Why Self-Knowledge is Hard to Come by and What to Do about It

When asked to condense all of his knowledge and wisdom into one pithy takeaway, the Athenian philosopher, Socrates, responded simply: ‘know yourself’.

He didn’t say how to do this though. Nor how close to impossible it is. 

What becomes clear when you consider how our self-constructs operate is that humans are hardwired for self-forgetting. And given that developing self-knowledge is instrumental to happiness, this isn’t good! We all need to dedicate considerable time and effort to self-observation as an investment in our long-term happiness. 

This post looks at why self-knowledge is so essential and what types of self-knowledge are worth having. It explains some of the reasons why we get in our own way when it comes to seeing clearly, and a few of the unsavory consequences of a lack of self-knowledge.

At the end, it suggests a few key things we can do to grow our self-knowledge to an adequate level.

What kind of self-knowledge is worth having?

Obviously, the kind of self-knowledge Socrates was talking about probably wasn’t what your favorite color is or favorite food. Although I am sure that is very interesting, knowing about those isn’t going to improve your quality of life. 

So what sort of things fall into that category? Just what is worth knowing about you? 

Here are a few things that I have found useful to understand about me:

  • how I feel about my parents and childhood.
  • the reasons why I get aggravated by the things I do.
  • what I use to make decisions. 
  • how specifically I am difficult to be in relationship with, and how I am easy. 
  • the characteristic way I respond to stress.
  • how I handle criticism.
  • the kind of work I am best suited to.
  • what qualities in others I am characteristically attracted to.
  • the stuff that gets me the most excited.
  • what I find a meaningful use of the time.

These are just a few basics we all need to understand about ourselves. For me, it has taken time, prolonged thinking, and exposure to different settings and different relationships to begin to answer these questions.

And it’s not just me. Many of us struggle to answer questions about our psychology. Let’s take a look at why that is.

5 reasons it’s hard to know ourselves

There are more than 5 reasons why, but here are some that apply to most of us.

1. Much of what we do is unconscious

This is what I meant when I said in the introduction that we are hardwired for self-forgetting. It is much more demanding for the brain to stay conscious in every single moment of our feelings, intentions and behaviors. In other words, it is a lot easier to go onto auto-pilot.

And so that is what we all do.

For half of our lives apparently.

2. We are driven by our baser impulses

Related to the first point, we are dictated to by crude desires to be comfortable, and to feel pleasure. And – crucial to self-knowledge – we avoid looking at anything about ourselves that is vaguely unflattering. We’d rather ‘not go there’.

Our unconscious houses desires and feelings that often challenge a more comfortable vision of ourselves. If we look too closely, we might realise that we are in careers or relationships that are unsuited to us.

We basically resist finding out too much about ourselves because it shatters the short-term peace we’re addicted to. 

3. We don’t value it

As a culture, we are far more interested in success and advancement than introspection. In truth, success demands introspection. But people can and often do get there in other ways. It is how they end up feeling empty despite their accomplishments. The internal hunger can never be sated when we make life all about advancement. 

4. We are so identified with our thoughts

We identify so much with our thoughts. But of course, we are not only our thoughts. It is more accurate to say that we are the sum of our minds, bodies and feelings.

Believing we are our thoughts guarantees that self-knowledge remains at arm’s length, because we are only using one very limited way of knowing. Unless and until we work on identifying with the observer of our thoughts, we will struggle to get a broader perspective.

It also makes connecting with others harder when we are so identified with our thoughts. We cannot get outside of our own perspectives for long enough to see their perspectives. 

5. We are misled by our feelings

In addition to paying too much attention to our thoughts, we’re way too obsessed with studying our feelings too! (That is if we aren’t denying them.)

But our feelings are no more ‘who we really are’ than our thoughts. Both thoughts and feelings offer up clues as to our essential natures. But neither deliver the complete picture. 

Think about it: a world with people acting on their feelings would be a total nightmare – as much of a nightmare of a world built on rational thought alone. 

Self-knowledge demands us to develop a healthy suspicion of our feelings. It means becoming much better at realizing how many of our assessments of the situation are skewed by dehydration, tiredness and sleep deprivation -to name just a few of the reality distorters.

5 effects of a lack of self-knowledge

Self-knowledge offers us a route to greater happiness and fulfillment. As the writer Alain de Botton says, ‘lack of self-knowledge leaves you open to accident and mistaken ambitions.’

Here are 5 ways that being low on self-knowledge causes misery. 

1. We feel insecure, anxious and/or easily thrown by our circumstances

Unless we develop self-knowledge, we’ll always be insecure. That is because without having an internal set of values to live by, we constantly fall prey to assessing ourselves against other people’s.

We’ll also be easily thrown by events that seem negative, and we’ll feel anxious over the smallest things.

It is true that these things are also symptomatic of failure to manage the mind. And they also point to a lack of awareness of something quite essential: that everything passes. 

But knowing what we value and what we won’t stand for go a long way in alleviating insecurity. And also, FOMO.

2. We’ll have trouble breaking unwanted habits 

It is not immediately obvious why, but a lack of self-knowledge is behind many a compulsive or addictive behaviour.

Psychologists have learned that addictions come about because of an early pattern of stuffing away feelings, when we need to practice accepting them.

3. Our relationships are unnecessarily fraught and challenging

It has been said that without self-knowledge, we can’t hope for finding the right partner. But I am not so sure about this. I’ve often observed that we have an innate ability to sniff out those who will compliment us without knowing exactly why.  

I think the larger issue is what happens inside of our relationships and friendships when we lack self-knowledge. Probably the biggest offender is not seeing when we are projecting our disowned traits and emotions onto others. Without taking ownership of our projections, we are a nightmare to be with. 

If we do make poor choices in love, self-knowledge can help us to break that habit. We tend to repeat unhealthy patterns from childhood, partnering with people who will frustrate us in familiar ways.

It is through developing self-knowledge that we end this pattern. 

4. We choose work unsuited to us and/or pursue misguided ambitions

When we are eighteen and figuring our what we will do for the rest of our lives (!), most of us are heavily influenced by what everyone else is doing, what’s respectable, what’s lucrative, what’s secure, what our parents want us to do – and a range of other relevant, but periphery considerations. 

Developing self-knowledge is how we find work that is at least vaguely suitable for us. 

5. We invest our time and our money on things that don’t bring us happiness

We spend our time and money on we think will make us happy. But without self-knowledge, we will make bad choices. Over and over again. 

How does the person with self-knowledge look?

There are so many life-enhancing capacities and atributes that self-knowledge develops. Here are just a few:

Able to make positive changes in life. Because we have become aware of how we hold ourselves back. 

More likely to take responsibility for emotions leading to easier time in relationships. We stop looking outside for an answer to the question ‘what’s wrong’, and start investigating our own thinking and behaviour. And if it does turn out to be others that are the problem, we take action to address it. 

Likely be less frustrated at work. Although we may not have the perfect job, we have at least sought out work that we can do comfortably. Also, we become immune to insecurity or competition, can cope fairly well with criticism, and so don’t become unduly anxious. 

Less prone to insecurity, envy and general panic.

Don’t stress quite so much about money. We are more alert to what really matters to us and so we don’t waste money nor feel a need to hoard it. 

Better self-management in romantic relationships. A person with self-knowledge isn’t so pulled around by their attractions. Fewer infatuation situations occur as we stop wildly projecting onto people, seeing them as having an array of magical traits that we don’t. 

More empathetic and compassionate. When we stop avoiding our own shortcomings, we can be more empathetic when other people show theirs. Our compassion improves across the board. 

How to develop self-knowledge

I think the key and more important step we can take is to start taking self-knowledge seriously. If we see it as valuable, we’ll do it.

We’ll read personal development books and we’ll make an effort to learn about ourselves, even when the truth is ugly. And we’ll make time for introspection, and may select to minimize time wasting pursuits. 

And having self-knowledge in realtime? That demands that we turn the keys on some fairly prevalent self-deceptions. These three are probably the most important truth pills:

1. Mindfulness. If we resist going onto autopilot quite so much in our days and lives, slowly we make more of the unconscious conscious. We start to observe our cruder impulses without acting on them.

Here’s how to practice mindfulness.

2. Responsibility. We stop blaming other people for why we are upset and try to figure out what in our thinking is upsetting us. Also we own our power to choose how to see things. And we make changes if we are dissatisfied.

Here’s how you practice responsibility.

3. Acceptance. We work to notice and accept whatever arises, instead of succumbing to distraction and procrastination.

Here’s how you practice acceptance.

These three are the antidotes to pretty much every self-deception going. Try it the next time you have fallen out with reality. See whether you can reach a different perspective by being mindful, taking responsibility, and accepting. 

Summary

Hopefully this has served as an introduction about the significance of developing self-knowledge in our lives and the consequences of not doing so.

Self-knowledge can take time and steady self observation to acquire.

But the benefits of building self-knowledge are, in my experience at least, unparalleled. It is the most important investment we make in our long term happiness. 

Further reading

Here is a list of other articles about building self-knowledge in specific life areas:

For general awareness-raising, here is a list of 25 powerful questions you can ask yourself.