Updated: Jan 12
Self-knowledge is an important concept that has been central to the mind of all the world’s greatest philosophers.
It is difficult to understand ourselves because our mind, personality and identity are complex by nature.
Obtaining self-knowledge is made more difficult by the mental barriers we encounter, such as our informational & motivational limits (e.g. the biases of our egoic mind).
We can obtain greater self-knowledge by engaging in practices that give us a more objective look at ourselves such as: journaling, meditation, strength or personality tests, and coaching conversations.
A philosophical quest for self-knowledge results in numerous practical benefits for our psychology and our physiology. Through this journey we experience greater confidence, self-acceptance and personal growth.
What’s the big idea?
Who am I? This is perhaps one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves.
Self-knowledge and self-awareness are concepts that have been present in the minds of psychologist and philosophers for thousands of years. From East to West the topic of self-exploration has been universally fascinating and is always given the utmost respect and significance within culture. It’s one of the oldest ideas in the book. The depth and breadth of the following quotes paint a clear picture of how central this concept is to our humanity.
This idea has been central to the mind of all great thinkers throughout the ages but like so many significant ideas, we fear it has been lost in our modern culture. If this concept is so integral to a life well lived, why are we not dedicating time to self-exploration in our formative years during school or university. We learn so much about the world around us but if we don’t develop a deep understanding of ourselves first, we rush into the world without a solid internal compass.
Fortunately, we can start the journey towards self-awareness at any time and the rewards are rich no matter where or when we begin. In this post we will explore why obtaining self-knowledge is so difficult, why it is necessary, and how we can side step our blind spots to shine a light on our true self. Identifying a more complete version of ourselves and establishing a sense of our deepest values and beliefs can help us to live a life more aligned with who we really are. Although this is a challenging process, the results are infinitely rewarding.
What’s the evidence?
First, we will explore exactly how much we know about ourselves and dive into why it is difficult to understand who we are.
How much of ourselves do we understand?
The first step on a journey to self-knowledge is to understand that we don’t know a lot. The tricky thing about self-awareness is how easily we elude ourselves into thinking we can obtain it without a dedicated, focused and sustained effort. It’s easy to walk through life believing we are precisely who we think we are but that is the first sign of ignorance in many cases. A healthy scepticism of oneself is a necessary precursor in furthering self-awareness. If we do not deeply question our actions, emotions and even our thoughts, we will live within an illusory reality created by our ego. In this reality our brain continually deceives us with its built-in biases and thought patterns that promote self-affirmation and continuity, instead of accurate perception.
Why don’t we understand ourselves?
We are very complex creatures. It’s very hard for us to know ourselves as we are quite literally beyond our own understanding. The human brain is the most complex biological system we know of. Who we are, our personality, our likes, dislikes, values and beliefs are emergent properties of this complexity. What makes this even harder is that we don’t even have access conscious access to all regions of this system. Our reality as we know it is only a thin slice of what’s happening in our brain and body. Our unconscious thought processes are unknown to us and these hidden patterns of mind direct our behaviour each moment of the day. How we think, feel and act is shaped by these invisible forces that are out of our control. Our unconscious processes significantly more information than our conscious minds ever could. It also does this with greater speed than our conscious mind and also has more authority in directing our behaviour. Our unconscious rules. Many neuroscientists believe our conscious mind is simply narrating what our unconscious mind is deciding for us and then adding in the illusion of free will along the way. Whether this is exactly true or not is debated, but it reveals the point of just how heavily influenced we are by forces we cannot see directly.
Besides our complexity and unconscious nature, what else is getting in the way of obtaining self-awareness? There are a range of obstacles and bias built into our brains operating system and the more familiar we become with these, the more likely we are to identify them and overcome the negative aspects of their influence.
Sometimes others see things that we simply can’t. We can’t see ourselves and the way we act in the world from a third person perspective, and therefore we miss out on important information about our reality. The parts of our internal world that are hidden to us, easily slip out for the rest of the world to see through our non-verbal cues and subtle variations in our vocal communication. To the rest of the world it may be painfully obvious that we are thinking, feeling or acting a certain way but we can be blind to this because we are stuck in our own heads. It’s all about perspective. We have to realise that from within our own minds, we can never obtain the whole and absolute truth. We all look at ourselves and the world through a lens that is distorted in its own unique way. Later, we will discuss how to overcome this narrow perspective and see the bigger picture.
Motivational barriers explain the need for our conscious minds self-reaffirming story. The ego is designed to protect itself at all costs, even at the cost of removing itself from the truth. Motivational barriers function to preserve our emotional equanimity. Studies have shown that it is easy for us to know ourselves when it comes to virtuous traits that are easy to admit. However, our self-awareness fails us when something is painful or upsetting to own up to. An honest look at a situation may hurt our sense of self, thus our minds perception and the story that goes along with it often adjusts to accommodate for more positive emotion. It takes true courage to look at ourselves in an objective manner. Our ego is very effective at maintaining a coherent narrative across time and does not like to be disturbed by the truth.
Our constant evolution
Another reason why it is so difficult to come to grips with ourselves is because we are always changing. Every day we are exposed to thousands of unique situations that cause us to grow, adapt and evolve quickly. Who we are in the present moment is a sum of all our past experiences and because we face so many new situations daily, who we are isn’t static. We must continually work to unpack the links between our past and our present as our personal history shapes the paradigm we operate from. This may sound exhausting to some but to many this process is interesting and rewarding. Wouldn’t it all be a bit boring if we had all the answers? It certainly would be, and it would be even more boring if we remained the same over our years.
Our connection to the social world and its influence
It is also difficult to know ourselves as individuals when we are so tightly wound up in a variety of relationships and social networks. We are fundamentally social creatures. A lot of us develop our personality and behaviour in accordance with the groups we are associated with. We have all heard the saying that “we are the product of the 5 people we spend most of our time with”. This is really interesting to consider, it shows how our sense of self is heavily influenced by those around us. We are capable of developing discrete personalities for different social environments, without thinking we can change how we walk, talk and act to fit our social context. If this is the case, we must work to answer the question of who we are we when we are alone. Our ability to be malleable in the social world is something we should be thankful for, it allows us to co-operate effectively. However, it can disrupt the process of obtaining a true core identity. If this social force outweighs our own internal sense of who we are, a variety of issues can manifest. Without a strong internal compass, we are no longer in charge of our own life and our level of self-esteem will be directed by that which is external. This is can leave us without direction entirely or simply slow us from reaching our goals as our commitment to a purpose is made weaker by the opinions of our in-group.
How well do we understand others?
If it’s difficult to completely know ourselves, how well do we know others? The answer is… not very well. The deeper we go into personality theory the more messy and uncertain things become, there are no definitive answers to the puzzle of our personality but there is a set of fascinatingly diverse theories. This should give us an insight into the scale of the issue we face here. If all of science looking at this problem for all of history cannot come to a clear consensus, then how can we take the problem of knowing ourselves lightly. Below is a table that gives you an idea of how varied the scientific literature is on the topic. If the greatest minds of science still can’t agree on who we are as a collective, how can we hope to understand ourselves without significant effort.
Many of these theories indicate that who we are at the core is anything but clear and there are a multitude of influences that continuously shape and mould us through life.
How to make the change.
So how do we develop greater understanding of ourselves?
Step one is to know that we don’t know- got it.
Step two is to be proactive and practical in our approach to self-exploration and understand that with consistent effort, self-knowledge will become our greatest asset. Despite all our brains clever tricks and biases, there is still much that is in our control. Below is an arsenal of techniques that allow us to explore the depths of our mind and start to see aspects of ourselves more clearly and objectively.
The first practice is to write using a particular style of personal questioning known as philosophical meditation or Socratic enquiry. These methods ask us to sit and think about deep questions that relate to ourselves and our emotional state. In asking questions we should start with something foundational and try to let our thoughts freely unravel onto the page from there. It may be useful to start with the following 3 questions taken from The School of Life’s teachings;
What could I be anxious about?
What could I be upset about?
What could I be excited about?
These are only a guide to help to get started. Once a question is asked we must sit and take note of any mental associations we make, we can then ask more follow up questions to get deeper into the practice. This takes a great deal of courage and discipline. If we approach these questions with a focus on honesty above all else, we may reveal answers we have never externally or even internally vocalised. The benefits of daily questioning compound overtime as we start to see regular patterns emerge. This allows us to start making the useful aspects of our unconscious, conscious.
Meditation is one of the best methods to obtain self-awareness. Particular types of meditation allow us to side step our egoic mind and pull back into a space where we become the observers of our thoughts. Meditation teaches us that thoughts and feelings are not to be judge as good or bad. From this more objective vantage point we can gain more accurate insight into what we feel, how we think and ultimately, who we are.
Talking to other people can enhance the process of introspection significantly. By recruiting the headspace of another individual, we are able to get out of our own minds and see reality more clearly. By talking through an event with a friend, we reveal the personal biases we experience when perceiving the world. By balancing our point of view with someone else’s and working through the differences, we get closer to the objective truth than we could alone. The simple process of vocalizing our thoughts or feelings is also great for unpacking emotions & clearing up our thinking. Turning our thoughts and feelings into language requires us to engage with them closely and this helps us develop a more complete understanding of our internal world.
The benefits of open, vulnerable conversation can be demonstrated by a concept known as the Johari window. The Johari window model, or the feedback/disclosure model, is a tool that demonstrates the benefits of seeking objective feedback from others or disclosing information about ourselves to those around us. Socialising who we are with others is important to developing our sense of identity. If we can strive for more open and honest conversations we expand our “open area” and uncover hidden aspects of ourselves.
The value of personality tests comes from an ongoing consideration of our results and what they mean for us in our daily life and interaction with others. Once we have determined our dominant personality style and understand various models of personality, our vocabulary for introspection is enhanced. This gives us the ability to more accurately identify our habits of mind and tendencies in our behaviour.
There is always the question of validity when it comes to personality tests and thus we have chosen to represent sources that are backed by significant research and have been tested rigorously.
The first is we have chosen to explore is Jordan Peterson’s big 5 personality test. After a series of questionaries, it provides a comprehensive breakdown of your personality along the big five personality traits. The big 5 is one of the most scientifically precise methods for assessing personality. It breaks down personality into 5 overarching traits, each containing two sub-traits (see below). This is a paid resource but we think it is well worth the money considering the amount of research that went into its production, as well as the amount of personalised information you receive upon completion. Check it out here: https://www.understandmyself.com/personality-assessment
Another fantastic example is the 16 Personalities online test. This work is based off of the Myers-Brigs personality traits and some additional theory. It breaks down our personality along 5 major dimensions.
Our preference for dealing with the world. Do we prefer things that are internal or external to ourselves (Introvert vs Extrovert)
How do we process information? Do we prefer collecting facts or do we like to interpret and infer meaning (Sensing vs Intuition)
How do we make decisions? Do we do we look towards rationality and consistent logic or do we look towards people and special exceptions (Thinking vs Feeling)
How do we structure our outside world? Do we like making conclusions or staying open to new information (Judging vs Perceiving)
The final dimension is not part of Myers-Brigs and is unique to 16 personalities. This breaks our overall identity into a scale between assertiveness and turbulence. It is a measure of overall confidence in our abilities and our emotional stability.
This test also gives you a comprehensive account of how these traits impact your behaviour. The 16 personalities website will also give you free access to resources to understand how you interact with others, your ideal career path and more. It’s also free and only takes about 10 minutes: https://www.16personalities.com/
The School of Life provides a series of questionnaires that are similar to personality tests but aim at themes of self-knowledge more broadly.
They have a questionnaire for general self-knowledge, one to determine your attachment style in relationships and others to discuss things like how well we are suited to therapy. This broader assessment of character helps to understand ourselves in a variety of contexts.
An interesting resource that is worth the time:https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/category/self-knowledge/questionnaires/
A strengths finder test is similar to a personality tests but with a slightly different focus and benefit. It’s useful to understand your strengths, they are what is predominantly expressed in our personality and account for a large proportion of who we are and how we behave. There is also significant evidence showing that those who understand and can leverage their strengths have more successful relationships, better work lives and are happier overall. We can also learn the possible dark side of our strengths, this helps us avoid the emotional pain that can result from over expressing our strengths in daily life. Gallup’s Clifton Strengths Finder is the cream of the crop when it comes to these tests, check it out here: https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/strengthsfinder.aspx
See the details of how these strengths are broken up below.
Live your new experience
Let’s explore how obtaining a greater level of self-knowledge impacts our daily experience.
At ALIVE we analyse concepts that create positive feedback loops and give us forward momentum over time. Understanding ourselves is one of those concepts. It can significantly enhance many aspects of our lives, from relationships to careers, all the way to our psychological health, a little self-knowledge goes a long way. At the heart of self-knowledge is two life changing ideas that give us incredible positive momentum; self-acceptance and personal development. Self-acceptance and personal development are often thought of as conflicting; how can we strive to be more than what we are, if we already fully accept ourselves in our current state? This question is fundamentally flawed and self-knowledge shows us why; if we don’t accept who we are, we can never truly know ourselves, and if we don’t know ourselves how can we make progress?
Self-acceptance and self-knowledge are inextricably linked and only once we unlock these two factors can we begin to grow as a person and refine how we express ourselves in the world. As Carl Jung said, making the unconscious more conscious results in an instant self-transformation, we awake to who we are and thus become more integrated people who now possess the means to begin positively changing our behaviour.
At Alive we take a system thinking approach to the human experience.
This means we are focused on the relationship between aspects of our lives rather than analysing each aspect in isolation. So far, we have analysed self-knowledge as a deeply philosophical concept; we will now highlight the connections between this concept and the psychological and physiological aspects of our lives.
How does a philosophical venture toward self-awareness help us psychologically?
Knowledge of who we are and particularly, who we “have been”, can provide relief to many psychological conditions. Our present-day sense of self is linked to our past in a profound way, this makes the function of our memory interesting to consider here. Our memory stores information about past events that may be useful in the future. From a biological perspective the most crucial information was that which keeps us safe. Therefore, a major function of memory is to map how much of the world the world is safe based on our past experiences. Unexplored emotional memories can map the world as a dangerous place. These memories impact our identity as they are expressed in our psyche as an overarching sense of fear, anxiety or anger. Through deep reflection we can work through these memories in a constructive way. An analysis of our past allows us to extract useful lessons from memories and helps us to shift them from the unexplored & possibly dangerous pile, into our bucket of useful memories that help us navigate the world. This is often done through writing programs where individuals write a biography that unpacks their most emotionally valent memories. This turns the unexplored aspects of our past and ourselves into something more deeply understood. These explored and understood memories can then become part of a more productive sense of identity and inform a more accurate model of the world.
How does self-knowledge relate to our physiology? How do these concepts of mind link with the body?
Our level of self-awareness must go beyond an intellectual understanding of our mind. If we know ourselves intellectually without developing a strong level of body awareness, we become disconnected from the essential mind/body connection and cannot experience coherence in our sense of self. We are embodied creatures (as discussed at length in our article on yoga) and we can’t afford to miss out on the essential knowledge that comes to us from our physiology. If we gain awareness of the physical side of ourselves we are open to receive crucial information from emotions that originate in the body and can be more in touch with how to maintain homeostasis (our internal balance that keeps us healthy & vital). For example, we will be more in tune with our body to help determine when and what we need to eat, when we need to move or relax, and when to sleep or be active. All of this information helps us live a better life that is in accordance with what we truly desire.
Summing up the benefits
As we progress toward a clearer sense of self, the benefits become overwhelming. With a firm sense of identity our values begin to shine through in everything that we do, we are less influenced by others around us and our self esteem improves. We are able to grow as individuals as we are not constrained by any false realities. We walk with confidence, we have better relationships, possess a wider perspective, practice greater self-control and can make better decisions as a result of our new-found clarity. Our journey to self-knowledge also results in a sense of self-acceptance that is profoundly impactful. Through an objective and compassionate understanding of our flaws we can begin to move past their negative implications. Knowing ourselves as distinct from others reminds us that we are unique and have much to offer the world. We become more likely to contribute to the world in a way that only we can, realising that being our authentic self is the best way to show up in life.
Watch: How to Know Yourself: The School of Life https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lTbWQ8zD3w
Read: The Book of Life: The School of Life https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/category/self-knowledge/?index
Listen: The Know Yourself Podcast: many great episodes on self-awareness from a mental health & resilience perspective https://anchor.fm/knowyourself/episodes/Know-Yourself---01-Self-Awareness-e13m5s
“To look at oneself deeply, persistently, and honestly takes insight and courage. It is to attempt to see one’s life as the expression of a set of values, and to isolate and evaluate those values. This may sound very simple; something perhaps for a Sunday afternoon. But if you think about it you realize that this kind of analysis is nothing other than an attempt to answer the questions “who am I” and “am I someone of whom I can in the most fundamental sense be proud?” To answer these questions one must have some insight into what genuine human life is; what promises it holds in the optimum; what anxieties are fundamental to it; and what kinds of things are truly worthwhile. Courage is required because in applying these considerations to oneself what is at stake is one’s entire sense of self-worth. Few questions are more threatening." (John Mullen, Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age- cited in The Academy of Ideas)