Self-awareness: How to be responsive rather than reactive

Friday, March 20th marked the International Day of Happiness worldwide. The IE Center for Health, Well-being, & Happiness organized a series of events called Happiness Week, giving the important day an extended home at IE University. Topics such as mindfulness, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence were discussed—skills that’re more crucial now than ever.

Professor Shiva Roofeh—master facilitator, experienced trainer, and public speaker—delivered a webinar whose cheeky name piqued the interest of many HST students: “How not to be an asshole.” It was a playshop built to help identify and tackle the pieces of us we don’t necessarily realize exist, particularly our knee-jerk reactions to situations and people that precede our more thought-out, methodical responses.

According to Shiva, assholes are people who don’t realize what’s going on in their own heads or how their actions and reactions impact other people. It’s a mode of reacting instead of responding. In other words, an asshole is someone who is not self-aware.

Strengthening the self-awareness muscle

By actively paying attention to what triggers our reactions, we can better understand our mindsets and our underlying emotions to in turn change what we may not like about ourselves. It’s the iceberg model: above the surface is what others see, and what we ourselves may see passively. But beneath the water are our beliefs and emotions, the pieces of us that lead to our consequential behavior. It’s through the proactive addressing of this depth that we can truly transform ourselves.

Are you more emotional or rational?

The two are often discussed like opposite faces of the same coin. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, emotions can make our behaviors more rational. Why? Because they provide us with information. They allow us to understand and interpret the world around us. In the same way that the lights on the dashboard of a car turn on and indicate that the temperature has risen or there is little fuel left, each emotion serves as a specific indicator that there is a problem to solve.

Autopilot mode is different. Being in autopilot means that we accept things without questioning their validity. We believe things to be true without evidence. We make assumptions from which we draw conclusions. These are inferences. Inferences without the breaking down of our surrounding data is our iceberg tip. Reflection, analysis, and careful thought are what allow us to swim beneath the surface and become more self-aware—and less of an asshole. 

Responding vs. reacting

Personal experiences, culture, religious beliefs, families, and the people we know all drive our assumptions and play critical roles in our self-development. The way we interpret information influences our behavior—it’s the reticular activating system that’s responsible for deciding to filter the information we receive, like a bodyguard letting in what it deems important and keeping out what’s not. A talmudic saying reflects this idea: We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. Understanding the ability we have to consciously form our own interpretations is key. Without awareness we have habits, with awareness we have choices. 

A tool we can use to increase our ability to respond instead of react is called the “5 whys,” and began at Toyota. The idea is simple: take the time to reflect on a situation until you can develop a conscious grasp of it (even if it takes asking yourself why over and over again). Think about seeing someone laugh. You might immediately think they’re laughing at you. You get embarrassed or you get angry. But give yourself a few whys. Analyze before you assume. You might just realize that you weren’t even in their range of view. 

human eye

If we keep an unassuming mindset, we can try and control how a situation may affect us. We could still get offended or angry, but a negative emotion stemming from a place of response rather than a place of reaction is one that came from a more well-understood story. It’s all about how we speak to ourselves.

Learning the hard way

Every crisis is a learning opportunity. Today’s times serve as a great opportunity to increase our self-awareness and connect with the best versions of ourselves. What are your reactions to the quarantine? We have a choice to either play the victim or the protagonist. And while we can’t change the situation, we can choose the lens through which we see it. 

By honing our self-awareness and being alert to the narratives being told in our minds, we can make healthy choices and build our capacity for empathy. It’s critical to be aware of how our own behavior can influence others—an especially important lesson in times of worry and uncertainty. 


maia sapsMaia Saps is a Uruguayan sociologist with experience in managing non-profit organizations and training in emotional and social Intelligence. She is now pursuing the Master in Talent Development & Human Resources at HST and is a member of the Student Advisory Board for the IE Center for Health, Well-being, & Happiness.