What Is Self-Awareness?

Development, Types, and How to Improve

A self-aware woman looking at her reflection.
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Self-awareness is one of the first components of the self-concept to emerge. While self-awareness is something that is central to who you are, it is not something that you are acutely focused on at every moment of every day.

Instead, self-awareness becomes woven into the fabric of who you are and emerges at different points depending on the situation and your personality.​

What Is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness involves our perception of different aspects of the self including traits, behaviors, and feelings. Essentially, it is a psychological state in which oneself becomes the focus of attention.

People are not born completely self-aware. Yet research has also found that infants do have a rudimentary sense of self-awareness.

Infants possess the awareness that they are a separate being from others, which is evidenced by behaviors such as the rooting reflex in which an infant searches for a nipple when something brushes against his or her face. Researchers have also found that even newborns are able to differentiate between self- and non-self touch.

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Self-Awareness Development

Studies have demonstrated that a more complex sense of self-awareness emerges around one year of age and becomes much more developed by approximately 18 months of age. Researchers Lewis and Brooks-Gunn performed studies looking at how self-awareness develops.

The researchers applied a red dot to an infant's nose and then held the child up to a mirror. Children who recognized themselves in the mirror would reach for their own noses rather than the reflection in the mirror, which indicated that they had at least some level of self-awareness.

Lewis and Brooks-Gunn found that almost no children under one year of age would reach for their own nose rather than the reflection in the mirror.

About 25% of the infants between 15 and 18 months reached for their own noses while about 70% of those between 21 and 24 months did so.

It is important to note that the Lewis and Brooks-Gunn study only indicates an infant's visual self-awareness; children might actually possess other forms of self-awareness even at this early point in life. For example, researchers Lewis, Sullivan, Stanger, and Weiss suggested that expressing emotions involves self-awareness as well as an ability to think about oneself in relation to other people.

Researchers have proposed that an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex located in the frontal lobe region plays an important role in developing self-awareness. Studies have also used brain imaging to show that this region becomes activated in adults who are self-aware.

The Lewis and Brooks-Gunn experiment suggests that self-awareness begins to emerge in children around the age of 18 months, an age that coincides with the rapid growth of spindle cells in the anterior cingulate cortex.

However, one study found that a patient retained self-awareness even with extensive damage to areas of the brain including the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex.

This suggests that these areas of the brain are not required for most aspects of self-awareness and that awareness may instead arise from interactions distributed among brain networks.

Levels of Self-Awareness

So how exactly do children become aware of themselves as separate beings? One major theory of self-awareness, developed by Philippe Rochat, PhD, suggests that there are five levels of self-awareness. Children progress through these stages between birth and approximately age 4 or 5:

  • Differentiation: A baby begins to acknowledge their own reflection. They may detect there is something different or special about looking at their reflection.
  • Situation: A baby begins to recognize their own reflection, being, and movements as separate from those around them.
  • Identification: This is the stage during which a child fully knows that it is their own reflection in a mirror. They know, "This is me."
  • Permanence: They have a complete sense of themselves and can identify themselves in pictures or videos, even as their appearance changes.
  • Self-consciousness: A child adapts a third-person point of view of themselves; they become aware of the idea that others perceive them in certain ways. This may result in feelings such as pride or shame.

Types of Self-Awareness

Psychologists often break self-awareness down into two different types, either public or private.

Public Self-Awareness

This type emerges when people are aware of how they appear to others. Public self-awareness often emerges in situations when people are at the center of attention.

This type of self-awareness often compels people to adhere to social norms. When we are aware that we are being watched and evaluated, we often try to behave in ways that are socially acceptable and desirable.

Public self-awareness can also lead to evaluation anxiety in which people become distressed, anxious, or worried about how they are perceived by others.

Public Self-Awareness Examples

You may experience public self-awareness in the workplace, when you're giving a big presentation. Or, you may experience it when telling a story to a group of friends.

Private Self-Awareness

This type happens when people become aware of some aspects of themselves, but only in a private way. For example, seeing your face in the mirror is a type of private self-awareness.

Private Self-Awareness Examples

Feeling your stomach lurch when you realize you forgot to study for an important test or feeling your heart flutter when you see someone you are attracted to are also examples of private self-awareness.

How to Improve Your Self-Awareness

So how do you grow self-awareness? There are many ways you can practice being present with yourself and your emotions, which, in turn, can help improve your self-awareness.

Meditation

Meditation can be an especially useful practice because you don't have to worry about changing anything—simply noticing what happens during a meditation can bring greater awareness of your thoughts and feelings.

Maybe you notice that you hold tension in your body by clenching your jaw, for instance, or that you tend to worry so much about the future that it's hard to be in the present moment. This is all valuable information that can help you get to know yourself and your tendencies.

Journaling

Journaling is a practice in self-reflection that can help you notice the ways in which you tend to think and behave, and even which areas in your life you may wish to improve. It can be a therapeutic way to gain insight into your life events and relationships.

Talk Therapy

During therapy—such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—a therapist works with you to address negative thought patterns or behaviors.

By understanding the underlying cause of your negative thoughts, for instance, you're in a more advantageous position to change them and use healthy coping mechanisms instead.

Develop Your Emotional Intelligence

Self-awareness and emotional intelligence (EQ) go hand in hand. EQ refers to a person's ability to perceive their own emotions as well as the emotions of other people. Someone with a high EQ is able to effectively respond to emotions with empathy and compassion.

Of course, no one is perfect, and EQ is a skill like any other. But by learning to express your own emotions in a healthy way, and practicing active listening in your relationships, you're contributing to the expansion of your own self-awareness as well.

Self-Consciousness

Sometimes, people can become overly self-aware and veer into what is known as self-consciousness. Have you ever felt like everyone was watching you, judging your actions, and waiting to see what you will do next? This heightened state of self-awareness can leave you feeling awkward and nervous in some instances.

In a lot of cases, these feelings of self-consciousness are only temporary and arise in situations when we are "in the spotlight." For some people, however, excessive self-consciousness can reflect a chronic condition such as social anxiety disorder.

While self-awareness plays a critical role in how we understand ourselves and how we relate to others and the world, excessive self-consciousness can result in challenges such as anxiety and stress.

If you struggle with self-consciousness, discuss your symptoms with a doctor or mental health professional to learn more about what you can do to cope with these feelings.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Crisp, R. J. & Turner, R. N. Essential social psychology. London: Sage Publications; 2010.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.