Does Self-Knowledge Make You a Better Person?
Only about 15% of people actually are self-aware.
If you’ve only just begun the self-knowledge journey, you may be surprised to learn that it is incredibly difficult to know yourself.
Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher, who lived in the 6th century BCE, wrote: “He who knows others is wise; he who knows himself is enlightened.” Similarly, Carl Jung said: “Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
The sum total of philosophic inquiry is said to have been summarized by Socrates who said, “Know thyself.” Plato similarly phrased it, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Why would these revolutionary thinkers give so much status to achieving something that most of us believe we’ve already achieved? Numerous rigorous studies of thousands of people in the workplace show that people’s coworkers are better than they are at recognizing how their personality will affect their job performance.
As organizational psychologist and author, Adam Grant writes:
“People know themselves best on the traits that are tough to observe and easy to admit.
Emotional stability is an internal state, so your friends don’t see it as vividly as you do. And although people might not want to call themselves unstable, the socially acceptable range is fairly wide, so we don’t tend to feel terribly anxious about being outed as having some anxiety. With more observable traits, we don’t have unique knowledge.”
People tend to believe they have fewer biases than others. Just because you believe something to be true about yourself does not make it so. You are a mirror to yourself, but there is more than one way to view your behavior. The best method is probably to have more than one mirror held up by more than one friend or colleague.
And it is hard to receive feedback that we possess undesirable traits, or traits that are difficult to admit to. The good news is you can, and through the effort build yourself into the more desirable human you believe yourself to be.
What Do We Know And How Do We Know it?
Contemporary psychology has fundamentally questioned the notion that we can know ourselves objectively and with finality. It has argued that the self is not so much a “thing” as it is a process of continual adaptation to changing circumstances.
And the fact that we so often see ourselves as more competent, moral, and stable than we actually are serves our ability to adapt. Some even point out that a fair amount of self-delusion and self-ignorance is actually helpful to this extent.
While psychology over the past two centuries has contributed the most in the realm of self-knowledge, we would do well to begin with philosophy’s contribution. In philosophy, self-knowledge generally refers to knowledge of one’s own sensations, thoughts, beliefs, and other mental states.
At least since Descartes, most philosophers have believed that our knowledge of our own mental states differs markedly from our knowledge of the external world, which includes our knowledge of others’ thoughts.
Demystifying How We Know What We Know
But there is little agreement about what distinguishes self-knowledge from knowledge of anything else. Partly for this reason, philosophers endorse competing accounts of how we acquire self-knowledge.
The most famous argument on self-knowledge is the certainty of a particular instance of belief. This is Descartes’ “cogito argument,” which demonstrates that so long as you carefully attend to your own thoughts, nothing can prove that you are not thinking and, therefore, you exist.
Perhaps the most widely accepted view along these lines is that self-knowledge, even if not absolutely certain, is especially secure, in the following sense: self-knowledge is immune from some types of error to which other kinds of empirical knowledge — most obviously, perceptual knowledge — are vulnerable.
That is where inferential ways of knowing become the primary way for us to suggest that we can know the self. That is where the term “looking within” uses a spatial comparison to express a divide between the “inner” world of thought and the “external” world.
Self-knowledge is a skill, not a trait, talent, or divine insight.
The Introspection Illusion
Your self does not lie before you like an open book. You can’t just open up the hatch in the back of your skull and root around until you locate your “self.”
Think of all the self-portraits of artists over the centuries. A “portrait of the artist as a young self” has become almost a rite of passage for writers and artists. The attempt to look at yourself is fraught with much more difficulty than looking outward. It can be frightening to look within. We may not like what we see.
We are often blind to ourselves and the effect we have on others because we literally do not see our own facial expressions, gestures, and body language. You may be barely aware that your blinking eyes indicate stress. You may not hear how your tone communicates much more than the actual words you say. The same is true of all kinds of body language. The slump in your posture betrays something that weighs on you.
Princeton University psychologist Emily Pronin calls the mistaken belief in privileged access the “introspection illusion.” The way we view ourselves is distorted, and we don’t realize it.
Our self-image has little to do with our actions. We may see ourselves in a way that stands in complete contradiction to the way we live. We may say we love the outdoors but never do anything outside.
We may say we value time with family, but give all our enthusiasm to our job or personal pursuits. We may believe we’re a talented artist even though we don’t produce any art.
There are many ways we construct false narratives about ourselves. We tell ourselves the potential is within us, but we just never have the time. We tell ourselves forces outside us compel us to behave in ways that aren’t truly “who we are.” These truth distortions aren’t necessarily wrong.
The question is how we lie to ourselves or distort our self’s reality, but why?
A Portrait Of Yourself As Self-Aware
Let us begin with the simple premise that the pursuit of self-knowledge is practical. You will be happier and more effective in your life if you know yourself.
Strangely enough, in order to succeed at things that are going to be fraught with challenge and possibly hardship, you might need to possess a little delusion. Elizabeth Dunn and Timothy Wilson report that mild self-illusions can be beneficial.
It’s not always to your benefit to know just how stacked the odds are against success in your field.
Is it always good to know how many more talented baseball players have tried to make it to the major leagues if that is something you aspire to? If you want to succeed in the music industry do you really need to know how much more talented thousands of people are than you before you start putting in your daily practice? Sometimes, as with running up a long hill, it’s better to see just enough in front of you to take the next step and keep on moving.
Extreme self-illusions, on the other hand, can undermine well-being. If you’re small and slow, it’s probably not the healthiest to dream you can play for the NBA.
If you value great wealth and having lots of things, but you just like watering your ferns, petting your cat, and making grilled cheese sandwiches, you may not possess the drive it takes — or find pleasure in what you’re doing that could bring you greater wellbeing.
Overall, self-knowledge is better for you than self-ignorance. It’s probably impossible to go through life without any self-beliefs, so this is a fair enough starting point. When it comes to knowing yourself ignorance is not bliss.
Without splitting philosophic hairs, let’s start with this premise:
You are no more or less than the sum of your thoughts, actions, attitudes, emotions, abilities, values, and physical characteristics.
With this in mind, you can begin to paint a portrait of yourself that lines up with your inner and outer reality. What you seek is a self that integrates these pieces of you.
Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” and that is exactly why we access our depths through other forms of consciousness.
When you continue to ask the same questions and make the same choices, you get the same results. To move in a different direction requires insight into where you have been and where you are, clarity on what no longer serves, and direction on how to move into where you would like to be.
Self-Knowledge Will Make You A Better Person
Tasha Eurich has made a career demonstrating the strong links with scientific evidence that people are happier when they know themselves and how others see them. They are better decision-makers. They have better personal and professional relationships. They raise more mature children.
They become smarter, more adept students who choose better careers. They also tend to be more creative, confident, and overall better communicators. And because knowing yourself does require a sophisticated level of learning and understanding, you also learn about the fundamentals of morality.
Daniel Goleman, one of the pioneers of Emotional Intelligence Theory, says that recent advancements in positive psychology have made self-awareness more accessible than ever. Goleman suggests that self-awareness is one of the four main pillars of emotional intelligence, and is imperative for success in any field.
Most people think emotional intelligence is about managing other people’s emotions. Identifying and managing your own emotions is paramount first and foremost.
It’s not so much that you live up to a perceived ideal of “authenticity.” Knowing yourself means recognizing when disparities occur between who you aspire to be and how you live out your life. People who know themselves well also tend to be less aggressive and less likely to lie, cheat, and steal.
When your values line up in integration with your work situations you tend to be a better performer, one more likely to get a promotion. People who know themselves well are more effective leaders with more enthusiastic employees. Research even shows that self-awareness is the single greatest predictor of leadership success.
Our wellbeing grows as our conscious goals and unconscious motives become more integrated. But if you can’t fully trust yourself to tell you who you are, then who can you trust?
The answer is: Others.
But what do others know anyway? Aren’t “others” the very ones we like to criticize and judge?
It’s Not You, It’s Me. Or Is It?
Life is complicated. People are complicated. On the one hand, with people’s responses, it’s really not about you. But almost as soon as that idea begins to absorb, we have to paradoxically remind ourselves that, truth be told, it is sometimes about us. Sometimes we do create the conditions for the reality we experience. The wisdom is in learning to know the difference.
As an editor for a magazine, and later of an independent publishing house, I frequently found myself on panels discussing how and why a work is accepted for publishing. As a writer myself, I would frequently find myself as surprised by the content that was taken as by what wasn’t. One thing I did know was that a person’s work isn’t observed in a vacuum. There is always context.
Your work may be read in the morning or afternoon, which has an impact on the freshness of the editor’s reading. It could have been the first in the stack or 41st. It could have been among 41 other entries or 4,001. It could have been on a topic that was thematically in line with the values of the editor — or just the opposite.
One editor may like tightly-constructed sentences, and another may like a discursive, associative style. Does an editor believe this work will contribute to the marketplace (be sellable), or is it art for art’s sake? There are nearly limitless reasons for acceptance or rejection that may have little to nothing to do with the quality of the work.
Similarly with teaching. While good teaching is about patience and clarity, and the art and science of challenging and encouraging students, you may be meeting a student at a time when they are eager and ready to learn, or at a time when the field is fallow.
I’ve also had back-to-back classes in which I would teach the exact same thing with the exact same level of enthusiasm, and with the exact same punchlines, and the reactions of the class were entirely different.
The class that laughs at your every joke and eagerly asks questions and raises their hands to contribute to the discussion energizes you.
They make you feel like you can do no wrong and what a joy teaching is. The reserved, non-responsive ones make you aware of the sweat that’s breaking out on your forehead as you try to persevere.
Good work is good work, but what we can’t control are the responses from others to the work. The same is true of the processes we put in ourselves. That is why a Stoic-influenced perspective suggests that maintaining your own values and priorities is all the reward you need. In those cases, adjust your expectations. Realize it is not about you. It’s about them.
Until that is, you run into the occasions where it really is about you.
One of the earliest leading indicators that an issue lies within ourselves is when we repeatedly experience the same type of conflict with others. Most people have a vague sense of their behaviors but remain more or less exactly the same year after year. In general, this is because it takes real courage to look at long unexamined (or perhaps never examined) shadow sides of ourselves.
We don’t like these parts of ourselves, much less admitting to them. It doesn’t feel good, and it’s hard to go to the source and bring up unconscious things over and over again to reflect on them and analyze them in order to create any real change.
Why It’s So Hard But Why It’s Worth It
The freedom you gain from breaking a pattern often brings great relief, like a burden has been lifted. I have seen those who put in the work find enormous releases of stress. When the breakthrough happens, and when you’re able to step back and recognize it, few things bring on as much calm.
Through the calm comes confidence. From the calm and confidence comes resilience and adaptability. You realize it’s okay to be wrong — about others and yourself. Integrating your conscious values with your unconscious ones makes you a more whole person. In turn, you are more desirable for others to be around.
Thanks to the early pioneers and legions of current practitioners and researchers, it has never been easier to do the difficult work. There is more information and evidence out there on how to grow in this area than ever before.
The evidence proves that you will be not only a better human, but a better friend, parent, student, and/or colleague specifically. You will be a more creative, confident communicator. This impacts your relationships, your ability to learn, and how well you function at virtually any long-term project.
No one likes to receive negative feedback. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. You have to let yourself feel the reaction, and that takes time to process. It takes courage. But it is worth the effort and the dividends payout for the rest of your life.