What Is Self-Awareness?

A self-aware woman looking at her reflection.
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Self-awareness involves being aware 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.

Self-awareness is one of the first components of the self-concept to emerge. While self-awareness is something that is central to each and every one of us, it is not something that we are acutely aware of at every moment of every day.

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

We are not born with self-awareness, however. Researchers have demonstrated that the awareness of ourselves begins to emerge at around one year of age and becomes much more developed by around 18 months of age.

When Does Self-Awareness Emerge?

Lewis and Brooks-Gun (1979) conducted some interesting research 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, indicating that they had at least some self-awareness.

Lewis and Brooks-Gun 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 percent of the infants between 15 and 18 months reached for their own noses while about 70 percent of those between 21 and 24 months did so.

It is important to note that the Lewis and Brooks-Gun 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 (1989) suggest that expressing emotions involves self-awareness as well as an ability to think about oneself in relation to other people.

How Does Self-Awareness Develop?

Researchers believe that an area of the brain known as the anterior cingulate, in the frontal lobe region, plays an important role in developing self-awareness. The Lewis and Brooks-Gun 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.

Researchers have also used brain imaging to show that this region becomes activated in adults who are self-aware.

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, such as when giving a presentation or talking to a group of friends. 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.

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. 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 good examples of private self-awareness.

Self-Consciousness: A Heightened State of Self-Awareness

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, self-consciousness can become a chronic condition.

People who are privately self-conscious have a higher level of private self-awareness, which can be both a good and bad thing. These people tend to be more aware of their feelings and beliefs, and are therefore more likely to stick to their personal values. However, they are also more likely to suffer from negative health consequences such as increased stress and anxiety.

People who are publicly self-conscious have a higher level of public self-awareness. They tend to think more about how other people view them and are often concerned that other people might be judging them based on their looks or their actions. As a result, these individuals tend to stick to group norms and try to avoid situations in which they might look bad or feel embarrassed.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


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Froming, W.J., Corley, E.B., and Rinker, L. The influence of public self-consciousness, and the audience's characteristic on withdrawal from embarrassing situations. Journal of Personality. 1990;58,(4), 603-622.

Lewis, M. & Brooks-Gunn, J. Self-knowledge and emotional development. In M. Lewis & L. Rosenblum (Eds.), The development of affect: The genesis of behavior, 1 (pp. 205-226). New York: Plenum Press; 1978.

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