Know Thyself!

But why?

At one time or another we have all no doubt asked ourselves, “Why is this happening to me?” “Why do I keep having the same problems?” “Why am I so frustrated?” These difficult but important questions nudge us closer to a better understanding of ourselves and others. If they go unanswered, we become stuck in a cycle, continually repeating the past and forever on the defensive. Taking control of our lives requires that we find the answers.

When Thales of Miletus, one of the sages of ancient Greece, was asked, “What is difficult?” he is said to have replied, “To know yourself.” Though the importance of self-knowledge—self-awareness—cannot be understated, “it is still,” writes leadership expert Warren Bennis, “the most difficult task any of us faces. But until you know yourself, strengths and weaknesses, you cannot succeed in any but the most superficial sense of the word.”

Self-awareness is the ability to think about yourself and your relationship with the world around you. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman describes it as “an ongoing attention to one’s internal states.” It’s the ability to see how your emotions and perceptions are influencing your thinking and behavior. This is important because, all things being equal, more people are undone by behavioral issues than by anything else. Our behavior is a reflection of our thoughts. Yet very few people stop and think about what they think, how they think, and hence why they do what they do.

There is no evidence to suggest that any species of animal other than humans comes prepackaged with a set of mechanisms for any kind of meaningful self-appraisal—to ask what and why. Clinical professor of psychiatry Daniel J. Siegel refers to it as “mindsight.” This “uniquely human ability,” he writes, is every bit as essential to our well-being as our five senses. It “allows us to examine closely, in detail and in depth, the processes by which we think, feel, and behave.” It is the foundation of the emotional intelligence Goleman writes about.

Removing the Blinders

As Thales suggested, coming to a knowledge of the self is no simple task and often goes underdeveloped because we tend to resist it. Our vision of our inner world does not come as naturally to us as our ability to perceive the outside world.

Many people have a hard time looking at themselves in the mirror and dealing with the ravages of time. Fortunately, we can be grateful to the mirror for showing us only our external appearance.” 

Manfred Kets De Vries, Reflections on Leadership and Career Development (2010)

It is nevertheless a learnable skill that with some direction, time and effort we can get better at. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition but a continuum—an ongoing process that we engage in throughout life. The choice before us is how far along that continuum we are willing to go. Unfortunately most of us are too easily satisfied and quit too soon; we have default ways of thinking that help us to preserve the status quo because that’s where we’re most comfortable. This is how we get in the way of our own growth and happiness.

Part of the problem is our propensity to fool ourselves. It’s a willful blindness. About 150 years after Thales, Socrates came along and reminded his audience that “self-deception is the worst thing of all.” Before him, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah had said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, English Standard Version throughout), and he offered a lament: “I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). In other words, we can’t even trust our own minds, because the human mind is incapable of seeing things in a completely honest, straightforward manner. We hide things from ourselves.

Denial and its companion, blame, are the leading causes of our lack of self-awareness. It is an ever present force that thwarts our ability to see ourselves as we are. After all, when we find out who we are, we might not like the person we find.

Business professor Richard S. Tedlow says the essence of denial is that you ignore the obvious because you simply don’t want to confront it. Further, denial can create irrational behaviors of its own. In the face of an uncomfortable truth, we sometimes think that by denigrating or finding fault with the messenger we can neutralize the criticism. Thus we shoot the messenger, ridiculing and scorning him in self-defense. Tedlow says, “The fantasy that if you get rid of the messenger, you can render the message untrue is a powerful one.” He notes, “Through self-knowledge, openness to criticism, and receptivity to facts and perspectives that challenge our own, we can arm ourselves against denial” (Denial, 2010). That, of course, is easier said than done and requires a special quality that does not come naturally to us either: humility.

Taking on a disposition of humility and learning keeps us open to changing ourselves and consequently keeps us from claiming to be perfect.” 

Bill Welter and Jean Egmon, The Prepared Mind of a Leader (2006)

Humility is the lubricant for overcoming the friction created by how we want to see ourselves and how we really are. It allows us to accept the reality that we have weaknesses and underlies a teachable mindset. The apostle Paul observed: “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3). A humble frame of mind and a willingness to learn make change possible. They also help us admit to ourselves—and to others—that we aren’t perfect, and this in itself can help us avoid some of the pitfalls of life.

But while none of us likes to discover things about the self that aren’t working, overdramatizing our mistakes and weaknesses also holds us back from real growth and in fact feeds denial and blame. It’s important that we recognize opportunities in our failings, like grains of sand around which pearls can be made to grow.

It should be said that self-awareness isn’t just about coming to terms with our weaknesses. It also identifies our strengths and what is working for us. It encourages us to do more of the same and develop mastery in those areas where we naturally excel.

On Reflection

As difficult as it is to take an honest look at ourselves, most of us lack a healthy self-knowledge simply because we don’t make the time for introspection. Our technology-driven lives don’t lend themselves to stopping and reflecting on our behavior or our thinking. Without reflection, however, we never learn the strengths we can leverage or the weaknesses we have to manage. We tend to live our lives on autopilot, reacting habitually to every situation we find ourselves in.

Education professor Howard Gardner concluded that “extraordinary individuals stand out in the extent to which they reflect—often explicitly—on the events of their lives, large as well as small.” Further, he stated, “reflecting is fundamental—the capacity to assume distance on oneself and one’s experiences proves the sine qua non of effective accomplishment” (Extraordinary Minds, 1997).

While technology is constantly interrupting us with less thoughtful connections, encouraging quick response times and demanding ever-increasing bursts of attention, Stephens College president Dianne Lynch asked the students there to unplug—to power down and then to just sit, to “begin to learn the value of quiet.” She told them, “Learning to be self-reflective, quiet and focused is as important a part of becoming a successful, centered and healthy adult as many of the subjects that are a common part of college curricula. It’s a life skill, and students today—who live in a world of constant static—need it more than ever before” (“Stephens Unplugged,” 2010).

Self-reflection isn’t a luxury to indulge in when we can find the time. It needs to become a habit that we make the time for on a daily basis.

Executive coach Marshall Goldsmith adds an important element in What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: “If we can stop, listen, and think about what others are seeing in us, we have a great opportunity. We can compare the self we want to be with the self that we are presenting to the rest of the world. We can then begin to make the real changes that are needed to close the gap between our stated values and our actual behavior”(emphasis added).

All too often, we are strangers to ourselves. . . . It is in our relationships with others that we learn about ourselves.” 

Warren Bennis, On Becoming a Leader (1989)

Coming to understand how we appear to others is a key aspect of reflection. Self-knowledge can be divided into four areas: what is known to us as well as to others, what is known to others but not to us, what we know and others don’t, and what we don’t know and others don’t either. Discovering what no one knows takes time and intensive tactics. However, our biggest gain in self-improvement can be had by simply finding out what others know about us that we don’t. And they know more than we think they do.

The power of reflection lies not in the act itself but in what we do with the knowledge we gain from it. Reflection for its own sake accomplishes nothing. The point of self-awareness isn’t navel-gazing, to encourage self-absorption or to “find” ourselves, but to discover what we think—what is behind our behaviors—and then to determine what we need to do about it. Rather than being an abstract exercise, it is an invitation to actively change our lives for the better, to live our lives intentionally. It requires that we view ourselves against a higher external standard—the kind of standard provided by the law of God. It is from that sort of reflection that we can learn where we need to focus our attention to better control and develop our thinking and the behavior that flows from it.

The New Testament book of James draws an apt analogy in this regard: “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (James 1:22–25).

From Mind to Behavior

Through a highly informed and well-developed sense of who and what we are, as seen through the mirror of God’s Word, we become better able to manage our thoughts, feelings and emotions, and to bring them under control.

Nothing in life changes until we change. For many, that’s a hard fact to swallow, because it’s easier just to wait and hope for something better when others change. But that approach will never fix our frustrations, because we can’t make others change; we can only change ourselves.

When we find that what we are doing isn’t working, we face a choice. We can accept where we are and choose to go in another direction, or we can rationalize our behavior and do nothing. But more of the same will only give us more of the same. Gardner’s study also revealed that “extraordinary individuals fail often and sometimes dramatically. Rather than giving up, however, they are challenged to learn from their setbacks and to convert defeats into opportunities.” A failure is simply an opportunity to try again after considering a better approach to the problem at hand.

Our thinking, and the behavior that flows from it, has brought each of us to where we are now. We are in control of developing the thinking and behavior that will take us where we want to go. Self-awareness is difficult. We don’t always like to admit things about ourselves, because we don’t like the guilt associated with not doing what we know we should. But we must make such an admission if we are to grow.

Knowing the self implies a deep level of understanding. It means arriving at a point where we can predict how we’ll do in specific situations and the effect our actions will have. It also means that we can be fairly sure of how others would describe our strengths and weaknesses.

While self-knowledge leads us to a greater understanding of ourselves and how we relate to the world, it also helps us to understand why people relate to us the way they do. It gives us better judgment and the clarity to understand and gain insight into those around us.

Warren Bennis has said that our aim is to develop a “deeper understanding of self that then turns outward rather than inward and results in better understanding of others. . . .” Understanding ourselves and our own motivations can help us better appreciate the challenges others face. The resulting empathy should make it easier to follow a fundamental biblical precept: to treat others as we’d like to be treated, to love others as we love ourselves (Luke 6:31; Matthew 22:39; Galatians 5:14).

This, then, is the goal of coming to know ourselves: ultimately we look inward so that we might look outward with greater clarity, patience and compassion.