Awareness Skills

Within the context of self-kindness, when people can become aware of their feelings and thoughts, sort their thoughts into facts and beliefs, shift their attention to the facts, and derive reality-based strategies – founded in awareness of their needs, wants, strengths, preferences, values, and priorities – to achieve desired ends in mind, they increase the likelihood they can be helpful to themselves, others, and the world, skillfully handle hardships, relate empathetically and understandingly with themselves and others, and be consciously present for appreciation and contentment, even joy.

Read time: Approximately 10 minutes (3,000 words)

Co-traveling with reality

The statement above synthesizes the essence of cognitive theory-informed therapy protocols, plus existential therapy, that helps people co-travel with the realities of the human condition. I term these “awareness skills.” The list below outlines the process by which one fosters awareness to live life more fully and skillfully.

Awareness of self

To orient oneself to the “self-seeing” and self-discovery process that fosters self-knowledge and broad awareness, these tools may be helpful:

  1. Self-Care Checklist
  2. Awareness Skills Self-Assessment
  3. Checklists to Assess Needs, Wants, Strengths and Preferences
  4. Definition of Self-Kindness

Awareness of values and priorities

Values are words given to an inner sense of knowing what is important to you. Priorities are the top tasks you want to accomplish in your one precious life. Values provide power and priorities provide direction.

Awareness of attention

Here’s the sequence for gaining the intentional, muscular power to choose to what one gives one’s attention:

  1. Become aware of my attention on that.
  2. Disengage my attention from that.
  3. Shift my attention to this.
  4. Engage my attention with this.

Become aware > Disengage > Shift > Engage

“This” is based on one’s values and priorities.

Begin with the end in mind.

“What is to be done?” is a deeply important, existential human question. What are the criteria by which one decides?

With an estimated 100 years to live, as one of nearly 8 billion people currently on the planet, as one of 100 billion humans estimated to have ever lived, with your brain’s estimated 100 billion neurons and perhaps a similar number of glial cells, given the confounding complexity of reality – what do you want to be able to say – with your strengths, values, and priorities – you tried to do with the time you had?

Awareness of feelings

Feelings offer data about what’s going on within and around you.

Primary feelings are experiences evolved within the human brain to assist with surviving, thriving, and connecting. Primary feelings happen automatically, without thought.

The “big four feelings” are “mad,” “sad,” “glad,” and “afraid.” Other primary feelings include: surprised, disgusted, alarmed (includes fight-flight-freeze response).

Secondary feelings are caused by thoughts.

Secondary feelings happen as a result of thoughts – often thoughts that are opinions, beliefs, or rules – that cause feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, humiliation, self-blame, mistaken other-blame, regret, rage, dread, panic, despair, nostalgia, jealousy, righteousness, vengeance, and “ideations,” i.e. intrusive thoughts or fantasies of harm to self or others. Secondary feelings that result from thoughts cause suffering through 1) escalating natural feelings, 2) causing painful feelings, 3) creating a sense of “no escape,” which can result in feelings of rage, helplessness, and hopelessness, 4) increased reactivity vs. conscious choice, and 5) creating troubled interactions with others.

“Big heart, big hurt.”
– Ann Shawhan, artist, physician’s assistant

These conceptions of feelings may be of interest:

“[P]anning in advance to manage his own anticipated feelings, Odysseus had himself tied to the mast to help him resist the Sirens.”
Linda Emanuel & Karen Glasser Scandrett

Emotion regulation is a skill that fosters optimal use of the human brain for decision-making.

Here’s a step-by-step description of the emotion regulation process.

“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past, I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.”
– Litany Against Fear, Dune

Awareness of thoughts

Thinking can be optimized by:

  • acknowledging the complexity of reality and the limits of the human brain to understand it fully.
  • differentiating between facts and beliefs.
  • acknowledging that caring, loving, and attaching creates the equivalent of a fact in one’s own universe.
  • assessing probabilities.
  • doing cost-benefit analyses with rank ordering.

Thinking can be compromised by interpreting the realities of self, others, the world, and events through the filters of legacy beliefs from one’s upbringing and culture, patterns of problematic thinking, and cognitive distortions.

A very gentle reminder: Thinking “I must now be aware at all times in all situations” is an imposition of a harsh rule on oneself. In the midst of the complexity of reality, most people do the best they can, with what they’re aware of at the time, with the tools and resources they have on hand. In retrospect, they may wish they had done something else. But thinking, “I should have been or done better,” tortures the heart and mind. Further, one can’t know if something different would have been better, worse, or had no effect. For the human condition, kindness is merited.

Here are examples of interpretations:

One interpretation of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, 2022 from The Boston Globe: “At the Olympics, a subdued Opening Ceremony from a controversial host in a weary world.”

Another interpretation: “At the Olympics, a triumphant Opening Ceremony from a host determined to protect its 1.4 billion people from a deadly virus in a resilient world.”

Potentially useful questions:

  • Am I interpreting what is happening?
  • Is an interpretation needed? What are the facts?

Approaching thoughts that are factual and realistic can be challenging. Here’s a diagram showing why that may be:

“Whereas the egocentric hero sets out to conquer the world, the existential hero seeks to face reality and conquer fear through attitudes such as resoluteness and authenticity.”
Frances Vaughan

A form of human suffering can come from wishing things were different. We think things should be different, usually based on the just-world hypothesis. The just-world hypothesis holds that hard work will be rewarded, bad deeds will be punished, “things happen for a reason,” “what goes around comes around,” and that self, others, and the world should be fair, controllable, orderly, and predictable. In contrast, reality is complex. Some occurrences have no discernible origin, causality, or meaning.

Common sources of suffering caused by understandable, very human ways of thinking:

  1. Trying to make things happen that just won’t budge.
  2. Trying to make people or institutions value us in ways they just can’t or won’t.
  3. Trying to make people feel, think, do, and choose pretty much anything.
  4. Drawing conclusions or taking actions based on our belief that we can know what another person’s brain’s 100 billion neurons – and, perhaps, an equivalent number of glial cells – are feeling, thinking, and experiencing without asking them.
  5. Thinking we shouldn’t be who we are or how we are, or we shouldn’t be feeling, thinking, and experiencing what and as we are.

“The idea is to manage the voice that you use for self-management.”
Joshua Rothman

Awareness of the relationship between feelings and thoughts

Thoughts cause feelings.

That is the primary premise of cognitive theory and the findings of neuroscience. Becoming aware of one’s feelings and thoughts, therefore, offers the opportunity to influence one’s experience. Because of the way the brain works, activating cognitive and executive functioning centers of the brain regulates emotions.

How much we need reasons!
How reasons make us feel better!
– from “Noreen” by Peter Meinke, from Scars

Awareness of the relationship between feelings, thoughts, and events

Awareness of words

Define terms. Express precisely.

Children learn what they live.” Inner narratives with supportive, fact-based words help people thrive. Inner narratives with harsh, dire,  judgmental words are frightening, demoralizing, and stunt growth.

Repeating the same words to repeatedly tell the same story, whether with others or in silent rumination that does not result in insight, is not supported by research to reduce suffering. Paradoxically, retelling outwardly or noodling inwardly may activate emotion centers of the brain and exacerbate distress. Further, replaying what happened may serve as a sort of flashcard system for reinforcing troubling memories.

Using awareness skills in the moment

Here is a sample inner narrative using the awareness skills described above:

I have become aware that I am having feelings and thoughts about something that happened. What are the facts? Given my values and priorities, how can I help myself with this?

More specifically:

  1. What am I feeling? Are my feelings primary feelings or secondary feelings?
  2. My primary feelings, however painful or uncomfortable they may be, are normal human feelings. What data are my feelings trying to indicate to me and what shall I do with it? My human brain has evolved to handle feelings and I can comfort myself as they ease on their own.
  3. My secondary feelings are caused by thoughts. What thoughts am I thinking that are causing these feelings? Let me help myself with them. Let me ask myself some questions.
  4. What are the facts? How realistic is this thought? (Many thoughts have some basis in reality. I can ask myself: On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is “It’s a fact verified by rigorous science,” and 1 is “I’m truly guessing,” how reality-based/fact-based is the thought?)
  5. How likely is the content of the thought to occur? What is my estimate of probabilities? On a probability line, where would I place the chances? 100% certain, a 50%-50% chance, 51%-49%, impossible?
  6. Is my beautiful brain engaged in negativity bias, thinking it needs to more heavily weigh everything that might be a problem in order to keep me alive?
  7. Are legacy beliefs, patterns of problematic thinking or cognitive distortions kicking in? Am I applying rules to myself, others, or the world about how I think things should be?
  8. Am I focusing on thoughts about one part of a situation and not taking into account other parts of the situation? Am I weighing one part of the situation more heavily than other parts? Is this merited?
  9. Have I thought this thought before? Have I given it due time?
  10. If noodling over this thought would have “fixed” it, might I have noodled enough to fix it by now? Might I try another approach?
  11. How helpful is this thought? Is it helping me feel better or worse? Is it helping me do better or do worse?
  12. Is the thought helping me feel more hopeful or more despairing?
  13. Is this thought scaring me or reassuring me?
  14. Is the thought related to judgment – which distresses me further – or to acceptance, which helps ease my distress?
  15. Am I feeling distressed about something that has happened before? Is it painful but not surprising?
  16. What are the top three facts/realities I need to accept about what happened/what’s happening? However much I ache to do this, are there realities I need to see? Is it “Time to reading the writing on the billboard”? Are there elephants in the room that need to be seen and discussed?
  17. Are there unchangeable realities here with which I will simply need to co-travel?
  18. With regard to this situation, what are my values? What are my priorities?
  19. Right here, right now, am I okay enough, at least for now?
  20. Regardless of any of my answers, how can I help myself with this?

Awareness in relationships

“People break each other’s hearts. It’s not whether or not we break each other’s hearts that determines the quality of a relationship. It’s how we handle the breaking.”
– attributed to Pastor Woody Leach, spoken at a wedding in Blacksburg, Virginia

In general, effective relationships are based on safety, trust, and mutual sharing of power. In interactions, people seek empathy, understanding, and connection. Beliefs about the way relationships “should” be are often what breaks them. Self-awareness and realism foster effective relationships.

A sense of connection usually engenders a wish for, and commitment to, another’s well-being.

“Only connect!”
– E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

The personnel changes. We may wish to hold onto partners, family members, beloved pets, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and others to whom we feel connected. But the reality is that our lives are peopled by many beings over the years. The only enduring relationship is the relationship with oneself.

Common, unrealistic beliefs about relationships

  • “Love should happen naturally. If we have to talk about our relationship, including sex, it’s not real love.”
  • “They should know what I want, need, feel, think, etc. If they don’t know, it’s because they don’t love me enough.”
  • “If I’m upset, they should help calm me down.”
  • “They’re making me feel _____” and/or “I made them feel _____.”
  • “Our problems are about me as a person.”
    In reality, it’s usually not “who” we are, but “how” we are – our behaviors in the relationship and towards the other person – that cause relationship challenges.

“Your job isn’t to un-upset him. It’s to un-upset you.”
– Jeannie Hamilton, Ph.D., psychologist

Theoretically, even strangers can fall in love if they ask the right questions.

Awareness of attachment

According to attachment theory, from their earliest days, humans need to feel attached in order to thrive. Since the presence of humans and other beings changes over the course of a lifetime, in adulthood, attaching to the self can provide the most expert and steadfast attachment.

Awareness of grief

Grief, from primary, secondary, and/or multiple losses, is considered a challenging, complex emotion, deserving of tenderness and respect. Loss can disrupt beliefs, one’s world view, and ways of seeing purpose and making meaning of one’s life. Here’s more about grief. The challenges of co-traveling with grief and bereavement have been multiplied during the pandemic. Indeed, grief can be experienced as traumatic.

Possibly helpful:

“To move through trauma to growth, one must first get educated about what the former is: a disruption of core belief systems.”
Richard Tedeschi

Awareness of trauma

What one ardently believed about oneself, one’s place in the world, others and one’s relationship to them, how people are, how the world works – even the very nature of reality itself – can be shattered after a traumatic experience.  Existential questions arise. At the same time as one grieves losses -including the loss of what one believed and hoped – without minimizing the enormity of what happened – definitions of all these understandings and ways of being have to be re-derived.

“Something subterranean and foundational seems broken, and, with this, there is a profound sense of groundlessness: The world itself seems broken, as in Hamlet’s agony: The world is out of joint. And yet there may not be words to describe what that brokenness actually is – precisely, I submit, because what is broken is a larger way of being. With a crisis of disillusionment our hitherto taken-for-granted world comes into view as illusory precisely because we can no longer take that world, that way of being, for granted. Further, this crisis of foundational illusions seems a common feature of trauma, which tears apart the taken-for-granted security of the interwoven illusions that help us get by.”
Alfred Margulies

Awareness of substance use

People use substances for purposes that are meaningful to them.

Awareness of what’s helpful

To me, the most humane, informed, skilled, outcome-focused question people can ask themselves in moments of distress and challenge in nearly any situation is this:

How can I help myself with this?

Philosophy of Life and Death

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
–  J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Having become able to become aware of one’s inner state, what one is feeling and thinking, and having gained skills to assist oneself, a person can then look at how they make sense of things. What are the mechanisms by which a life unfolds? A philosophy – a description of one’s understanding of the fundamental nature of reality and existence – can provide a larger context for decision-making within the context of the realities of one’s situation.

Many have found holocaust survivor Viktor Frank’s Man’s Search for Meaning pivotal in helping them derive a personal philosophy of life and death. Marsha Linehan derived dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) from reading every piece of holocaust literature she could find to learn how people made it through human-created deprivations and violations that Frankl termed “bestial.” My evolving philosophy of life and death is here.

For myself, clients, and others, I keep trying to distill – and find jargon-free words for – what research, theory, expertise, experience, and wisdom through the ages says about how to live this life.

Does it boil down to this?

No matter what happens, whether it’s personal, relational, psychological, physical, communal or global, no matter what you feel and think – regardless of what they did to you or you did to them – you now have to do the right thing? With “right” being defined by your values, your reading of the data, your logic, your estimation of possibilities and probabilities, and your altruism for yourself and others?

That one does one’s purposeful best, based on one’s best judgment and resources at the time, in spite of feeling shock, panic or rage, anxiety or depression, in spite of outraged thoughts that it shouldn’t be this way or dire thoughts that it’s all going down? One goes for excellence if possible, and good enough will do if it’s not? All the while acknowledging and respecting the power of one’s childhood’s neglects and violations but not being overpowered by them?

Do we need to see people as amusing or annoying, helpful or hurtful, but it’s all up to us anyway? That, ultimately, each decision – from drinking a glass of wine, a bottle, or none, to spending an hour learning Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, to spending time at the gym or taking a walk, to using an hour to study, cook a meal, or talk with a customer, client, colleague, partner or grandchild, to deciding to speak or not speak, to thinking about the past, present, and future – including decisions to engage in self-care and self-sacrifice – needs to happen in the context of writing our one and only paragraph in the history of humankind, in hopes of being of some current or future service, before our time is up?

“[C]hoices [are] particularly difficult given we cannot choose everything and frequently must choose without knowing all we might want to know.”
Han et al., 2021

Page last updated 2/4/23.

This content is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.