Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Deepening Your Awareness of Unawareness

Awareness is deepened by understanding the various aspects of consciousness.

Key points

  • Awareness arises from recognizing that you are not aware.
  • Healing occurs when you are connected to the current moment regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant it might be.
  • As you understand when you are unaware, you’ll be able to nurture awareness in the different domains.

The word awareness is thrown out casually and frequently. But there are many layers to this word. The first and most critical step is to understand that the baseline state of the human condition is to be unaware. How can that be? How can any animal survive without being aware? They cannot. They have a baseline environmental awareness that constantly connects them to their environment and maximizes their chances for survival. But that is it. They do not possess language, which blocks this basic process. How often have you driven down the road with your mind occupied by a major project or domestic issue? Consciousness blocks a significant part of your connection to the present moment and often your “mind is elsewhere.”

Bits and Splits/AdobeStock
Source: Bits and Splits/AdobeStock

It Is All About Me

The greatest obstacle to awareness is the fact that our interactions with the world consist of us projecting our concept of reality onto everything and everyone. Until you understand the basic nature of this process, there are no alternatives. Our abstract thinking is embedded in our brains as deeply as any physical object or sensation. It is how we make sense of life and is our version of reality.

We are programmed by every moment of our past and act in the present based on what has kept us alive. This is challenging in that making judgments is necessary for survival but also blocks awareness and rich relationships. Living in awareness is being connected to the second you are in and seeing the world as closely as possible through the other persons’ perspectives. How can you nurture awareness without understanding what being unaware looks like? The prior lesson on becoming aware of your unawareness provided some suggestions for understanding the problem. Let’s look at this issue in terms of each type of awareness.

The Core of Being Unaware

Anytime you feel anxious or upset, you have been “triggered”; you are now in the past and not in the present. Something in the moment reminded you of a scenario from the past that you perceived as a threat or that was actually dangerous. Learning what is safe or not is the basic building block of life. You avoid threats and seek safety. At a minimum, being aware of and feeling these unpleasant emotions is the greatest clue to knowing when you are unaware. But doesn't this seem so obvious? Not really. We have so many ways of suppressing/repressing anxiety that we may not be connected to it. All the defenses seem normal. We don’t like feeling anxious, so we don’t. What other alternatives have we been taught?

A particularly insidious way we cover up the feeling of anxiousness is by being angry, which feels powerful. The solution for anxiety is solving the issue that you perceive as a threat. When you cannot, you’ll feel trapped, and your body creates more stress hormones and inflammation in order to increase the odds of resolving the anxiety. Unfortunately, since unpleasant thoughts are the most prevalent threat and we can’t escape them, every person is trapped to a greater or lesser degree by his or her own thoughts. It is what I call “the curse of consciousness.”

The sensation generated by this response is what humans call anger. However, if your baseline state is being agitated (perfectionistic and judgmental), you won’t perceive yourself as being angry. You may just feel “right.” Anger and awareness definitely cannot exist in the same room at the same time. In addition, this neurochemical state really creates mental and physical havoc with your body and will break it down.

Unawareness and the Four Types of Awareness

Consider the four types of awareness. Environmental awareness is the foundational starting point. How often are you in a relaxing situation, such as lying in the sun on a beach, and you find your mind racing in many directions? The harder you try to relax, the worse it may become. If you suppress these thoughts, you’ll fire them up even more. It can be likened to spinning a basketball on the tip of your finger. Either experiencing or suppressing these thoughts directs neurological energy toward them, and the ball continues to spin. By shifting your attention elsewhere, the ball will eventually stop spinning.

Source: fotokitas/AdobeStock

This is the reason why various mindfulness practices are effective. Your focus is on the details and sensations right in front of you and you have shifted off of these unpleasant circuits. With repetition, you’ll find it easier to connect to the present moment and not have to expend a lot of energy fighting off disruptive thoughts.

Ingrained patterns represent your “life lens” through which you filter all new information. Because they are your frame of reference, by definition, you can’t see them. In addition, at some tipping point, they become so embedded in your brain that all incoming data, including conflicting information, reinforce your worldview. You are projecting your perspective on everything and everyone. As the human brain is programmed by interacting with other people, each of us is infinitely different, yet we often assume we are the same. There is also a lot of energy spent on trying to make others the same as us. We want to be validated.

There is no way to feel this unawareness. The only way to effectively address it is to understand its existence and effects, and then embark on a lifelong quest of self-discovery. This usually requires some kind of external input and guidance. The outcome is a keen awareness of differences and learning to find ways to find common ground and compromise.

Judgment/storytelling is our attempt to make sense out of our existence and where we fit into the world. The need for self-esteem is a driving force. It is a major block to awareness in that much of this process is based on cognitive distortions. These are stories we tell ourselves that have no basis in reality. But they still fire up our flight-or-fight physiology and may be the most powerful way that we remain in this state. The beauty of recognizing these distortions is that there is nothing that needs to be done because they are not real in the first place. This is one scenario in which just being aware of them allows you to calm down and move on.

Emotional awareness is the most challenging because emotional pain is processed by brain circuits that overlap with physical discomfort. It hurts, and we don’t like it. It is the reason why we are so effective at suppressing (conscious effort) and repressing (function of the unconscious) disruptive emotions. It works until it doesn’t. Your physiology is still in threat, and you’ll develop physical manifestations of the emotional pain. Eventually, you won’t be able to cover up any of it. Training yourself to allow these feelings to emerge is a carefully orchestrated and learned skill. It is important to not feel overwhelmed. However, you cannot reprogram your brain until you are aware of what is already there.


Becoming aware of the variables that are in play in a given situation is basic to making rational decisions. Yet, most of us are not connected to the deep-driving forces that affect our behaviors and quality of life. The first step in nurturing awareness is recognizing when you are unaware. By definition, if you are anxious or angry, you are in the past and not in the present. Something in the moment has triggered a memory from the past that was perceived as a threat or that was actually dangerous. It is a normal process and is necessary for survival. However, many reactions are based on faulty programming.

Understanding the nature of unawareness in the four domains of awareness will help you navigate the present. The approaches to remain aware are unique to each domain. With repetition, you’ll become skilled in knowing when you are in a reaction and disconnected from the present moment. Awareness can be nurtured, and your life will expand in the directions of your choice.

More from David Hanscom MD
More from Psychology Today