Our Lack of Self-Knowledge Is Holding Us Back
And introspection may not be helping
Dr. Jeremy Sutton
Building an accurate picture of ourselves that aligns with reality can sometimes seem out of reach.
We regularly block unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and are fraught with problems of self-reference and cognitive bias (Ananthaswamy, 2017; Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
While introspection may have its limits, there are other ways to increase our self-knowledge, such as changing our focus, seeing ourselves through the eyes of others, and using visualization and mindfulness.
This article explores these techniques and others, highlighting questions, books, and quotes that may help us along our self-discovery journey.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Strengths Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help your clients realize their unique potential and create a life that feels energizing and authentic.
Where Does Self-Knowledge Come From?
When we consider our capacity for self-knowledge, many of us consciously or unconsciously think of our selves as separate from our material bodies. However, psychologists and neuroscientists agree that the ‘I’ that we experience is “an outcome of the material processes that constitute our brain and body,” not some otherworldly, non-physical substance (Ananthaswamy, 2017).
Despite what we know about our brain, we have limited knowledge of where our self-knowledge comes from.
Introspection may not provide the direct line to self-knowledge that we might expect. Instead, viewing ourselves from alternative perspectives may be more beneficial.
There are many “blind spots in self-knowledge, and these blind spots can have negative consequences for the self and for others” (Carlson, 2013, p. 173).
Our degree of self-knowledge is vital, as insufficient self-knowledge is associated with lower academic achievement and emotional problems, and a lack of insight can lead to bad decision making (Carlson, 2013).
While people have some insight into what they are like, that insight may be less robust than they think. Research suggests that people are unaware of how they behave, make decisions, and what motivates them (Carlson, 2013). And the findings show that people’s capacity to know themselves is flawed and far from what our intuition might tell us.
Self-perception theory suggests that we observe the behavior we engage in relevant to specific traits (Carlson, 2013). For instance, we may draw conclusions regarding our generosity based on the charitable donations we make.
But there are problems.
The quantity and quality of the information available can be misleading. We often lack the ability to assess our behavior and our hidden motivations. Nonverbal behavior can go undetected, and we can over- or underestimate the transparency of our inner states (Carlson, 2013).
There may also be simply too much information to take in when we try to observe ourselves (Wilson & Dunn, 2004). Not only that, we may be motivated to keep some of our thoughts and feelings hidden – outside of consciousness.
Popular advice and the central ideas of psychoanalysis typically encourage that we avoid unwanted thoughts. The result is that we may suppress feelings while remaining blissfully unaware we are doing so (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
However, studies suggest other ways to increase self-knowledge that take us beyond these limitations and the possible misdirection of introspection, most of which involve altering our perceptual standpoint.
How to Improve Self-Knowledge
“A person who has self-knowledge is aware of his general tendencies (e.g., that he tends to be quiet and reserved) as well as his context-specific tendencies (e.g., that he is talkative at parties)” (Carlson, 2013, p. 174).
Introspection involves engaging in self-examination of our mind and attempting to identify why we think, feel, and behave as we do (Carlson, 2013).
Introspection has been described as being like an archaeological dig, with people trying to surface hidden mental states (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
If introspection cannot directly gain access to unconscious mental processes, what are our options?
Instead of focusing on the reasons behind an attitude and why we feel a particular way, several studies have found that it may be better to focus on the nature of the attitude and how we feel (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
This approach appears to increase the accessibility of feelings and the degree to which these feelings predict future behavior.
Writing about traumatic events
Another form of introspection that can reap positive rewards involves engaging in writing. Even a modest amount of time spent writing (15 to 30 minutes) about emotional issues over three to five days can promote mental and physical wellbeing (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
Writing down thoughts can help avoid ruminating (repeatedly rehashing events, which can lead to a negative mood) while reducing intrusive thoughts and worries by improving self-understanding.
Imagining a possible future situation and how it makes a person feel can help uncover both implicit and explicit motives behind behavior.
Visualization appears to allow people to sample the feelings associated with unconscious motives and attitudes (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
Mindfulness helps us overcome many of the barriers associated with introspection. Cultivating a non-evaluative, nonjudgmental awareness of our experiences means we can observe the continuous and ongoing stream of mental phenomena as they arise (Carlson, 2013).
Such metacognitive monitoring of our thoughts involves curiosity, acceptance, and openness (Fleming, 2021). Rather than attempting to explain, analyze, and interpret, we simply observe. We notice “thoughts and emotions as they arise without elaboration or rumination” (Carlson, 2013, p. 176).
15 Questions to Gain Self-Knowledge
Many questions can prompt self-reflection skills and foster self-knowledge. They typically focus on where we are now, where we have been, and where we are going.
They can also focus on work, education, and relationships.
Here are 15 of our favorite reflective questions:
- What have I learned today (this week or this month)?
- What did I struggle with today?
- What are my thoughts about was said?
- What would I like people to understand better about me?
- What has inspired me this year?
- What have I learned about myself this year?
- How would I act differently the next time this happens?
- Do I see any patterns in my behavior?
- What am I most proud of?
- What went well? What went less well?
- Have I been supporting others this year?
- What behaviors and beliefs would I like to let go of?
- What was the event, how did it make me feel, and how did I handle it?
- What am I passionate about?
- What do I love most about myself?
6 Helpful Exercises, Games, & Worksheets
Becoming more self-aware helps us set goals and can guide how we live.
The following exercises and worksheets explore different ways of looking at ourselves through our own and others’ eyes.
What Are My Talents?
Use the What Are My Talents? worksheet to become more aware of the skills you possess and the ones you would like to develop. You can then use this information to build a personal development plan and move your life in your chosen direction.
What Are My Qualities and Traits?
Our traits and qualities make us who we are. We are all different, and our strengths make us unique. When we use them appropriately, we typically perform at our very best.
Use the What Are My Qualities and Traits? worksheet to review your strengths and weaknesses and what other people may admire in you.
Recognizing Your Achievements
We often focus on the negatives: the mistakes we make and the things we haven’t done. And yet, the negatives do not make us who we are.
In the Recognizing Your Achievements worksheet, we explore what you have achieved and are yet to achieve.
Reflecting on Three Things
Sometimes we forget what defines us, but it is important to have a clear picture of ourselves.
In the Reflecting on Three Things worksheet, we explore what makes us who we are and what we like best about ourselves.
Finding My Values
Knowledge of our values can help us steer toward the life we wish to lead and the goals we choose to set.
Use the Finding My Values worksheet to identify the values you hold dear, consider whether your actions align with them, and determine how much time you spend on each one.
Self-perception can help you recognize the difference between the public and the private you. Use the Self-Perception worksheet to identify where the two differ and whether you are being authentic.
3 Self-Knowledge Tests & Questionnaires
The following three questionnaires are valuable for exploring and improving self-knowledge.
The Self-Concept Questionnaire is a popular questionnaire for increasing self-knowledge and forming a more complete understanding of self.
The 48 questions examine six different domains: physical, social, temperamental, educational, moral, and intellectual (Ghaderi, 2005).
I often feel humiliated.
I feel emotionally mature.
I’m easy to like.
Harrill Self-Esteem Inventory
The Harrill Self-Esteem Inventory (World of Work Project, n.d.) contains 25 statements that the individual scores to assess their self-esteem, such as:
I like and accept myself as I am right now, today, even as I grow and evolve.
I learn and grow from my mistakes rather than deny them or use them to confirm my unworthiness.
I love, respect, and honor myself.
The results provide valuable insight into areas where an individual can improve.
Personal Self-Concept Questionnaire
The Personal Self-Concept Questionnaire (PCQ) includes 22 statements divided across four categories: self-fulfillment, autonomy, honesty, and emotional self-concept (Goñi, Madariaga, Axpe, & Goñi, 2011).
The PCQ considers the question Who am I? by assessing the individual’s self-perception in relation to their physical and social self.
It includes statements such as:
I am a person of my word.
I am more sensitive than the majority of people.
My promises are sacred.
3 Books About Improving Self-Knowledge
While there are many books available that explore self-knowledge, the following are three of our favorites:
1. Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness – Stephen Fleming
This fascinating book by cognitive neuroscientist Stephen Fleming examines what it means to know ourselves.
Delving deep into the research and theory behind metacognition, Fleming takes us on a journey to understand our mind and most essential tools for self-knowledge.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Self-Awareness – Harvard Business Review
In essays collected as part of the Harvard Business Review Emotional Intelligence Series, authors including Daniel Goleman, Robert Kaplan, and Tasha Eurich help the reader understand their thoughts and emotions while promoting stronger relationships at work.
The authors offer advice regarding how to gain self-knowledge through receiving feedback from colleagues to identify your talents and shortcomings.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think – Tasha Eurich
Organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich explains how we can develop self-awareness and use the insights gained to become more confident, fulfilled, and, possibly, successful.
Explaining her own and others’ research in the field, Eurich shows what it takes to understand ourselves and gain authenticity.
Find the book on Amazon.
Inspiring Quotes on Self-Knowledge
Some of the best thinkers have long recognized the importance of self-knowledge.
The following quotes include some inspiring insights about self-knowledge:
The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing~ Voltaire
Wisest is she who knows she does not know~ Jostein Gaarder
I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing~Socrates
I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better~ Frida Kahlo
It is a sad fate for a man to die too well known to everybody else, and still unknown to himself~ Sir Francis Bacon
When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others~ Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Without self-knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave~ G.I. Gurdjieff
A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don’t know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox’s or bear’s, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there~ Meister Eckhart
Self-Knowledge Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources and tools that will help your client gain better self-knowledge. Some of these tools are from our Positive Psychology Toolkit©, a collection of over 370 positive psychology exercises and tools created by a team of experts.
A few recommendations to apply to self-knowledge include the following:
- Strengths and Value-Based Introductions — Storytelling is a powerful way to share who you are when you meet new people, circumventing shallow introductions.
- 200+ Strengths Labels — Combining strengths from several assessments, this worksheet contains a list of over 200 strengths. Why not review them to become more aware of your strengths?
- Self-Reflection Prompts — Journaling is an effective and creative way to increase self-awareness and encourage self-growth. The prompts in this exercise are valuable for reflection and helping writers get unstuck.
- Nonjudgmental Reflection — Negative self-judgment can become a habit. This exercise helps you become more aware of self-criticism as you reflect and explains how to reframe such thinking.
- Positive Replacement Thoughts Worksheet — This helpful worksheet encourages clients to become aware of negative automatic thoughts and generate better ones to replace them.
- Self-Awareness Worksheet for Older Children — This seven-step approach has straightforward questions to identify strengths, activities, successes, and hardships.
- 17 Strength-Finding Exercises — If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, this collection contains 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.
A Take-Home Message
Knowing ourselves is less straightforward than it sounds. Introspection can become obscured by unhelpful thinking and uncomfortable feelings and memories.
Our ability to reflect can lack clarity and be hindered by cognitive biases that we are not aware of or fail to understand.
Self-knowledge is crucial and should be fostered. It impacts how we see ourselves and how we perform in our work, education, relationships, and the life decisions we make. While we may find it difficult to know ourselves, asking the right questions from more than one perspective can help provide a more complete and correct degree of self-knowledge.
By focusing on how we feel, rather than why we feel a particular way, or capturing our thoughts on paper, we can shift our perspective and better understand how to use that awareness.
Try out some of the self-reflective and visualization practices, questions, and exercises with your client to increase their self-knowledge and make the processes habitual.
Maintaining an ongoing attitude of self-knowledge can build on existing awareness, help you recognize changes or new opportunities to grow, and form stronger relationships with yourself and others.
Dr. Jeremy Sutton
Psychologist and writer in Positive and Performance Psychology (www.positivepsychology.com). Exploring positive psychology and cognitive science to better understand human potential. Owner of the "Learning to Flourish" community dedicated to sharing the tools for wellbeing (link below).