Overcome the introspection illusion
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”
— Richard Feynman
We are more unaware than aware.
Know yourself is excellent advice. However, it’s easier said than done.
We all think we know ourselves much better than we actually do. That’s what makes self-awareness even more challenging. We must let go of the illusion first.
Don’t feel bad though. Life is a journey of self-discovery — we learn to know and accept who we are rather than trying to preserve an illusion. Improved self-awareness brings peace to your life.
The more you know yourself, the more opportunities, growth, and success you will attract.
Why Self-Awareness Matters
When we have clarity, everything feels easier.
Self-awareness is the conscious knowledge of one’s character, feelings, motives, and desires. Rather than a skill, I like to think of self-awareness as a discipline that we can learn and develop. You have to dedicate time and constant practice. We are continually changing. When we believe we really know ourselves, we stop searching.
Improving self-awareness requires to be both patient and humble.
As we spend more time introspecting, we learn not to cling to our emotions. Our feelings cloud understanding — realizing that our emotions are what we feel and not who we are is essential. To shift our view from existential (I am) to physiological (I experience). You are not an emotion; you just experience a feeling — you are not angry, you are feeling anger.
Developing clarity within yourself improves self-assessment, decision-making, and overall happiness. Rather than reacting in the heat of the moment, you can act with understanding, calm, and wisdom.
Self-awareness is your ability to be mindful of what you are doing and understand why you are doing it.
Most of us believe we know ourselves, but as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, we tend to be over-confident when it comes to self-knowledge, but most of the times we are wrong.
To see ourselves clearly, we need to take a distance. The observing self is different from our thinking self, emotional self or functioning (physical) self. It is outside these, yet experiences all of them. It allows you to observe as if you were watching a movie or someone else’ life, not yours.
The observing self creates space between you and your actions, thoughts, and emotions. It allows you to see with more objectivity. To know yourself, you must first remove everything that distorts your awareness.
Increasing your self-awareness is key to find peace in your life. It will help you focus your energy, emotions, and behavior. However, you can’t do this on your own.
In her book Insight, Tasha Eurich describes two types of awareness: internal and external. Internal self-awareness means we can clearly see our own values, thoughts, feelings, and emotions. External self-awareness is about understanding how others see us regarding those same aspects. Feedback helps us uncover our blind spots.
But, how well do you really know yourself?
Why We Fail to Know Ourselves
We are more unaware than aware but are oblivious to the fact.
Research by Tasha Eurich found that 95% of us believe we are self-aware, but only 10–15% truly is.
She cites three reasons for this disconnect. First, we naturally have blind spots — we’re unaware of how we’re behaving, and why. There’s also the feel-good effect: we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light. Lastly, the “cult of self” — we are becoming more self-absorbed as a consequence of social media popularity.
A study by Daniel Gilbert reports that almost 50% of our time, we are operating on autopilot — we are not consciously aware of what we are doing.
What behaviors are limiting your potential? How is your negative self-voice boycotting you? What defenses have you formed to protect yourself from destructive influences? Why are you doing something (or not)?
There’s a saying that energy flows where our attention goes.
When we focus only on certain aspects of ourselves, we stop seeing others. We deceive ourselves. We think we are better than we are. And fall into the introspection illusion.
Our nearest and dearest tend to see us better. We need their feedback to identify the blind spots we can’t see on our own.
The Introspection Illusion
The way we view ourselves is distorted, but we don’t realize it.
85% of Americans believe they are less biased than the average person. If we can’t recognize our bias when judging others, how can we be unbiased when assessing ourselves?
Most of us are very good at seeing how unethical or unfair someone else can be. But, we have a problem viewing ourselves as unethical or unfair. The Introspection Illusion is a term coined by Emily Pronin, a social psychologist from Princeton University. In her experiments, he observed a tendency among participants to consistently rate themselves above others on desirable qualities.
We all believe we make better decisions than others. That’s the effect of self-enhancement — we are motivated to see ourselves in a positive lens. Not only that. We believe we are aware of how and why we make decisions — we are unaware that the mind takes unconscious shortcuts.
We judge others by their behavior, we assess ourselves by our values or thoughts.
When people decide whether someone else is biased, they use visible behavior. When assessing themselves, they look inward — they search if their own values, thoughts or feelings are biased or not.
As a result, our self-image has little to do with our actions. For example, we are absolutely convinced that we are empathetic and generous but ignore a homeless person who asks us for money.
The reason for this distorted view is simple, according to Pronin. We don’t want to be arrogant, or self-righteous, so we assume we are not any of those things. We see the bias in others, but not in ourselves.
The Introspection Illusion harms our self-awareness.
Take the perception of social conformity, for example. Studies show that participants, after observing other people’s behavior, referred to them as “a crowd of sheep” but while assessing themselves — in their minds — they found no motive to conform to social norms.
You are not so smart. You don’t know yourself that well. Me neither. Self-awareness makes us realize we tend to deceive ourselves.
Your Latest Trick
“I don’t know how it happened
It was faster than the eye could flick
But all I can do is hand it to you
And your latest trick.” — Mark Knopfler
We are good at tricking, not just others, but also ourselves.
Deceiving yourself feels like a paradox — you are both the subject and object of the deceit, as this article explains. As Katie Javanaud writes, “It seems impossible. For a trick to work effectively as a trick, one cannot know how it works.”
Cam Caldwell, a visiting professor of management at Purdue University, defines self-deception as “the holding of two conflicting ideas without acknowledging the conflict.
Self-deception is a form of psychological manipulation, just like denial, repression or wishful thinking.
Though we’re inclined to treat self-deception as the exception rather than the rule, Buddhists see it as our default position. They think that we continually repress and deny uncomfortable truths — we avoid realizing life’s impermanence. We are afraid to confront ourselves, as Sartre used to say.
To protect our self-esteem and ego, we trick ourselves — we end hurting ourselves though.
Self-deception has many stages and can become chronic. We start by simply denying unpleasant facts. Then, we minimize things — we admit the facts, but rationalize our action. Lastly, we project the problem on others; we accept the issue but shift responsibility for it. It’s someone else’s fault, not ours.
The stories we tell ourselves about our lives, don’t just shape our views — they become part of who we are. As English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “He who tells a lie doesn’t know just what a task he has set himself, because he will be forced to invent twenty more in order to sustain the validity of the first one.”
Instead of self-awareness, self-deception creates ignorance.
How to Improve Self-Awareness
“You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts.” ― Kahlil Gibran
Educating Our Minds: Pronin believes that information can help overcome the Introspection Illusion. However, it’s not about warning people but, informing them and emphasizing its unconscious matter. Mindfulness has shown to be very effective to increase introspection.
Body Scan: Practice paying attention to your body. Self-awareness has both a mental and a physical component. Our bodies register everything. Pain is a signal — where do you feel it and why?
Make space two or three times per day to bring mindfulness to your whole body. Take a deep breath. Scan your head, face, neck, shoulders, chest, legs, and arms. Focus your breath on the area where you feel pain — it will help provide calmness and relaxation. This video will get you started.
Emotion labeling: This simple technique will help you familiarize with your feelings. Practice labeling your emotions as they happen. Name them without judging what you feel. The more you get to know your feelings, the less they will cloud your behavior.
Journaling: Capturing your experiences, thoughts or feelings is an effective way to ‘objectify’ them. You can also monitor how your reactions evolve — don’t just look for improvements but the ‘why’ behind those changes. Also, a gratitude journal not only will make you feel more positive but also more humble (a valuable trait to avoid distorted views).
Ask for feedback: We are social animals. The people closest to us, see what we are missing. Either at work on your personal life, feedback is an invaluable source of clarity. An accountability partner can help you not just track your goals but also show you what you are missing.
Build a practice of requesting regular feedback. Learn how to ask the right questions — some provoke silence, others ignite dialogue.
Train Your Observing Self: When you are lost in your thoughts, you are missing out life in the present. The Observing-Self is not a thought or a feeling but more an awareness — it’s a perspective from which you observe your experiences from the distance. Russ Harris describes the former as “the aspect of us that is aware of whatever we’re thinking, feeling, sensing or doing at any moment.”
Try the following exercise to train your observing self.
- Pause for a moment and take a deep breath.
- Look around and notice five things that you can see.
- Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear.
- Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body.
- Finally, do all the above simultaneously.
You can practice this exercise at your next meeting or when under stress. Pause before you react. Understand the potential reactions and choose the wisest one, not the first that comes to your mind.
Developing self-awareness is not a linear process. Some days will be better than others. You’ll make a lot of progress one day and others you might feel that you are back on square one.
Knowing yourself is like peeling back the layers of an onion — when you thought you really understand who you are, something new shows up. Also, the deeper you dig, the more resistance you’ll face. Some layers will feel tougher than others. Be patient and kind when you feel stuck.
Self-awareness is a never-ending practice — you’ll always have another layer to peel back. Knowing yourself is how you become at peace with yourself.