The second is external self-awareness, which includes our ability to recognize and understand how others see us.

The problem we face is that neither of these types is exempt from what Carl Rogers would call “conditions of worth,” external messages that we adopt into our subconscious that inform who we think we are. If you’ve ever internalized a message like “You’re bossy – you’d make a great attorney,” or “You’re a good student - I bet you’d make a great teacher,” then you’re probably familiar with conditions of worth.

We receive external messages our whole life, mostly from outside sources. And if we aren’t careful, these messages can drown out our own voice, desperately trying to tell us who we really are and who we want to become.

From the time I was a little girl and all the way through college (and even a little bit today), I was given messages that told me I’d make a great attorney. I was argumentative. I didn’t take no for an answer. I was competitive. And “lawyers still write all the time.”

I heard it so much that I set my sights on becoming an attorney. I job shadowed attorneys, did my research, took the right classes, took the LSATs, and went to law school visits. But during the whole process, something felt off.

I couldn’t place my finger on it until I took a job in higher education, and I felt a sense of relief for leaving my goal of becoming an attorney behind. But a few years into higher education, I felt that same feeling – something was off. I left higher education and went to work in a positive psychology center, thinking that I missed my psychology roots. Quickly, however, I realized that wasn’t where I wanted to be either.

Another external message popped into my head: You’re good at giving advice, maybe you should be a therapist. I knew that therapy would be too difficult for me (I tend to feel others’ emotions too deeply). I investigated alternatives instead and found coaching. And it wasn’t until I was in a coaching program, one that required in-class practice, that I discovered something both chilling and liberating. I’d been chasing the wrong goals my whole life – and the right one had been staring me in the face since I was a child: writing.

I started my freelance writing business that year and never looked back. I don’t have that “something’s off” feeling anymore. I know I’m where I’m supposed to be.

But it saddens me to know that I was chasing the wrong goals my whole life because I lacked a sense of self-awareness.

I was lucky to develop this self-awareness through coaching, and if it’s in your budget, I’m not sure there’s a better way to gain the clarity you need to chase the goals that are truly meaningful for you.

But if coaching is not in your budget, here are a few tips:

1. Journal. Write your thoughts, then ask yourself “What” questions as it pertains to those thoughts. So, instead of asking yourself “why do I procrastinate?” ask yourself “what leads me to procrastination?” The difference is subtle, but “what” questions help you gather information about yourself, while “why” questions are more likely to lead you to rationalize your decisions.

2. Seek feedback and reflect. I know -this one sounds a bit counterintuitive but trust me. The key here is to collect feedback WITHOUT placing too much attachment to anything that’s said. Instead, listen to seek out potential blind spots. If someone provides feedback that you’re bossy, ask yourself “What would lead them to that conclusion?” or “In what ways am I bossy?” Perhaps you’ll learn something about yourself you hadn’t noticed before – or perhaps you’ll realize that this particular feedback isn’t helpful. Either way, it will help you break up the noise to drill down to your true inner voice.

3. Mindfulness. Spending time alone with our thoughts is key to self-awareness. The world provides so much noise that it’s hard to ever truly feel like you’re sitting in peace. However, practicing even 5-10 minutes of mindful reflection a day will allow you to sift through your thoughts and more fully develop your self-awareness.

How do you know that the goals you’re chasing today are the goals you’re really after? I’ve worked with several clients who, after several sessions cultivating self-awareness, realize that their goals no longer match who they’ve become. Self-awareness has to come before we set our goals – and self-reflection is the only way to get there.

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