This is probably the hardest and the most rewarding skill we can acquire. Most choices we make are based on an understanding of ourselves; our needs, wants and fears. If our understanding of ourselves is wrong for any reason, we’re likely to make choices that end up being bad for us even when we think they’re good for us. That’s worse than making choices that we know are bad for us, simply because we won’t even try to change our choices when we mistakenly think they’re good for us.
We mainly use 3 approaches to develop and improve our self-understanding:
- Introspection: This is our ability to examine, evaluate and analyse our own thoughts, actions and feelings. All of us tend to do this – sometimes in a healthy way, other times in ways that bring us anxiety or distress. It might help to understand and avoid the most common reasons why our introspection might turn unhealthy:
- Lack of self-awareness: Even though it’s hard to realize this, we might not always be aware of everything that’s going on in our own minds. In fact, we rarely are. Practising paying attention to our own thoughts, emotions and feelings in a clear and unambiguous way helps to strengthen this ability. Certain forms of meditation can be very helpful in cultivating this ability – mindfulness, vipassana, mind-wandering and body scanning, to name a few.
- Cognitive biases: Our minds were shaped by evolution for survival, not for understanding. This results in a number of well-known cognitive biases that mislead our thinking, making it hard for us to understand ourselves in an objective way. Being aware of these biases helps us catch our minds in the act of falling for one of these biases. Here’s a long list of cognitive biases –
. Out of these, some are likelier than others to intrude into our journey towards self-understanding:
- Confirmation bias: the tendency to cherry-pick observations that match our existing beliefs while ignoring pieces of evidence that prove us wrong. It makes it hard to realize when we’re wrong about ourselves.
- Availability bias: the tendency to overvalue recent experiences or observations, even when they are rare in the larger context. It makes us undervalue our traits and skills if they haven’t had a chance to come out in the recent past.
- Dunning Kruger effect: the tendency to overestimate our skills in areas where we have a little bit of knowledge or exposure. This happens because we don’t yet know how much more there is to learn and end up thinking we already know a lot.
- Dread aversion: the tendency to prioritize escaping bad thoughts or feelings even when we know that dealing with them is advantageous for us in the long run. This is what makes it hard for us to acknowledge our weaknesses even when they may be harming us regularly.
- Halo effect: the tendency to see ourselves as being more similar to the people we like than we actually are. This is what makes us temporarily lose ourselves when we like a person.
- Mental health conditions: Certain mental health conditions like anxiety, trauma response (PTSD, etc), paranoia and stress impair introspection by making us amplify negative things about ourselves. Other conditions like narcissism and mania make us amplify positive things about ourselves. Yet other conditions like borderline, histrionic, sociopathy, schizophrenia and alexithymia impair our ability to perceive ourselves with enough clarity to form a consistent description. Being aware of any such conditions we may be influenced by goes a long way in adjusting our self-understanding to mitigate their impact.
- Social feedback: This has got to be the most underrated approach to understanding ourselves. Time and again, research studies have shown that analysing what people in our lives think of us tends to give us a more accurate understanding of ourselves than relying on introspection. Yet, we also have a natural tendency to value our opinion of ourselves more than that of our friends and family. This comes from a myth: more information always leads to better understanding. While it is true in the early stages of information gathering, there is a threshold beyond which more information clouds our understanding by making it harder and harder to separate the relevant information (signal) from the irrelevant (noise). Seen in the light of this insight, our unabridged access to everything that’s happening inside our own mind can easily become a source of confusion instead of clarity. Learning to seek and receive honest feedback from people in our lives can help us better deal with this confusion.
- Understanding how minds work in general: This is the method of science – trying to learn about our mind by analysing how other minds work. While this approach has its limitations since every mind is unique, it is useful in providing us with a firm foundation of the general features of a human mind. The frameworks on this site, for example, belong to this category of information.
As you already know, the journey towards self-understanding is a never-ending one. We are always changing and there’s always more of ourselves to discover. This can make the journey as frustrating as it is exciting, but there’s no escaping this journey. The human mind is incapable of giving up its desire to understand itself – we might as well help it in any way we can.