The Value of Self-Awareness

All human beings have the ability to be aware, not just of our breathing, but of a multitude of things that make up who we are. Let us demonstrate what we mean. Imagine, in your mind's eye, that a part of you can float out of your body, floating up to a particular corner of the room, so that you can see yourself, from that perspective. What would it be like to do this? What would it feel like? How would you describe the particular sensations that the you who is sitting there is experiencing right now? Focus on a particular part of your body and become aware of your experience there. Perhaps you can be aware of pressure, or temperature, or some other sensation. It's not important what the specific sensation is, just your ability to notice it. How about your overall mood? How would you characterize that? What can you say about your thoughts? Are you thinking about what you are reading right now, and yet perhaps at the same time wondering what's the point of all this? As you answer these questions, make sure you get back into your body.

The Witnessing Stance

By doing what you just did, and answering the questions we just asked, you have demonstrated your ability for self-awareness. All human beings share the ability to be aware of ourselves. The fact that we can stand apart from our feelings and our thoughts suggests that we can have some control over them. Ram Dass, formerly known as Richard Alpert, a Harvard psychologist who studied extensively in India and is renowned for integrating both Eastern and Western techniques, describes our ability to stand apart from ourselves, to view ourselves from the outside, as assuming the witnessing stance. Whenever you are involved in the many experiences that make up your life, you have the choice to be a witness to your own life. This shift in perspective provides you with the possibility that you can change the particular situation. The fact is that you cannot always change situations (that is, external stressors or events) you are faced with, but you can always change your reaction toward the stressor. Assuming the witnessing stance allows you to make this shift.

Remember that, as we mentioned earlier, what inappropriately triggers your fight-or-flight response, and therefore your stress, is not actual physical danger. Not many of you have guns pointed at your head, at least not on a daily basis. What triggers your stress response is your perception of danger. And whether you perceive something as dangerous depends on the meaning you give the particular situation. Human beings give meaning to everything, and what we say, especially to ourselves, about a situation or event determines our attitude toward it. Assuming an observer perspective allows you to get a glimpse of the meaning you are ascribing and therefore provides you an opportunity to change your attitude.

Attitude Is Everything!

Research has revealed that the attitude you have at the beginning of a task determines the outcome of that task more than any other single factor. For example, if you believe you will be able to succeed at a particular undertaking and you approach the endeavor with a sense of excitement and joyful expectation, your chances of achieving success are much higher than if you face the task with dread and apprehension. Self-fulfilling prophecies can be positive or negative, depending on your expectations. So your attitude is more important than any other possible factor, both external and internal. We believe that it is perhaps more accurate to say that everything is created three times. First, you create your reality by your thoughts, including what you think about the events that happen to you. Then you further give substance to these thoughts by your words—for example, when you describe the events in your life to others. Finally, your actions complete the process of creation. This is clearly true when it comes to stress and whether we thrive from it or are buried by it.

Remember Thomas Holmes and his research showing that there was a relationship between the number, severity, and pervasiveness of life changes and our physical and emotional health? We mentioned that the major flaw of this series of studies was a failure to take into account individual differences in abilities to cope with the changes and demands. This research focused only on the effects of external events or stressors.

Psychologist Suzanne Kobasa decided to focus her research interests on individual differences in coping skills. What makes some people capable of handling enormous amounts of change and demands without suffering the devastating physical and emotional consequences predicted by the Holmes research? Kobasa studied individuals whose lives seemed so filled with stressors that, according to Holmes, they should have been growing massive tumors on the sides of their heads. Yet these folks were successful in their endeavors and seemed to be suffering no apparent negative consequences from their demanding lifestyle (Kobasa, 1984).

Stress Hardiness Attitudes

Kobasa discovered three attitudes that these people all shared and that appeared to make them resistant to the negative effects of stress. She called these three attitudes stress hardiness attitudes because individuals who possess them appear to be “stress-hardy,” that is, capable of dealing effectively with stressors. These three attitudes are control, commitment, and challenge. They are also referred to as the three C's of stress hardiness (Kobasa, 1979).


Let's take a look at the first attitude, control. Stress-hardy individuals believe that they are in control of their lives, rather than that stressors have control over them. They recognize that they have resources and options that allow them to influence events in their lives. Although stress-hardy individuals recognize that they may not always have direct control over the actual onset or occurrence of an event, they certainly have control over their own response to the stressor. And this is not only true of humans, but also true of such higher life forms as rats. For example, let's hypothetically place two rats in cages capable of delivering an electroshock to their unsuspecting paws. (Psychologists do, indeed, do this and other perhaps less kindly things to these animals. That is why our standing as a profession is rather low in the rat community!) Using what is known in experimental psychology as a yoked research design, both rats are then shocked simultaneously at various intervals. One rat has a lever available in its cage that if pressed will discontinue the shock. The second rat has no such escape opportunity. When the first rat presses the lever, it stops the shock for both rats. This assures that both rats are exposed to the same level and intensity of the shock, but only the first rat has control over discontinuing the stressful event. Can you guess what happens? The first rat, the one with control, is minimally, if at all affected by the series of shocks. The second, “helpless” rat, on the other hand, suffers negatively, developing multiple psychosomatic symptoms such as ulcers.

These differences in stress response are maintained even when the escape lever is removed and replaced merely by a light that precedes the shock. In this design, the first rat has no means of escape, but is warned that a shock is imminent. Although the rat can do no more than dance around the cage, the effects of the stressor are somehow reduced perhaps because the rat knows it is going to be dancing around and is therefore more prepared to do so. Thus, our sense of control is also affected by the extent to which we can anticipate and prepare for the onset of stressors and change. Involvement in exercise is a perfect example of this. We know that physical exercise is stressful. Yet it is stress over which we have control because we typically can choose when to begin and when to end our exercise routine. Stress researchers conclude that this sense of control is at least partially responsible for the beneficial effects of repeated exercise.

Locus of Control

Stress-hardy individuals refuse to see themselves as victims, buffeted and abused by external occurrences over which they have no control. People with this attitude see themselves as active players in their own lives. They possess what Julian Rotter (1966) described as an internal locus of control. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe that they are responsible for the ultimate outcomes in their life. They do not wait for fate to lead them in directions; rather they endeavor to take active control over their own life. When students with an internal locus of control fail a test, they do not blame the teacher nor the test questions. They take responsibility for the failure and attempt to determine what action is needed to avoid this in the future. This is the same attitude described by Stephen Covey as proactivity. Proactivity, simply defined, refers to the fact that as human beings we are responsible for our actions. What comes up for you when you hear the word responsibility? Perhaps you imagine a heavy ball and chain shackled to your ankle, impeding your freedom. But Covey means that we have response-ability, the ability to choose how to respond to any life situation. What about you? Do you look toward solutions, things you can do? Or do you focus primarily on the problem and how awful it is, and how things like that shouldn't happen to you? Take some time now and truthfully answer these questions. What would be your typical response?

What did you find? You see, whether you believe you are in control is a critical factor in predicting the outcomes of the various events in your life. There is no question that life is filled with waves that each of us must navigate during our personal journeys. You might not have the choice about when these waves appear or their strength, but you can certainly choose how you ride them—whether you travel on top of the water or underneath it; whether you have sails or oars to help you direct your way, or are merely carried away by the currents; and whether you enjoy the ride, in awe of the variety and beauty of it all, or are gasping for air, drowning in the tide.


The second attitude characteristic of stress-hardy individuals that Kobasa identified is commitment. It is not merely persistence in following through with a goal; it is an attitude that expresses a real joie de vivre, a zest for life. Commitment involves believing that what you do is of value and importance. Individuals exhibiting this attitude seem to possess an almost romantic relationship to their own life and the pursuits they choose. When they wake up in the morning, they don't start their day with, “Oh God, I wonder what could go wrong today? What horrible ambush can life have planned for me?” Instead they wake up expectant of the possible surprises and wonderful experiences that the day has in store for them. They have an optimistic outlook. Stressors are viewed as potentially interesting and meaningful. Commitment is the opposite of alienation and is characterized by involvement.

It is not surprising that research has linked how a person answers two simple questions with the likelihood of developing heart disease. The two questions are: Are you happy? Do you like your job? If you answer yes to both of these, your chances of developing heart disease are much lower. Clearly the reverse is true when the answer is no. We are not implying here that overall life/job satisfaction causes heart disease; obviously there are many other factors operating in the development of cardiovascular problems. But your attitude toward your life is one important contributing factor. What is your attitude when you first open your eyes in the morning? We suggest you begin with an attitude of gratitude—one that says, “Thank you. I'm glad I'm alive. I wonder what adventures and experiences this day has for me.” You see, happiness is not a condition, but a decision. You can choose to focus on all that can make you miserable. If you do, you will get results fitting this attitude. Or you can choose to count your blessings, to be thankful for all you have, and all you still have coming. To quote the great comedian Gilda Radner shortly before her untimely death, “Happiness is not about getting what you want, but about appreciating what you have.”


The third and final attitude that Kobasa discovered to be typical of stress-hardy indi viduals is that of challenge. This attitude can perhaps be best explained by considering the concept of crisis. The Chinese write this word using two characters, as illustrated in Figure 1. The first character is the symbol for dangerous; the second is the symbol for opportunity. Think about that, what a wonderful way to describe a crisis. Not a catastrophe, or a problem, but a dangerous opportunity. Individuals exhibiting the attitude of challenge focus not so much on the danger aspect of the crisis, but on the opportunities available as a result. Every crisis, no matter what, has inherent opportunities. Those who cope well look for these opportunities and capitalize on them. Those who cope poorly get paralyzed by the inherent danger. To again quote Don Juan,

Figure 1.

The basic difference between a warrior and an ordinary man is that a warrior sees everything as a challenge. While an ordinary man sees everything as either a blessing or a curse. (Castaneda, 1998, p. 82)

Or, to quote another colorful literary character, Zorba from Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis, “Life is trouble, only death is not. To be alive is to put on your pants and go looking for trouble.”

Stress Hardiness Inventory

Instructions: Use the following scale to indicate how much you agree or disagree with each statement:

0=Strongly disagree 1=Mildly disagree
2=Mildly agree 3=Strongly agree

____________ A. Trying my best at work and school makes a difference.
____________ B. Trusting to fate is sometimes all I can do in a relationship.
____________ C. I often wake up eager to start on the day's projects.
____________ D. Thinking of myself as a free person leads to great frustration and difficulty.
____________ E. I would be willing to sacrifice financial security in my work if something really challenging came along.
____________ F. It bothers me when I have to deviate from the routine or schedule I've set for myself.
____________ G. An average citizen can have an impact on politics.
____________ H. Without the right breaks, it is hard to be successful in my field.
____________ I. I know why I am doing what I'm doing at work or school.
____________ J. Getting close to people puts me at risk of being obligated to them.
____________ K. Encountering new situations is an important priority in my life.
____________ L. I really don't mind when I have nothing to do.


To get your scores for control, commitment, and challenge, write the number of your answer, from 0 to 3, above the letter for each question. Then add and subtract as shown.

If your score is 10 to 18, you have a hardy personality.

If your score is 0 to 9, you are moderately hardy.

If your score is below 0, you are not very hardy.

Hardiness and Stress Resistance

Take a moment to fill out the Stress Hardiness Inventory. Research has documented an association between high hardiness scores and lower rates of physical illness among white-collar male executives and women in various occupations (Rhodewalt & Zone, 1989), blue-collar workers (Manning, Williams, & Wolfe, 1988), college students (Roth et al., 1989), and adolescents (Sheppard & Kashani, 1991). Hardiness is also associated with psychological health. Stress-hardy individuals report lower anxiety levels, less depression, greater job satisfaction, and lower levels of tension at work. In other studies, hardy subjects were shown to have stronger physical tolerance for stress. When exposed to a stressor they have a lower increase in diastolic blood pressure (Contrada, 1989) and a smaller increase in heart rate (Lawler & Schmied, 1987?).

One interesting study (Allred & Smith, 1989) demonstrated that male college students who scored low on hardiness experienced high levels of tension before the onset of a stressor (that is, as they waited and anticipated), while those scoring high on hardiness displayed higher arousal only during exposure to the stressor. It appeared that the hardy subjects got aroused only when they needed an adrenaline surge to confront the stressor more effectively, while the others spent valuable energy worrying. Hardy individuals do get physiologically aroused, but at the right time and to the right level.

Strong resistance to stress is associated with optimism, and clearly the ability to think positively is a defining characteristic of the stress-hardy. Stress-resistant people are more likely to use problem-focused coping measures, positive thinking, and support-seeking strategies when faced with stress (Cohen & Edwards, 1989; Holt, Fine, & Tollefson, 1987; Nowack, 1989). Those scoring low on measures of hardiness tend to respond passively to stress, whether with avoidance or maladaptive behaviors. Hardy individuals are much more likely to take care of their health, which helps boost their stress resistance. A strong sense of personal control over one's life is associated with better health habits, such as exercise and good nutrition. Stress-hardy individuals are far less likely to utilize maladaptive coping strategies such as abusing alcohol, drugs or nicotine, or to act out aggressively when under stress.

The Three C's in Action

In August 1992, we had an opportunity to witness firsthand how stress hardiness attitudes affected the ability of literally thousands of people to cope with a monumental crisis. Being based in South Florida (specifically, the southern portion of Miami) we, along with thousands of other people, experienced Hurricane Andrew, one of the strongest storms ever to ravage the mainland United States. The scale of property destruction and disruption of normal life for months afterward was unprecedented. Just about everyone in the hurricane zone (ourselves included) suffered severe damage to their homes, businesses, cars, and personal property. Rebuilding took years, and normal routines were totally disrupted for at least six months for most people. As psychologists we paid close attention to how individuals coped with the aftermath and we found that three distinct styles emerged:

  1. The Whiners— individuals who spent weeks and months bemoaning their plight and all the inconveniences, hassles, and property losses they suffered.

  2. The Stiff-Upper-Lip Crowd— individuals who were very upset but focused on cleaning up and rebuilding and didn't spend an inordinate amount of time complaining. But internally they focused primarily on how awful it all was.

  3. The Adventurers— individuals who did not deny the reality of the damage but who focused on how interesting, how exciting, what an adventure it all was. These people relished rebuilding their homes with insurance money. They delighted in the sense of camaraderie and community that developed between neighbors who found themselves in the same boat, and who previously had barely spoken to one another.

Needless to say, the latter group experienced far fewer emotional disturbances and physical illnesses than the other two groups. They believed that they could control their destiny, even in the face of incredible ruin. They were committed to making the rebuilding process as joyful as possible. And they viewed the crisis as a challenge and an opportunity to recreate their living situation and make new friends. For them the hurricane became an epic, fascinating story to share with friends, rather than merely a tragic event.

Clearly, you should be able to perceive the wisdom in Stephen Covey's oft-quoted phrase, “The way you see the problem is the problem.” Ultimately, whether something is stressful depends on the way you look at the situation. Remember, it is not the world out there that makes you a victim, it is your perception of the circumstances and events that leads you either to be defeated by stress or to survive and thrive from the challenges and opportunities presented to you. You may not have control over all that happens to you, but you certainly always have control over the meaning you give to the events in your life. There is an old saying: “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” Remember this as you face apparent hardships in your life. Always look for the windows; we guarantee that they will be there, no matter what the circumstances.

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