To better understand others, we must first better understand ourselves.
Self-awareness and empathy are very intimately connected. Once we become more aware of what makes us who we are, we are better able to understand the differences between ourselves and others, and what makes them who they are.
Both self-awareness and empathy are the foundation of emotional intelligence. Empathy is technically “awareness of others,” the direct counterpart to self-awareness.
When you become more aware of yourself, you also become more aware of others. Once the concept of “self” versus “other” becomes clearer, you can begin to recognize the ways you are similar to others, but also begin to recognize your differences. This starts with physical similarities and differences, but develops to recognize how others THOUGHTS and FEELINGS may be similar to or different than your own.
A key component to empathy is not just about recognizing the ways you are similar to others, but also recognizing the ways you are different from others. You are not able to empathize with others if you believe everyone looks, thinks and feels the same as you. That is just projecting your own perspective onto others rather than recognizing differences and others potential perspectives. The ability to infer the mental states of others, is known as “theory of mind” or empathy.
A Graduated Guide to Teaching Self-Awareness
Over the first few years of their life, your child develops a sense of self where they not only recognize the image in the mirror as “me,” but they learn that the “me” they see in the mirror is the same version of “me” that everyone else sees all the time. Phew, talk about some deep stuff! And this is just your child’s awareness of their PHYSICAL self. They also have to learn to understand their EMOTIONAL self. But there are ways you can work to help your child bridge the gap and make these philosophical blunders a little more bearable.
1. Wondering where your child is with self-awareness? Do the mirror test! Place a piece of painters tape, or put a swipe of lipstick on their nose. Do they try to take it off? If they do, they recognize that the face they see in the mirror is in fact theirs and they see something on their face that doesn’t belong there.
2. Play in front of a mirror. At first, your child will look longer at your face in the mirror because it is an image they recognize. Make faces, point to and label what you see, have fun! Encourage them to touch what they see in the mirror. This helps your baby bridge the gap between “there’s a baby in front of me” and “oh, it’s just a reflection” and “Wow! That reflection is ME!”
3. When your child is holding something, ask, “What do you have?” or while wearing a hat, ask, “What’s on your head?” This begins to teach your child that the outside world sees them too!
4. Give your child a toy and you take a toy. Show them what you chose. Put a barrier between the two of you. While looking down at your own toy, ask your child, “What do I see?” Do they name the toy in your hand or in their own?
If your child names the toy in their own hand, they are not yet able to take your perspective.
5. Give your child a simple scenario or in real time ask them how they feel.
Example: Oh no! You fell down! How do you feel?
Example: What if mommy ate your candy? How would that make you feel?
6. Give your child a scenario and ask how the individual may feel.
Example: Jude didn’t eat breakfast, but now he’s at school and it isn’t lunchtime yet. How might he feel? *Hungry would be the answer for a child who has an awareness of others’ feelings. If your child ate breakfast, they may not recognize “hungry” because they do not feel hungry at that moment.
Example: Show your child a picture of an angry dog. Ask your child, “How does he feel?” *Angry/mad would be the answer for a child who has an awareness of others’ feelings. But, your child might say, “happy” because that’s how they feel when they see a dog!
Self-awareness and empathy are ever evolving. Truly being self-aware is a journey! But it’s a journey that you can help your child start at birth. By helping to create self-aware children, we are creating compassionate and empathetic children. We are developing children who better understand others, because they understand themselves!