Authenticity, Consciousness, Culture, Intellectual Honesty, Intelligence, Language, Learning, People, Society, Truth

Four Challenges to Understanding Ourselves

A few days ago, I was thinking — in a glancing way — about our being extremely honest with ourselves.  It is by no means an easy thing, but I think it’s safe to assume most of us, at one time or another, have tried it.  And what did we find?

If we really pushed ourselves, made a sustained effort, and didn’t give up too soon, then I suspect we found it a tricky thing to accomplish.  Life is full of things that seem easy — until you give them a try.

Today, I was reminded of how I’d recently been thinking of extreme self-honesty because today Nita certified me and a few other people “Honest Bloggers”.  She said of us, “…these bloggers I’ve chosen are exceedingly and astonishingly transparent about themselves.”  Of course, I cannot speak for anyone else, but I know I’m “exceedingly and astonishingly transparent” about myself in large part because I’m scared not to be.

In other words, to whatever extent I’m honest — it’s not so much because I’m moral — it’s more because I’m fearful.

I did not understand myself all that well until my late 30s.  Then beginning at 37, I suffered one blow after another to my self-image.  My notion of myself collapsed.  The severe consequences of that collapse included post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, and episodes of psychosis. So nowadays, I am quite fearful that, unless I am vigilant, I will repeat my earlier mistake of building up an image or notion of myself that can be shattered by life’s blows.  For the most part, I try to be honest with myself — I try to be truthful — not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the safest thing to do.

Of course, being honest with ourselves, and actually knowing ourselves, are two very different things.  I don’t think we are ever entirely on the mark about ourselves.  It seems there is always something we don’t know, there is always something we miss or get wrong.  So, no matter how honest our effort to know ourselves, it’s quite possible we will never entirely succeed.

Yet, why is that so?  What obstacles or challenges interfere with our knowing ourselves?

Offhand, I can think of four.  First, everyone of us lives in a culture or society that encourages us to be self-deluded.  The next time you wonder whether fundamental human nature is everywhere the same, consider the fact you cannot find a culture or society on this planet that fails to encourage self-delusions.  Cultures and societies might vary considerably in precisely which self-delusions they encourage, but so far as I’ve been able to discover, they all encourage them.

Second, everyone of us is subject to the natural failings and distortions of his or her memory.  I mean much more by that than simple forgetfulness — although that’s certainly one of the ways memory can fail us.  For instance, to forgetfulness, one must add false associations.  False associations amount to false memories and are probably far more common than we might suspect.  When we look at ourselves through the lens of our memories, we are in constant risk of basing our notion of who we are on the distortions of that lens.

Next, it seems each of us has an inherent bias in what we see.  Very often, we call that bias our personality, and we do not think of it as a bias in how we see the world.  But it is.  Some people, for instance, are more people-oriented than others.  Let them walk into a room full of jewels and they will see the jeweler before they see the jewels.  Others are more thing-oriented.  They might not even notice a jeweler is in the room with the jewels.  Now, when we look at ourselves, we look at ourselves through the lens of our own personality.  If we are people oriented, we might easily see how others influence us, but have a more difficult time understanding how things influence us.

The last challenge to understanding ourselves that I would like to present here is the nature of thought itself.  By “thought” I mean “symbolic thought”.  We tend to think in words and images, which are symbols.  For some reason, it is exceedingly easy for us humans to fall into the trap of confusing the symbol for the thing symbolized.  This is no less true when we are thinking of ourselves.  And to the extent we fall into that trap when thinking of ourselves, our idea of ourself will most likely differ from how we act.

Those are the four challenges to understanding ourselves that I can think of offhand.  How well we meet those and the other challenges largely determines how well we know ourselves.  I’m curious now what other challenges there might be to understanding ourselves?  And — perhaps more importantly — what ways and techniques do we have for meeting those challenges?  Any ideas?

4 thoughts on “Four Challenges to Understanding Ourselves”

  1. Profound post. I think the greatest challenge to knowing oneself happens if one is very successful in life. Successful and rich. I think such people often do not know themselves. Others kowtow to them and give them an idea that they are all powerful.
    Also when suffers a setback, one can go in the other direction.
    Objectivity comes if one is down-to-earth and looks at the facts, rather than other people’s opinions. The most dangerous thing in my opinion is to start to get an idea about oneself (either negative or positive) from what others say, from the amount of wealth one has or doesn’t, from one’s degrees or lack of them and so on. One’s goodness of heart and one’s ability is not dependent on these things.
    And the higher you go, the harder you fall.


  2. Great post and also comment. IMO, it helps to try to never become complacent, to always keep re-evaluating your beliefs and values. I think you can learn a lot about yourself if you regularly ask yourself why you hold the beliefs and values that you hold.


  3. Very thoughtful post.

    According to me, fear often keeps us from getting to know ourselves better. If we accept and acknowledge something about ourselves, chances are, so will others. Very often, we tend to have a low internal locus of control and get influenced by what others think of us. Then we tend to create false perceptions and lie to ourselves often enough to believe them.

    Reminds me of a speech by Shakespeare (but I can’t recall it now, despite beating my head over it for so long!)


  4. shivya:

    Is it the one from “Hamlet” by Polonius? The one where he says (probably not quite verbatim) ‘…to thine own self be true, and it must follow that you can not be false to any man…’?

    – M. \”/


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