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 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.

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.

When Does Self-Awareness Emerge?

Studies have demonstrated that a more complex sense of the awareness of the self begins to emerge at 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 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-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.

How Does Self-Awareness Develop?

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? Researchers suggest that children progress through a series of levels of self-awareness between birth and approximately age 4 or 5. Self-awareness is observed by how children respond to their own reflection in a mirror.

Level 1: Differentiation - At this point, children start to become aware that what it reflected in a mirror is different from what they simply perceive in the environment.

Level 2: Situation - This level of self-awareness is characterized by a growing understanding that self-produced movements can be seen in the mirrors surface. Children are also aware that it is their own movements they are observing.

Level 3: Identification - At this point, children recognize the image in the mirror as themselves rather than someone else staring back at them.

Level 4: Permanence - Children can not only identify themselves reflected in a mirror, they can also identify their own image in pictures and home movies.

Level 5: Self-consciousness or "meta" self-awareness - At this level, children are not only aware of themselves from their own perspective, but also become aware of how they are in the minds of others.

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 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, excessive self-conciousness can reflect a chronic condition such as social anxiety disorder.

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.

A Word From Verywell

Self-awareness plays a critical role in how we understand ourselves and how we relate to others and the world. Being self-aware allows you to evaluate yourself in relation to others. For people who have an extremely high sense of self-awareness, excessive self-consciousness can result. If you feel that you are struggling with self-consciousness that is having a negative influence on your life, discuss your symptoms with your doctor to learn more about what you can do to cope with these feelings.

Sources:

Crisp, R. J. & Turner, R. N. Essential social psychology. London: Sage Publications; 2010.

Philippi, CL, Feinstein, JS, Khalsa, SS, Damasio, A, Tranel, D, Landini, G, Williford, K, & Rudauf, D. Preserved self-awareness following extensive bilateral brain damage to the insula, anterior cingulate, and medial prefrontal cortices. PLoS One. 2012; 7(8); e38413.

Rochat, P. Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life. Consciousness and Cognition. 2003; 12: 717-731.

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