The other day, I received an email from a client who was beating herself up for behaviors she sees (and loathes) in some close family members. I asked her to hit pause on the self-criticism for a minute and direct her attention to the fact that she’d noticed the behaviors. This moment of self-awareness deserves to be recognized. It contains clues about how you found yourself in a reactive state and shines a light on where your current thoughts and emotions are taking you.

Self-awareness also helps you become an expert on your thoughts, feelings and behaviors so you can make conscious choices about what you want to change and how you can make that happen. It’s an ever-evolving perception of your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs and values that informs your understanding of others, how they perceive you and how you respond to them (internally or externally) in the moment.

Everyone is self-aware to some degree—this isn’t a switch we turn ON or OFF—but what most people don’t realize is that our capacity for self-awareness varies constantly. Yours may be affected by how much sleep you’ve had, skipping meditation, running late to work, missing a deadline or having an argument with your significant other. It most certainly takes a hit when you’ve experienced a massive change or devastating loss.

A simple way to gauge where you are (remember, your mileage will vary)

Basically aware: you’re aware of your thoughts while you’re having them.

Mostly aware: You’re aware of your thoughts, but also how those thoughts make you feel. In other words, you know how you feel about your thoughts.

Highly aware: You’re aware of your thoughts, how those thoughts make you feel and you’re able to use that data to make a conscious choice about how you’re going to act or respond.

If it sounds like a lot of work to make your way up that scale, well, it can be. It takes dedication and practice and, like yoga or cooking, it’s best learned by doing. In yoga you need to be aware of your body and the breath; in cooking, how you hold the knife. With self awareness, it’s tuning into your thoughts and feelings and choosing how you’ll express them.

Back to my client. Did she express the best version of herself the other day? No. But she did take the time to examine what was going on that brought out the worst in her—what she thinking and what she was feeling—and now she has a baseline that will help her recognize similar situations when they come up and make a different choice.

The more you practice (and the more self-forgiving you are in your practice), the easier it will become to catch yourself in those moment right before you act in a way that takes you further away from how you want to live and who you want to be.