How to Actually Know Yourself

"Self-knowledge is not-so-easy a pill to swallow because we are fighting the monsters that we have fashioned ourselves"

How to Actually Know Yourself

In Ancient Greece, Socrates declared that true wisdom is knowing what you do not know and all philosophical commandments could be reduced to “Know yourself.” Plato agreed and said that most people were like prisoners living their entire lives staring at the wall of a cave, mistaking dimly lit shadows for reality. Since then, various thinkers, prophets, writers, and sages in different religions and cultures have said something to the same effect. This makes sense if we agree that the purpose of life is to constantly improve, enrich and empower our thinking, communication, emotions, and actions in whatever we do because we are co-creators of our destinies.

The empiricist philosophers, such as David Hume and John Locke, believed in initiating life and mind as a tabula rasa (blank slate) and the process of knowing oneself to be a matter of becoming acquainted with our past while not being bound by it. While Kant held everyone’s mind to have a universal reality, post-Kantian philosophers pushed the notion of a constructed realm of human experience into the domain of subjectivity. Nietzsche opined that “know thyself” means recognising and embracing individuality, and purposefully going against the tide of herd mentality; morally, culturally, aesthetically, politically and otherwise. The existentialist philosophers pushed the argument further by pronouncing that knowing oneself is a matter of recognising our own free will to define our own lives, and that is not constrained by the past or the future.

Knowing oneself for a postmodern thinker is to understand the ways in which our identity is shaped by our culture, ethnicity, language, religious and politics. Hence, there is no such thing as a context-independent truth because self-knowledge is mediated by a complex web of social, political and cultural factors. With all these competing and overlapping interpretations of the ancient Delphic maxim “Know thyself,” and many other interpretations that are too numerous to mention here, it is no wonder that we are sometimes strangers to ourselves, even despite our best efforts and intentions to know and to understand ourselves or to be the most authentic versions of ourselves possible. If we add a time factor in the mix, we would have as many senses of self as Jean-Luc Picard, the fictional character in the Star Trek franchise, had during his long lifetime. 

Some people feel it is more important how the world sees them, understands them, and values them. I can understand that but only partially because a rainbow would still be a rainbow even if nobody looked up into the sky. When you start searching for yourself, awareness of the futility of living a wanton life may lead to scrupulous self-examination and renunciation of synthetic goals and idols. If you manage to conquer your ego in that process, you will speak truths that elude airing in the daylight and burn down the fortress that has been housing your dark being at night. You will plan to live the next half of your life in perfect harmony with nature as a greater man who recognised that his former life was an illusion. Carl Jung had very rightly articulated, “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

To know our own self is blissful, as it amounts to uncovering the meaning of life. By doing so, you will be happier when you can express who you are. By expressing your wishes, you will make it more likely that you get what you want. Your actions will corroborate with your feelings and values, and you will experience less inner conflict. You could make better choices about everything, from small decisions like which jumper you’ll buy to big decisions like which partner you’ll spend your life with. You could potentially have a mind map which you apply to solve life’s varied problems. You will understand what motivates you to resist bad habits and develop good ones. You'll have the insight to know which values and goals galvanise your willpower. You could be better grounded in your values and preferences, and are less likely to say “yes” when you want to say “no.” Your awareness of your own struggles could help you empathise with others. Being who you truly are could help you feel more vibrant and make your experience of life richer, larger, and more exciting.

By acquiring of self-knowledge, we generally mean obtaining an understanding of emotional or psychological nature. Knowing yourself seems to have remarkable prestige in all cultures. This is because self-knowledge expands a person’s understanding of humanity and enhances their comprehension of mankind’s role in an interconnected world. Lack of self-doubt in yourself also inspires other people to do the same; as the life you live, becomes an outward expression of your inner journey. On the other hand, a lack of self-knowledge exposes us to mishaps and false aspirations because our ego stands in the way; making it a habit to constantly keep looking for excuses, to rationalise our inability, laziness, or lack of spirit. Occasionally, we take this out on others, reckoning that it’s our story they’re mirroring, not theirs. By securing self-knowledge, we have better chances of avoiding misfortunes and have greater chances of success in our life choices.

Self-knowledge is not-so-easy a pill to swallow because we are fighting the monsters that we have fashioned ourselves. Freudian psychology explains how self-knowledge is not easy to acquire because our thinking is divided into the conscious and the unconscious mind. While day to day tasks are related to the unconscious, the planning of what to do next when a relationship goes wrong is conscious. Unfortunately, the balance between the conscious and the unconscious is off beam, as too many things happen in the unconscious. We could benefit a lot by closing this gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind regarding what is going on in our lives. However, things are not unconscious by accident; they remain unconscious because of an exceptional opposition to making a lot of our unconscious material conscious.

Self-knowledge requires an honest accounting of a person’s experiences, frank admission of their secretive desires, and generous acceptance of reality without surrendering their willingness to work to improve themselves and comfort other people. To see themselves clearly, people must dive themselves into the psychodynamic world they inhabit. However, they are afraid of the creatures that roam the woodlands of their unconscious and they are afraid of the abandoned castles, eerie lakes, old songs, and forgotten gazebos. Only an old chair in a corner reminds them about all those wishes and sentiments that are in conflict with how they view themselves or what the society expects from them. Instead of using it, they keep pushing this chair away because they “resist” finding out too much about themselves that has the potential to destroy their peace of mind. However, there is a very high price to pay for this short-term peace; in the form of a “neurosis” that denies them benefits of long-term honesty – their identity.

An attempt to increase the self-knowledge of society, by making the idea of introspection more glamorous, would also be a time-consuming exercise. Until we get there, we could make use of one of the short-cut methods promoted by Meg Selig to promptly know who we are

De Botton mentions few more ways, in addition to Freudian psychology, by which we can understand how our mind works. It seems that the nature has structured us in a way that self-awareness comes rather late. If you have children, you must have appreciated how awareness of self comes so late to them in their development. Mind can also be divided into an emotional part (right side of the brain) and a rational part (left side of the brain). A further way to perceive it would be as Reptilian (to do with basic survival), Limbic (deals with emotions and memories) and Neocortex (relates to higher reasoning). We don’t have to approve these precise demarcations because our lives are too complex to be deduced to such simplistic and automatic responses that are governed by some primitive or later developed parts of the brain. In an ancient mind-mapping exercise, Plato had curiously compared the rational mind to a group of wild horses dragging the unconscious mind along.

Through reflection, if you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, recognise real from the deceit, and are prepared to make life adjustments for personal well-being, the process of knowing yourself has already started. Despite being a well-paid psychiatrist, I see no role for middle men, especially those who claim to be closer to God than the rest of humanity. Those who outwit their followers by making them believe that the more you serve them, the more you are pleasing God. In return, followers throw away their own responsibility by counting on another entity, which renders them mentally, emotionally, and spiritually immature. In the age of DIY (do it yourself), because of stored memories and skills via stories, legends, and history, we are the self-styled sages capable of creating our own book of wisdom. We can draw upon the widely available knowledge, theories, and data to explore and find solutions for paradoxes, ironies, inconsistencies, and absurdities we encounter. In the lyrics of Bob Dylan, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

We enhance our personal perspective by acquiring knowledge of the world. The more one knows about living through vivid personal encounters in the world that they occupy, the more that person will come to understand him or herself. Experiments have suggested that other people’s assessments of an individual can often be out of line with that person’s self-assessment. This also means that other people have the potential to tell us something useful about ourselves. However, very few people are bothered to act as a mirror and feedback their insights and perspectives about our hard-to-see parts. This is understandable because they could either dislike us and can’t be bothered or they like us and don’t want us to get upset. Our enemies have so much to tell us about ourselves but they prefer to leave us in trouble or brush us off with sharp insults instead, which make us more defensive.

Our judgements about ourselves are usually marked by fuzziness. They are not precise enough to help guide an action plan. Since a lot of our self-knowledge comes through experience, it can take a very long time to pursue that route. We are rarely encouraged to reflect upon our thoughts and experiences because no value is attached to it in our society. For example, a conversation with a friend rarely involves trying to discuss and understand our feelings. An attempt to increase the self-knowledge of society, by making the idea of introspection more glamorous, would also be a time-consuming exercise. Until we get there, we could make use of one of the short-cut methods promoted by Meg Selig to promptly know who we are. This method is rather grandiosely called “The building blocks of Self: your VITALS.” The letters in the acronym VITALS strand for: Values, Interests, Temperament, Around-the-Clock, Life Mission and Goals, and Strengths/Skills.

Armed with a pen and paper or on your laptop, you could start listing the “Values” close to your heart eg, honesty, creativity, loyalty. What makes you proud of yourself or regret? The motivation provided by these values could not only give you a kick-start but also keep you going even when you are tired. Next, what are your “Interests” (passions and hobbies) that keep you awake or mentally and physically occupied? A career built around these could open the door to a most satisfactory life. Your “Temperament” generally describes your innate choices or personality traits. Do you draw your strength (or recharge batteries) from being on your own (introvert) or from being in the company of others (extrovert)? Are you a planner or go-with-the-flow kind of a person? Do you make decisions based on feelings or facts? Do you prefer details or big Ideas? Knowing the answers to such questions could help you incline toward opportunities where you thrive and avoid those where you could wither.

“Around-the-clock” refers to routine or the timetable of when you like to do things. Are you a morning person or a night owl? What time of the day does your energy level peak? If you organise your activities when you are likely to perform best, you would be working with your biology. The idea of respecting your biology seems trivial but your daily life becomes more pleasant. Evidence shows that finding a similar partner in adult life has been a game-changer for many. “Life mission” is about what brings meaning to your life. It could be a charity, looking after an ailing parent or volunteering at a local nursing home. Ask yourself the question, “What have been the most meaningful events of my life?.” Through your answer, you may discover clues to your hidden identity, to your future career, or to a lifelong fulfilment. Finally, "Strengths" may include not only abilities, skills, and talents, but you’re your character assets. Knowing your strengths is one of the foundations of self-confidence. Similarly, by knowing about your weaknesses, you might decide either to work on those or try to use those more creatively in your personal or professional life.

Even if you know your "VITALS", it is hard to remain true to yourself because you are constantly changing and/or society’s values are often in conflict with your own. But you could look out for some signposts. Whenever you make a discovery about yourself, you will be excited because acting on self-knowledge will give you energy (or saves your energy). You’ll feel freer, stronger, and more comfortable in yourself. The best way to keep track of your progress or generate new ideas is through journaling. A journal can help you reflect, but it can also be used to ask yourself questions, or explore any of the above given tips more deeply. If writing is not your thing, simply jotting down whatever comes to your mind can also have benefits. If you are artistically inclined, a sketch diary or other type of art journal can help you explore your emotions and goals. You may also want to try the “tombstone exercise” - a technique used in psychotherapy. It involves writing down what’s most important to you and what you stand for — and, essentially, what you want to appear on your tombstone.

If the process of self-discovery seems daunting and you are unsure where to start, seeing a psychiatrist can provide a safe space to get some guidance. They can help people sort through issues, including goals clarification, career changes, and identity crisis. Psychotherapy – the prime arena for analysing oneself – interests barely 1% of the population but if you feel distressed or uncertain, it can help. However, if you choose to remain in the DIY mode, you need to be aware of some dynamic pitfalls (e.g., repetition compulsion, projection) during the journey of self-discovery. 

“Repetition compulsion” is to do with how we are prone to repeating unhealthy patterns of behaviour. For example, each of us tends to have a characteristic sort of person (e.g., tall, dark, and handsome, with a sense of humour) we feel attracted to. We break a relationship hoping to leave behind a set of particular problems but we fall in love again with a similar person in the next relationship. Without going into detail, this pattern could stem from a childhood experience whereby love was mixed with various kinds of suffering. The father whose attention and affection we craved was also often annoyed; the mother who we loved was often preoccupied with exciting things away from home while leaving us behind. 

Our minds have a strong inclination for projection, which is to elaborate a response to a current situation from incomplete clues. For instance, your partner chuckles at a text message received. They don’t share it with you but quickly reply to it. You start feeling anxious that your partner is having an affair. They might not love you anymore; you start feeling abandoned and betrayed. But nothing is actually going on. The message was from an obsessional junior colleague who had forgotten to do something minor and your partner found that comical. However, the distress you felt might have come from a school experience where your best friend said mean things about you to others. You are still wounded by it, but admitting to the possibility that you might be projecting that to your current life is humbling. Our fear of someone in the past gets in the way of making a friend or an ally of someone today. Self-knowledge means recognising one’s projections and attempting to repatriate.

Lastly, do you even know what you want? Or are you just listening to and responding to cultural conditioning and societal programming? Are you living a life for yourself or for others out there? What will bring you peace is inward transformation, which leads to outward action. To have peace, we will have to love, and not try to live an ideal life immediately; start with how things are now and transform them later. We must scrutinise ourselves to determine how to engage with the prevailing culture and develop skills to cope with the contradictions of a chaotic world. We cannot determine the sturdiness of our emotional health by examining the size of the columns on a financial balance sheet. We need to take stock of our character assets and personality liabilities. We have amputated ourselves, and one another, in a bid to run away from the souls which take residence inside of us. But unlike our genetic disposition, we are the sole sentinels of our emotional health. 

It is said that you live only once, but if you do it right, once is enough. The process of self-discovery looks different for everyone, but it is not something that happens overnight. Beginning of wisdom of any kind, including knowledge of ourselves, is confession of the frailty of our beliefs and the paucity of our knowledge. Knowing oneself is a multi-faceted affair; and one of these facets involves acknowledging our limitations. You have somewhat of a jump-start since you know at least a little bit about yourself now. But it is a process that takes time and patience, just like getting to know someone new. Self-love and compassion for other people commences with accepting responsibility for the harm caused by our own misconduct and by forgiving other people for their individual trespasses. You’re in charge of your journey, but don’t feel afraid to meander off the main path. The greatest challenge in life is to be our own person and accept that being different is a blessing and not a curse.

The writer is a consultant psychiatrist and visiting professor