self reflection
© llustration: Jon Krause
We don't always correctly read how the outside world reads us; new research shows what we can do to improve our perception and the benefits we'll see

Most of us are not as self-aware as we think we are.

Research shows that people who have a high level of self-awareness - who see themselves, how they fit into the world and how others see them clearly - make smarter decisions, raise more mature children and are more successful in school and work. They're less likely to lie, cheat and steal. And they have healthier relationships.

Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist from Denver, spent three years conducting a study on self-awareness and has a new book on it titled "Insight." When it comes to self-knowledge, she says there are three types of people: those who have it, those who underestimate how much they have (she calls them "underraters") and those who overestimate how much they have ("overraters"). Underraters beat themselves up unnecessarily. Overraters believe they do everything well. She found no gender differences in her research.

Tasha Eurich
© Elena Seibert
Researcher Tasha Eurich conducted a three-year study on self-awareness.
Internal self-awareness is introspective - what happens when we know ourselves well. External self-awareness is what happens when we correctly understand how others see us. You can excel at one and not the other.

External self-awareness may be trickier to achieve, Dr. Eurich says. We can go to therapy or keep a journal to try to learn about ourselves, but we're still looking at the world through our own lens. Other people can give us a much more objective view of ourselves.

How can we truly know how others see us? Those who know us best often won't tell us the truth, especially if it's critical. Social media, with all its "likes" and "friends" can give us a false sense of self, too. And technology strips away a lot of feedback, such as body language and tone of voice, that helps us understand how we come across.

Dr. Eurich says you can boost your external self-awareness. For her study, she and her colleagues reviewed more than 800 studies on self-awareness. They also surveyed approximately 5,000 people around the world, and conducted in-depth interviews with 50 people who had significantly improved their own self-awareness over time.

Dr. Eurich identified seven categories of self-knowledge - areas that we need to cultivate in ourselves and seek feedback on from others if we want to be more self-aware. These are our values, passions, aspirations, fit (what type of environment is going to make us happy and engaged), personality, strengths and weaknesses, and the impact we have on people around us.

She has advice for how to more clearly see how others see us:

Pick The Right Person to Ask For Feedback

It might not be someone really close to you. A spouse, best friend or family member has a motive to try to please you. And those relationships can be emotionally complex, so there is a greater risk of conflict if you don't like the feedback.

Look for someone who is more removed and might be more objective. Studies have shown that people can watch a stranger for five minutes on video, without ever meeting the person, and evaluate his or her personality as accurately as a close friend or family member can.

You will also want to pick a person who sees you in the right context. For example, if you want to know how members of the opposite sex see you, you need to ask one.

Be Specific About What You Want to Know

"Don't write them a blank feedback check," Dr. Eurich says. "You're opening the door to things you might not want to hear or might not be ready to work on."

Do some reflecting first, she suggests. Think about how you want to be viewed by others.

Here's an example: If you want to be seen as someone who is funny and charming, ask someone who was at that party with you last night how you really came across. What you did that helped you? What got in your way?

Pay More Attention to People's Reactions

We're often lost in our own heads, making up stories for ourselves about what other people think that are based more on our insecurities than their opinions.

Dr. Eurich says to think about what your goal is and compare that with the outcome. You wanted to be funny at the party. Did people laugh at the long joke where your mother-in-law was the punchline? Or did they sit silently, looking around at the others?

Watch Whether People Treat You Differently

It's not enough to observe their body language - some people are animated or subdued no matter what. Pay attention to how they respond to others. Is that the same way they react to you? Are they listening to you more or less? Laughing more or less?

It's also important to observe whether a person's response has changed over time, especially if you know that person well. Personality is fairly consistent, so any changes may be about you.

Perform a Friend Audit

Dr. Eurich suggests you ask yourself: "Who are the people who would bail me out of jail at 2 a.m.?" Family members don't count. If you don't have at least one or two people on that list, think about what you could do differently so that you have people in your life who would do anything for you.

Create an Imaginary Therapist

This is like an imaginary friend, but more honest. Imagine your therapist observing your behavior and then gently telling you what he or she sees.

"You need to change your perspective," Dr. Eurich says. "And this helps you be objective and not wrapped up in your own defenses."
In more than a decade at The Wall Street Journal, Bonds columnist Elizabeth Bernstein has covered education, philanthropy, psychology and religion - all areas in which personal relationships loom large. In her work, she has ranged far and wide, from exposing the backlash against excessive emailing of baby photos to a detailed narrative reconstruction of a matricide. She has received awards from organizations including the New York Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' Deadline Club, the Education Writers Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association. Now, Elizabeth is using her acquired insights and expertise to explore the manifold aspects of human interactions, whether at home, at work or among friends.