The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates reportedly adopted the motto “Know thyself” to guide his search for a life of enlightenment and wisdom. This “commandment” has been passed on by various thinkers over time. But do we ever really know ourselves? And do others perhaps have a better awareness of us than we do?
Many psychologists and social commentators maintain that an intense focus on self is the order of the day, the popularity of social media and “selfies” being cited as evidence to back up their claim. Yet if this is true, the situation is not caused by new technology alone, but by what makes this technology seem so attractive.
There are at least two relevant factors here. First, as psychologist Abraham Maslow argued half a century ago, once humans satisfy their basic needs, they go on to develop and satisfy “higher-order” needs, such as “self-actualization.” This seems to be a universal of human nature, as cross-cultural studies suggest.
Second, our age is also one of increasing insecurity over things like the accelerating rate of change itself, employment, affordable housing, global violence and war, collapsing social safety nets, political instability, soaring world population, food and water shortages, poverty, climate change and refugeeism—all of which have an impact on how we evaluate our own prospects for a happy life. In the face of these vast problems, which as individuals we have very limited means to address, it is no surprise that a retreat into our own private worlds seems appealing.
Humans have a “theory of mind,” which entails recognising that others have mental states and being able to “read” these, so that we can understand others, ponder what they are thinking about us, show empathy toward them, and predict their behaviour to a certain extent. This suggests we should distinguish between public and private self-awareness.
The former is how we appear (or think we appear) to others. The latter is how we appear to ourselves. Obviously the two cannot be rigidly separated because we are social beings; this makes us care what others think of us, and that in turn affects the way we think about ourselves. Nor are the two perspectives always (or even often) in synch (see “Mixed Signals,” by Sam Gosling, Psychology Today; and “Metaperceptions: How Do You See Yourself?” by Carlin Flora, Psychology Today).
Dalai Lama's best words of wisdom
Dalai Lama's best words of wisdom
1/6 Dalai Lama
"Common sense tells us we‘ll be happy even if we’re poor if we’re warm-hearted, whereas if we’re wealthy but self-centred we’ll be miserable."
2/6 Dalai Lama
"With the realization of ones own potential and self-confidence in ones ability, one can build a better world."
3/6 Dalai Lama
"It is under the greatest adversity that there exists the greatest potential for doing good, both for oneself and others"
4/6 Dalai Lama
"Love and kindness are the very basis of society. If we lose these feelings, society will face tremendous difficulties; the survival of humanity will be endangered."
Dylan Martinez /REUTERS
5/6 Dalai Lama
“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness. This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness."
2004 Getty Images
6/6 Dalai Lama
"No-one can afford to assume that someone else will solve their problems. Every individual has a responsibility to help guide our global family in the right direction."
We all create narratives of our lives—stories we tell ourselves and occasionally others about how we’re faring—and doing so is an ongoing, open-ended activity. But like any narratives, these are prone to error and exaggeration. Some aspects of our lives are conveniently forgotten or glossed over if they make us look bad in our own eyes, and we may accept others’ white lies as the truth about us, inflate our achievements beyond their merit, and so forth. On the other hand, we may fixate on the negative, embracing self-images that are limited or false in the opposite direction. And to complicate matters, we possess the capacity for self-awareness to varying degrees.
Is there a way to gauge the scope of your own self-awareness, to gain a more objective sense of how your life is going? One place to begin is by doing the “Self-Awareness Inventory,” which is a product of Wisconsin’s Technical Colleges. But while this opens the door a little, some may wish to go further.
So how can you increase your level of self-awareness and avoid being hemmed in by a restricted outlook on yourself? Here are a few suggestions, in no particular order: read good novels (to expand your imaginative range beyond yourself); read philosophy (to improve your critical skills and ability to see other viewpoints); watch a video of yourself in action in a public place or presenting to an audience; learn to play a musical instrument or a sport (to test your abilities and discipline); travel (to see how others live); do volunteer work (to help those more needy than yourself); study a new language; meditate. It’s also said that if there are things you don’t like about yourself, you can sometimes change them by deliberately altering your behaviour patterns in relation to them.
One thing to beware of in all this is placing too much emphasis on self-awareness as a “key to success.” Self-awareness is of primary value for its own sake, and you have to want it to pursue it for that reason. Its chief benefit is and should remain becoming more fulfilled as a person, more comfortable in your own skin. Everything else will follow from that. Is this a just another narcissistic aim? No, because we are, after all, individuals, and liking who you are is a key to being likeable as well as to meeting the challenges the world presents for each of us to solve.
Michael Allen Fox is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Queen’s University (Canada) and Adjunct Professor of Humanities, University of New England (Australia). His books include The Remarkable Existentialists and Understanding Peace: A Comprehensive Introduction. A new book, Home: A Very Short Introduction, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.