The Complete Guide to Self-Awareness & Personal Growth
Updated: Nov 11, 2022
Originally published at https://www.success.com on June 15, 2020.
You wake one morning in a clearing in the woods. A stream runs off into the trees and in the distance, you see mountains. You have no idea how you got here, or where here is.
What do you do?
Do you sit down and wait for some passerby to rescue you, or do you set out walking in the direction of the high ground, hoping for a better view and a chance of unraveling this mystery?
That sums up the choice that every human is handed at birth: sit tight and survive, or get moving and seek truth?
It’s easier to stay still and live the same day over and again. But to truly live means exploring the depths of our soul to continuously create better versions of our self.
What’s in This Guide?
This is a comprehensive guide to knowing and improving yourself. Yes, that’s a bold promise, but I know that these practices work, because they worked on me.
If you want to:
Understand why you’re not where you want to be in life,
Have better relationships with yourself and others,
Accomplish goals that seem out of your reach,
Stop struggling and get into the flow of life,
Let go of the fears, beliefs and habits that are holding you back…
Then you will feel like this guide is written for you.
If you apply what you learn here, you can’t help but know yourself better and accelerate your growth.
Table of Contents
Don’t feel the need to read this from top to bottom. Start from the place that your intuition tells you to. Here’s a guide to this guide:
What Are Self-Awareness and Personal Growth?
Part I: Be Teachable
Part II: Look Inside
Part III: Make Friends With Yourself
Part IV: Set Bold Challenges
Part V: Seek Guides
Part VI: Powerful Tools
What Are Self-Awareness and Personal Growth?
You might think these are ambiguous terms, but in a growing field like personal development, some academics have made it their job to nail down definitions of key terms like self-awareness and personal growth.
Dr. Tasha Eurich is a psychologist, researcher and author who studied self-awareness in 2014. After interviewing 5,000 participants, she determined that there were two distinct types:
Internal self-awareness: “how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions… and impact on others.”
External self-awareness: “understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors listed above.”
And personal growth? Researchers define it as “a skillset for intentional change and development,” which includes:
Readiness for change, or call it flexibility;
Planfulness, or the ability to strategize your efforts to grow;
Use of resources, like mentors and books; and
Intentional behavior, aka taking action.
Now that we know our subject, the obvious question is, how do you develop self-awareness and foster personal growth? Let’s take a look at the best strategies.
Part I: Be Teachable
You can’t know yourself without constantly asking questions, and you won’t grow if you think you have nothing to learn.
John C. Maxwell explains that teachability does not refer to “competence” or “mental capacity,” but to an attitude: one that’s curious and excited to learn, but also humble enough to accept that the ocean of what we don’t know will always be bigger than the pond of what we do know.
Here’s how you stay teachable.
1. Be honest with yourself.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” —Richard P. Feynman
Creating cashflow projections is the most fun part of creating a business plan. You get to fill up your spreadsheet with imaginary revenue numbers—first modest, then healthier figures—to paint a rosy picture of your nice straight line into profitability. But even the most conservative projections usually fall far short of reality.
Shooting for the moon and falling among the stars isn’t a bad strategy, but how much of your plan reflects ambitious vision, and how much is self-delusion? Lying to yourself about your situation and capabilities is counterproductive.
What are some lies we tell ourselves? “My marriage is rock solid!” “My employees love me!” “I don’t drink thaaat much!” Psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, and it’s a defense mechanism we use to relieve the tension between who we are and who we believe we are.
If you want to feel good, keep pretending. But if you want to improve your relationships, career, business or health, be honest. See your flaws clearly, and you’ll stay teachable and grow.
2. Be your own devil’s advocate.
“To understand a saint, you must hear the devil’s advocate.” —George Bernard Shaw
In 1961, a group of 1,400 CIA-trained Cuban exiles led an invasion aimed at overthrowing Fidel Castro and his fledgling communist government. The Bay of Pigs invasion flopped, and it’s now a cautionary tale that illustrates what’s called groupthink.
Groupthink is a phenomenon that causes people to seek harmony, rather than point out obvious flaws in logic and reasoning, and it happened to President John F. Kennedy and his advisors with the Bay of Pigs. In hindsight, terrible decisions were made that completely ignored vital information—all because nobody wanted to be a naysayer.
Kennedy and his team took a radically different approach to decisions after that, which included appointing a devil’s advocate, someone whose role was to express dissenting arguments to challenge—and ultimately strengthen—the consensus. Kennedy used this approach during the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later, which likely avoided global nuclear war.
The stakes are probably lower in your life, but the lesson translates perfectly to your personal growth: Be your own devil’s advocate by questioning all that you hear, but also everything you tell yourself. Simply ask, “What if the opposite were true?”
3. Keep your cup empty.
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few.” —Shunryu Suzuki
A student travels into the mountains for an audience with a great Zen master. She arrives and begins to tell the master all she knows about Zen. The master asks, “Would you like some tea?” Yes, thank you. The tea arrives and the student continues to spout off. The master pours the tea until the cup is overflowing.
“What are you doing?” the student shouts. “It’s full, no more can go in!”
With a paternal smile, the master says, “Just like this cup, if the mind is full, no more can go in.”
The student stops talking and listens.
Keep your own cup empty, and you’ll be open to new wisdom. This can be done by practicing another Zen habit: beginner’s mind.
Beginner’s mind, says mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn, is achieved by looking at each present moment—even our routines—as if we’ve never been here before. Drop your opinions and beliefs, your expectations and “shoulds,” and you will be happier, more at peace and more teachable.
4. Always be learning.
“Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job.” —Jim Rohn
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right? In fact, dog trainers will tell you that’s a myth.
Like our four-legged friends, humans are highly adaptable at any age; just notice how normal this new self-isolation routine feels. If some people become less teachable as they age, that is a choice, not a biological certainty.
Neuroplasticity is a new-ish area of scientific study that tells us that our brains are highly adaptive throughout life. Muscles grow with repeated use, and neural pathways do the same, which is why our lives become what we think about most of the time.
If we know that we’re putty in our own hands, then an excellent strategy is to set learning goals. That might mean taking a college course, signing up for something on Udemy.com or simply reading something educational. I’ve set myself a goal to become better at email marketing, so I schedule one hour a week to read about best practices.
When you turn yourself into someone who loves truth and constantly sets out to find it, you’ll be teachable, and massive self-awareness and personal growth will follow.
Part II: Look Inside
If you want to understand how a car works, sooner or later you have to get under the hood. Sure, you can learn much from books or classes, but that secondary knowledge can only take you so far.
The most valuable learning comes from direct experience, and though you might be tempted to listen to endless podcasts on self-awareness or read great books on personal growth (which you should do), eventually, you need to look inside. Read the techniques that follow, but be sure to practice them as well.
1. The basics.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” —Blaise Pascal
These familiar practices are worth mentioning, because they are foundational habits that other healthy habits are built on. Practice these daily, and you’ll enjoy greater focus and energy and faster growth.
Mindfulness simply means being aware, or paying attention. Most minds are on autopilot for the majority of the day, which means we spiral down into negative emotions or even miss out on the bulk of our lives. Mindfulness invites us to constantly bring our awareness back to Now—the only place happiness lives. We can improve mindfulness by practicing meditation or yoga for even five minutes a day.
Journaling’s power can’t be overstated. Writing about our lives is cathartic. It brings clarity to our lives, sharpens our minds, helps us remember things and solve problems, improves our communication… shall I go on?
Walking: Years ago, a friend told me that “walking is a writer’s best friend,” and I’ve never had writer’s block as long as I take my daily stroll. OK, you might not be a writer, but the lesson is that physically moving your body unsticks your mind, which is helpful no matter your job. This pairs with the next habit.
Solitude: Pablo Picasso said, “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” and he ended up selling a few paintings. Are you always connected to your devices? Letting the phone ring in the middle of a deep work session? “Multitasking”? The poverty of solitude in our society is so extreme that we don’t even notice it. Take a walk alone in nature regularly, and that small, invincible voice inside of you will speak again.
2. Break your patterns.
“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” —Lao Tzu
Most growth requires the consistent practice of effective habits—call it determination, consistency, grit or “showing up.” That might look like exercise three times a week or 50 client calls a day.
If your routine is bearing fruit, great. But too often our day-to-day habits are ineffective, and our routine is keeping us from even SEEING the problems in our life. Does this describe you? To find out, ask yourself honestly, “Are my daily efforts generating results?”
If not, break your patterns. That could mean throwing your schedule out the window and working on “Big Block of Cheese” tasks, those on your list that never get your time of day. It may mean spontaneously (key word here) scrapping your plan for the day and going to the beach, booking a vacation or even giving yourself a stern talking to in the mirror. Knock yourself out of the groove you’ve carved to see your life from a different angle.
You can keep it simple. One therapist prescribed for a client who was bored with life an easy task: Park in a different spot at work each day. After a few days he was dancing to the front doors, and his wife didn’t recognize him when he got home.
3. Ask these three questions.
“The quality of your life is a direct reflection of the quality of the questions you are asking yourself.” ―Tony Robbins
Want to get frustrated? Ask yourself why you can’t lose weight… Why you can’t ever save money… Why you only date narcissists. The problem with those questions is that they start from an assumption that there’s some fatal flaw in you.
Improve your life by asking better questions. Here are three of the best:
“How did I fail today?” The best career advice that billionaire founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely, ever got came from her dad. He would ask her a version of this question over the dinner table. Sara became the type of person who seeks challenges and understands that failure is inseparable from achievement. Her results speak volumes.
“How could I have made today better?” Tim Ferriss ends most days by answering this question in his journal. If you answer honestly, you’ll get valuable insight into your own behavior and concrete things you can do, starting tomorrow, to improve your life.
“Is there anything else you would like to tell me?” Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends this mindfulness practice as a way to get in “direct contact” with ourselves. Direct the question to your heart, psyche, spirit or the devil on your shoulder. Listen quietly for the answer, and helpful messages will come up.
4. Track your mood.
“I want to feel good today. I don’t want to keep living for some far-off day that might never come—where I’m rich and finally feel good about myself.” —Tom Bilyeu
Seeing a problem is halfway to fixing it. If you’re not as happy as you’d like to be, then measuring your mood at regular intervals will be helpful.
Dr. David Burns has spent a lifetime studying mood, and his online Depression Test is an excellent way to become more self-aware (even if you’re not depressed). The simple act of taking stock of your emotional landscape can show you what you want to improve (or where things aren’t actually that bad!).
You could also use a mood tracker app. Daylio asks you each evening to rate your mood and track the day’s activities. After a few months you’ll have helpful data that can show you what you’re doing that is having a positive or negative impact on your life. Does your mood dip the day after you drink? Are you full of energy on days that you meditate? Take a methodical approach to your internal landscape and you’ll become wiser.
Part III: Make Friends With Yourself
The A-type personalities that I know can be vicious to themselves. At a Tony Robbins event a few years back, Tony asked the crowd of 10,000, “How many of you feel like you’re not enough?” Keep in mind that this $800 event attracts motivated, capable people. Still, 95% of the hands in the room shot up, including mine.
Intelligent, ambitious people often have the toughest struggles with self-love, but failure to appreciate yourself is like building a wall between you and potential. If you want to grow, use these tactics to become kinder to yourself.
1. The basics.
“Friendship with oneself is all important, because without it one cannot be friends with anyone else in the world.” —Eleanor Roosevelt
Let’s start again with the low-hanging fruit, because once you master these easy habits, you’ll improve your self-image. In that improved state, you can then tackle more complex habits.
Mantras are short phrases, repeated out loud or in your head, that can be practiced while walking or doing the dishes. Pick any phrase you like. “I live each day with passion and confidence,” for example, will convince your brain it’s true. There’s nothing mystical about this—mantras program our brain’s reticular activating system to look for opportunities that will turn our desires into reality.
The ta-da! list is the mirror image of your to-do list. Add an item to your ta-da list every time you finish a task. At the end of the day/week/month you’ll have a lengthy list of accomplishments in front of you. Pat yourself on the back!
Negative visualization: Gratitude is a powerful inoculation against negative self-talk and woe-is-me thinking. One way to practice it is to simply think on everything you’re grateful for. Negative visualization turns this around, asking you to imagine tragedy. What if you never met your partner? What if you got fired? What if someone you love died? This is a powerful Stoic exercise that will help you appreciate the blessings you do have—which we all take for granted too often.
2. Forgive yourself.
“Anger is a hot coal that you hold in your hand while waiting to throw it at someone else.” —Buddhist saying
We know that failing to forgive someone is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die—as if our anger and hatred could harm anyone but ourselves. But what do we do when the person we need to forgive is our self?
Show me an achiever and I’ll show you someone who has lofty goals, incredibly high self-standards, and is quick to beat themselves up when they fail. Many even believe that if they don’t take this harsh taskmaster approach, they will somehow become a lazy procrastinator and end up living in a van down by the river. Give yourself more credit.
Self-flagellation destroys productivity; it’s like pressing the brakes and gas at the same time. To do our best work, we need to fall in love with ourselves, and that can only happen by practicing self-compassion. That starts with forgiving ourselves for all past and present imperfections.
3. Don’t compare.
“Remember that there is nothing in being superior to some other man. The true nobility lies in being superior to your own previous self.” —W.L. Sheldon
As a coach I’ve watched many clients come to me with a need to measure themselves against co-workers, family members, or the impossible standards set by the media machine. Great swaths of our societies are obsessed with making more money than so-and-so, wondering why they’re not married, and showing off their Yeti camping gear, then wonder why they’re not fulfilled.
I assure you, this battle can’t be won. Each of us are mind-meltingly complex collections of an infinite number of moments and experiences that shape us. No two people start with the same amount of opportunities, talents or luck. To chase a life that looks like someone else’s literally means putting someone who is not you in charge of your life. Stop that immediately!
Understand this truth before another year of your life passes in pursuit of someone else’s idea of your best life: You get to decide what’s important to you, so root out and eliminate all outside programming and discover your own purpose. When you do, it will feel like removing the 800-pound gorilla from your chest.
4. Use this compassion exercise.
“As it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly.” —Brené Brown
Chade-Meng Tan was Google employee #107. While there, he started mindfulness training for employees, which was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. He’s an unexpected source of this exercise, which will help you love yourself more.
Step 1: “Look at any human being,” he says.
Step 2: “Say in your mind, I wish for this person to be happy.”
That’s it. You’ll be amazed by the results. This simple act will help you feel compassion for anyone. And when you flood yourself with this emotion, it’s far easier to direct that loving energy inward.
Part IV: Set Bold Challenges
The practices we’ve explored so far have helped us cultivate internal conditions that are ripe for growth and achievement. But eventually it’s time to leave the nest and begin our growth work in full view of the outside world. It’s time to set lofty goals, then work diligently to make them reality.
1. The Goldilocks Zone.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” —Arthur C. Clarke
The three bears have a lot to teach us here. Forget about goals that are too scalding to handle or too lukewarm to inspire us to action. Good goals are in the Goldilocks Zone: that “just right” domain where challenges are not too tough that we throw our hands up in frustration, but also not easy enough that they can’t rouse us from the bean bag chair.
We expand our limits by working just outside of them, so choose goals that are slightly beyond your current capabilities. You’ll know you’ve got the right goals when they scare you, but not so much that you’re having stress dreams at night.
2. Prioritize incremental change over leaps.
“Any time you see what looks like a breakthrough, it is always the end result of a long series of little things, done consistently over time.” ―Jeff Olson
The business media deludes us when it prints a story about an “overnight success.” There is no such thing. The companies that are being thrown laurels in the pages of the Wall Street Journal know that their overnight success took 10 years.
Quit beating yourself up because the business you launched six months ago hasn’t been acquired by Google. Life has a built-in weeding-out process: Those who don’t want their goals bad enough get weeded out.
Expecting success to happen in a spectacular breakthrough with trumpets sounding and fireworks overhead is equivalent to fantasizing about beating the casino. Sure, it’s possible, but about as likely as a meteor being struck by lightning.
Real growth happens in small increments, but this is as powerful as compound interest. Imagine if you improved yourself by just 1% every day. At the end of one year you’d be radically improved, and it would look like a breakthrough.
3. Set stretch goals.
“Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.” ―Thor Heyerdahl
Stretch goals are ambitious objectives that call on you to stand at the edge of the chasm… then to lean in. Pushing limitations and chasing moonshots has always been popular in business.
But it’s important to know when to shoot for the moon and when to stick to incremental change. One 2011 study confirmed what we know intuitively: that companies struggling with fundamentals shouldn’t stretch. Those that do aren’t chasing stretch goals, they’re throwing Hail Mary passes. Trying to go too far too fast under the wrong conditions will demoralize you.
The time to pursue stretch goals is when you have just achieved something great (signing a big client, finishing a marathon) and have surplus resources (time or money.) By all means, add stretch goals to your to-do list any time—dreaming big inspires and motivates you. Just don’t extend yourself until the conditions above are met.
4. Raise your bottom line.
“Any time you sincerely want to make a change, the first thing you must do is to raise your standards.” —Tony Robbins
Jen Sincero was a flat broke writer-musician into her forties, now she’s a world class success coach and self-branded “motivational cattle prod” who is making millions every year. Her book You Are a Badass at Making Money invites readers to “raise your bottom line”—specifically, to make a non-negotiable decision about the new minimum amount in your bank account. Both my bank account and monthly income have increased since I took her advice.
You can raise your bottom line in all areas of your life, not just your finances. What is the new minimum level of awesome you’ll settle for in your next romantic partner? Minimum fitness level? Number of vacation days? Amount of grief you’ll tolerate from your boss?
Raising your standards will bring you to new heights of both self-respect and success. And continuously raising that bar will generate growing returns. Identify now where your standards are too low and decide to raise them.
Part V: Seek Guides
Solitude and introspection can boost your self-awareness—but only so far. To truly know ourselves in order that we might grow, the mirror of other people can be incredibly helpful. If you go abroad regularly, then you know that travel is one of the best teachers. Why?
Because watching others think, act and live in ways that are normal to them but unthinkable for us (why are so many people at this Parisian cafe on a workday!?) breaks our brains in the very best way. The experience sets our mind to wondering, “If this can be done differently, what else have I taken for granted?”
Learning from others, especially the masters, can bring rapid personal growth (see “Be Teachable” above).
1. Read the best books.
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” —Harry S. Truman
The most successful, well-adjusted business leaders are well read. Can you get to their level without reading? It’s possible, but we’re still waiting for a shred of evidence.
Books are magical devices, nothing more than ink stains scratched onto dead trees, but that, when picked up, allow long-dead thinkers to speak directly into our heads, even across thousands of years.
Only the best books survive the test of time, which is handy because every solution to every problem you have, and the path forward to meet any challenge you’re facing, is laid out in a book somewhere. Someone, sometime, has faced your “impossible” problem before and is waiting to speak to you so you can grow to the next level.
2. Seek teachers.
“Our chief want in life is somebody who will make us do what we can.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mentors can accelerate your career progress by five or 10 years. A therapist can help you process life’s inevitable traumas and be happy. And a success coach can help you set audacious goals, stick to a plan and achieve your wildest dreams.
Yet far too many people muddle through life too proud to ask for help, acting like a 3-year-old saying, “I CAN DO IT!” while trying to stick both feet in the same pant leg. Grown-ups ask for help. Tony Robbins says, “The secret to wealth and happiness is to become a team player.” That’s because we go farther together.
Decide which teachers you want on your team and go get them.
3. Upgrade your five best friends.
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ―Jim Rohn
Have you noticed that the way you speak changes depending on who you’re talking to? Maybe your accent creeps out when you visit your family, or maybe you unfurl your complete vocabulary when you talk to your “smart” friends. My ex got a kick out of how my voice deepened whenever my best friend from high school called.
We become a different person around different people, consciously and unconsciously. Do you drink whiskey and break things when you get together with “the boys”? Do you become a ruthless gossip when you’re around “the girls”? Then perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at your friend circle.
The presence of some people in your life will keep you stuck repeating negative patterns. Others will force you to level up. You don’t have to cut people out of your life entirely, but you ought to write a list of the five people you want to be around most of the time. Who you add to your list will determine your trajectory in life.
4. Build your mastermind.
“Two heads are better than one.” —John Heywood