How to improve your life through the act of self-awareness

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Did you know self-awareness is the key to changing your life? But many of us who grew up in abusive or neglectful homes lack this basic component of a satisfying life.

That’s because our parents never taught us how to look at ourselves. They forced us to keep our focus on them and others instead.

In order to survive, we needed to suppress our own needs and cater to others’. This led us to disconnect from what we wanted or needed.

In order to survive, we needed to suppress our own needs and cater to others'. This led us to disconnect from what we wanted or needed. Click To Tweet

And, due to a lack of guidance, we have a poor understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. We may also have no idea what we value or what’s important to us.

That’s because our parents never encouraged us to explore our desires. They may not have praised us when we did well which leaves us scratching our heads as to what we’re good at.

We may have been exposed to more negative attention. That meant we only heard from our parents when we did something wrong.

And they expected us to understand things they’d never taught us. My father constantly berated me for not knowing how to do things no one taught me how to do.

Children need praise and guidance

Children need praise, guidance, and encouragement in order to thrive. To develop a healthy sense of self-awareness, we need to know our needs are handled by the adults around us.

Children need praise, guidance, and encouragement in order to thrive. Click To Tweet

If we sense that we have to take care of those needs ourselves, we become hypervigilant. In survival mode, we are not free to explore our heart’s desires.

We desperately try to read other people in an effort to keep ourselves alive. That is what the survival brain thinks, anyway.

As children, we intuited correctly that we depended on our parents for survival. We could not put a roof over our own heads or food in the fridge.

This led us to minimize our needs and make sure to keep them happy so they wouldn’t reject us. As adults, we have been conditioned to abandon our own needs and focus on pleasing others.

This external focus means we lack the self-awareness necessary for a fulfilling life. If you lack boundaries because you fear saying no to people, you probably feel empty inside.

How self-awareness cures emptiness


The cure for such emptiness is beginning the journey back to yourself. That means taking the time to discover your likes and dislikes, your strengths and weaknesses, and your values.

1. Discover likes and dislikes

Make a list of things you like or enjoy doing. You could begin with the five senses: what smells, sights, sounds, and tastes do you like and what feels good to you?

Then look at your life and ask yourself how much of these are in it. Chances are, you may do more of what you don’t like in an effort to please others.

You will never have the life you want unless you increase your self-awareness. You need to know what you like so you can incorporate more of it in your life.

2. Discover your strengths

Then, find out what you’re good at, your strengths. You may want to ask trusted friends or associates for their input.

Is your work focused on these strengths and interests? If not, you may want to start making decisions that move you in the direction of your strengths and preferences.

3. Make a values list

Finally, what are your values? Do you know what you stand for and what’s important to you? Or do you tend to go with the flow and let other people decide for you?

A first step in getting to know your core values can come in the form of a simple assessment. Knowing your values is key to increasing self-awareness.

Take this or any other free online values assessment to help determine yours.

How to use self-advocacy to improve your life

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Out of all the self-help terms, we hear about self-advocacy less often. In the beginning of any healing journey, we’re consumed with self-care, self preservation, self-protection.

But as our sense of self improves and we learn our value, we take things a step further. We begin to advocate on our own behalf.

That means going beyond what can sometimes feel like the defensive state of setting boundaries. And really standing up for ourselves and demanding what we deserve.

Since we all have different needs, self-advocacy begins with understanding your own. You no longer apologize for having unique needs, but self-advocate by requesting that they be met.

You don’t expect other people to know your needs. Instead, you vocalize them clearly or in writing with specifics about what you require.

The role of childhood trauma

If you grew up in a home where your needs went unmet consistently, you may struggle with self-advocacy. For many of us, it’s a foreign concept which we simply never considered as a right.

If you grew up in a home where your needs went unmet consistently, you may struggle with self-advocacy. Click To Tweet

We’re so used to having our needs pushed aside, that we’ve suppressed them. We might shrug our shoulders and accept things because that’s what we’re used to.

Unmet needs can feel like home to us. Speaking up for ourselves can feel wildly self-indulgent and even verboten. We may have an image of ourselves as “good” because we don’t ask for too much.

But as you travel on your healing journey, that “go with the flow” amicability may not work for you anymore. You will become more active in your desire to have your needs met and more confident in expressing those needs.

That’s where self-advocacy comes in. I believe it happens when your inner child has received enough nurturing that she’s no longer running the show.

You’ve stepped in as the adult to protect that inner child. You won’t put up with your needs and desires going unrecognized anymore.

When I was younger, I found it easier to advocate for others than myself. Though it’s noble to defend the underdog, we often bypass our own needs and try to earn our “goodness” by helping others instead of ourselves.

Self-advocacy means asserting yourself and voicing your needs. It means acting as that strong protector to yourself that you’ve always been to others.

Self-advocacy means acting as that strong protector to yourself that you've always been to others. Click To Tweet

Reasons we avoid self-advocacy


There are many solid reasons to avoid self-advocacy so don’t blame yourself.

1. Fear of anger

A fear of anger may stop you from self-advocating. But anger is an amazing catalyst for change. It tells you that something is wrong and can propel you to take action.

A powerful emotion, anger can be harnessed for immense good and life improvement. When suppressed, however, internalized anger can make you ill and has been linked to many diseases.

2. Childhood trauma

If you were raised to believe your needs didn’t matter, punished for your anger, or worse, self-advocacy will not come naturally to you. It will feel dangerous and there’s good reason for that – it was.

3. Need for acceptance

All human beings want to feel accepted and loved. If you fear that advocating on your own behalf will result in rejection, you’ll think twice about it.

Again, there’s a fear of ostracization that goes back to childhood. And it can go back much farther than that to our reptilian brain.

4. Fear of consequences

Just as boundary setting elicits consequences, so can self-advocacy. It’s not as though everyone will applaud you for standing up for yourself.

Many won’t like it and will try to stop you from changing your life and getting what you want because it doesn’t benefit them. Do it anyway.

How to overcome emotional dysregulation and its effects

Emotional dysregulation is marked by an inability to control one’s emotional responses and having outsized reactions to emotional stimuli. Those of us who were never taught to regulate our emotions or that emotions were even acceptable, may struggle with this.

It’s a childish response to an adult situation because we never learned to process our emotions. Instead, we learned to suppress them to win the love and acceptance of our parents and caregivers.

Those of us who were never taught to regulate our emotions or that emotions were even acceptable, may struggle with dysregulation. Click To Tweet

Since it’s impossible to repress emotions indefinitely (we are human, after all), they will come out eventually. Often at the most inopportune times and in the most confusing ways.

Since alcohol lowered my defenses and inhibitions, drinking made my emotional dysregulation flare up. But I also overreacted to any kind of criticism at work, bursting into tears at the suggestion that my work might be less than perfect.

The role of invalidation

Because I had been raised without value placed on me as a person, I believed my only worth lay in my accomplishments. So, if you said my work was less than perfect, that meant you were calling me worthless.

Although I didn’t put it together in my head at the time, that’s the dynamic at work with complex PTSD. And along with an overreaction to emotional triggers, you have difficulty returning to your emotional setpoint.

That’s why you fear anger and sadness. You believe they will pull you under because you never learned how to process them. And, in a sense your fears are correct in that it may take you longer to recover once triggered emotionally.

I’ve written here before about the shame we feel simply for having emotions. On top of already difficult feelings of sadness and anger, we pile on shame and guilt.

We’ve been forced to distance from our feelings to survive and therefore we are out of touch with them and feel guilty for having them.

No wonder we try to avoid our feelings as long as possible! That’s your inner child trying to protect you and she deserves credit for that.

How to deal with emotional dysregulation

emotional dysregulation

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness seems like the catch phrase of our time, but it has proven helpful in regulating emotions. It means simply bringing your attention to the present moment.

You can practice mindfulness through meditation which includes sitting still and letting your thoughts and feelings go by. You can also ground yourself in the present moment by focusing on sensory elements in your environment: what you can see, hear, touch and smell.

2. Acknowledge your emotions

Much of our emotional dysregulation stems from a childhood in which our very existence was constantly invalidated. We learned that our needs didn’t matter and that no one would take care of us consistently.

Emotional dysregulation stems from a childhood in which our very existence was constantly invalidated. Click To Tweet

As adults we can begin to care for our own needs and that starts with validating our feelings. Release the shame around certain feelings and comfort yourself when you experience them instead.

Remind yourself that you have a right to feel the way you do, that it makes perfect sense considering what you’ve gone through. Journal your feelings or simply observe them without judgment.

3. Understand your triggers

For example, if you’re hungry or tired you may be more prone to emotional dysregulation. Self-care means meeting your needs as an adult, even though they went unmet as a child.

Because of your childhood neglect, meeting these needs will not come naturally. Even eating regularly might feel wrong if meal times were inconsistent in your home.

Pay attention to your body’s signals and honor them rather than overriding them. If you’re hungry, eat, and if you’re tired, take a nap. Meeting your body’s basic demands is the first step in giving yourself the care and attention you deserved all along.

What are emotional flashbacks and how to deal with them

emotional flashbacks
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Emotional flashbacks are different from the flashbacks we associate with PTSD. Rather than visual and auditory reminders of a specific event, emotional flashbacks are more of a feeling. They take you over and immerse you in the unsafety you felt in your childhood.

These emotional flashbacks stem from unmet childhood needs and complex trauma. Unlike regular PTSD flashbacks, we tend to blame ourselves for our feelings during these episodes. That’s where the shame comes in.

When we were children being abused, neglected, or ignored, we were too young to process our feelings. As children do, we blamed ourselves and did our best to cope with them by disassociating or going into freeze mode.

Now, as adults, we may find ourselves overcome with these emotional flashbacks that take us right back to the fear and helplessness we felt as children. They can be debilitating and make it difficult to enjoy life or function at the level we need to thrive.

Emotional flashbacks can be confusing because we don’t always relate them to what happened in childhood. This can increase the pain of isolation and feeling there’s something wrong with us. This in turn makes us hide how we feel and perpetuates the cycle further.

Emotional flashbacks can be confusing because we don't always relate them to what happened in childhood. Click To Tweet

Let’s say a new contact fails to text or call and you spiral into overwhelming feelings of abandonment, rejection and not-enough-ness. You may not realize how your parents neglect or abuse has triggered this response in you.

Criticism over comfort

Instead of looking at things objectively or even mourning the small loss, you would instead feel overwhelmed by shame and assume it means you’re not good enough. You might also try to win the person over by suppressing your needs. Just as you tried to win your parents over in the past.

However it looks for you, chances are you would not simply let the person go without much rumination, suffering, and feelings of inadequacy. Then you might berate yourself for not being able to let things go instead of comforting yourself in the face of disappointment.

If you never received comfort from the adults around you when you were a child, comforting yourself as an adult will not come naturally. You will criticize yourself for having what you view as a less than perfect response, the same way your caregivers might have done.

If you never received comfort from the adults around you when you were a child, comforting yourself as an adult will not come naturally. Click To Tweet
emotional flashbacks

How to deal with emotional flashbacks

1. Understand the root cause

Emotional flashbacks don’t appear as concrete memories and may not feel like flashbacks at all. Instead they flood you with feelings of shame, fear and hopelessness that have their roots in childhood abuse and neglect.

If you realize why you are experiencing these episodes, and that it’s not your fault, you may feel better. If you acknowledge the truth that they arose out of a traumatic childhood, you can seek support to process what happened to you in the past.

2. Mindfulness

When you find yourself in the midst of an emotional flashback, ground yourself. You can say, “this is a normal traumatic response I’m having and I’m safe right now”.

You can also use your senses to bring yourself into the present moment. Take note of what you see, touch, and smell in the room to remind yourself of your safety.

3. Comfort yourself

When we experience these emotional flashbacks, we tend to criticize ourselves for our feelings which only exacerbates them. Instead, offer yourself comfort and compassion for the way you feel.

Give yourself the unconditional love you missed out on as a child. Remind yourself that it’s not your fault you’re feeling the way you do. Give yourself a hug or wrap in a warm blanket, or some other self-care activity that feels good for you.

Recommended Resource: Emotional Flashback Management by Pete Walker

How to tune into the present moment to alleviate worry

present moment

You may have heard that the present moment is the only one that matters. Much of our anxiety and unhappiness comes in dwelling on either the past or the future.

While that may be true, it’s not so easy to simply stop looking forward or backward. Many of us who grew up with unmet childhood needs struggle with an onslaught of emotional flashbacks on a daily basis.

Many of us who grew up with unmet childhood needs struggle with an onslaught of emotional flashbacks. Click To Tweet

This symptom of complex PTSD takes us over and covers us in a blanket of shame. More than a memory of a past event, it’s a debilitating takeover of our minds and bodies that makes feeling good seem impossible.

But there is evidence that mindfulness practice can help with these flashbacks. Grounding ourselves in the present moment on a regular basis can rewire our brains to work for us rather than against us.

Present moment practice

I’ve begun a daily meditation practice which started with ten minutes and now lasts an hour. For me, meditation means sitting and letting my thoughts go by, rather than making my mind a blank slate.

Observing my thoughts in the moment has brought a peace I’ve never known. In the months since I’ve started the practice, my emotional flashbacks have lessened and I feel less stressed about my future.

Often, after my one hour meditation practice I will find new money in my account. Since starting mindfulness practice, I have let go of clamoring to earn money and allow that money to come in instead.

I have learned that hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off. Letting go often reaps greater rewards and more quickly.

I have also learned that worry about the future has felt like “home” to me. It was a coping mechanism I picked up as a child whose needs weren’t met.

In order to feel safe, I had to control my outcomes. Assuming the worst helped me avoid disappointment and being blindsided by calamity.

Self-sabotage as self-protection

That’s one example of self-sabotage as self-protection. Even though it feels bad, worry and anxiety over the future is our inner child’s way of keeping us safe from uncertainty.

Worry and anxiety over the future is our inner child's way of keeping us safe from uncertainty. Click To Tweet

Only recently, I’ve begun to challenge my natural inclination to expect the worst. I say to myself (out loud sometimes) “but what if it goes well?” or “what if it turns out exactly the way I want?”

Believe it or not, these words have an impact on how I feel about the future. Entertaining the possibility that things might go well instead of badly, feels good! And it’s just as likely as a negative outcome, if not more so.

present moment

Another mindfulness practice that keeps me in the present moment is breathwork. During these one-hour sessions, all my anxious thoughts dissipate and I get answers and solutions to my life’s questions and problems.

Science tells us that our minds are plastic, meaning they can change with some work. Daily meditation practice, and challenging old thought patterns can help us feel differently than we’ve always felt.

It takes some discipline to sit still for ten minutes or an hour. It also takes time that you might feel guilty giving to yourself. If you’ve been trained to believe that “doing” makes you acceptable, sitting still may not be easy.

But you are worth the time it takes to heal your brain and rewire it to work in your favor. If you can avoid distractions to focus your energy on the present moment, you will reap rewards that may surprise you.