How well do you know yourself?
Even after all these years as a psychologist and professor, I am still surprised by how little people know themselves. I’m talking about bright, insightful, successful people. I’m talking about myself. I am convinced that it is part and parcel of our human nature. We are not objective observers of ourselves. Apparently learning about our self is something that happens slowly and mostly though trial and error. It seems like there should be an easier way.
Rather than get into “why” it’s so hard to get to know ourselves well, I want to explore the effect of this aspect of our humanness. A lack of self-knowledge can damage us and affect our current and future well-being.
1. It affects our ability to make good decisions about our life.
When we don’t know our selves, we make decisions that go against our nature. For example, if you don’t know your capacity for handling anxiety and stress, you may take on responsibilities that will eventually lead you to sleep disorders, burn-out or even health problems.
2. It makes relationships more difficult than they need to be.
I would highly recommend that people going into committed relationships do some good work trying to understand their basic personality styles. Rather than arguing for decades over how busy your social calendar should be or how neat to keep the house, it would be good to start out with an understanding of each other’s capacity for stimulation and perfectionism. Evidence is that these things are fairly hard-wired and knowing your partner’s traits will keep you from knocking your head against the wall expecting them to change. Perhaps it will even awaken our compassion for someone who has different needs.
3. You will be less skilled at handling conflict.
Let’s face it. Very few of us are comfortable with conflict. It’s one of the more difficult aspects of being human. Knowing our own preferred conflict resolution style will help us get better at negotiating differences.
4. We misunderstand why we have the difficulties that we do at work.
We often end up in positions that are not good for our basic personalities. Big picture people end up having to attend to details. Creative problem-solvers end up having to implement the plans of others. Knowing yourself will help you find the position that best suits you, which is not necessarily the one with the highest status or paycheck.
5. We are set up to make mistakes that hurt us and hurt those that we love.
Misunderstanding our self and others is at the heart of many of our unresolved relational problems.
What can you do about it? Here are a few ways to get to know your self better.
1. Personality tests are much better than they used to be.
Many personality tests used to be based on bad theory, poor or no research, or for the purpose of diagnosis of mental disorders. Now there are some very good instruments out there. I encourage you to get one done. It’s very helpful as an objective measure of certain aspects of who you are. Make sure that you get an interpretation of the test results from someone who is appropriately trained. We use one based on the BIG FIVE personality traits. This is the “gold standard” in the industry. It might be particularly helpful to do this when making career decisions or as part of pre-marital counseling, for example.
2. Encourage other people to tell you the truth about their experience of you.
If you respond with gratitude, rather than defensiveness, you’ll get to know lots about yourself. Their view might not be the Truth, but it is their impression of you—one more piece of evidence.
3. Keep a journal.
Write without censoring yourself about your experience. What are your most commonly experienced moods and emotions? Do you tend to be more positive or negative in your expectations and explanations of what has happened to you? How much energy do you have for physical and mental activity? What energizes you and what depletes you?
4. Examine your thinking when you get into relational conflict.
It is very natural to think that others are like ourselves or should be like ourselves. Somehow we tend to think our version of reality is the right version. After all, it is our experience and it is difficult to doubt our own senses. If you find yourself thinking that the other is obstinate, lazy, neurotic, etc., maybe you can re-frame this in more positive terms. Perhaps they just have a different personality style.
5. If you have the means, consider working with a professional.
There are many good counselors out there who can help raise your self-awareness. You don’t have to be emotionally or psychologically troubled to benefit from a mentor, counselor or coach. Beware if you wander outside of the realm of licensed professionals. The life coaching industry is not regulated so there are lots of people claiming to be life coaches and gurus who have not had the training needed.
6. Make a point to push your own limits once in a while.
When we are challenged or facing adversity, we often see bits of our self that remain hidden in the everyday routines that we have established.
While it may still take a lifetime (we are mysterious and we do change and grow!), by being intentional about developing self-awareness, we may thrive rather than just survive our personalities!
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