When we speak about self-knowledge, we’re alluding to a particular kind of knowledge – generally of an emotional or psychological kind. There are a million things you could potentially know about yourself. Here are some options: […]
In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates famously declared that the unexamined life was not worth living. Asked to sum up what all philosophical commandments could be reduced to, he replied: ‘Know yourself.’
Knowing yourself has extraordinary prestige in our culture. It has been framed as quite literally the meaning of life.
This sounds, when one hears it, highly plausible, yet so plausible it’s worth pausing to ask a few more questions. Just why is self-knowledge such a prestigious good? What are the dangers that come with a lack of self-knowledge? And what do we in fact need to know about ourselves? How do we come to learn such things? And why is self-knowledge difficult to attain?
When we speak about self-knowledge, we’re alluding to a particular kind of knowledge – generally of an emotional or psychological kind. There are a million things youcouldpotentially know about yourself. Here are some options:
On what day of the week were you born?
Were you able to pick up a raisin between your fore-finger and thumb when you were five months old?
Are you more an introvert or an extrovert?
How does your relationship with your father influence your career ambitions?
What kind of picnic person are you: morning or evening? River-bank, park or hill?
Most of us would recognise that questions 3 and 4 are ones worth knowing; the others, not so much.
In other words, not everything that we can know about ourselves is all that important to find out. Here we want to focus on the areas of self-knowledge that matter most in life: the areas concerned with the inner psychological core of the self.
The key bits of self-knowledge we’ll be interested in are:
– what kind of person are you characteristically attracted to in love – what difficult patterns of behaviour are you prey to in relationships – what are your talents at work – what problems do you have around success/failure – how are you about feedback – what do you do when you have been frustrated by life – what kind of taste do you have – can you distinguish between your passing bodily-based emotions and your more rational thoughts
If you have solid answers to these issues, you’ll be able to speak of yourself as someone with an adequate degree of self-knowledge.
ONE: WHY AND WHERE DOES SELF-KNOWLEDGE MATTER?
Self-knowledge is important for one central reason: because it offers us a route to greater happiness and fulfilment.
A lack of self-knowledge leaves you open to accident and mistaken ambitions. Armed with the right sort of self-knowledge, we have a greater chance of avoiding errors in our dealings with others and in the formulation of our life choices.
Let’s look at some examples of areas where self-knowledge matters
Without self-knowledge, all sorts of problems may occur:
1. Choosing the wrong partner: We try to get together with people who don’t really suit us, because we don’t understand our needs
When first looking out for a partner, the requirements we come up with are coloured often by a beautiful non-specific sentimental vagueness: we’ll say we really want to find someone who is ‘kind’ or ‘fun to be with’, ‘attractive’ or ‘up for adventure…’
It isn’t that such desires are wrong, they are just not remotely precise enough in their understanding of what we in particular are going to require in order to stand a chance of being happy – or, more accurately, not consistently miserable.
All of us are crazy in very particular ways. We’re distinctively neurotic, unbalanced and immature, but don’t know quite the details because no one ever encourages us too hard to find them out. An urgent, primary task of any lover is therefore to get a handle on the specific ways in which they are mad. They have to get up to speed on their individual neuroses. They have to grasp where these have come from, what they make them do – and most importantly, what sort of people either provoke or assuage them. A good partnership is not so much one between two healthy people (there aren’t many of these on the planet), it’s one between two demented people who have had the skill or luck to find a non-threatening conscious accommodation between their relative insanities.
The very idea that we might not be too difficult as people should set off alarm bells in any prospective partner. The question is just where the problems will lie: perhaps we have a latent tendency to get furious when someone disagrees with us, or we can only relax when we are working, or we’re a bit tricky around intimacy after sex, or we’ve never been so good at explaining what’s going on when we’re worried. It’s these sort of issues that – over decades – create catastrophes and that we therefore need to know about way ahead of time, in order to look out for people who are optimally designed to withstand them. A standard question on any early dinner date should be quite simply: ‘And how are you mad?’
The problem is that knowledge of our own neuroses is not at all easy to come by. It can take years and situations we have had no experience of. Prior to marriage, we’re rarely involved in dynamics that properly hold up a mirror to our disturbances. Whenever more casual relationships threaten to reveal the ‘difficult’ side of our natures, we tend to blame the partner – and call it a day. As for our friends, they predictably don’t care enough about us to have any motive to probe our real selves. They only want a nice evening out. Therefore, we end up blind to the awkward sides of our natures.
On our own, when we’re furious, we don’t shout, as there’s no one there to listen – and therefore we overlook the true, worrying strength of our capacity for fury. Or we work all the time without grasping, because there’s no one calling us to come for dinner, how we manically use work to gain a sense of control over life – and how we might cause hell if anyone tried to stop us. At night, all we’re aware of is how sweet it would be to cuddle with someone, but we have no opportunity to face up to the intimacy-avoiding side of us that would start to make us cold and strange if ever it felt we were too deeply committed to someone. One of the greatest privileges of being on one’s own is the flattering illusion that one is, in truth, really quite an easy person to live with. With such a poor level of understanding of our characters, no wonder we aren’t in any position to know who we should be looking out for.
2. We repeat unhealthy patterns from childhood, always latching on to people who will frustrate us in familiar but grievous ways
We believe we seek happiness in love, but it’s not quite that simple. What at times it seems we actually seek is familiarity – which may well complicate any plans we might have for happiness. We recreate in adult relationships some of the feelings we knew in childhood. It was as children that we first came to know and understand what love meant. But unfortunately, the lessons we picked up may not have been straightforward. The love we knew as children may have come entwined with other, less pleasant dynamics: being controlled, feeling humiliated, being abandoned, never communicating, in short: suffering. As adults, we may then reject certain healthy candidates whom we encounter, not because they are wrong, but precisely because they are too well-balanced (too mature, too understanding, too reliable), and this rightness feels unfamiliar and alien, almost oppressive. We head instead to candidates whom our unconscious is drawn to, not because they will please us, but because they will frustrate us in familiar ways. We get together with the wrong people because the right ones feel wrong – undeserved; because we have no experience of health, because we don’t ultimately associate being loved with feeling satisfied.
We fail to explain our feelings to our partners – because we don’t understand ourselves well enough. We act out our feelings rather than spell them out, often to destructive effect. (we break the door rather than explain we are mad with anger).
We are unaware of the effects of our words on others. We don’t notice how often we say critical things to them.
We can’t anticipate and signpost our feelings: when we start to get over-excited and talk too fast, we should know it’s time to go for a walk round the block because otherwise there’s liable to be an explosion…
We project, that is, we respond to events in the here and now according to patterns laid down in childhood; in our heads, our partners become mixed up with other people from our emotional history (a humiliating mother, a distant father etc…).
We’re governed by the past: old unfortunate habits keep their grip. We don’t see what’s happening and so we can’t do anything about it.
There’s a lot we can do once people are able to tell us what’s problematic about themselves. We don’t need people to be problem free – we need people to be able to explain where the problems are.
There are many ways in which a shortfall of self-knowledge is an obstacle to flourishing around work:
We only have a few short years in which to come up with a convincing answer about what we want to do with our lives. Then, wherever we are in the thought-process, we have to jump into a job in order to have enough money to survive or appease society’s demands for our productivity.
Without self-knowledge, we are too vague about our ambitions; we don’t know what to do with our lives and – because money tends to be such an urgent priority – we lock ourselves into a cage from which it may take decades to emerge.
We are too modest: we miss out on opportunities: we don’t know what we are capable of.
We are too ambitious: we don’t know what we shouldn’t attempt. We lack a clear sense of our limitations, wasting years trying to do something we’re not suited to.
We don’t grasp the ways in which we are difficult employees or bosses. We might – among other problems – be crazily defensive, or resistant to trusting anyone or too eager to please.
We don’t perceive our hidden attitudes to success and failure. It may be that we see ourselves (wrongly) as not cut out for the bigger roles or when things start to go well, we become manically prone to make a blunder. Perhaps we’re unconsciously trying to avoid rivalry with a parent, or a sibling by tripping ourselves up. Family dynamics have an enormous, subterranean influence on how effectively we operate at work.
LIVING WITH OTHERS
Without self-knowledge, we are, in general, a liability to be around:
We don’t realise the effect we tend to have on other people: without at all meaning to, we might come across as arrogant or cold, or as tending to hog attention or as needlessly shy and hesitant or as getting furious in dangerous ways.
We may fall prey to unnecessary loneliness: not understanding what we really need and what makes us hard to get to know.
Difficulties of empathy: not acknowledging the more vulnerable or disturbed parts of oneself; means not seeing oneself as being ‘like’ other people in crucial ways. It’s hard to understand the deeper bits of others without having explored oneself first.
SPENDING MONEY UNWISELY
Most of what we spend money on is a hunch about what will make us happy. But without self-knowledge, we’ll have a hard time figuring out the relationship between what we purchase and how we feel.
Holidays and travels will leave us disappointed.
Impulsive purchases will soon be regretted.
We’ll be prey to fashion: not knowing ourselves, we’ll be at the mercy of what consumer society tells us to want.
We might become inadvertent snobs: liking things because others like them rather than for deeper personal reasons.
Self-knowledge has always been important. But now it’s more so than ever. This is a result of political and social progress. When life was much more constrained by tradition, rigid social hierarchy and rigorous codes of manners, there was less need for self-knowledge to guide action. Now, if we are to exploit the independence and freedom we’ve been offered (in love, work and social lives), there is all the more reason to get to know ourselves in good time.
TWO: WHY IS SELF-KNOWLEDGE SO HARD TO COME BY?
We pay a high price for lack of self-knowledge. So why is it in short supply? Why is it hard for us to know ourselves in these ways? It’s not laziness or stupidity that explains it. There are several huge cognitive frailties that make it hard for us to have certain kinds of insight about ourselves. There are six reasons why self-knowledge is tricky for creatures with the kinds of minds we have.
One: The Unconscious
Human beings have evolved into creatures whose minds are divided into conscious and unconscious processes. Digesting lunch is unconscious; reflecting on what you’d like to do this weekend is conscious.
The reason for this division is bandwidth. We simply couldn’t cope if everything we did had to be filtered through the conscious mind.
Also, we start off as children with fierce difficulties around self-awareness. Nature has structured us so that self-awareness comes very late on: you only have to study how children are to know that an awareness of self is a very late evolution of character.
In general, we can argue that we suffer because a little too much of how we behave happens unconsciously – when we would benefit from a closer grasp on what was going on. The default balance between conscious and unconscious tends to be wrong, we are incentivised to let too much of who we are happen in the unconscious.
As a general point, we need to make heroic efforts to correct the imbalance and bring more of our lives into the conscious realm.
Two: The Emotional and the Rational Mind
A traditional way of conceiving of our minds is that there’s a small rational bit and a far larger, more dominant emotional bit.
Plato compared the rational bit to a group of wild horses dragging the conscious mind along.
Nowadays, neuroscientists tell us about three parts of the brain:
– the reptilian – the limbic – and the neocortex
The reptilian is, as the name sounds, the earliest and the most primitive. It’s interested in basic survival and responds immediately, in knee-jerk ways, unconsciously and rather aggressively and destructively. It’s what’s engaged if a lion surprises you in the jungle.
The limbic part of the brain, a later development is concerned with emotions and memories.
The neocortex, a very late development, is where our higher reasoning faculties lie.
We don’t have to buy into the precise terminology here to understand the drift: a lot of our lives is dominated by automatic, over-emotional, distorting responses by the ‘lower’ parts of the mind; and only occasionally can we hope to gain rational perspective through our higher faculties.
Three: Freudian Resistance
However, it isn’t just the case that things are unconscious by accident. It was Sigmund Freud’s great insight that they remain unconscious because of a squeamishness on our part: there is – in his term – extraordinary ‘resistance’ to making a lot of our unconscious material conscious.
The unconscious contains desires and feelings that deeply challenge a more comfortable vision of ourselves. We might discover – if we got to know ourselves better – that we’re attracted to a different gender, or have career ambitions quite different from those our society expects of us. We therefore ‘resist’ finding out too much about ourselves in many areas. It shatters the short-term peace we’re addicted to.
But, of course, for Freud, we pay a high price for this. Short-term peace is unstable, it is, to use another word of his, ‘neurotic’, and cuts us off from the benefits of long-term honesty about aspects of our identity.
Too often we say of thoughts, it’s ‘safer not to go there’. One simply pushes feelings and ideas aside. Resistance means we are escaping the humiliation of admitting to particular appetites and desires – especially when these are at odds with what we’d like to be like or how others want us to be. We reduce our immediate suffering. But the cost is that we can’t properly aim for what would truly make us happy.
Four: Other people won’t tell us
There are many aspects of our identities that it is simply hard for us to see without the help of another person. We need others to be our mirrors, feeding back their insights and perspectives on the elusive, hard-to-see parts of ourselves.
However, getting hold of data from others is a very unreliable process. Very few people can be bothered to undertake the arduous task of giving us feedback. Either they dislike us too much and therefore can’t be bothered. Or they like us too much, and don’t want to upset us.
Our friends are too polite; good intentions lead them to keep their less pleasant observations to themselves. Our enemies have so much to tell us: it’s not always the people we like who see certain aspects of us most clearly. It might be someone we’re at loggerheads with who has the sharpest sense of what’s not quite going right in our character (a way, for instance, of letting people down after a long period of seeming to go along with their plans; a very annoying habit of sitting on the fence). But they are not likely to be good at sharing their wisdom with us. They either won’t take the trouble, or will brush us off with the sort of sharp insults that will make us defensive and closed to the wiser aspects embedded within their harsh assessments.
Five: We haven’t lived enough
Many bits of self-knowledge only come through experience. Think of ourselves as being like a biscuit mould: it’s only by pressing ourselves against the dough of life that we get to see what shape we actually are.
Self-knowledge therefore isn’t something we can always do in isolation, retreating from the world to look into ourselves.
We acquire knowledge dynamically, by trying things out and colliding with others – which always carries a risk, and takes time.
In careers, for example, we can’t know what we might want to do with our lives simply by asking ourselves this question. We need to head out into the workplace and try things out. We need to spend a week at an architect’s office, or go and meet someone in the diplomatic service etc.
Self-knowledge can only evolve as a result of dialogue with the world.
Six: We are fatefully vague about stuff
Our thoughts about many things are marked first and foremost by vagueness. Our intellectual muscles are – by nature – rather weak. Our initial reactions to things are frequently of the order of ‘yum’ or ‘yuk’. We have pronounced pro or contra feelings towards something but struggle to say more. We say things like:
I want to be creative
I loathe big business
I’m feeling out of sorts
He annoys me
These reports might be true, but they are not very high-quality items in terms of self- knowledge. They’re not accurate enough to help guide action. It’s not that they are wrong, the problem is they are too vague. They don’t get to grips with what is really the issue. They circle in the big, general territory but don’t land anywhere specific.
This isn’t a personal problem. It’s universal. The first reports from our conscious minds are just by nature horribly vague – and in need of sustained analysis.
Seven: Introspection is low on prestige and unfamiliar
Introspection is the name we give to the close study of one’s feelings and ideas. Unfortunately, it isn’t given high prestige in our society. We’re rarely encouraged to unpack our thoughts. The notion of what it means to have a conversation with a friend rarely includes trying to make progress in sorting out feelings. Psychotherapy – the prime arena for analysing oneself – interests barely 1% of the population. Part of increasing the self-knowledge of a society is to help make the idea of introspection a little more glamorous; it should be thought of as a very plausible concept to spend a weekend on or host a dinner party around.