On Becoming Self Aware
Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth
living". That may be something of an overstatement but he
makes a good point-self awareness is crucial to a meaningful life
and interaction with others.
Impaired self awareness is a common outcome after a brain
injury. While in more severe cases a person may have no idea the
injury has affected them at all, I fell into the other category
where I did retain the capacity for self awareness. Others who have
acquired a "mild" brain injury have commented that the effects are
still anything but mild. While I was able to continue studying and
then working after my injury, I had trouble getting along with
people as I made inappropriate jokes or comments. While I could see
this hurt some and pushed others way, I conveniently blamed them
instead of myself. With hindsight I now cringe at the social gaffes
I made over the years, as I believed my social skills were
unaffected and used any coping mechanism to support this misguided
Apart from being unable to accurately assess one's own abilities,
impaired self awareness can also lead to overestimating one's
abilities. For years I believed I was very skilled and experienced
in computer programming. Through my studies I felt I was a cut
above the other students. This attitude continued into my jobs but
lack of short term memory, inability to focus for long and poor
attention to detail led to mistakes that resulted in constant calls
into the supervisor's office.
Once again I used coping mechanisms to support my belief that I
was actually one hot programmer. Through a string of jobs I
believed the bosses were obsessive- compulsive, simply had it in
for me or were playing favourites with the other staff. To avoid
blaming myself I would leave the job before getting sacked due to
this supposed unfair treatment.
The same was happening in my social life. I believed I was an
open, caring person with a great sense of humour and personality.
But in retrospect I can see a frequently guarded me, self-centred
and pushing others away with strange behaviour and comments that I
saw as part of a 'sparkling personality'.
Tips for Families
So what can families and partners do to help someone with impaired
self awareness? In severe cases this must be difficult, as no
amount of reasoning will help. I can only speak of my case, in
which I had enough cognitive capacity to gradually accept the
problems I had.
Knowing that you are loved and accepted provides an environment
where it is easier to admit you have a problem. My family had a lot
of tolerance, as they suspected my injury was causing these
However they joined in my denial and never once said the problems
could be from the injury. I wonder if my battle to become self
aware would have started sooner by being gently confronted by
It would not have been pleasant for them. I would have felt deeply
hurt if they suggested my latest job fiasco may have been my fault.
I would have felt implied criticism if Bridge
Magazines were suddenly left lying around the house. But having
access to information and getting a dose of 'reality therapy' at
some point would have been a start.
In my situation the realisation emerged as I was confronted with
15 years of leaving jobs, poor relationships, difficulty making
friends and a growing sense I could not blame everyone and
everything else for the problems I was facing. So perhaps families
should at times let their loved one make mistakes which they may
eventually learn from, albeit at a much slower rate than an
The Examined Life Worth Living
Once I was aware of my cognitive deficits there was the painful
process of accepting this and making adjustments. With employment I
accepted I would never be a 'professional' and took a less well
paid job with less demands on my struggling brain.
Socially I try to think before I speak nowadays and when I can see
someone reacting negatively to me I now look for how I may have
caused this rather than blaming them.
The most important thing has been accepting I am not perfect, and
have problems like everyone else. The crucial thing is to
acknowledge this, then set about correcting them as much as
I'd encourage anyone with impaired self awareness to examine their
life seriously. Burying your head in the sand like an ostrich does
not lead to a meaningful life. The examined life is worth living,
especially if you can then hold down a job, get along with your
partner and family, and stop driving people away.