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Secrets to Self-Awareness

Andrew Roark, DVM, MSc Cleveland Park Animal Hospital Greenville, South Carolina

January / February 2013|Peer Reviewed

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Secrets to Self-Awareness

This article is part of the ongoing column 12 Steps to Success.

At least once a day, take a moment to consider an emotion that you are feeling. Ask yourself, “What’s going on?” “What triggered this emotion?” and “What was my behavior as a result of this emotion?”*

* Weekly goal provided by Dr. Stephen Wolff

Anger surges through you, and you feel your face flush. The receptionist has headed back to the desk after dumping a pile of medical records on top of the paperwork you were busily filling out. “You left those up front,” she says as she turns the corner. Before you even realize what you’re doing, you are on your feet, fists clenched.

Primary emotions like fear, anger, happiness, and sadness often spur us to action before rational thought kicks in. Because they have helped us survive, evolution has caused our brain to give emotions high priority when it comes to decision-making. We also have little control over their appearance in our minds.1 

Related Article: Forget Your IQ. What's Your EQ?

Once emotions arise, awareness (and control) of them may be the single most important aspect of our ability to lead and manage effectively. Unfortunately, according to Travis Bradberry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, only about 36% of us have the ability to accurately identify our emotions as they are happening. The rest of us are ruled by our feelings when in the moment.1 This limits our effectiveness as communicators, practitioners, patient caregivers, and leaders.

There is no doubt that understanding our emotions and motivations empowers us to be more realistic about our own tendencies and abilities. Simply put: self-awareness is the basis of emotional intelligence.

In fact, self-awareness is a key element to success, says Anthony Tjan, co-author of Heart, Smarts, Guts, and Luck, who writes:There is one quality that trumps all, evident in virtually every great entrepreneur, manager, and leader. That quality is self-awareness…Without self-awareness, you cannot understand your strengths and weaknesses, your “super powers” versus your “kryptonite.”2

Related Article: Emotional Intelligence

People with high levels of self-awareness often exhibit the following traits:

1. They know their weaknesses and are not afraid to talk about them.
    A colleague who admits that she can be forgetful, for example, might carry a notepad to write down patient information and tasks, thus addressing and conquering this personal difficulty.3

2. They have a self-deprecating sense of humor.
    The ability to laugh at ourselves is one sign that we have made peace with our emotions and our flaws.3

3. They pause to ponder.
    Self-aware individuals take time to reflect on their emotions, motivations, and actions.4

4. They are clear about their role in any situation.
    They may give feedback by saying something like, “I realize that my instructions were not as clear as they could have been, and I will try to improve that next time. Please revise the operations protocol you wrote because I do not  feel it clearly states what we want to communicate to staff members. Since we are struggling with getting this right, I welcome you asking me for clarification and feedback.”4

While many of us can see evidence of emotional decision-making in others, we may not recognize it immediately in ourselves. Understanding the value of self-awareness and having self-awareness are not the same thing. While self-awareness can be learned, it takes practice and perseverance.

Here are 2 tips to help build your self-awareness and reap its rewards (from Stephen B. Wolff, PhD, MBA, DBA, a renowned researcher in the field of group emotional intelligence).

1. Be curious about your thinking, feelings, and actions.
    Often we ignore our emotions and thoughts to be more efficient. This can cause problems if we lose awareness.

2. Ask yourself questions.
    The best questions are things like:
    • What triggered me to act that way?
    • What was I feeling?
    • How did I contribute to this situation or issue?
    • What could I do differently to bring about a more effective result next time?
    • What assumptions was I making?

Veterinary medicine is by its very nature an emotional profession. Our feelings can make us better—more compassionate, dedicated, and enthusiastic. However, they can also hold our careers back when they dictate our actions or blind us to understanding ourselves. Being able to take our own emotional temperature and understand our strengths and weaknesses will help limit the impact our emotions have on our decisions. And that kind of self-awareness is the first step on the path to being your best—and being better able to cope when that stack of files lands on your desk.

Clinician's Brief
Assessments that may be used to increase self-awareness:
DISC Personality Assessment


For global readers, a calculator to convert laboratory values, dosages, and other measurements to SI units can be found here.

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