How or Why? On the Path to Self-Awareness

I’ve been practicing various forms of meditation since 1994. Having started my career as a graduate on the Foreign Exchange desk at BT, I’d observed the cost of emotional volatility in the experienced traders around me. It was common for their egos to get in the way, obstructing their capacity for clear decision making, which often led to losses or lost opportunity. Frequently I would see trading behaviour driven by emotion, despite the trader’s best efforts to be rational. Being an emotional character myself, I went on a quest to find a way to better manage my emotions, in the hope that I wouldn’t be at the whim of them like the traders around me.

I discussed my quest with my boss at the time, so he helped facilitate the beginnings of my mindfulness journey. He first suggested transcendental meditation (TM) which I embraced and then sent me to meet a Franciscan monk. I visited my old school chaplain for advice and then travelled to Byron Bay to visit the Miracle Centre where I began my 10 plus year study of A Course in Miracles. I read as many philosophy and spiritual texts that I could get my hands on and participated in the Landmark Forum.    

It turns out that being grounded in a mindfulness practice back then was very helpful as a trader in a dealing room. I was able to observe the collective emotions of the traders around me without buying into them, which provided me with tradable signals when the emotions of fear or greed in the room were palpable. Being sensitive to the emotions of others was helpful then as a trader, today it is helpful as a coach.

Awareness of emotional wellbeing

Emotions are often central to our decision making, whether a primary driver or a leading incentive in our decision-making processes (Lerner et al. 2015). Having an awareness of our emotions and their origins, can provide a circuit breaker to the often instinctive behaviours that these emotions can elicit. Increased self-awareness improves emotion regulation (Grant, Franklin and Langford, 2002) and persistence (Feldman et al., 2014), both of which are helpful in aiding the consistency of decision making over time.

Interestingly, self-awareness can be a double-edged sword. While increased self-awareness positively correlates with improved regulation and persistence, it also can lead to rumination1 if not held in check (Simsek, 2013).

Why I am stuck. How I move forward.

Self-reflection goes hand-in-glove with the development of self-awareness. In order to avoid the trap of rumination however, it is important to reflect in a manner that enhances your wellbeing and leads to actionable solutions. By simply framing your reflective questions with “how” instead of “why”, you can greatly improve your mental health outcomes (Simsek, 2013).

We often focus on “why” to help us make sense of past decisions, but this often leads to unproductive and circular thinking, particularly when reflecting on decisions made in the face of future uncertainty.

Rather than asking “why?”, ask “how could I have approached this differently?” Or, “how did I come to make this decision?” These “how” framed questions enable our mind to draw out tangible strategies to apply moving forward, rather than getting trapped in the often abstract and unanswerable “why?”.

1 Rumination is focusing my attention on the symptoms of my distress and its possible causes and consequences, rather than on solutions.

References

Feldman, G., Dunn, E., Stemke, C., Bell, K. and Greeson, J. (2014). Mindfulness and rumination as predictors of persistence with a distress tolerance task. Personality and Individual Differences, 56, pp.154-158.

Grant, A., Franklin, J. and Langford, P. (2002). The self-reflection and insight scale: a new measure of private self-consciousness. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 30(8), pp.821-835.

Lerner, Jennifer S., Ye Li, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Karim S. Kassam. 2015. “Emotion And Decision Making”. Annual Review Of Psychology 66 (1): 799-823. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115043.

Simsek, O. (2013). Self-absorption paradox is not a paradox: Illuminating the dark side of self-reflection. International Journal of Psychology, 48(6), pp.1109-1121.

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