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Aware of Being Unaware?

Begin to uncover the blocks to greater awareness in your life.

Mary Swift/AdobeStock
Source: Mary Swift/AdobeStock

Social isolation is a common and devastating problem that happens when suffering from chronic pain. Awareness is essential for healthy relationships and it disappears when you are consumed by your own problems. Emotional pain is processed in the brain in a manner that resembles physical pain. (1)

The first step in becoming aware is recognizing when you are unaware.

A life of "being right"

One of the most disturbing aspects of looking back at my life is realizing the extent of my unawareness. For most of my life, I was in a full-blown obsessive mode of behavior and thinking. I didn’t have a clue. I recall one time when a friend referred to my “obsessive nature.” I didn’t know what the word really meant, but whatever sense I had of it, I was certain it didn’t apply to me.

How can you tap into your unawareness? One way is to look for cues in certain behaviors and attitudes that may mean you’re out of touch with your immediate environment and how you’re truly feeling. Some examples include:

  • Consistently thinking about something besides what you’re doing
  • Being told you’re stubborn or “not listening”
  • Interrupting someone to offer an opinion before you’ve heard theirs in total
  • Insisting on being right
  • Consistently judging yourself or others–negatively or positively
  • Giving unasked-for advice
  • Holding onto anger
  • Thinking you’re wiser than your children
  • Often acting on impulse

This list goes on and on. If you notice that you relate to a few of these, it’s probably time to take a step back and connect to your emotions so that you can respond appropriately to a given person or situation. This is the essence of awareness.


One of these cues, self-judgment, was a big part of my life and in retrospect, a major sign that I was unaware of my patterns. It was greatly magnified during the period of my severe burnout, which lasted for over 13 years. During that era, I had endless self-doubts and negative judgments about almost every aspect of my life. A severe case of perfectionism didn’t help the situation. I often thought how much better it would be if I could judge myself positively with as much fervor.

I did change my life around. I learned a lot and felt privileged to be able to help many people by drawing on the lessons I learned in barely surviving a severe depression. My practice thrived and I had an excellent reputation. I now enjoy my family and friends, and it’s great to appreciate the fruits of one’s labors. However, as soon as I go into a mode of “what a compassionate guy I am” or “what a great physician I am” it takes me right down. Any effort on my part to spin my life in a positive way to others drains me of my creative energy. I am also distracted from being aware of what’s occurring right in front of me. It turns out that positive self-judgment is just as disruptive as negative self-judgment. It’s still judgment. What’s truly enjoyable is to simply be fully present for my next experience.


Another cue of unawareness, not listening, is one that I discovered with others’ help. My weakness in this area became readily apparent one time when I attended a parents’ meeting for my daughter’s boarding high school, Hyde, in Bath, ME. I will preface this story by saying that I had always considered myself a good listener—it was one of my core identities. My wife, historically, has not agreed with that viewpoint. Of course, I didn’t listen to her.

At the meeting, we did one exercise where we had to write down on a piece of paper a characteristic that another parent “could work on.” We could write to two parents and did not include our names. (This is one of those types of “games” that you are not anxious to win.) Most parents received one or two slips of paper. I received twelve (out of eighteen) that all said the same thing: “David, you don’t know how to listen.”

That was a difficult moment for me. I found it extremely hard to not become defensive, but on the other hand, how could I disagree with twelve people? I came to accept that they were right, especially in retrospect. It was a trait that I truly could not see. I simply had to trust a group of people who I knew did not have an agenda and had my best interests at heart. After that meeting, I came to realize how not listening had interfered with my general awareness. It’s one of the central tenets of awareness: You cannot be aware if you cannot listen.

One definition of awareness that resonates with me is “being fully present in the moment.” I am able to observe multiple cues and then respond to the person or situation. Anthony deMello, along with many other mystics, points out that awareness is the essence of love. (2)


1. Eisenberger N. “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain.” Psychosom Med (2012); 74: 126-135.

2. deMello, Anthony. The Way to Love. Doubleday, New York, NY, 1992.

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