April 11, 2013
The 17th Century French philosopher, René Descartes, posited the simple declaration, ego cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am.” In the act of thinking about the self, the self exists. Humans have self-awareness. So do monkeys. Even dolphins have it. We’re not the only animals who know that the “self” exists. But how much do we really know about ourselves?
“Self-knowledge is the ability to understand your own psychology,” said Rob Dobrenski, PhD, a psychologist in New York City and the author of
the book Crazy: Notes on and off the Couch. “This includes your needs, your motives, that which drives you and scares you. It's about understanding your own vulnerabilities and how those influence your behavior.”
Can monkeys do that? Doubtful. If we’re to separate ourselves from monkeys (and let’s hope we can), we have to examine our beliefs and motivations. Yeah, it’s going to take a few pots of coffee to slog through that mental minefield. But according to experts, self-examination on the way to self-knowledge is the only way to make better decisions, give up potentially false and limiting beliefs about yourself, and grease the tracks toward happiness.
“Without the ability to step back and recognize one's own psychology in the moment, one is incapable of making informed, liberated decisions
about life,” said Dobrenski. “A lack of self-knowledge leads to impulsive decisions and regret because people act immediately without a complete understanding of their own thoughts and feelings. Self-knowledge means complete freedom, because all behaviors are guided by a full understanding of the self.”
Digging for self-knowledge sounds philosophical, but it’s really about weeding out the beliefs and actions that don’t work for you anymore, or perhaps never did. “The average individual can expect to find lots and actions that don’t work for you anymore, or perhaps never did.
“The average individual can expect to find lots of unchecked beliefs and assumptions on their way to self-knowledge and self-awareness,’” said Karla Pierce, M.A., an Adjunct Philosophy Professor and Applied Ethics trainer in Jacksonville, Florida. “If you seek self-knowledge, then you must be willing and able to question each belief and assumption, figure out where each one came from, then subject it to some critical questioning inorder to determine if it holds up.”
The Unexamined Life is Not Worth Living The Greek philosopher, Socrates, said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Here’s a guy who wasn’t into denial – for him, it really was a river in Egypt. But how deep do you have to go? Well, you can’t mine for gold with a pink plastic shovel. You need dynamite for that.
Lisa Capehart, Creator of An Organic Approach for Cultivating the Authentic You™ coaching, workshops, and forthcoming book, from Foster, KY, said that the depth to which you can know yourself is kind of like peeling an onion, working on each layer until you’ve learned all you can, and then an issue or challenge will arise which helps you delve into a deeper layer of understanding that you might not have known was there.
“Some people see how much more fulfilling their lives can be when they live from a place of awareness and make choices that really serve them, as opposed to having choices made for them, either by others or simply by living the ‘hand they were dealt,’” said Capehart.
Capehart suggested that a fraction of people don’t search for self-knowledge because they are naturally “plugged in” and can go with the flow, and that’s all they need. These lucky folks either naturally know what they should be doing, or have faith that it will be revealed to them.
“Others simply don’t see the need for self knowledge. Ignorance is bliss,” said Capehart. “I don’t mean that in a demeaning way. They already think all is well and nothing needs to change. It reminds me of someone who says that her favorite
ice cream flavor is vanilla. And, you ask her if she has tried other flavors like chocolate or strawberry or pistachio and she says, ‘No, I don’t need to try others. Why would I try other flavors when I’m happy with vanilla? It’s my favorite.’ I see this quite a bit, and if the person is happy, who am I to question that?” Journey to the Center of You First, you have to understand that self-knowledge and belief are two different animals. Yes, you have to look inward to find self-awareness, but sometimes you need outside proof to back it up.
"Believing that something is the case about one’s self is not the same as ‘knowing’ that something is true,” said Pierce. “If that were the case, merely believing that I’m irresistible to all men on earth would make it so. Believing this about my ‘self’ might help improve my confidence, but that’s a different matter. It’s the difference between the inner world of psychology, and the external world that exists outside any particular self.”
Second, it can help to find someone who has a map to the inner you. Or at least a compass.
“Therapy is a good way to gain greater understanding,” said Dobrenski. “Having a professional in the room with you, someone who can point out aspects of the conscious and unconscious self, is usually helpful. If that's not in the cards, there are also countless books on psychology and philosophy that open up entirely new ways of thinking about ourselves.” Capehart suggested making a list of your values and priorities. What do you stand for? What are your non-negotiables. Is your health a priority? If so, what behaviors prove that? Are you exercising and eating nutritious food? If not, then your health really isn’t a priority.
“Start a gratitude journal,” suggested Capehart. “List five things each day that you’re grateful for. It could be the hot cup of coffee in the morning or hitting all the green lights on the way to work. Start to look for what’s right in your life.”
Don’t want to work so hard? How about a massage and some meditation? Merely relaxing and thinking about your actions and motivations can start to peel the layers of the fried bloomin’ onion.
“For those who would purely self-reflect, consider this exercise: take a recent event in which you regret your actions and ask yourself about what you would do differently if you could turn back time?” said Dobrenski. “Now, don't focus on the actions, but pay attention to your thoughts, feelings and motives. Why would you act differently? What did the experience teach you about yourself? These forays into our own cognitions can be very useful in gaining self-knowledge.”
If all else fails, just try a new ice cream flavor. You never know what kind of possibilities exist in a pint of Chunky Monkey.