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Becoming Aware of Being Unaware

You cannot heal until you can see where you are at today.

Key points

  • Every action we take today is determined by what we've learned from our entire past. 
  • Each of us has a unique lens and version of reality, so it is impossible to see things the way they really are.
  • A basic step in deepening your awareness of the present is understanding when you are unaware. There are many clues.
Andrey Popov/AdobeStock
Source: Andrey Popov/AdobeStock

Every decision and move you make this moment is determined by all your past experiences up to this very second. It is how every living creature evolved and stays alive. Is the situation safe or dangerous? The species that ignored the cues, or didn’t adapt, didn’t survive.

Consciousness and unawareness

Humans have an additional layer of issues in that language and consciousness require another level of awareness to survive and thrive. Shaky finances, verbal abuse, being bullied at school or work, authoritarianism, racism, and a host of other issues are real threats. However, if you step back, many situations that are perceived as threats are actually cognitive distortions. Although the threats are not real, they seem that way and still fire up your nervous system and fight-or-flight response. Since we cannot escape our thoughts, they are particularly damaging because the reaction is sustained, and your body breaks down. It is well-documented that chronic stress causes illness and disease. 1,2

There are a couple of factors to consider, in that we are programmed almost from the day we are born, to be a certain way according to the opinions of our parents, educators, peers, colleagues, society, and the marketing world. Marketing is especially problematic in that it is in their best interest to encourage you to feel badly about yourself. The marketing efforts are focused on offering solutions to help you feel better about yourself—for a price. Unfortunately, the solutions are only temporary, and your brain keeps telling you (with ongoing messaging), that you are still not good enough. Then you project the world’s opinion of you onto yourself, and onto others. Just as a quick aside, when you are critical of others, you might as well carry a bullhorn telling the world that is how you feel about yourself. It is just the way consciousness works.


Self-esteem is held up as something to be desired. However, it may be the deadliest concept ever propagated onto the human race because it precipitates endless judgments of “better than” or “less than.” It is an extension of our survival instincts, but in the emotional world. What makes it worse is that most of our self-esteem is based on cognitive distortions, and with repetition, they become embedded in our brain as “reality.” It has been documented in the neuroscience of consciousness research that our thoughts and abstract thinking become embedded in our brain as concretely as a car or a table.3 Consider the concept of colors. My cat probably recognizes red from white but doesn’t have a name for it.

Work with your anxiety/anger

The nail in this coffin is that anxiety and anger are powerful, hard-wired, and unpleasant survival reactions and sensations that are generated when you are in a flight-or-fight response, and hundreds of thousands of times more powerful than your conscious brain. They are necessary, the gift of life, and not subject to rational interventions. We spend much of our lives trying to run from these sensations and take them personally. One outcome is that we generate labels on ourselves and others. Labels, positive or negative, completely block awareness.

The skill of developing a “working relationship" with anxiety and anger is another discussion. The message of this post is that using self-esteem to compensate is a mismatch, ineffective, endless, wears us out, and eventually can destroy us. Any time you are anxious or frustrated, you have blocked true awareness of the variables contributing to a given situation. Something in the present triggered a memory from the past that either was dangerous or perceived as such. You, by definition, are no longer in the present and have lost awareness. You can only see the world through your eyes, it is about you, the blood supply of your brain has shifted away from the thinking centers down to the lower survival centers, and your behavior may not be the best. It is the reason for the phrase, “no action in a reaction.”

“True awareness”

It is not possible. The best you can hope for is cultivating and nurturing it. Each person views the world through his or her “programming” and is his or her reality. So, learning when you are unaware is a necessary first step. Then a deeper awareness can emanate and evolve. Awareness will beget more awareness. Here are some suggestions for cultivating an awareness of your unawareness.

Clues to unawareness

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 how you’re feeling. Some examples include:

  • Having a rigid opinion about almost anything: religion, politics, someone’s character, etc.
  • Being told you’re stubborn or “not listening.”
  • Interrupting someone to offer an opinion before you’ve heard theirs in total.
  • Being “right.”
  • Consistently thinking about something besides what you’re doing.
  • Thinking you’re wiser than your children.
  • If a person seems to respond to you in an unpleasant way, what was your energy around what you just said or did?
  • Acting on impulse.
  • Feeling anxious or angry. This is the most basic. Something in the present connected to something in the past that was or perceived as dangerous. By definition, you are there and not here. Awareness is impossible while you are in one of these powerful states. What is really ironic is that when you are angry, you feel like you have a perfect understanding of the issues. The term for this is “negative transference.” You are actually completely disconnected because it is only about you.
  • Judging yourself or others negatively or positively—being persistently critical of your spouse, partner and/or children, giving unasked-for advice, or gossiping.

We are all programmed from birth to act and be in certain ways by our parents, peers, educators, and society. These concepts become our version of reality that is as concrete as our perception of a house or a car. Our brains create an interpretation of essentially everything. That is the reason true awareness is impossible, as each person perceives their view of life as the correct one—whether it is positive or negative.

The necessary step in seeing situations in more depth and with clarity is understanding the clues of being unaware. Most reactions to your stresses are automatic and beyond your control. So, creating some “space” and watching your responses allows you to begin to see the world through others’ eyes. Being aware of when you are unaware begins a process that will open up your thinking and is incredibly interesting compared to continuing to watch reruns of your own projections. It is also the first step in reprogramming your brain in that you cannot create change unless you know where you are starting from.


1. Smyth J, et al. Stress and disease: A structural and functional analysis. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2013);7/4:217-227. 10.1111/spc3.12020

2. Torrance N, et al. Severe chronic pain is associated with increased 10-year mortality: a cohort record linkage study. Eur J Pain (2010);14:380-386.

3. Feldman Barrett, Lisa. How Emotions are Made. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2017.

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