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Why is Self-Awareness in Social Work Important?

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Published on: 02/21/2024
Last Updated: 02/21/2024
9 minute read

Social work is an engaging field where you’ll meet and work with clients and colleagues from various cultural, socio-economic, and educational backgrounds. Due to the diversity of people in the social work profession, social workers must be keenly aware of their own positions and perspectives in all their interactions. 

While such self-awareness may seem self-evident and automatic, achieving it takes deep personal reflection and emotional intelligence. Personal biases are often invisible to one’s self, meaning social workers holding a protected title must consciously try to identify and mitigate any biases to do their jobs fairly and ethically. 

In this guide, we’ll discuss the importance of self-awareness in the social work profession and lay out some techniques you can use to maintain self-awareness in professional interactions to achieve personal growth. 

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The Foundation of Self-Awareness in Social Work

Self-awareness is a fundamental aspect of psychology and the key to determining your motivations. Generally, it’s understood as how an individual understands their own character, feelings, and desires.1 Some definitions break it down even further and explain self-awareness as how one perceives their own:2

  • Internal states
  • Preferences 
  • Resources
  • Intuitions

However you conceptualize self-awareness, it is, at its core, the way you consciously understand yourself. It can mean being aware of changes in your mood, knowing what triggers one’s emotions, and why you feel a certain way. It can also include knowing how others generally perceive you based on factors such as position, appearance, and educational background. Cultural competence and cultural humility are other pillars to learn within this field.

Self-awareness also involves much deeper, ingrained aspects of our character. It can mean identifying your own internal biases and motivations and coming to terms with difficult-to-acknowledge preconceptions to achieve personal growth. These can include identifying how you (consciously or not) discriminate based on factors such as:

  • Race
  • Socio-economic status
  • Gender
  • Educational background
  • Culture

These biases are often established unconsciously through internalizing social stigmas and stereotypes. It can be difficult for individuals to identify or admit to these forms of discrimination as they don’t want to personally appear as (or don’t believe they are) biased.

It’s precisely this difficulty in identifying bias that makes self-awareness important. Social workers must be impartial and non-discriminatory in their actions and judgments—yet, like everyone else, they’re humans subject to being swayed by the effects of unconscious biases. 

The cases they work on involve people who deserve (and are legally entitled to) equal treatment. Thus, to perform their duties fairly and equitably, it’s key for social workers to attempt to identify their own internalized biases and become more self-aware through proper social work education. 

Building Effective Client Relationships Through Self-Awareness

Becoming self-aware doesn’t just involve understanding one’s emotions or your own motivations and biases. It also means seeing things from others’ points of view and determining how and why their perspectives may differ from yours. Likewise, what makes self-awareness important is that it’s a means of understanding how they perceive you—both as a social worker and as a person.

Different backgrounds and perspectives amount to different expectations in professional social work settings. Knowing different clients' perspectives can also help you better understand their needs and cater to them accordingly.

At the heart of this self-awareness and understanding is the concept of empathy. Empathy is a widely known, yet not fully understood emotion generally described as understanding another’s situation. Originally posited as a soft skill, modern conceptions of empathy view it as a neurobiological-based competency.3 In essence, empathy is an inherent, measurable trait that can be improved upon, developed, or degraded. 

Self-awareness is key to improving your capacity for empathy. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes does no good when you don’t recognize how they differ from your own. Thus, to take a more empathetic mindset into interactions with your clients, try:

  • Recognizing how they may not have had the same educational and professional opportunities.
  • Understanding how their socio-economic status may have affected their life, mental health, and future potential.
  • Acknowledging and understanding cultural differences without basing judgment on their background.
  • Seeing how their own internalized perspectives shape their conception of you, your interaction, and their viewpoints as a whole.

Each client is different; thus, you’ll want to try these and similar strategies in each case and interaction you encounter. You’ll want to approach each case with a keen sense of compassion during your social work education. 

Compassion is, in many ways, similar to empathy. Compassion not only involves understanding others. However, it also includes a desire to help alleviate their stresses and burdens.4

Social work is a diverse field with many specializations. Oftentimes, however, social workers are responsible for taking charge of society’s most vulnerable—the impoverished, sick, and neglected among us. Hence, they must exercise persistent compassion to understand their clients’ positions in life and what they may need to help improve their situation. 

Self-Awareness for Professional Growth and Ethical Practice

Becoming aware of your own biases is key to overcoming them and practicing ethically as a social worker. On any given day, you may be presented with cases involving people you harbor preconceived notions about (knowingly or not). Recognizing that you’ve internalized certain perspectives is essential to treating them with the same dignity, respect, and judgment as you would in any other case.

Take, for instance, a social worker raised in a high socio-economic class who may have been taught to discriminate against people of lesser monetary means. Their biases may negatively motivate them in interactions with clients of lower socio-economic statuses. Conversely, these are the very individuals whom they’re supposed to assist and provide services for. Yet, without acknowledging their internal biases, they may negatively discriminate against them—even if it is subconscious.

This is one example of how practicing self-awareness can be crucial for effective social work. Similar biases exist for race, religion, gender, and other factors and must be acknowledged and addressed so social workers can ethically and equitably make decisions. 

Thus, it’s important to persistently work at improving your self-awareness through self-reflection and professional development opportunities. Doing so will not only improve your ethical decision-making but can boost other professional abilities such as:5

  • Communication skills – People don’t always interpret our words and actions as we intend. Acknowledging gaps in understanding and adjusting your communication style to fit different clients and situations is a key asset for social workers to develop.
  • Stress management – With keen self-awareness, you’ll notice when things are weighing down on you and your emotions shift. Being cognizant of this stress allows you to separate the cause from your clients’ cases and treat them impartially regardless of your emotions.
  • Self-control – Regardless of biases or perspectives, there will be moments when clients or colleagues may get on your nerves. However, instead of reacting emotionally, self-aware individuals will be in greater control of their emotions and act professionally—even when pressed.

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Developing and Cultivating Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a continual process rather than an objective or destination. Some studies claim that 10-15% of individuals can be described as “self-aware.”6 Realistically, however, people and their perspectives constantly evolve, and we can all benefit from reflecting on ourselves and attempting to boost our self-awareness. 

One method of boosting your own self-awareness is practicing critical reflectivity.7 This strategy involves an appraisal of the underlying foundational ideas and assumptions you hold about how the world works. Such deep self-reflection is a complex process, but you can begin by asking yourself questions such as: 

  • How have I learned to relate to others who are similar to me based on race, class, and socio-economic status?
  • How have I learned to perceive others based on cultural, ethnic, linguistic, and other factors that differentiate them from me?
  • What do I know about relating to others who come from different racial, socio-economic, or cultural backgrounds than me?
  • How have I learned to interpret others' behavior based on internalized perspectives stemming from my own background?

Keeping a thought journal or log of your emotions can help you on your journey to uncover these answers. Furthermore, daily writing can help you keep track of the progress you’ve made toward identifying and overcoming internalized biases.

If you want a quicker, widely recognized assessment of your personal biases, you can take Harvard’s Implicit Assumptions Test (IAT). The IAT examines how you associate certain attributes with one group of people over another and, while it may not be perfectly accurate for everyone, it’s a solid starting point for individuals who aim to become more self-aware.9

If self-awareness truly piques your curiosity and you want to learn as much as possible about it, you may want to consider pursuing a degree in psychology. As mentioned, self-awareness is a fundamental aspect of psychology and a reputable school will not only help you become more self-aware, but give you an in-depth look into the fundamentals of the concept as a whole. 

Hone Your Self-Awareness at Alliant International University

Alliant International University is proud to promote self-awareness among its faculty and student body. In our school of psychology, you can also study human emotions, biases, motivations, and more in your journey to becoming a social worker in California and other states. 

From robust PhD programs to our master of social work (MSW) program, we have many applicable degrees for individuals interested in the field of social work. Not only will studying at Alliant help equip you with the skills you need to move toward a future in the profession, but it can also help boost your self-awareness through learning cultural competency, ethical decision-making, and other relevant skills.

At Alliant, you won’t only learn about these abilities—you’ll put them to the test. You’ll encounter real-world scenarios that question your own implicit biases and self-awareness. It may be difficult to recognize and correct these biases, but it’s the foundation towards being a good social worker.

Explore what our school of psychology has to offer and start your journey toward a more informed, self-aware future today.


  1. “Know Yourself: Physical and Psychological Self-Awareness With Lifelog.” National Library of Medicine. August 11, 2021. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  2.  “The Importance of Awareness, Acceptance, and Alignment With the Self: A Framework for Understanding Self-Connection.” National Library of Medicine. Feb 25, 2022. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  3. “The Science of Empathy.” National Library of Medicine. June, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  4. “Sympathy, empathy, and compassion: A grounded theory study of palliative care patients’ understandings, experiences, and preferences.” National Library of Medicine. May, 2017. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  5. “Why Self-Awareness Is Essential For Career Success.” Forbes. March 12, 2023.…. Accessed January 9, 2024.
  6. “Why Self-Awareness Is Essential For Career Success.” Forbes. March 12, 2023.…. Accessed January 9, 2024.
  7. “Fostering Awareness of Self in the Education of Social Work Students by Means of Critical Reflectivity.” Social Work. 2019.…. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  8. “Fostering Awareness of Self in the Education of Social Work Students by Means of Critical Reflectivity.” Social Work. 2019.…. Accessed January 9, 2024. 
  9. “Preliminary Information.” Project Implicit. Accessed January 9, 2024. 

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