Welcome to my first column as part of the Real Talks with SOSAD Ireland well-being series.

Each week I will outline a mental skill that can help you to live a happier, healthier and more successful life. I will explain why these mental skills are important, and how you can develop them through strategic and consistent practice.

Life challenges us all in different ways, but I believe the sharing of human experiences empowers us all.

I will share key insights from my work as a performance and well-being consultant with sports and business leaders around the world and reflect on key lessons from my own well-being journey. 

What is self-awareness?

Whenever I collaborate with people or teams around performance and well-being, I always start with a discussion about self-awareness. Self-awareness is a mental skill that helps us monitor our thoughts, feelings and actions. Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection. It is taking a pause to look in the mirror and get into a state of self-focused attention. 

A lack of self-awareness was one of the main reasons why depression took over my life in my early twenties and dragged me to a very dark place. The absence of self-awareness meant I wasn’t able to understand what was happening in my head. I often withdrew from the world and spent countless hours in bed trying to numb my brain with TV shows, movies, or social media. When that didn’t work, I resorted to binge drinking as a way to escape my thoughts and feelings. I consistently chose to find distractions from external sources, instead of looking inwards for understanding or solutions. 

After suicidal thoughts and feelings almost became suicidal action, I turned to counselling to help me find my way out of the dark place I found myself in. Many hour-long conversations with a trained professional slowly improved my self-awareness and empowered my journey back to wellness. More than eleven years later, one powerful conversation I shared with my counsellor in the therapy room still sticks with regard to self-awareness. 

My counsellor looked at me and said, “Describe yourself to me. Who are you?”

“I’m Alan O’Mara.”

“That’s your name, but who are you? What makes you, well, you?” he said.

“I suppose people will always say, ‘There’s the Cavan keeper. He’s happy and outgoing’.”

“That’s not what I mean. That’s what other people see. Let’s try this a different way. Give me a couple of words that best describe you as a person.”

“Eh . . . intelligent?” I said, before waiting to see if I was on the right track. He nodded in approval.

“Eh . . . thoughtful?” I added.

“Thoughtful in what way?”

“I suppose I just get on well with people. A lot of times, if people are going through something, they tend to come to me for a chat or ask for advice. I don’t go looking for it, they just tend to find me.”

“That’s good. Between now and our next visit, I want you to take some time to think about what makes you you. Who is the real Alan O’Mara?”

“Not the one people see playing in Croke Park, not the one people see in a pub or a nightclub, in the dressing room or at work. I want you to really think about who you are and what you enjoy doing.”

It is a conversation I will never forget. I am grateful to have been part of many more conversations about self-awareness since then.

In an interview I did with Rory O’Connor, more commonly known as Rory’s Stories, for the Real Talks with SOSAD Ireland well-being hub, he too highlighted self-awareness as an integral mental skill. He said, “I’d love to tell you that since 2013 that my life has been unreal. That every day is sunshine and rainbows and I’ve little bunny rabbits hopping around my feet every morning. NO! The depression still kicks in and kicks out. I’m just aware of it now and my self-awareness, I think, is extremely good nowadays because I’m understanding myself more and more and what leads me to a dip.”

Developing self-awareness

I grew up in a sportsworld where we always talked about the ‘next ball’ or the ‘next play’. That mindset was helpful in some ways but it often meant I was too busy looking forward and distracting myself from the present. Working with a counsellor and journaling were two things that really helped me to evolve that mindset. 

I highly recommend journaling to people, teams, and organizations that want to develop self-awareness. You don’t have to be a brilliant writer! Each day you journal, take five deep breaths, and write down the first five thoughts that come to your mind - no matter how important or trivial they seem. At the end of each week, reflect back on your thoughts, feelings, and actions and see how you feel about the words you put on paper. 

The ability to see yourself clearly and objectively will become stronger the more you practice taking a minute to reflect.

*Alan O’Mara is the founder of Real Talks, a former Cavan GAA player, an author, and a performance and wellbeing coach with sports and business leaders around the world. This column is part of the Real Talks with SOSAD Ireland well-being series. Check out SOSADIreland.ie to learn more.