Know Thyself

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Inscribed on the forecourt wall of the ancient Delphian temple is the short and powerful admonition “Know Thyself.” This timeless message stands the tests of time. It is the first law of self-improvement. “Know thyself” is the first step on the dignified and majestic journey of self-improvement. 

Allen Ivey suggests that “life is simultaneously a journey, a destination, and a state of being. The journey is development; the destination is an inevitable repetition of our return to where we began (but with a new state of awareness)” (Ivey, 1986). The journey of knowing ourselves may take us to many diverse and interesting lands, but ultimately returning right back to where we started. However, our return is marked with a much greater awareness for know we know ourselves a little better.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
T.S. Eliot (1943)

What Does it Mean to “Know Thyself?”

We have always been there, you know, in our own lives. We grow up as the central figure in our life story. Our presence is so prolific in everything we do. Subjectivity is the foundation of consciousness. Our self-system interprets life is a congenial way that blends with subjective beliefs about ourselves.. There is no rumination, thought, or emotion with out the self doing the reflecting, thinking, or feeling.

We are so busy looking outward that we forget to examine the evaluator. The self is the lens from which we see the world. If we know the lens, we better understand the unique perspective—errors and distortions.

To ‘know thyself’ isn’t about the superficial details. Our height, weight, favorite color are insignificant. It’s the big stuff that matters. The hidden gems and ghastly stones dwelling beneath the surface that enlighten our minds and begin the refining process.

Farnoosh Brock, a wellness coach and author, defines knowing yourself as, “understanding your strengths and weaknesses, your passions and fears, your desires and dreams. It means being aware of our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies, your likes and dislikes, and your tolerances and limitations. Knowing yourself means knowing your purpose in life” (2013).

Only through these particular and intimate insights does our life narrative come to light. We see the backline story that gives life to everything else.

How Does Self Knowledge lead to Personal Growth?

​Self-knowledge is critical in our quest to cultivate our being. Having a glimpse of the person creating subjective interpretations of the world is helpful to sort the myths from reality.

​Knowing ourself isn’t a simple task. Life is dynamic. We constantly are in motion, acting differently in varying contexts. However, a sound knowledge of self requires continuous examinations, filled with respectful awe and occasional revolting disgust. There is no magic threshold where we experience a final enlightenment, exposing are true nature. We must live in a state of semi-ignorance continually open for new revelations.

See Self Enlightenment for more on this topic

“Knowledge of the self is the mother of all knowledge. So it is incumbent on me to know my self, to know it completely, to know its minutiae, its characteristics, its subtleties, and its very atoms.”

~Khalil Gibran

Self Knowledge is Difficult to Obtain

Self deceptions run rampant. They kindly or malignantly color self narratives. We have lived with these deceptions for so long they invisibly exist, creating havoc with our subjective experience.

In my early exploration into well-being, I would comment on a variety of social media posts, ‘correcting’ point of view errors of others, relying on my psychology background as my authority. It took several years to realize my research and writing compensated for my own malignancy. My own disease that was biasing my work. Consequently, my focus outward missed the critical work of looking inward. I was violating the first law of wellness—know thyself.

The Greek sage Thales was once asked, “oh master, what is the most difficult thing to do?” Thales replied, “to know thyself.” The inquisitor then asked “and the easiest?” Thales pointedly responded “to give advice to others” (Trivers, 2014, location 4844).

Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher, famously wrote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” In quietness, in only our own company, we fear deeper reflections. In our modern world, we sit alone with tens of millions of others only a few clicks away on our smart phone. Perhaps, modern technology is a significant obstacle to knowing ourselves.

Mindfulness and Knowing Ourselves

Self-knowledge can be improved with mindful attention. Each day, our being (mind and body) interacts with the environment, generating feelings and responses. Consequently, these interactions provide opportunity to glance inward and discovery more about our own inner nature—an opportunity to know thyself. These glimpses quickly fade and are easily discarded without focused attention and curios examination.

“​Mindfulness and meditation help you learn how to observe your own thoughts and feelings without attaching a personal meaning to them.”

~Lisa Hutchison, LMHC  |  Counseling Schools

Susan David, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and cofounder and codirector of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, wrote, “simply paying attention brings the self out of the shadows (2016, location 1254).

We want to discover those stubborn hidden realities of who we are—the self hiding in the shadows. But seeing is not enough. David continues that mindfulness is about “more than knowing ‘I’m hearing something,’ or being aware ‘I’m seeing something,’ or even noticing ‘I’m having a feeling.’ It’s about doing all this with balance and equanimity, openness and curiosity, and without judgment” (location 1255).

Our judgements and labeling of what we examine is where problems intrude.

Distorted Self Images

Although we may occasionally examine momentary flashes, we come no closer to “knowing ourselves” if the data is plugged into the faulty equations of our predetermined and distorted narratives. Basic misconceptions of who we are and who we are trying to become compound, leading us further from self-knowledge, left languishing in protective interpretations.

See Cognitive Shortcuts for more on this topic

There is no easy answer to avoiding faulty perceptions and entrenched bias except to know they exist and to watch for their hideous interference to self knowledge. Markedly, explorations of self easily disrupt stability when previous visions of self are severely distorted. We built protective explanations to guard against evil attacks on our ego. Life was hard, and we created effective self-preservation techniques. We protect against unwelcome intruders.

And remember, every child is unique. They grow and develop at their own pace. So, even if they might be a bit behind in some areas, they could be ahead in others. Let’s celebrate their uniqueness and help them shine in their own way!

Compassion and Security

A necessary condition to gain self-knowledge is a solid foundation of security. When underlying experience invites shame, the intense feeling of not being “good” enough, our brief encounters with our humanity threatens. The dark clouds of the unknowns are ferocious to someone lacking faith in their abilities. Accordingly, the unknowns become a source of fear instead of knowledge to be curiously examined. Courageous exploration quickly gives way to fruitless attempts to organize a simple and predictable world.

See Self Determination Theory for more on this topic

We can only process difficult self revelations when the enlightenments  are received with compassion and acceptance. Our kindness towards our imperfections allows their existence without morphing into hateful shame.

Knowing ourselves is only available to those willing to embrace imperfections with tenderness and compassion. Accordingly, by creating an inner loving environment, we gain the security necessary to face the world in vulnerability. And in the end, we can stand in the forecourt of life, and boldly declare, we can do this, for we know ourselves.

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Brock, F. (2013). How to Get to Know Yourself in 5 Fool-Proof Steps. Prolific Living. Accessed 3-11-2021.

David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. Avery; First Edition.

Ivey, Allen E. (1986). Developmental Therapy: Theory Into Practice. Jossey-Bass; First Edition.

Trivers, R. (2014). The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life. Basic Books; Reprint edition.

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