The 2 Components of Self-Awareness

Our self-awareness has no foundation if we cannot reflect on our lives and understand what has shaped us. If we only look backward and do not explore the choices and decisions ahead as we move forward, we can sacrifice our agency and become victims of our circumstances.

My research on identity development and more than 1,000 hours of coaching leaders has revealed that self-awareness has two complementary components: self-discovery and self-creation. These components of self-awareness are key in our process of becoming.

Imagine a life timeline before you (or make one). On the far left is your birth. On the far right is your death. Let’s imagine you live a long and fulfilling life. Plot 0 on the far left and 100 on the far right. You may live longer than 100 years. You may live less. But let us imagine. Now, however old you are, plot that point on your timeline. I’m 48, so I put my mark just slightly left of center on my timeline.


Everything to the left of 48 is my past. You can plot your own past, history, and foundation. What has shaped you? Plot out all the significant events in your life. You might add in things like moving when you were 12, parents divorce when you were 9, a first love, a major accomplishment, an identity shift or new awareness, the beginning of a key friendship, a new job, high school graduation, reading a book that changed you, etc. The key is to discover and re-discover as many life events that are significant to you. Exploring, reflecting, and understanding these can help shape you. These events are the foundation you build your life on (good and not-so-good). Understanding our past can help us solidify the foundation for our future. Discovering what has shaped us, is key to our self-awareness.


Everything to the right of 48 is my future. You can plot out your own imagined future. This isn’t just a list of goals and hopes. What do you anticipate in your life? You might add things like kids’ graduations, a job change, retirement, a trip to Bali, health concerns (s), a move, a career change, parents passing, etc. One of the things many of us come to in doing this activity is how finite life is. We don’t have all the time in the world. “Someday” does not exist. This finitude can be scary and it can also be inspiring to make the most of the time you do have. Also, living to 100 is promised to none of us. As Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do, with your one wild and precious life?”

Many of us can get wrapped up in looking back at our past. This is critical, but without looking forward we lose our agency to shape our lives in alignment with our purpose and values. We can break habits, create new patterns, and make subtle shifts that can change moments, days, and lives. Others can be so focused on the future that they lose access to valuable insight into what has shaped us. These habits are hard to break; even our patterns that don’t serve us often are needed for survival, and subtle shifts can feel like becoming an entirely different person from who we have been, demanded to be, or needed to be.

Self-awareness is an ongoing process. Each time you look back on your life, you’ll find more that self-discovery offers you. And each time you look ahead with agency, you’ll find new paths and possibilities you’ve never considered. Keep returning to your timeline, both the left and the right. This is your life.

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