When water is dripping through the downstairs ceiling in your house, you must find the leak to fix it. When your car makes a disconcerting noise every time you drive, you must learn what’s causing it. And when you don’t feel as happy as you’d like to be or you don’t live up to the image of the person you’d like to be, you must learn more about what in you is causing this problem.

Too often, people lose an awareness of themselves as they become mired in their particular issue, such as depression, anxiety, lack of assertiveness, relationship struggles, or failures in their work. Fortunately, you can gain clarity about your struggles by learning to STEP into self-awareness. That is, you can begin to understand your struggles better, and so respond more effectively to them, by attending to Sensations, Thoughts, Emotions, and Patterns:

Sensations: Pay attention to how you feel in your body. Starting with your feet, scan up through your body and make note of any sensations. For instance, you might notice constriction in your chest that makes it difficult for you to breathe and pain and tension in your jaw. Or, you might also notice a general sense of fatigue in your whole body.

Thoughts: Observe the kinds of things you say to yourself. Make note of the judgments you make about others and your environment. Also, be aware of the way you respond to yourself, such as by being encouraging or critical of your actions and feelings.

Emotions: People often act from their emotions without giving much thought to them. Instead, make an effort to consciously label your feelings and rate their intensity (e.g. mild, moderate, strong, overwhelming). Note how these emotions affect your judgments about yourself or others. For instance, you might notice that you are eating in response to anger about a situation and that you are also harshly judging yourself in response to that same anger. With time and practice, such observations will offer you insights, such as the recognition that your way of expressing anger is hurting you while not fixing the situation. Such insights can open the door to change.

Patterns: People are wired to respond to similar situations in similar ways, and it can help to become aware of your patterns. For instance, you might notice that you tend to be critical of potential partners who treat you well. Such observation can lead to a greater understanding of what triggers you to respond as you do. You might realize that you fear being rejected, so you eliminate that possibility by rejecting those who like you. This might lead you to realizing that you currently have a partner who has been consistent in showing you love. At times like this, you just might open up to challenging old beliefs about yourself and embracing new ones.

Awareness in these areas requires curiosity and persistent effort. You must be curious enough about your experiences that you delve into them. And you must decide to work consistently toward greater awareness and self-understanding. As you do, the answers to how to overcome your problem—or why your previous attempts have failed—will become clear. But this will only happen with practice. Just as with any goal in life, increased self-awareness is accomplished with persistence.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community

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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

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