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How to Get to Know Yourself

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It isn't easy to see yourself the way others see you - but these tips make it easier

Cat but tiger on the mirrorReally get to know yourself and you might like what you find

I was set up for a blind date once with a woman who described herself in a letter to me as 'fun and bubbly!' The way people describe themselves is sometimes rather sharply at odds with the way others see them, I find. I spent the whole of that date wondering where the writer of the letter had got to...

But that's enough about me. What about you?

Do you know much about yourself? Or do you just think you do?

When you refer to your 'self', do you mean the self that relaxes in front of the TV, the self that dreams at night, the self that gets angry, sexy, curious - or all of these combined? Do you have multiple 'selves' that get wheeled on and off as circumstances require, obscuring a truer, more timeless 'self' (as the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, for example, believed)?

And is the same true of the 'average' person?

Mostly, we get ourselves wrong

The average person doesn't think they are average. On average, people claim to be more disciplined, more idealistic, more socially skilled, better drivers, better leaders, and healthier than... the average person.

Logically, this is impossible. The average person is not 'above average'.

Average and above-average people also believe themselves to be worse than average in many of these areas. So low self-esteem is really just misperception. You could argue that if you really are as bad as you think you are, then you are ahead of most people, because you really do know yourself.

How do you really know someone? How do you really know yourself? The whole of this Know Yourself Series is designed to help you do just this, but...

How to really know someone else

After you meet someone for the first time, you might tell me, "Wow, they were nice!" And I would want to know: How do you know? Have you been shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island with them, had to go into battle and entrust your life to them, had to share your wealth, or been sold into slavery with them?

The fact is you can't know someone just from socializing with them. Team bonding isn't just about drinking in the same bar. The closest bonds are forged in extreme circumstances. The bonds between men who have fought in battle together, or between women who have survived against great odds, will always be deeper and truer than the flimsy superficial associations that come from mere socializing.

In extreme times the outer layers of self are peeled away and a truer self emerges. Connections with other people become more real.

But what has Plato got to do with all this?

Plato said "know thyself" so...

Quite a long time ago the Athenian philosopher Plato (first known describer of the 'platonic friendship' between men and women) famously told us, presumably in Greek, to: "Know thyself!" This injunction implied, of course, that most of us don't - and we really need to. That is, accurate self-knowledge is vital for real fulfilment.

Ever since then, hippies go to India to 'find themselves' without first checking behind the sofa. People go on 'self-development' courses. What are they developing, exactly, I wonder? Do they know, or are they just after the warm fuzzy feelings?

All right, let's get to the crunch. Do people really perceive themselves accurately? On the whole? Look around at the people you know. What do you think?

Naaaah! Of course they don't.

Let's look at what people think they are like and what they are really like. Oh, and when I say 'people', I include myself.

Research Plato would have loved

Strong emotion always clouds perception - and so distorts it. Self-perceptions of character and ability are often filled with high doses of bias, misconceptions, and vanities. Sometimes this breeds high self-esteem, while other times it causes conditioned feelings of inadequacy: low self-esteem. People routinely and grossly over- and underestimate their own honesty, aptitude, courage, and attractiveness.

Researchers Mabe, West, and Dunning found that the correlation between self-perception of ability and actual ability is very low. I already mentioned that the average driver believes they are an above-average driver! Most people also think they have an above-average sense of humour (including me). More worryingly, family practitioners rating their knowledge of thyroid disorders failed to show any insight into their actual level of knowledge.1

Other people can sometimes see our situation more clearly than we can ourselves. College roommate ratings are better predictors of which romances will survive than self-impressions.2 Peer ratings among junior doctors strongly predict who will do well on a surgical exam; self-ratings do not.3

We get other things wrong too.

We're better at predicting others' behavior than our own

People overpredict the likelihood that they'll perform generous, ethical, and kind acts. They overestimate the odds they'll buy a flower for charity, vote, maintain a successful romantic relationship, volunteer for an unpleasant lab experiment so a 10-year-old girl won't have to, and cooperate with one another when money is at stake.4 People consistently mispredict themselves even though they are roughly accurate in predicting how others will perform in these areas.5

It seems it is easier to know others than to know ourselves. This is why it is so important to have honest and fair friends and to listen to them. It's not that people are entirely wrong about themselves, but they tend to exaggerate their flaws or abilities.

One of the roles of the court jester during the middle ages was to tell the king things about himself that others dared not. Unfortunately, the rich and famous don't have the same luxury. They are often surrounded by people who never give them straight feedback about themselves, so they can all too easily turn into prima donnas and lose sight of themselves completely.

We don't like to see ourselves as greedy, cowardly, or unkind, of course, but surely any course in true 'self-development' would need to encourage the participants to objectively observe these unacceptable parts of the self without tipping into self-chastisement, low self-esteem, or self-congratulation?

We need to know something before we can do something about it. Wouldn't you rather know?

Why self-esteem gets in the way

To be more honest with ourselves we need to bypass the whole self-esteem question. If your self-esteem is the most important thing to you (and in our society you'd be forgiven for thinking it is the most important thing), then the need to feel good about yourself will always push you into defending your self-esteem, and thus warp how you actually see yourself.

When we can, first, spot our weaknesses and deficits, second, get to know them and know when they'll arise, and, third, not be ruled by them, then we can start to develop real self-confidence. Not the fake confidence that rests on refusing to ever really look at ourselves and maintaining a constant state of self-deception.

Truth, or rationalization?

We use rationalizations all the time to explain away, to ourselves and others, why we did - or didn't do - certain things. Pompous people in particular use rationalizations (as do governments). Rationalizations are biased interpretations rather than the fruits of self-observation. They can turn vice into virtue with a few select words - for example, by describing lack of generosity as 'being cruel to be kind', or laziness as 'thinking time'.

Until we are clear about ourselves and what we are really like, we'll go on repeating the same old mistakes and putting it down to that other popular rationalization: 'fate', or 'just my luck!'

When you know yourself more accurately you can be more effective and successful, as you won't need to waste time and energy propping up your self-esteem though fabrication and self-deceit. Nor will you have to 'work blind', as you will know when fear, selfishness, or whatever other weakness is operating in you, and allow for it, rather than pretending it isn't there.

Of course, the 'real you', your 'self', isn't in an ashram in India, behind the sofa, or on a retreat - it's inside you right now. It may be wrapped in layers of bias, habit, vanity, fear, and conditioning - but it is there!

References

1. Tracey, J. M., Arroll, B., Richmond, D. E., & Barham, P. M. (1997). The validity of general practitioners' self assessment of knowledge: Cross sectional study. British Journal of Medicine, 315(7120), 1426-1428.

2. MacDonald, T. K., & Ross, M. (1999). Assessing the accuracy of predictions about dating relationships: How and why do lovers' predictions differ from those made by observers? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(11), 1417-1429.

3. Risucci, D. A., Tortolani, A. J., & Ward, R. J. (1989). Ratings of surgical residents by self, supervisors and peers. Surgical Gynecology and Obstetrics, 169(6), 519-526.

4. Epley, N., & Dunning, D. (2000). Holier than thou: Are self-serving assessments produced by errors in self or social prediction?Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), 861-875.

5. Mabe ,West, and Dunning. How Chronic Self-Views Influence (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance.

Published by mark.tyrrell May 15th, 2019 in