Aaron Perry ~ Self-Consciousness vs Self-Awareness

When I was in my early twenties, I was really good at softball. I could play defense, run reasonably well, and hit for power. I got better because I had a coach, Gordon, who watched me play and gave me pointers. As a result, I positioned myself intentionally at third base depending on the batter. I chose a heavier bat more frequently. I positioned my feet strategically in the batter’s box.

 As life took over, I quit playing softball. Because I missed the atmosphere and the camaraderie, I picked the sport back up in my mid-thirties. Between my early twenties and mid-thirties, however, I got married, added three children, and bought a house. I also lost my softball skills. While I was no longer any good at softball, I thought I could get better. So I took my coach’s spot: I started analyzing my own game and made appropriate adjustments. But the changes didn’t come as quickly as I wanted. I tried harder. I made more changes. Rather than improving, I became rigid. I was too concerned about several minor adjustments and I forgot about playing the actual game for fun.

This difference in experience—exhibited by my early twenties and my mid-thirties softball self—is vital for leaders. It is the difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness. My early softball self was self-aware; my later softball self was self-conscious. Good leadership requires self-awareness: a leader knowing herself by acknowledging her gifts and limits to set herself up for success.

John Maxwell once said something like, “Everyone who is a success found out what they’re good at.” Finding our what you’re good at is the journey of self-awareness, but it can also become the journey of self-consciousness if you become obsessed with looking at yourself. Leaders must be courageous in being self-aware but cautious at becoming self-conscious. Here are some differences between self-consciousness and self-awareness.

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

Self-knowledge is crippling                           

Rigid                                      

Embarrassed by faults

Focused on how others perceive self 

Easily offended/demanding as defense

SELF-AWARENESS

Self-knowledge is actionable

Flexible within limits

Comfortable with self

Aware of gifts that can serve others

Aware of tendencies under pressure

 This is hardly an exhaustive list; more distinctions could be drawn. But I’ll  offer an illuminating character sketch from C.S. Lewis.

“I’ve got to have my rights, see?”

The words come from one of C.S. Lewis’ heaven-touring ghosts in his classic, The Great Divorce. The speaker—a burly sort of brute willing to enforce his will with fists, is quite a strong fellow from an earthly perspective. He seems to have had a management position where he made life difficult for those under his leadership. But his self-affirmation cripples him in heaven. He cannot go on by his own strength, demanding that he get what’s coming to him. The burly ghost is self-conscious, aware of what he wants and what he demands. Yet he is completely lacking in self-awareness. He does not realize that in this new world, a demanding, self-promoting will won’t get him anywhere.

I study leadership from a theological perspective, so when I consider leaders who are self-conscious vs. leaders who are self-aware, I think of the initial story of idolatry. You know the story from the Garden of Eden. When that bit of attention was paid to the initial couple’s own desires and they set those desires above and beyond the desires of the Creator, with disastrous consequences. St Augustine defined virtue as the right ordering of loves. We ought to love persons before things. We ought to love beauty but not before we love God. The person who loves their laptop before they love their child has a misordered love. Captured in that initial story, that little rearranging of the proper order of desires spelled consequences for an entire planet. Self-consciousness emerged as the initial couple realized they were naked and covered themselves. Self-consciousness developed as they hid from God.

Because of this disaster in our collective history, sometimes the prospect of self-assertion strikes fear in the heart of potential would-be leaders. They do not want to repeat that initial sin of misordered love, giving in to their desires; they shrink from full-throated voice, shying away from full-bodied leadership. They can fear a strong sense of self. But this shrinking shyness does not keep us from sin; it is a sign of self-consciousness.

Leaders do not avoid the route of self-consciousness by avoiding the self. The spirits of heaven, for Lewis, are not disavowing, shrinking selves. They are more real than the ghosts. They are glorious beings, full of life. They are true selves. The spirit sent to engage the burly ghost is well aware of his self—his failures, his sins, his weak desires. But rather than demanding his rights, he is able see himself rightly. The point is not to get rid of the self. It is to grow into the proper self. Leaders are not trying to do away with their desires and deny their skills. They are trying to grow them through self-knowledge.

Former counseling professor Dr. Burrell Dinkins once remarked that to play professional football, you need a big ego. Without a big ego, he argues, you’ll get pushed off the field, too easily relinquishing your spot to the next eager competitor. I think there’s a parallel to leadership. Without a sense of self—a properly aware ego—there is no leadership. People do not follow shriveled selves willingly. Having a strong ego need not be hubris. Neurologist David Owen described a twisting of the self after years of success and power as the “hubris syndrome.” Self-awareness is not about inordinate pride, but about developing an appropriate ego. Self-consciousness is an obsession with the self. Self-awareness contributing to an appropriate ego is vital for success. Self-consciousness leads to anxiety.

So how does one develop self-awareness without succumbing to idolatry and the resulting self-consciousness? Though leadership scholar Ron Heifetz writes, “You don’t change by looking in the mirror; you change by encountering differences,” self-awareness can include looking in the mirror. With a nod to the wisdom of James, we look in the mirror not just to remember our appearance. We look to see what needs to change. Self-awareness is about knowing whatis different from us and being appropriately postured to engage it critically. It is about positioning our feet in the batter’s box and picking the right bat to swing. Self-awareness might involve a look in the mirror, but it doesn’t gaze there. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, results after a second, third, fourth look in the mirror. Self-consciousness grows alongside obsession with the mirror. Self-consciousness thinks that what it sees in the mirror is what everyone else sees, too.

Let’s apply some of these reflections. Do you know what your leadership self looks like? When was the last time you paused to do some self-reflection? Or to do some evaluation with a trusted, honest, and courageous friend, colleague, or follower? If you can’t remember what you look like, you might want to take a peek back in the mirror.

On the other hand, spiritual disciplines author Richard Foster once remarked that we need to stop taking our spiritual temperatures so frequently. Likewise with self-awareness. After getting some pointers, I needed to get back to playing softball. I needed to test the hitting hypotheses.

What do you know about yourself right now that could influence your way of acting in the world? Put it to use. Try it out. Make a change. [Don’t get stuck staring into the mirror. Self-conscious leaders will lead organizations into being stuck—afraid to move, crippled because only a perfect action will suffice. Self-aware leaders will position themselves well and help others to do so, as well, free to swing hard, run hard, and enjoy playing.


Featured image is “Passage of the Mirrors” by Maria Helena Vieira da Silva under Fair Use. 1981.

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