Feeling Ourselves from the Inside Out – Versus Viewing Ourselves from the Outside In


What is the difference between self-awareness and self-consciousness? In short, it is the difference between feeling ourselves from the inside out versus from viewing ourselves from the outside in.

Awareness in general and self-awareness in particular are important practices in this alchemical body-mind work. Simultaneously, learning to be in our body (truly inhabiting our body as opposed to viewing it from a distance) is an important principle in this work – a key to living fully and happily.

Self-awareness means knowing what we are feeling, right now. It is the sum total of what is actually going on with us at the moment. What I am feeling right now means the conscious awareness of sensations/emotions in our bodies. Awareness can also include awareness of “thinking”, but simple awareness of our thoughts isn’t enough to qualify as self-awareness, which most especially means knowing what I am feeling right now and necessarily includes sensations and the experience of emotions in our body. It bears saying that in this kind of somatic (mind-body) work, the “self” includes both the psyche (ego, thinking, will) and the soma (body, sensation, feeling). We aren’t self-aware unless we’re also aware of the somatic parts of who we are (and not just as an observer).

Knowing our self means knowing what we are feeling.

We have trouble with true self-awareness since we are so often out of contact with our bodies. Because we are out of contact or numb to our experience – due to tension, limited breathing, or not letting ourselves have a certain experience – we end up viewing ourselves from the “outside in” (mentally observing ourselves) rather than from the “inside out” (starting with our feeling experience of our bodily sensations/emotions). We might intellectually know “this is my body,” but this is not the same as feeling our body (from up close). The experience of our body as an objectified other is often accompanied by tension, awkwardness, or stilted movement or expression. The much-vaunted “observing ego” in this case sees the body “over there” but doesn’t experience the body.

This shift from experiencing ourselves “inside out” to viewing ourselves “outside in” is the move from self-awareness to self-consciousness.

Self-consciousness occurs as we objectify ourselves – that is, as we treat ourselves as objects. We are self-conscious when we imagine being viewed by others, imagining how they see us, and imagine  ourselves falling short of what we “should” be. We then react either to modify ourselves or we seek some other strategy (leaving the situation, “checking out” mentally) to reduce our discomfort – without fully tuning into our discomfort.

In this situation, self-awareness would let us tune in at the feeling level to the discomfort we experience, and with increasing awareness, we might be able to say such things as “I’m afraid” or “I feel disconnected and I desire to connect.” We might also be aware we’re holding our breath in anticipation, or worry. Close examination might even reveal mostly unconscious thoughts that are involved with the feelings, such as “I’m afraid they won’t think I’m capable or lovable,” or “I’m afraid they won’t respect me if I say what’s really on my mind,” or “I need to show them I’m in charge …or smart …or loving.”

Self-consciousness thus revolves around a (usually unconscious) mentally-centered assessment of the imagined judgments others might have about us. Not surprisingly, this acts as a restraint on our thinking, emoting, behavior, and relating. We lose actual contact with ourselves and with others. We may continue to speak and act, but those words and actions will have already been cleared by the internal critic and thus will lack spontaneity, genuineness, and naturalness. The internal censor keeps us in line with shame or guilt.

Skilled and satisfying human contact (true relationship) emerges from both knowing how we feel and acting in a self-possessed and considered way – not just in line with the restraints of the internal critic.

The tendency to live from the outside in is reinforced by “living in our heads,” or more specifically, by trying to live up to images the ego has of itself (e.g., I’m a good person and good people don’t get angry. Asking for what I need is selfish – and I’m a giver. I have to be strong or I won’t get respect.) Living in this way, we are disconnected from the emotions, instincts, desires, fears that need to be included in our experience of ourselves for us to be able to function fully as human beings – and to be able to move beyond our tensions and stuckness that are reinforced by our image of ourselves.

This in no way is meant to suggest that once we’re in touch with these unconscious aspects (wishes, fears, ambivalences) of ourselves that they magically “go away.” But neither are we thrown way off center when we experience them, or become aware of them. Humans get angry, afraid, sad at times. Denying these parts also leads a restricted capacity to feel full vitality, pleasure and joy in our bodies and in our lives – and to know what we really like or dislike.

Trying really hard to live up to an ego image (which often shows up as modifying our words and actions to give a certain impression to others) leads to tension, holding, and loss of contact with our true selves and loss of authentic contact with others.

Psychotherapy can become ungrounded and disconnected from the realities of who we truly are when it focuses too much on words (which often reflect mental constructions of what we believe we are, or should be, or what we need to do to become that). Talking about ourselves can leave us firmly disconnected from the realities of what we feel, as well as our instincts, desires, ambivalences. Therapy needs to bring in these realities by helping us discover the embodied experience of ourselves, with our unconscious drives, beliefs, hurts, fears, anger – as well as our unconscious instincts, drives, hopes, desires, and pleasures.

If our mental understanding of ourselves is rooted in the feeling realities of who we are – based in true self-awareness – then this understanding can serve our life and growth. Let us learn about ourselves from the inside out, instead of from the outside in. Let us ground in our bodies and feelings, and true self-awareness – so our intellect can support living our lives fully – instead of serving the project of willfully pushing, compressing, and fighting to fulfill an image of who we “should” be.