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Self-Reflective Awareness: A Crucial Life Skill

This post defines self-reflective awareness and identifies its key domains.

Key points

  • Self-Reflective Awareness (SRA) involves thinking about and reflecting on one’s own mental processes.
  • Self-reflection and engaging in "process" conversations with others help to cultivate SRA.
  • There are eight key domains to SRA, including knowing your history as well as your needs, motivations, and emotions.

Self-Reflective Awareness (SRA) is probably the single most important competency that we teach in the doctoral program in professional psychology that I direct. It is listed first in the program’s core competencies and is central to the identity and culture of the program. Because we believe it is a very important skill in general, and it is something our program gets extremely high marks on (students rate their training a 4.8 out of 5.0 in this area), I share here how we define it and some of the ways we cultivate it in the program in order to offer ideas about how one might achieve greater SRA.

What Is Self-Reflective Awareness?

SRA is a “meta-cognitive” ability, meaning that it involves thinking about and reflecting on one’s own mental processes. Someone with good SRA is able to generate a narrative of self that is complex, clear, and multifaceted and is able to communicate that narrative in a way that allows others a much better understanding of where one is coming from. Let me give an example of a low versus high SRA response. Imagine a situation in which a doctoral student is working with a patient and I am the supervisor. We are watching some tape of the session, and it is a bit awkward and halting.

I say, “I noticed that the two of you lost some flow in the therapy here. You seem kind of awkward and hesitant. Can you tell me what was going on inside for you?”

A low SRA response might be something like:

“The patient is really resistant about deepening the conversation on this topic. I tried to do what you said, but they blocked me at every turn. So, I just was not sure about next steps.”

In contrast, a high SRA response would be something like:

“I know that this was not the best exchange and you are right I was feeling both stuck and frustrated. I tried to bring up the topic in the way you suggested, but I did not have the concept exactly right and I bundled it. I then felt a bit self-conscious, thinking about you watching it. As I thought about that, it was hard for me to know where to go next, so I just sort of sat there awkwardly. I think sometimes I feel stuck between you guiding me toward how the patient might change and my patient telling me they are not ready or that won’t work and that can leave me feeling a bit powerless and frustrated.”

Notice the difference in the two responses. Even though the question asked for the individual to explore what was “going on inside," the low SRA example basically offers none of that, reports simply on the behaviors, and explains why the individual did what they did focused on external obstacles with no real narrative of their private or emotional experience. In contrast, the high SRA response shows the person’s deep capacity to take an observer stance and to share the internal struggles and reactions they were having, and how that made them feel.

How Does One Cultivate SRA?

The first step to cultivating SRA is knowing what it is and explicitly valuing it. Once it is explicitly valued, there are several ways one can foster it. Introspection, that is, turning the focus of your attention inward and engaging in an attitude of curiosity about what makes you tick, is one key way to foster SRA. We explicitly encourage a mindful approach to meta-cognition that is captured by the acronym C.A.L.M. which attempts to capture the attitude of the meta-cognitive observer as being Curious, Accepting, Loving/Compassionate, and Motivated to Learn and Grow.

Education about psychological theories and processes, such as understanding human consciousness and human social motivation, provides conceptual maps that can help foster SRA in folks. Engaging in psychotherapy is another way to enhance SRA, and we encourage our doctoral students to have at least one meaningful therapy experience (in which they are the client) prior to becoming a fully functioning psychologist.

Another way is to engage in “process” conversations with intimate others. Most human conversations focus on content (the "what" that is being discussed). A process conversation is when you explore with another the “how," especially how you experience the process of relating to them and how they experience relating to you. For example, a process conversation might recall a time two people worked together and shared the way they felt (competitive, jealous, stressed) in the context of getting the job done.

In our doctoral program, students engage in at least one formal process group, and we also regularly participate in process groups involving diverse individuals on conversations such as gender, race, ethnicity, and power.

What Are the Domains of SRA?

There are a number of different facets to SRA. Here are eight key domains we focus on and areas of SRA capacities we expect to see and some of the additional ways we train them.

  1. Know your family story and developmental history. To know thyself one must understand one’s history, including the context in which one was raised and key life events or turning points. In a required family class, taught by core faculty member Dr. Anne Stewart, our students complete a large family project in which they develop an autobiographical narrative of their place in their family. This involves the students creating a genogram and interviewing key players in the family drama (parents, siblings, grandparents) and writing it up in a detailed narrative, all to get a deeper understanding of the culture of the home in which they grew up and the way that impacted who they have become.
  2. Understand your needs, motivations, and emotions. Humans have intense social drives for things like intimacy and belonging and achievement and power. We also have deep-seated feelings about ourselves and others and key events. But often we do not spend time deeply experiencing or observing these aspects of our mental process. Attention to core motives and feeling states is crucial. Dr. Ken Critchfield is the co-director of our program and he helps folks understand their core attachment needs and how early patterns of attachment set the stage for current relating patterns.
  3. Understand your defenses and how you handle criticism. The defensive system gets activated when our identity is threatened or we are exposed to painful pieces of information about ourselves. Being aware of what makes you defensive and the kinds of defensive coping strategies you use is a key component. I often talk about the “Freudian Filter” and the Malan Triangle, which helps students see how impulses or images or feelings can trigger an anxiety signal and then activate a defense, often by shifting attention away from the image.
  4. Understand your strengths and weaknesses. As part of their regular evaluation process, the student must narrate their experiences over the year and articulate both areas in which they have excelled and various “growth edges” where they want to improve. We have also explored having students participate in a strength finder assessment, but have not done that.
  5. Understand your beliefs/values and worldview. Core faculty Dr. Craig Shealy is an expert in beliefs and values and he guides students regularly on deep conversations about what beliefs and values are, where they come from, how they are shaped, and how we respond when confronted with others who have very different beliefs and values (i.e., are we open or closed and defensive?). Students need to reflect on their religious beliefs, their views regarding the nature of being human, and their political beliefs in terms of the role of the government and their social values. We help students understand their beliefs and values in terms of their Versions of Reality (VOR).
  6. Know your purpose in life and how you make meaning. Related to both one’s beliefs and values and core motives is the recognition of what gives one’s life meaning and purpose. Students must reflect on why they are pursuing a doctoral degree, what are their “valued states of being,” and what kind of difference they want to make in the world.
  7. Know how others see you. In his Processes of Psychotherapy course, Dr. Neal Rittenhouse spends much time helping students reflect on how others see them. He asks them to reflect on their “stimulus value” and has them imagine how and why someone might feel about them in good or bad ways, and in or outside the therapy room.
  8. Know the “cultural bubble” that you live in. Students in our program must demonstrate cultural awareness and understand diverse perspectives. To foster this, our program frequently has conversation sessions focused on sensitive cultural issues. For example, over the past few years, the United States has witnessed increased tensions with Russia. We are fortunate to have Dr. Elena Savina on our core faculty, who is from Russia. She is concerned about the portrayal of Russia in the West and has much to say about this. We had a two-hour conversation in which the whole program listened to Elena’s Version of Reality, and why it was so strikingly different than what is portrayed in mainstream Western media.

More than two thousand years ago, the ancient Greeks carved “Know Thyself” above the entrance to the Apollo Temple at Delphi. We concur with this central maxim and believe SRA is a crucial capacity that is necessary for living a fulfilling, complex, and wise life. It is a basic capacity that should be fostered in relationships, in education in general, and in professional psychology in particular.