“Know Thyself” … But How?

Freud showed that much of our proclaimed self-knowledge is, in fact, self-deception. The vast majority of who and what we are lies just out of reach, living on in the unconscious regions of our mind.

To a large extent, our proclaimed self-knowledge is the product of simple pattern repetition. We think we know ourselves because our responses to our environment are predictable. (And our environment is predictable.) But is this really “who we are,” or is it simply “how we have been programmed to respond”?

In the final analysis, can we ever really know who we are? And to what extent does our craving to know who we are compel us to leap to faulty conclusions which we then act out in a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The point of this post is to point out that we merely think we know ourselves because our actions and responses are predictable. This “knowledge” is misleading. We rarely do anything that surprises us. And the reason we don’t act in a way that surprises us is not to avoid inauthenticity – it’s not because to do so would be “out of character” – but, instead, to protect our apparently fragile narrative about who we are.

We are motivated to act in a manner that preserves our constructed sense of self. However, because this sense of self is a construction, it is not real. Or, as Plato liked to say, it is not the “really real”.

Our self-construct, although a useful tool for operating successfully in the world, is not a genuine representation of who we really are.

If we wish to expand our self-knowledge, if we wish to escape stale self-constructs that lead to simple pattern repetition, we must deliberately put ourselves in new environments, or, at the very least, choose new responses in familiar environments.

The resulting novel experience will challenge our familiar sense of self (and our familiar stories about the world).

In time, we’ll learn that we only think much of what we think because we think it. (Was that confusing?) We don’t think it because it’s real or right. We think it because some mysterious set of complex factors – including our biological code, our family of origin, our society, what we ate for breakfast – gave rise to the thought. The thought, if it is helpful to us (note that this is different from being accurate), is called upon again. In time the thought becomes familiar and, because familiar, mistaken for real/right – or mistaken for an accurate representation of the real.

So, if you want to challenge your familiar notions of both your self-understanding and world understanding, try on a few experiments. Take a new route to work. Stop in a new coffee shop. Order a different slice of pizza. Say “no” instead of “yes,” or “yes” instead of “no”. Read a book of a completely different genre. Watch a foreign movie. Eat dessert before dinner. Go to bed at 9pm for a week. Meditate for an hour. Buy a ridiculous looking shirt and wear it. Tell somebody you love them. Tell somebody you don’t care for them.

Will these practices reveal your true self to you? No. But they’ll get you out of your familiar, constructed sense of self. They’ll introduce you to the mystery that you are.

No longer stuck trying to prove to yourself that you’re something specific, you’re free to be anything else.

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