Why Self-Knowledge Can Be the Key to Enhancing Your Mental Wellbeing and Living the Life of Your Dreams
An age-old legend goes that the temple of the Oracle of Delphi, in Ancient Greece, had the words “know thyself” inscribed in stone, and these words repeated to the philosopher Socrates when he came to see the oracle, seeking wisdom.
Self-knowledge is a timeless concept, and in our most honest and introspective moments, we all have to admit that there seems to be a huge amount of insight, truth, wisdom, and realization to be found within. Perhaps, even, the answers to all of life’s biggest questions are to be found within ourselves, rather than in the external world.
The psychologist Carl Jung was a famous advocate of this idea, and once said: “who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
Self-knowledge is by no means an easy thing to obtain. It’s the ongoing work of a lifetime. And, of course, it’s generally a challenging idea to think that we can solve all of our problems solo. As humans, we are all social creatures, and we are intimately connected to our families, our friends, and our societies, for starters.
If you’re going through a hard time, confiding in someone close to you who you trust, or contacting a professional therapist, might well be life-changing, for the right reasons.
Nonetheless — there are some good reasons to think that the quest for self-knowledge might be the key to enhancing your mental wellbeing and living the life of your dreams. Here are some reasons why.
You are not “one personality”, you are “many personalities”, and the more you can get all of those personalities on the same page, the more harmonious your life will be
One of Carl Jung’s many, controversial ideas, was that the human “self” is not just one unitary thing, or personality. Instead, he broke the “self” up into all kinds of different components, including, for example; the “persona” — which is the socially acceptable mask that we present to the world. The “ego”, which Jung called the centre of conscious awareness. The “shadow”, where dark and repressed impulses are hidden in the subconscious mind, and so on.
Though Jung remains ever controversial in polite academic circles, many of these ideas have been mirrored in later theories, movements, techniques, and therapeutic methodologies.
The “Internal Family Systems Model”, for example, has gained enough mainstream presence that the Pixar film Inside Out was based on it entirely, with consultants on behalf of the model advising the film studio during production.
The idea behind this model is that the “self” can be split into three distinct components. There’s the “Exile”, which represents the traits and emotions that the conscious parts of the personality want to exile and prevent from seeing the light of day. There’s “The Manager” that tries to modify your behaviour to keep “The Exile” at bay, and there’s the “Firefighter”, that reacts with sudden, dramatic, and overpowering urges, if “The Exile” parts of the personality risk coming to the surface.
There’s a lot to be said on this theory and the specifics of how everything comes together, and that’s beyond the scope of this article. The key thing to understand, though, is that there are some clear parallels between this and Jung’s ideas. Especially — perhaps most importantly — that it’s the “Shadow” or the “Exile” parts of yourself that you reject and aren’t aware of that are likely to be the source of serious troubles in your emotional, psychological, and physical life.
When all is said and done, you are “one person”, but inside, you are quite divided. After all, if you weren’t at least a bit divided, why would you sometimes vow to do things, and then not do them? Where does that internal resistance come from?
The more you’re able to shine light on the different “parts” of yourself, and “know” them, the better able you’ll be to get all your “sub-personalities” aligned, for a more harmonious life.
The more you understand and admit to your troubles, the better able you are to seek help and to take proactive measures
A lot of people who are beset by serious troubles resort to a particular defense mechanism, which may help to avoid some emotional pain and fear in the short term, but which always ultimately proves destructive.
That defense mechanism is denial. The simple, flat-out refusal to admit that there is a problem, and the raging, lashing out at anyone and anything that tries to press home the point that something may be wrong.
It should go without saying that no problems ever get better or go away when we ignore and refuse to acknowledge them, and yet this is an extremely common approach. Ultimately, it’s the rejection of the call to “know yourself”, due to an overwhelming sense of fear, insecurity, or uncertainty.
By accepting the need to explore the confines of your mind, and the realities of your circumstances, you automatically bring yourself face-to-face with issues you might have been sitting on and failing to resolve for a long time. If you have an eating disorder, for example, this commitment to self-awareness can bring you to understand what an eating disorder meal plan is, why you need one, and what the consequences could be if you don’t begin to take steps to amend your situation.
Facing up to our problems can be terrifying, but it’s essential if we value our wellbeing.
The more you commit to understanding yourself, the less likely you are to externalize your troubles, lash out at others, and harm your relationships
One old idea in psychology is the idea of projection — meaning, essentially, that when we fail to come to terms with, and manage, troubling content in our own psychic inner world, we may well “project” our insecurities, self-loathing, troubles, and harmful impulses onto other people.
Think about this for a moment. When you've been angry at yourself for failing to do something you should have done, can you honestly say that you’ve never “taken it out” on someone close to you, who had nothing to do with it, and who didn’t deserve that treatment?
Maybe you really dropped the ball with a project at work. Ultimately, you're angry at yourself for your own actions, or, rather, for the actions you failed to take. But what happens is that you arrive home and your partner greets you with dinner. You give them the cold shoulder, snap that the food isn’t what you were in the mood for, and then pick a fight over something completely irrelevant.
The more you leave the true root of your frustrations uncovered and unaddressed, the less able you are to proactively deal with them, and to avoid a situation where you lash out at the people you care most about — who are also likely to be the people who least deserve to bear the brunt of your anger and outbursts.
Of course, simply knowing that you’re angry primarily because of something that’s happened at work, doesn’t whatsoever guarantee that you’re not going to take it out on other people. But it does at least make you aware of the fact that your family aren’t the cause of your feelings, and this, in turn, can give you enough of a “pause” so that you take a deep breath and keep that biting comment to yourself.
Of course, it’s also the case that the more you’re able to really unpack your dissatisfaction, the more likely you are to find ways to take meaningful action to address it. Are you really so angry just because your boss wanted you to come in on Saturday? Or is this a symptom of a much deeper dissatisfaction with your professional life?