This is a continuation of the previous post where I explored what I have gained from cultivating self-knowledge. So, if you haven’t done so already, I recommend that you first take a look at the story of how pursuing self-knowledge led me to understanding, freedom, compassion, and self-assurance.
As I said at the end, I want to provide a more practical guide for doing this soul-searching on your own, because knowing the benefits without knowing a way forward is not enough. So here we are, sorry for the delay.
Take all I say with a grain of salt. This is what has worked for me, you might be different. See if it works for you, the path to self-knowledge is not universal. We have forests to explore, mountains to climb, each of our very own making.
Introspection is the name of the game
I was lately taken by a thought about human gatherings. A few days ago, I was walking through the Camden Market. I finally wanted to see the place and since it is a twenty-five-minute walk from the place I live here in London, on a sunny Sunday afternoon I went. As I stood on the Iron Bridge, with all the tourists so close to me that had I not lived in London for a while, I would want to push them away, I again realized how much of life is inaccessible to me. Much of life is happening in people’s heads.
Standing there and looking over the canal in the direction of all the street food stands, I saw all the faces passing me by as hiding a depth of life and thought that I can never see and appreciate just by observing.
Maybe they have similar thoughts to mine, or maybe they are consumed by a rush to snap the perfect picture for Instagram, but there always is a depth that mere appearances hide.
We occupy this inner world, unperturbed for most of our days. We live in a house that our minds and environment shape.
Introspection allows us to look inside as a conscious self, to see what mental states and images arise, on their own, or with the help of questions, people, events, and other stimuli.
This internal picture we acquire is synonymous with self-knowledge. What do you see when you look inside? What likes, fears, desires, pains, upsetting situations, character traits, default reactions, do you see? Is it what you want to see?
Seeing doesn’t imply changing. Seeing is the beginning, which can lead to understanding, freedom, compassion self-assurance, and ultimately to change.
But where do you begin?
I suggest you write things down. Get a pen and paper, take some time off, schedule out this practice session of looking inwards, and ask yourself a few questions.
There are endless lists online of questions you can ask (just google self-exploration questions), and I think many of them are good questions. But to give you my recommendation, the most beneficial questions I’ve asked of myself so far revolve around my values and the direction of my life.
What do you care about? What do you value? What you cannot imagine your life without? What are your five highest values? (e.g: family, work, freedom, independence, frugality, generosity, truth, helpfulness, happiness, faith, knowledge, power, fun, kindness, strength, hospitality, safety, inventiveness,…)
And a step further, what story do you want to tell with your life? What legacy do you want to leave to the posterity? To what cause, if any, are you willing to dedicate your time on this planet? Even a foggy answer to those questions proved to be immensely valuable because it at the very least showed me what are my inclinations. If you struggle to find an answer, try it the other way. What do you absolutely hate? What you definitely don’t want your life to look like?
Of course, you don’t have to go in this route of questions, you can ask what is your favorite kind of cheese, or deeper, whether you want to have kids, and why, or yet deeper in a different way, what wounds do you carry from childhood that might still be affecting you. You pick the direction.
But start exploring, look inside, introspect, ask yourself, jot down your thoughts, embrace the thrill, discomfort, and new found confidence the exploration brings.
Read, listen, ask
I decided to group a number of ways that can lead you towards deeper knowledge of yourself. Openness to see mirrors around you is what I found to be exceedingly helpful.
Books, words on a yellowish page half rotten, turned tens of times before you laid hands on it, can bring fresh understanding to your own condition, you can see your reflection in the ink.
Likewise, when you open your ears to the words spoken around you, a mirror can appear. Why do I get annoyed by that? Wow, that was like it was said directly to me! Am I also bother by that? How can I be of more help in the situation I am hearing? When you grow to be self-reflective you can find a lot of gold in what people say.
And of course, to know yourself better, you can ask people directly about the way they see you. Be ready to leave the ego behind closed doors. When you ask for genuine feedback from someone who cares for you, there is no reason to be afraid, even though the answer might be disillusioning. From my experience, the more fear the thought of asking for genuine feedback (which can include both praise and criticism) creates, the more you need it because you have blind spots your ego doesn’t want you to see. Ego wants to protect you, keep you in a cozy shelter of the lie you tell yourself, about yourself. The lie is often elevating, that’s why ego clings to it.
Face the fear, ask your closest people to be brutally honest, and assess what you can do about what you hear.
Observe yourself in different environments
Are you the same in every environment? I don’t mean in the level of politeness for example. Of course, meeting your possible boss, or future father-in law requires a different approach than when you are sipping whiskey with your pals.
What I mean is whether you let the pressure of a different environment mold you into a distorted version of yourself. Maybe you suddenly are overly dramatic in your speech to attract attention, or you are afraid to express what you really think, or you give away to the pressure of the group and you do something that you genuinely don’t want to do.
You can find a lot about yourself when you then ask, why did I succumb to the pressure, why do I try to please them? Why can’t I face possible rejection or ridicule and instead I fake my way through?
These are tough question, I know. But even the process of questioning is worth a lot, well worth the discomfort.
Make the best use of failure
I think the most I have learned in life has been from the failures I’ve had. You can read about a relatively recent one and about what I’ve learned from it here.
Failure is not ideal. We both have failed. We messed up. Things didn’t go as planned. We should acknowledge this. Yet, failure is the best opportunity to move forward, and in particular to move farther on the path of self-exploration. When you fail you quite often discover something new. At the very least, you discover how well you can handle failure and whether you can bounce from it.
More often, however, you discover more. Maybe you learn you need to work harder, maybe you need to assess your effectiveness, maybe you should pursue something else, maybe you should start to listen more, maybe it is time to humble the hell down. There is a lot to learn from our failures.
Now, I don’t suggest you go about failing at things, but when you try to do something with your life, you inevitably will fail at some things. What I advocate is just to make the best use of it. Don’t let the chance to see yourself under the light of failure to slip by. I know the light is uncomfortably revealing, but this is just what we need.
I think a lot of people do a bit of retrospective analysis already, but I suggest you take it to the next, helpful level. Retrospective analysis as I see it is a practice of looking back at various situations, either from that day, or from a week ago, or even from years ago, and trying to perform a little psychoanalysis on yourself.
Why have I reacted this way? What did I want to prove to him? Why did I say that? Why did he say that? Did I really just eat the whole pie? Why did I choose chocolate twist over the doughnut?
Just don’t let it get out of hand. Which connects to …
Don’t overdo it
Looking inwards we can forget to look outwards. There are too many interesting things happening and waiting to be explored that endless self-analysis quickly runs havoc in opportunity cost.
And not only that, there are others to be cared for, loves to be shared, encouragement to be spoken, memories to be made, laughs to be had.
Strike your own balance. I can only say that at first, to get the ball rolling you might need a more deliberate approach to self-discovery, but as your self-reflective muscles strengthen, much of this will be happening in the background and then you can decide when is it the right time to again do some more deliberate questioning. Maybe journaling every night, week, month is a way for you to do so. I know for me journaling at least once every week to assess what I have learned over the week and what I want to work on, works and is not at all distracting. Find your own pace.
Go with compassion instead of guilt
I touched on the topic of compassion in the first part. Self-knowledge should lead to compassion. As Mark Manson writes: “Self-awareness is wasted if it doesn’t result in self-acceptance.”
We all need to learn to accept ourselves the way we find us, embrace us, and then be strict in cleaning the inner house. Self-awareness allows you to do your dirty laundry guilt-free. We all are wreaks to a greater or lesser extent, we all have pathologies that arose from outside our control to face, there isn’t a reason to bash ourselves over it. It is important that we learn to be compassionate towards ourselves, and through the understanding of why we are the way we are, even when it is far from where we want to be, to extend our compassion to others. They also need to walk their path, and there is no reason to keep the compassion directed only at ourselves. We all need it.
So, I hope this short personal guide to self-knowledge will help you on your path. I wish you a pleasant journey to the depths of the inner self. Say hi to the abyss.