According to legend, “Know Thyself” was carved into stone at the entrance to Apollo’s temple at Delphi in Greece. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, is quoted as saying, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” A Course in Miracles says, “The goal of the curriculum, regardless of the teacher you choose, is ‘Know Thyself.’ There is nothing else to seek.” –Text, Chapter 8, III, paragraph 5, 1–2
This maxim “Know Thyself” has persisted through millennia and has been the focus of countless philosophers, mystics, sages, saints, and poets. Most everyone has heard this maxim or some derivation of it at one time or another, but what does it really mean?
What Does Know Thyself Mean?
From a psychological standpoint “Know Thyself” means to get to know, understand, and appreciate who you are. It means to become more self-aware in order to live more consciously. It means identifying your tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, intentions, flaws, likes and dislikes, emotional reactions, and behavioral patterns. The belief is that the more you know yourself, the more you become self-realized, and the more you achieve your potential. The Johari Window, shown below, was developed by Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham in 1955 and has frequently been used as a tool for increasing self-awareness. (See Johari window: Model and Free Diagrams @www.businessballs.com)
The Johari Window
|Known to Self||Unknown to Self|
|Known to Others||Shared Knowledge||Blind Spots|
|Unknown to Others||Private Knowledge||Unknown Knowledge|
Notice that only two of the window panes indicate self-knowledge–what you know and others know about you (shared knowledge), and what you know that others do not know (private knowledge). The other two panes reflect what you do not know about yourself but others do (blind spots), and what neither you nor others know about you. (unknown knowledge). Ideally, in order to “know thyself,” you do not want to have blind spots and unknown knowledge. So, how do you remove the blind spots and uncover the unknown (hidden) knowledge of yourself?
If you want to eliminate your blind spots, you need feedback from others. Sometimes you will be given unsolicited and perhaps unwanted feedback from someone. The feedback might be expressed angrily and initially feels quite hurtful. Nevertheless, these are marvelous opportunities to learn something important about yourself. I encourage you to welcome these moments as gifts that allow you to grow. If you are a highly defensive person who rejects feedback, especially constructive criticism, you are unlikely to become more self-aware. On the other hand, if you value and invite feedback from others, you will definitely expand your self-knowledge.
How do you shrink the “unknown knowledge” pane? There are several ways. The most effective way is to be adventurous. By stepping out of your comfort zone, taking risks, and frequently putting yourself in new situations or by expanding your social interactions, you learn new things about yourself. A personal example is my decision to move to a small town near Mexico City which has revealed to me that I am more impatient than I thought I was. (Go to https://www.mexperience.com/a-journey-to-retirement-in-mexico/ if you want to know more about my move to Mexico.) I am also learning that I am more outgoing than I previously thought as I find myself reaching out to meet and get to know many new and interesting people, whereas before moving I saw myself as an introvert with a relatively low threshold for socializing.
Another way to shrink the pane of unknown knowledge of yourself is to nourish your natural curiosity. (See “Did Curiosity Really Kill the Cat?) If you are a curious person, you are continually seeking new ideas, staying receptive to different ways of thinking, exploring art, literature, music, economics, spiritual practices, business opportunities, and so on, all of which help you become more aware of your likes and dislikes, inclinations, and interests. You can also shrink this pane through investigation, meditation, and self-reflection.
Two formal ways to shrink the blind spot and the unknown knowledge are psychotherapy and psychological testing. When I was in private practice I frequently saw people who simply wanted to know themselves better. Sometimes this was precipitated by a loss, setback, or interpersonal conflict, but often the motivating factor was to grow spiritually, emotionally, and/or socially. If you choose to pursue psychotherapy, I encourage you to pick a therapist who predominantly helps you identify and build on your strengths, rather than one who dwells on everything you need to “fix” about yourself.
When starting psychotherapy with someone, I usually invited them to take some psychological tests to facilitate the process. There are many psychological tests available that are remarkably accurate in revealing previously unknown aspects of yourself, and with the rapid growth of positive psychology, there are many tests to measure the healthy aspects of psychological functioning such as curiosity, optimism, resilience, happiness, and emotional intelligence. A lot of tests can be self-administered online, but not all of them are valid, so be cautious about giving the results too much credibility without the guidance of a psychologist who is well-trained in psychological testing.
Listening to Your Pain and Your Joy
One of the most important ways of getting to know yourself is to listen to your pain and your joy. Listening to your pain means paying attention to any difficult, disruptive emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, envy, guilt, greed, hatred, and so on. Why is this a way to know yourself? All of these emotions are your signaling system that something is wrong. You can explore them rather than act on them. When doing so, be sure to suspend self-judgment. Harsh self-judgment is a big obstacle to getting to know yourself. Jane Nelson in her book From Here to Serenity (Available from thriftbooks.com) provides practical, effective, and straightforward ways to understand and deal with painful emotions.
Painful emotions stem from entertaining specific thoughts that are energized by invalid beliefs in your belief system. The largest constellation of invalid beliefs is your ego beliefs because they are all based on fear. (See any or all articles about the ego under the topic “The Ego.”) In order to truly know yourself, you must become fully aware of your entire belief system–both valid and invalid beliefs. Listening to your pain is the most effective way I know of to uncover your invalid beliefs.
Listening to your joy is the path to know your valid beliefs and to more consciously live by them. Take a few moments and reflect on the times you felt genuinely happy, carefree, lighthearted, or completely at peace. What were the circumstances? Were you with someone? What were you doing?
I have come to know that many of my most joyful moments are when I am in the process of creating something and completing it. Recently I built a cacti /succulent rock garden. From conceptualization, to lifting, carrying, and placing the stones, to choosing a variety of plants, to strategically placing them amongst the stones, to finally stepping back and seeing the finished project, throughout the whole process I felt a strong sense of pleasure, peace, and satisfaction. Why? Because I believe to bring beauty, order, and harmony into this world is my purpose, whether it be through working with my hands, with words, or through my social interactions.
The Next Step
I believe unveiling your ego beliefs is a very important part of getting to know yourself. I do not, however, believe this process is to strengthen, improve, or expand the ego. The opposite is true. Rather, I write about the ego to undo it because the ego’s belief system is the only obstacle in the way of knowing your true self. (See “Why So Much Hate?”) My next post, entitled “Your True Self,” will be about what you really are!