This one thing could save your life

A key skill for First Responders and everyone else

First responders have been in the spotlight lately. Whether it’s health care workers responding to Covid or police in riots, we’ve clearly begun to see what a crucial role they play in society. In light of recent events with the killing of unarmed black people by police officers, police clearly need more in-depth training. This is in no way to say the cause of such killings could have been avoided with more training-we need to actually address the systemic racism imbued in police systems and start allocating funds toward behavioral health and social services which actually help rather than harm people of color. 

That said, police and all first responders would benefit from training which actually addresses how to stay grounded in self-awareness in all kinds of situations and developing this key capacity could actually save lives. 

Self awareness is a key competency for everyone and especially for first-responders. First responders (police, firefighters, EMT, and activists) are leaders because they are in the epicenter of dynamic situations which call upon them to be their best selves. Leaders develop capacities to meet changing situations with calm and intelligence. Self-awareness is one of these capacities. 

First of all, what is self-awareness? Well, it’s just like it sounds, awareness of self, it’s both simple and nuanced. 

Take a moment and close your eyes and become aware of yourself. 

What happened? You were probably looking for yourself right? Who is self? Well, the answer to that question is way beyond the scope of this article, however, what you also probably noticed is a lot of thoughts. We are always thinking, so are we our thoughts? Most of the time, we identify with our thoughts but to become more self-aware we want to notice the self that is watching the thoughts. 

I think Daniel Siegel’s “Wheel of Awareness”  is helpful here because it shows the center of the wheel as a circle that represents the open, aware, spacious self and the hub of the wheel as the different places we can direct that aware self: our sense perceptions, thoughts, conversations…but what we want to identify with more is the actual center of the circle. The aware self who can watch our thoughts and situations unfold but not identify with them. It doesn’t mean becoming overly self-conscious or hypervigilant, rather, it’s about zooming out so we have a larger playing field in which our experience is unfolding. 

Why develop self-awareness? Developing self-awareness is part of becoming a more emotionally intelligent person. Ironically, when we develop more self awareness, we become more available to other people and situations. Our attention can be more broad because we are not caught up in our own thinking and emotions.  Developing self-awareness allows us to become present to ourselves as we are. We may be irritable, hungry, elated, busy, preoccupied… whatever it is, as we develop the capacity for self-awareness, we’re able to stop and realize what our needs are and what’s going on around us. If we’re caught up in the demands of our inner world, even if we’re having a conversation, we’re unable to be fully present. 

Having self-awareness also helps us to know our own strengths and limitations. There are many different self-assessment tools one can use that help us understand ourselves better. Two that I’ve used are Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. Both tools help us understand ourselves and to leverage our strengths and know our own challenges. For example, once we know we are an extrovert (using Myers Briggs), we can consciously plan outings and socialize when we notice ourselves getting isolated and lonely. We also may know that we have to make sure we get enough rest since we may tend to go go go. However it is that we naturally show up, developing self-awareness helps us to both accept ourselves more fully and also plan a chart of growth. 

As first responders, who are often exhausted, stressed, overworked, and always being of service to others, it may be difficult for us to bring the focus back on ourselves. We may feel that we’re being selfish by actually developing ourselves. Or we may feel that it’s not really worth it, we are who we are and that’s it (I hope this isn’t the case). Since the Coronavirus pandemic and now the Black Lives Matter movement has begun to reshape our society, I believe more and more first responders are realizing that it’s crucial to develop the capacity to stay mindful and aware when situations are intense. 

The practice of developing self-awareness by becoming present to ourselves as we are, taking care of our needs, knowing our strengths and limitations, and directing our attention where it’s needed-can mean life or death and the personal development we need to grow in our roles and lives. 

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