Develop Self-Awareness and Improve Your Relationships

“Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.” -Gandhi

The other day I got upset over something silly that triggered difficult feelings with deep roots from my past.

In short, someone I love made a reasonable request that, for various reasons, I didn’t want to honor, partly because I felt this person wasn’t taking my feelings into account. But I had no good reason to suspect this.

I thought this because it’s a pattern for me.

For most of my young life, I believed my needs wouldn’t be met if I didn’t push and fight for them.

I saw everything as a battle—it was everyone else against me. Though I’ve learned to see others as on my side, and I know that I’m on theirs, I still worry that people aren’t looking out for me at times.

In the aftermath of this recent altercation, I talked through my feelings with my boyfriend.

I told him I understood my emotional response, and I knew where it came from—when I first felt this way and why and how it’s been a pattern in my life.

Then I posed a question: In recognizing where and how I learned this behavior, am I blaming people and circumstances from my past or merely being self-aware? What, exactly, is the difference?

I think it’s an important question to ask, because we’ve all been wronged before.

We do ourselves a disservice if we sit around blaming other people for our maladaptive reactions and behaviors, but sometimes we’re better able to change when we understand how we developed in response to former relationships and prior events.

I’ve spent a lot of time learning to let go of victim stories, which is a big part of why I don’t write about some of the most painful events of my life. Still, for better or for worse, they shaped who I am.

When I allow myself to look back and acknowledge wrong-doing, I reinforce to myself that I did not deserve to be mistreated, and that it’s not my fault that I struggle in certain ways as a result.

I know, however, that it is my responsibility to change my responses and behaviors. And that, right there, is the difference between self-awareness and self-victimization.

Self-awareness allows us to understand what’s going on in our heads and why; self-victimization prevents us from accepting that we’re responsible for it, and for what we do as a result.

Expanding on this train of thought, self-victimization includes:

  • Dwelling and obsessing about the ways we feel we’ve been wronged
  • Complaining about painful, seemingly unfair events without ever considering if and how we played a role in them
  • Using these events to justify negativity; bitterness; or selfish, hurtful, or irresponsible actions
  • Feeding off other people’s sympathy and maybe even depending on it
  • Telling sad stories from the past as a means of avoiding judgment or trying to win approval
  • Believing that everything would be better if the world or other people would change

As someone who’s done all of these things in the past, I can attest that this is often the result of immense pain.

Sometimes we play the victim because we were victims. We learned that we didn’t have control and then adapted to that. Because we once felt powerless, we learned to give our power away.

On the other side of the spectrum, self-empowerment includes:

  • Consciously choosing to let go of victimizing thoughts
  • Considering that we may have played a part in some of the most painful events from our pasts
  • Learning from these events how we can respond proactively to similar events in the future
  • Feeding our own emotional needs instead of coming to other people with a void that won’t ever be filled
  • Accepting responsibility for our actions, and the consequences of them
  • Realizing things will only improve if we make a change, internally or externally

This requires self-awareness, which brings me back to my initial question:

What does self-awareness look like, when it involves acknowledging pain from the past—and how does it differ from self-victimization?

Self-awareness includes:

  • Understanding our emotions—what we’re feeling and what triggered it—so we can effectively work through and transform our emotional responses (instead of using them to justify unhealthy choices)
  • Recognizing our destructive thought patterns so we can redirect them
  • Tuning into what’s going on in our bodies so we can learn from it and access our intuition
  • Noticing our behavioral patterns and habits so that we can make adjustments to change negative ones
  • Understanding our beliefs, assumptions, and expectations, and how they influence what we choose to do
  • Accepting that we are responsible for our actions—even if we developed certain patterns in response to events from our past

The fundamental difference between self-awareness and self-victimization, when it pertains to acknowledging we’ve been hurt: Self-awareness is about observing our response to what happened; self-victimization is about feeding into the story of what happened.

This isn’t always easy to do. Sometimes the mere act of remembering something painful can bring up all kinds of old feelings. It helps if we learn to immediately redirect our thoughts to a positive, empowering affirmation.

This means that next time I find myself questioning whether the other person really has best interests at heart, when I have no reason to believe they don’t, I can tell myself something like this:

I give people I love the benefit of the doubt. I release my instinctive emotional response from the deepest root cause and do my part to create happy relationships.

In changing my thoughts, I can change my feelings and then effectively redirect my actions.

This process can apply to all kinds of unhealthy relationship patterns that stem from former relationships, but it requires us to work at developing self-awareness.

One way we can do this is by journaling about our feelings and triggers—if, for example, you tend to feel mistrusting, or defensive, or angry when specific events occur—and then come up with affirmations to use when we get caught up in those patterns.

Some examples of situations and affirmations:

If you frequently mistrust someone solely because someone else formerly abused your trust, you could use this affirmation when those old feelings arise: 

This is a new relationship. I release my instinctive emotional response from the deepest root cause, and accept that I can change it and improve my relationship by trusting.

If you frequently feel guilty in your relationship, in large part because you were emotionally abused in a former one, you could use this affirmation when those old feelings arise (assuming you’re in a healthy relationship now):

I choose not to blame myself. I release my instinctive emotional response from the deepest root cause, and free myself from shame and self-judgment. 

Whatever the pattern, we can challenge it and eventually change it by changing our thoughts and beliefs.

If we’re willing to be self-aware, we can empower ourselves, and transform our relationships and in our lives in the process.

Two great, related resources:

 Photo by nattu

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Irving Podolsky

    This is deep, Lori.

    I think about this subject a lot since there is something my friends could do to me (or refuse to do) that crosses a line which forever alters the relationship or kills it all together. And it wasn’t until a few years ago that I figured why I’m so sensitive and reactive to a subtle, and even common, rejection: The failure to return a phone call or email.

    I used to have a deep resentment of my parents for abandonment and emotional neglect. Although it was far from abuse, Mom and Dad’s disappearance cut deeply. Their daily absence affected me as a baby, a toddler, right through adolescence to the point where I thought growing up alone was normal, because for me, it WAS normal.

    And then, about ten years ago, I finally became aware of my childhood pain. I now realize why I resent the lack of response to my needs as an adult.

    You ask, “in recognizing where and how I learned this behavior, am I blaming people and circumstances from my past, or merely being self-aware? What, exactly, is the difference?”

    Great question, because even though I no longer BLAME my parents, or carry a resentment against them, I still resent OTHERS who replicate a similar disassociation from me. Fortunately, my resisting a brush-off today is more about principle than avoiding emotional scarring.

    If my friends (as opposed to working relationships) don’t return my calls or letters, I let it go once, even twice. But I tell those friends that the signals they’re sending are destructive. They’re telling me, in passive but direct ways, that they’re not concerned about my feelings if they don’t call me back.

    That could hurt if I let it. I don’t.

    If I write or call and nothing comes back a third time, or the response is a month late without an apology, the “friendship” is over, because it was obviously one way.

    As a child, if my parents were not there when I needed them, I had no place to go. As an adult, I have a choice about that. You’d be surprised how may so-called “friends” I’ve had to let loose.. Yeah, some are still in my life, but they’re not friends.

    It’s interesting how I feel when the separation completes. There’s no “get-even” satisfaction, no doubt about the action, no feelings of loss. It’s more like relief that I did the business that had to be done, because there was no other decision to be made.

    I’m not a victim. I won’t beg for validation, nor will I be invalidated.


  • Lori, such great points. A great reminder that we can’t always choose what happens to us but we can always choose how we respond.

  • Carmelo Bryan

    This brings up the awareness of how easy it is to fall into self pity, doesn’t it Lori? This happens so often in relationships. Arguments stem from simple disagreements and then become “I’m right, she’s wrong” type feelings.

    When things escalate as we know they so easily can, that self-victimization becomes self pity which is a terribly powerless position from which we cannot discuss anything effectively because of inaccurate thinking and run-away emotions.

    Your points on self awareness are right on. I’ve benefited greatly by exercising a detached observation of my actions and emotions without judgment. This, more than anything else, has been a huge boost to my relationships. 🙂

    Thanks, Lori.

  • FumingSalmon

    such an amazing post..I have this feeling in my relationship that my interests will not be met..i feel that he might compromise my interest to keep others happy and will make everything look like a situation(kind of fool me). i have this constant fear that he is hiding something from me. Every time there is a situation where i need to confront i just ask one question – ‘what is more important – being right or being happy’ and i am able to keep situation under control..but am i harming my relationship in long run. How would self awareness help here?

  • lv2terp

    Lori, I love how you clearly separate these 3, and the lists were wonderful and concise! Thank you so much for this post, I wrote so much info in my self improvement journal! 🙂 Much appreciated, thank you again for sharing so much wisdom and love! 🙂

  • lv2terp

    I am so glad I read this comment, I felt that I was reading about myself. I am still trying to fully wrap my head around how to let go of the need for validation, and being disappointed often, etc…hmmm. Thank you for giving me more insight and things to ponder! 🙂

  • Such a profound question Lori. And beautiful timing. I am wrestling with balancing off these two extremes. Trying to understand what has happened so I can try to let it go, but not using it as a crutch or never-ending story line. Thnaks for the clarity.

  • Apol

    Thanks you for this post Lori. Strangely enough, it’s been a challenging area in my life lately. Them against me, they’re wrong while I’m right. I tend to let my pendulum swing to extremes. I need more gray area in my life! Thank you for sharing!

  • megan

    Wow I really needed this today and will refer to it often. Thank you!

  • Lori, it’s interesting that your solution involved stepping back from the issue. I just wrote about this on my blog, too. (Different issue, same idea) I’m glad to read your self-awareness kicked in. Watch the watcher. And let go of what you think you need. As thinkers, (most writers are) we are in danger of the paralysis of analysis. Gotta climb out of our heads sometimes, and just live.

  • I know what you mean, about paralysis analysis. I’m always mindful of the fact that I can overanalyze and end up trapped in my mind! I’ve been visualizing a red stop sign lately when my thoughts get unruly. It really helps me come back to the moment.

  • You’re most welcome! I’m glad it helped.

  • You’re most welcome. I’m the same way. I can be very black and white at times. It can seem like such a smart defense mechanism, but it seems peace is in the gray area!

  • You’re most welcome Jonathan! This has been a big one for me, and I had a feeling other people might be able to relate to this challenge.

  • Thanks so much, and you’re most welcome!

  • I think that’s a great question to ask yourself–about being right or being happy. Maybe it would help to ask yourself *why* you think you’re right–about the probability of him not meeting your interests. Does it have to do with your current relationship, or old fears/responses that have nothing to do with him? Once you understand the root cause, it will likely be easier to address the issue. If you know it has nothing to do with him, you’ll be better able to redirect your thoughts. If you realize it does have to do with him, you’ll be able to address that. I hope this helps!

  • So true Carmelo. I’ve fallen into the self-pity trap many times without even realizing it–and it does create a powerless position. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. =)

  • Thanks Ali!

  • I love what you wrote at the end! I’ve had a very similar issue, with friends being responsive. The big one for me has always been feeling powerless, like I’m not worthy of loving attention. When friends seem to de-prioritize me (by taking weeks to get back to me), I have a strong reaction.

    Like you, I’ve learned to recognize the root of that, but I also decided recently that I didn’t have to maintain those friendships. When I decided that, I felt an increase in self-respect. It makes me feel good to know I don’t need to “hold on” to people who aren’t showing through their actions that my friendship matters to them. There are other people who value my friendship–but most importantly, I value myself.

  • Melissa

    Wow, that was great! I still struggle with falling into past behaviors just like the ones you mention here. I think we must have been in the sam relationship! Thank you for giving concise ideas for how to notice the behavior before I fall back into it, because frankly, it gets old!

  • You’re most welcome Melissa! I’m glad this was helpful to you. =)

  • Irving Podolsky

    You know what all this really gets down to? And it hasn’t changed since the eight grade – WHO likes WHO more! It’s really that simple.

    Action, or NON action, speaks louder than words. And when we admit that there are some people we wish would want our company MORE, and they DON’T, we have to remember – it’s not about US, it’s about the MATCH.

    Some connections are better than others and you can’t force someone to love you, or even desire your time and attention when you want them to.

    And then there are those people who want YOU more than YOU want them. And sometimes you have to let them know that by maybe…not calling them back right away. (Did I say that?! Yes I did!)

    Once I actually told a “friend” that I just didn’t have the enthusiasm for the relationship that he did. (It wasn’t sexually oriented.) Didn’t make a difference. He still kept calling me and to be nice, we went out for beers every now and then. He was like a loving, loyal puppy. I couldn’t turn him down. But I couldn’t figure out why he wanted my company either.

    Anyway, a year later he remarried and I really liked his wife. MY wife liked his wife. So we’re real friends now…except he’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat, so there are still some fundamental issues we don’t agree upon. (His wife’s a progressive like me. Hence, the continued connection.)


  • Irving Podolsky

    Ya know, when I wrote this, I thought that maybe I’m being too judgmental. But as I read your comment and Lori’s, I’m thinking now…maybe I’m justified in feeling this way.


  • i totally identified with this and totally helped me recognize what I need to do to shift everything.

    Thank you so much! You have also been quoted on my blog 🙂

  • You’re welcome Mario!

  • Renee

    I can so relate to this…glad I’m not the only one! I tend to trap others in my ‘mind trap’ as well. Really working hard to get past this right now. Thanks to you Lori for writing this post and to all the people who have taken the time to respond. It is such a relief to know I’m not alone.

  • Lori, I absolutely loved your six bullet point description of self-awareness. Very succinct, yet very thorough. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    For your readers who are interested in building-up their self-awareness vocabulary, I put together a list of 80 or so destructive patterns that might prove valuable:

  • KCLAnderson (Karen)

    I have struggled with the very same thing: needing or wanting to acknowledge what “made me this way” without blaming or becoming a victim! For a long time I was either blaming others or blaming myself and it was only when I took blame out of the equation that I was able to move forward. Having a sense of compassionate objectivity helps 🙂

  • Thanks so much Derek. And thanks also for the link. I’ll check it out!

  • You’re most welcome Renee. I find it a tremendous relief, as well!

  • Samara

    Thank you for this post, it is just what I needed!

  • You’re most welcome!

  • Beth

    Your story is my story…..I could have written this. Thanks for sharing and for giving me a new perspective to think about.

  • You’re most welcome Beth. =)

  • Andrea

    Well put…this is also my story. When this realization hit not so long ago, apologies are in order. Although the process can take years and made me sick to my stomach plus contributed to disease. Seeing all possible angles from other person’s shoes assists. Thanks for spelling it out.

  • You’re most welcome Andrea. I think the hardest part about being self-aware in this way is letting go of anger related to the past. Sometimes that anger can suffocate everything else. At least that’s been my experience.

    I’m glad you found this helpful!

  • Lucas

    Hi Lori, very educational post it is to me. Thank you! 🙂

  • You’re most welcome!

  • I love your post. It is very useful to read something I have realised by the moment. Self-awareness is an essential step on a way to fulfilled life as a whole person. I write posts on similar topics myself so I’m happy to encounter on yours


    hi. how does a person develop self awareness

  • Caroline Kirk

    Excellent article on the difference of self awareness and self victimization, sometimes when in pain, its difficult to discern past wounds from present triggers. Thank you very much Lori 🙂

  • Thanks so much, Caroline, and you’re most welcome!

  • Ellie

    Lori, what you’ve written is amazing and I couldn’t agree more 🙂

  • Thanks so much Ellie!

  • jason bladzinski

    This is a bit of a misnomer. If you are human, you ARE self aware. That is the definition of sapient. Perhaps self-actualization is more what is intended here in this essay. It’s almost like being your own coach and attempting to disassociate from one’s self and take on the role of the other observing you. While to a certain degree a person might be able to achieve this state, it cannot be fully implemented . Personal bias is impossible to completely overcome. This is a existential fact, removing oneself and escaping with the total ability to judge your own actions from a place completely outside of your own mind would mean you have no mind. Therefore you would cease to exist. It is simple Decarte, “I think, therefore I am. ” Outside one’s own mind, how can we be sure anything exists at all?

  • dcf

    Oh so touchy feely. So — you spend an entire article articulating self awareness but you give no examples of how this has improved YOUR life. HMM. So did you create those amazing relationships? You give no examples. Your article is a bunch of fluff with no real life examples of any of it being correct. It sounds good but how did it work out for you? NOTHING but fluff.

  • uigs

    “If you frequently mistrust someone, in large part because someone else formerly abused your trust, you could use this affirmation when those old feelings arise: ”

    I have a different opionion of this, if you frequently mistrust a particular person but do not have issues trusting most people then the person in question may actually not be trustworthy. Blaming the past does not work in every circumstance, telling someone they have trust issues because of their past ignores the fact that the person might have reason not to trust a particular person.
    The past isn’t always to blame.

  • Hi there,

    I absolutely agree! In this particular instance, I was referring to those of who mistrust others solely because someone else abused our trust in the past, not suggesting that whenever we mistrust someone, it’s because we have trust issues. I think perhaps I could rephrase that so it’s clearer!


  • uigs

    Hi Lori, Aha..I see. See, one time someone told me that I had trust issues because of a childhood issue and I believed them until I realized the person I didn’t trust had been lying to me, and I also thought back and realized that I did not mistrust many people, I just mistrusted this one particular person, it turned out that I did so with good reason. It took me realizing that I can part of trust is also trusting yourself.

  • So true. It’s definitely important to realize it’s not always about us–sometimes when we don’t trust someone, there’s a good reason!

  • RaBars

    Great information and perspective. Self-awareness is a form of reflection, not blaming, victimizing, or trying to forget. But understanding who you are, why you do what you do, and how these things might be controlling your life and your responses to some extent. I like how you bulleted so much stuff that is good to know. I believe self-awareness to be of much benefit to more and more people alike as each of our individuals perspectives change to a more calm and well-being feeling. It seems that there is an abundance of scientific information coming out as well, in terms of taking time for self reflection and silent moments of time by ourselves.

    Great read, Thank You!