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The Power of Self-Awareness + Self-Management

By Kelli Nottingham, host of the Belly Dance Alchemy Podcast

Have you ever met someone who had absolutely no self-awareness? They go through life like a massive wrecking ball - constantly causing issues for other people and for themselves, constantly causing drama, constantly bringing other people's lives to a halt, just so their own issues can be seen. They may not acknowledge that the common denominator in all of their life issues is, well, them. Problems pile up like my dog’s fur in the corner of the living room, and they never seem to be resolved or swept away. Instead, they just fade away under the next heaping pile of problems.

News Flash: if you haven’t met this person in your life, you either have an incredible ability to set social boundaries, or you are the wrecking ball. Yikes, but truth.

The sad reality is that this person lives on a treadmill of problem after problem, drama after drama, because they’re not usually interested in the work of identifying their own internal patterns (self-awareness), and they’re certainly not willing to take action to solve their internal patterns that cause the problems (self-management). Frankly, sometimes they don’t want their problems to be solved, because if the problems go away, then why would anyone pay attention to them as a person anymore?

Today we’re going to explore these two crucial concepts: self-awareness and self-management, and how they can help us to find more calm, more peace, more happiness, and more success in our lives. And our friends and family might appreciate it too!

When we aren't willing or able to truly see and understand ourselves, we have very little chance of improving in any key area in our lives. Just as we can’t see how we look in a performance without watching a video, we have to learn how to turn our lens of awareness onto ourselves in a productive (and not self-destructive) way. By understanding our mental and emotional triggers, our reactions and resulting behaviors, we can learn to modify and manage them, to put us in control of ourselves much more effectively.

So what is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is being able to look at yourself with a discerning eye. It's examining how we go through our lives, from an unbiased, third-party type of perspective: looking at our emotional patterns, our thought patterns, our behavioral patterns, our skill levels, and cause and effect in our lives.

Self-awareness isn't the same as feeling our emotions or being in our own heads all the time. In fact, it’s getting out of our emotions and our thoughts, and objectively observing. It's recognizing our triggers for certain emotions, thoughts, or behaviors. We then examine our responses to those emotions, thoughts, or behaviors, to start recognizing the patterns within ourselves, the patterns that we create for ourselves and the results of those patterns. It's being able to clearly see, objectively, what our internal landscape is.

If you’ve ever done CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) then this probably sounds a bit familiar. We must observe to understand. That sounds easy on paper. But it takes a lot of diligence, willingness to let go of our deeply held opinions of ourselves, and openness to exploring new ways of approaching our identity and way of moving through life.

If you listen to the Belly Dance Alchemy podcast, you may have heard me talk about looking at ourselves as if we’re watching ourselves in a movie or a behavioral psychology experiment. We look at ourselves objectively, to ask “what pushes my buttons, and how do I react when those buttons are pushed? What thoughts are going through my head? What emotions come out? When do I feel happiest? How am I talking to myself in those moments?"

It's paying attention to how we move through those patterns of thoughts, emotions, and reactionary behaviors. We don't stay mad forever when someone cuts us off in traffic. What does it take for us to move through that emotional or behavioral pattern? How do we end up not mad after someone cuts us off in traffic?

It's also understanding how we learn new skills easily, how we respond when we struggle to do something, what process we use to succeed, and how we respond to failure.

So self-awareness is observing and being aware of the natural states that occur within us, the resolution of those states, and how we interact with the world around us, in good times and bad.

Self-management builds on our self-awareness, by helping us have more intentional control over what we observe. Awareness doesn’t help that much if we’re unwilling to do something about it. If you watch a performance video and realize you always look at the ground while dancing but refuse to actually practice not looking at the ground, then the self-awareness is just self-recrimination.

Self-management is understanding how to regulate ourselves, based on what seems to work best for us, so that we're responding to the world in the way we want to respond. We're not just being carried away by the tide of our anger or our overwhelm. Self-management requires us to understand how we get better at relationships, at learning new things, and how we respond to obstacles that get in our way.

Self-awareness is required for this because if we're trying to go somewhere, but we don't know where we currently are, it's like trying to take a trip without knowing our starting point. This is why I personally think so much self-help advice ends up being, well, not helpful. Solutions and advice are only helpful if we know what we need to work on, and we recognize where we tend to hit bumps in our internal landscape.

Focusing on self-management before doing the self-awareness work is like trying to drive your car to a specific city without knowing which direction you’re driving. We have to understand our current state to be able to understand how to get to our desired future state.

As an example, if we say to ourselves, I want to become a really proficient dance teacher, but we’re unwilling to do the work of observing how well we teach, whether our students are getting what they need, whether we can explain how to do the movements safely, whether we can create a safe space in class settings, and whether we can demonstrate the movements well enough for the students to understand, we’re never going to be as successful as we wish. It’s only through self-awareness and self-management – looking at our skills, abilities, mindsets, and emotional states, and then regulating them and improving them as needed, that we’ll move the needle.

In the classes I teach, I've had new students who looked at the situation of learning a new dance as an exciting adventure. They’ve said things to me like "I have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever, but I think this will be really fun and I'm excited to try."

Meanwhile, another student comes in who says, "I am excited to try," but their mindset is "I have to do this perfectly, right away. And if I don't look like somebody who has been dancing for 15 years within the first 10 minutes of class, I'm going to get angry with myself and I'm going to start berating myself and scowling and huffing and rolling my eyes.” Often these students don’t come back after the first class.

Teachers, have you had this student in your dance classes?

The success levels of these two students are drastically different. First, their own internal sense of success is going to give them their own sense of reward or enjoyment out of the class. They're going to be experiencing their own level of success much, much differently.

But even from the outside looking in, focusing only their dance skill, students who approach dance from a perspective of excitement about learning something new, being open to feedback, and being able to laugh at themselves when the mess up, dance significantly better at a much faster pace than students who immediately expect to be very, very good, bristle at the idea of feedback, and are holding themselves to an impossibly high standard. And needless to say, the enjoyment of dance is vastly different between the two.

The same works for any kind of life or career development skill.

We’ve all seen people who struggle with their emotional states - they get angry and allow that anger to show up at work, with no recognition that they could defuse their anger before it turns into negative behaviors. Or they don't clearly see the patterns of thought that happen when they're dealing with a crisis - let's say they tend to jump to conclusions immediately upon hearing negative news. Those thought patterns then put them on autopilot - they respond according to the conclusions that their brain jumped to, without realizing that maybe they need to slow down their brains, recognize that they tend to jump to conclusions, and slow down so they can make better decisions.

Transparency time. Here’s a slightly embarrassing personal example.

As many of you probably know, especially if you follow me on social media, in January 2020 we moved into a rural farmhouse on some acreage about an hour and a half away from our family and friends who live in the nearest big city. I love so many things about living in the country. I have a big vegetable garden. We get wildlife like deer and rabbits coming around, and the barred owls set up their annual nest in the big live oak tree outside of my office window. We spent years fixing up the house, making it a cozy home. It’s quiet and peaceful and at night the frogs sing.

In late December 2021, my husband decided that he wanted to move back into the city to be closer to family. We talked about it, he got super excited, and started looking at houses for sale.

I, meanwhile, was panicking.

He reached out to a mortgage company, started the loan process, got in touch with our realtor friend, and the hunt for a house began.

I was still panicking.

Now, here's the thing. I've always prided myself on being awesome at change. I love change! Change is exciting! But when he first started talking about moving back into the suburbs, I froze up. I agreed with him - there were definite pros to moving and cons to staying, but deep down inside I was terrified and extremely resistant to the idea. I was losing sleep, I was crying at random times, and I couldn’t focus. When my husband asked me what was going on, I told him I was just having "a little bit of internal resistance" to moving.

This was NOT a little bit of resistance. This was full-stop I don't want to do this.

For the first week, I just sat in complete NO Mode. My brain was running 100 mph down the I Don’t Want To Move Highway, and my emotional state was 100% going wherever it wanted to go.

Self-awareness? Zip. Self-management? Zero.

And we were both suffering because of it. My husband was confused and not sure how to move forward.

I wasn't able to work. The podcast? Not happening. I'd sit down to write, and words would not come into my brain. I tried and tried, and then beat myself up for not getting episodes up. And the downward spiral continued.

One day, I went for a little drive and had a long talk with myself, because I knew this couldn't continue.

I started by asking myself what I was afraid of losing. Two big items jumped out: I would miss being this close to nature, and I would have to deal with losing that part of my identity that liked living outside of town. I was now the gal who lives in rubber boots, has big vegetable gardens, practices archery, and lives this romanticized ideal country life.

In case it’s not yet clear, our self-identity plays a massive role in self-awareness and self-management.

I then asked myself whether I would actually have to give those things up. In part, yes, of course, living in town would prevent me from hiking in the woods every day, but would there be a way to work around these two big losses?

Answer? Yes. My husband and I talked, and he had never planned on selling our little farmhouse. We would still have it as a getaway. I wouldn't lose what I was afraid of losing.

Once I realized that I wouldn't have to give up what I cherished, the transition in thinking because so much easier. Next up was the pros list! What would be the positives of being in town?

Well, as an extremely extroverted person, it would be nice to be closer to family and friends, closer to our hobbies, closer to my consulting clients. We could actually get food delivered to our house.

It took about a week of conversations with myself, my husband, and several trusted friends to get me to a much better place, but it all started with self-awareness.

So what did I learn? My husband and I make decisions at different speeds. I like to chew on all the possible negative outcomes before I jump into something. It takes me a few days or weeks to process big changes - I need to kick the tires a little before I’m ready to buy the car. When I'm I panic mode, I shut down and find it very hard to work. None of those are necessarily bad things, but without acknowledging those triggers, mindsets, beliefs, and emotions, it's hard for me to get done what I need to get done.

However, I also realized my self-identity as a person who adapts well to change was frankly not really true, at least in this situation. It’s not a criticism of myself, it’s just awareness that I deal with change this way. This awareness gives me the opportunity to try different approaches to change, to switch up the way I deal with new situations. Now that I know how I tend to handle fast changes, I can better manage those emotional triggers, mental processes, and behavioral reactions.

Self-awareness is knowing who we are, who we want to be. It's all about knowing our strengths and our weaknesses, our limitations, where we feel comfortable, what scares us or intimidates us, what excites us and energizes us, what angers us or disgusts us, or makes us sad or content in life.

But self-awareness goes beyond just recognizing what we see when we reflect on ourselves. We also have to accept that we have the ability to actually change ourselves. It's a willingness to recognize our own imperfections and to have both enough humility and openness to attempt to do better. It's an inclination to analyze how we come across to others and not blame them for their perceptions of us.

Self-management is acting in alignment with our values. It's controlling our emotional reactions and our mindset before they control us. It's creating a version of ourselves where we are in charge and not at the mercy of our default reactions.

And it's not always a fun process.

Maybe it's realizing we retaliate against people who give us feedback. Maybe we ignore people or snap at them or attempt to manipulate them through anger or tears.

Maybe we immediately dismiss feedback as useless because we automatically think that the other person is wrong. And we don't allow ourselves to even question if there might be a grain of truth to it.

Maybe we avoid putting ourselves in situations where we might fail, especially publicly or in front of other people.

We may be overly self-critical. When we immediately throw up a wall of self-directed criticism, we don't allow ourselves the opportunity to admit that we have the ability to do better. That hammering on ourselves becomes its own kind of defense mechanism designed to keep us from actually having to try to solve anything.

But the great thing about self-awareness and self-management is that once we become willing to hold up a mirror to ourselves and then take action to monitor ourselves, to reflect, and to make different choices in our mindsets, our beliefs, our self-talk, and our behaviors, we can make massive changes in our lives.

So let’s get started. Over the next week, pay conscious attention to your moods, your mindset, and your resulting behaviors. Specifically, I want you to catch yourself in 3 different states:

Happy & optimistic

Frustrated or angry

Motivated and driven

And I'd like for you to ask yourself these questions:

· What triggered this state of mind?

· What am I telling myself about the situation? Is that true?

· What do I have to believe about myself to keep myself in this state?

· How is this state affecting my behaviors?

· How can I keep this state going (if it's a good one!) or move myself out of it (if it's detrimental)?

· What do I need to believe about myself to move into a different state?

The last nugget I’ll leave you with is this: self-awareness and self-management don’t have end posts. There will never be a day where we are 100% self-aware and 100% in control, no matter the circumstances. Does that mean it’s an ongoing battle that’s not really worth fighting? Does it mean we should just let an existential sense of failure creep over us? Or does it mean that we are unique, interesting creatures who have hidden depths that we can continue to explore for the rest of our lives? Does it mean we can curiously seek to love ourselves through our own personal growth? I’m pretty sure which way I’d like to feel. Home | Belly Dance Alchemy

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