Know Thyself, Discover Thy-Change

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The topic of self can be confusing. Philosophers such as Hume, Tolstoy, Aristotle, and a host of others have attempted to answer cognitive conundrums pertaining the self, and have, often, come up empty handed. But they have also given us several theories to ponder through our own thought experiments; such as Tolstoy’s attempt to identify a self and selfless being, to Hume’s rejection of identity in lieu of his theory of a transient “self”.

But when it comes to personal change the idea of self is important to acknowledge, because we are, in fact, trying change something about our-“selves”…aren’t we? So rather than getting caught up with the preoccupation of whether or not a self exists lets assume, that for the time being, one does, and that “self” is you.

A large part of my practice is helping people identify what is going to work for them. So when we implement strategy, technique, or methods our intention is to examine them from the perspective of self; meaning, given what you know about yourself why do you think a particular strategy or method has or has not been successful?

The surprising observation I have come across in my work, with people, is that we are not, by nature, incredibly self aware. In other words, Mary is not the expert I had assumed, on the topic of well…Mary.

I think the notion that we know ourselves, is seen as an inherent truth…almost a given, so to speak. We think, “of course I know myself, I have been with me my entire life.” But as the historian Daniel Boorstin said,

“The greatest obstacle to knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”

If we accept the idea that we know ourselves without question, we leave little room to acquire insight, and in turn, encourage growth. We stifle our development, by negating learning. And in this way we impede our potential for change.

In light of this, my work has brought about an interesting examination of self. From values, to predispositions, to belief systems, along personal quirks.

I have come to assume that we know very little about what is going to work for us, because while we may have expertise and a depth of knowledge pertaining to our careers, passions/borderline obsessive hobbies, when it comes to the topic of who we are, we have done little, if any, rigorous investigation.

In the case of my work, self knowledge has proven to be an interesting paradox.

On one hand we are looking to acquire a greater understanding of who we are, and on the other we are seeking to garner insights that will inevitably change the very persona we are trying to identify, and in this way the concept of who we are can be seen as one of fluidity, in that, as we become increasingly aware of our beliefs, values, and tendencies we can decide which aspects of who we are and what we believe are negotiable.

But self knowledge in an of itself will not bring about change. In the same way that having knowledge of cognitive biases will do little to make us less susceptible to them and their influence on our behaviors, knowing what to believe or what to do does little in achieving an appreciable effect. As demonstrated by the over abundance of information provided to us by the internet.

So the idea of self knowledge as it pertains personal change is an interesting one, and readily brings to mind a mantra (one of the many) that I tend to live my life by and that is to be content without being complacent.

In many ways we must acknowledge ourselves and be accepting of the parts of us that we consider to be natural or innately “us”, but as we seek to cultivate growth and personal development we must also seek out experiences that challenge the status quo.

The best way I have seen to do this is through personal reflection, meaningful conversation, and through being open to new experiences. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but does serve as a more that capable starting point.

Whatever mode you choose to employ your intent should be to illicit insights. Insights are those things that once discovered change the way we think, act, and behave. They come about through contradiction, connection, curiosity, coincidence, and creative desperation, all of which are not mutually exclusive, and often work in combination.

Insights are those events that once discover, can not be retracted or rescinded or as writer, Hilary Mantel put it,

“Insight cannot be taken back. You cannot return to the moment you were in before.”

In this way, insights can be seen as the purveyors of change; and knowledge of self can be defined as a culmination of that which is worth keeping, and that which is to be discarded and/or replaced, whether they are character traits or no longer relevant or obsolete beliefs.

In any case if you are attempting to make changes in your life, it would be prudent of you to begin with understanding yourself.

And as you broaden your horizons, you’ll also travel further into the depths of your character. The more and more you are confronted with beliefs different than your own, you will learn more about the thoughts that may be limiting your aptitude for improvement; and so begins your path to change.

At any rate, all I can say, my good friend, is good luck, and happy insight hunting.