<h1>David Earl Johnson, MSW, LICSW</h1>

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    Self Awareness

    Category: Key Concepts
    Created on Sunday, 26 July 2009
    Written by David Earl Johnson, MSW, LICSW

    Self-awareness is one of the most important benefits we get from spending time in a mindful state. The longer we are able to stay mindful, the more we learn about our selves. We come to recognize the ebb and flow of our thoughts, moods, emotions and impulses. We begin to see relationships between our thoughts and feelings and external events.

    One thing we notice is that our thoughts and feelings often contradict each other. Our emotional selves and our rational selves often have conflicting memories, perspectives, and motivations.

    I've found it useful to conceive of the mind as having two main parts. One part is largely made up by the cortex, or the evolutionary most recently developed brain structure. It's this part of the brain that is largely responsible for manipulating symbols, interpreting and remembering patterns of perceptions, and self-awareness and self-monitoring.

    The cortex overlies a phylogenetically older part of the brain that largely makes up the autonomic nervous system. [Its sometimes referred to as the "Lizard Brain" because even reptiles have equivalient brain structures.] In this part of the brain, the body functions largely "automatically" with little interaction with the cortex. Here the heart is stimulated to beat, breath is maintained, pain sensors are monitored and automatic behaviors like walking and steering a car is monitored, largely without conscious awareness. Here is also the roots of our emotions, the biochemical and hormonal precursors to the thoughts whose symbolic representations we create to understand our emotions.

    The cortex is the thinking part of the brain. The autonomic nervous system is the emotional and functionally analogical part of the brain. That part of us we imagine as "rational" or "logical" largely resides in the cortex. Those parts of us that are instantly compelled to act out of sheer emotion reside in the autonomic brain. Virtually all of our behavior is in fact the result of BOTH parts of the brain. So it is equally inaccurate to call our behaviors as rational manifestations or solely emotionally based. Our behavior is largely the result of both parts of us.

    So, given this, its not surprising that there are times we wonder why we behave certain ways, or why we know we need to make a change, but mysteriously find ourselves unable to do so. While our awareness directs most functions of the rational cortex, we have relatively little "rational" control over the autonomic brain.

    Traditionally, culture has attempted to explain this as a mind/soul duality. Judeo/Christian tradition posits that the primitive nature of humanity must be overcome by suppression of our autonomic impulses. Freud developed that concept into his scientific systemic model of the id (autonomic), ego (awareness), and superego (conscience). His concepts led to the idea that suppressed impulses caused problems, internal conflicts, that were manifested in dysfunctional behavior.

    I think it's much more useful to think of the body as a functional whole that emerged from millions of years of natural section into a amazingly effective organism. I'd rather assume that ALL parts of us are as necessary to survival as any one. On an experiential basis, this requires a leap of faith. Ambivalence is an uncomfortable condition. Our mind is known to do all sorts of convenient fictional explanations of motives and their behavioral manifestations in attempt to maintain an illusion of rationality. One such example is cognitive dissonance.

    In order to make use of our incredibly effective brain, we must be aware of as many of it's manifestations as is possible. We must recognize and be able to put into words emotions as complex and varied as our thoughts. We must also accept the fact that our thoughts and emotions OFTEN contradict each other, but in a real and very personal sense, both are right. Both parts of the brain learn their reactions....

    My assumption is that we function best when we make the most of everything we have. Marsha Linehan in developing Dialectical Behavior Therapy, took a similar view. The "Wise Mind" was conceived of as a combination of "Emotion Mind" and "Rational Mind". This all may seem simplistic and convenient thinking, but from a clinical stand point, the concepts work quite well.

    Cognitive learning is the most available for change. We think, therefore we do. If we change how we think, we change what we do. However, everyone knows from their last New Year's resolution that it's not that simple for the many behaviors we want to change. (Excerpt from my blog here.)

    So, to become truly self-aware, we must understand both parts of us, the rational and the largely hidden emotional part. Each part of us is just as needed as the other part. Once we embrace the notion that all feelings are necessary, we can search for their meaning and purpose. Then we harness them to motivate ourselves and we are pushed in the direction we need to go.

    Here is a useful method to increase your self-awareness step by step through a process called focusing. This is not the same as the Key Concept Focus. Focusing promotes Self-awareness. Focus is a more advanced skill.