Self-knowledge is hard to achieve; it is also double-edged: beneficial and dangerous at the same time. Once gained, it can't be lost, which is good if you want to improve and make progress, build on what you've managed so far. But it will also persistently display your own faults to you until you've straightened them out. It will show you, that is, where you are; and that sort of insight is rarely pleasant (most often, we will just realize how little progress we've really made).

Perversely, that makes it look attractive to avoid looking too closely at yourself, blunt your perception of your own personality traits and keep away from scrutinizing your motives all too directly. Attractive it may seem, but obviously such a recoil isn't good for you. Thus many people, rather than simply avoiding self-knowledge, fall into a self-deceptive pattern: instead of self-knowledge, they go for something less disturbing, but superficially similar-looking. To immunize against that mistake, let's look closer at what self-knowledge is not.

We should distinguish between self-knowledge and mere awareness, observation and interpretation of our own psychological states. We're in certain moods, have emotions, and we accept or refuse beliefs — and though we do all this consciously frequently enough, we also do it sometimes without realizing it. You can be in a given mood for quite a while without being aware that you are; people often experience emotions (in particular, those of the nasty variety, such as jealousy, anger or fear) and only recognize at an already far developed stage where they have led them; and many of our opinions (or blind spots that prevent us from considering alternative ones) are so deeply entrenched that we're not always aware that we hold them, although they may express themselves in our behavior and others do observe the attitudes which reveal them. So becoming aware of your own mental states is an ability that needs training. In that respect it is like self-knowledge: it isn't something that comes for free. And like self-knowledge it has both a helpful and an unhelpful side: being aware of your psyche's contents will increase your ability to actively shape them, but it will also show you how much of your time you're enduring rather unpleasant states (for instance, that of boredom). It also will demonstrate to you how even pleasant feelings get stale and weak after just a short while.

Self-awareness in this sense is not the same as self-knowledge: mere perception of how it feels to be in a situation is no substitute to evaluating your being there. Real self-knowledge is reflexive character assessment: having reflected on what you want to do with your life, what sort of a person you want to be, and knowing where you stand with respect to these goals. That's not something that comes easily; it's a hard-won achievement. It requires sharpening your perceptiveness; but it's not nearly enough to just observe how you feel, to merely accompany your thoughts and actions with some situational awareness. That's a start, of course; it then must be supplemented by sound judgment (including, and especially, of the self-critical sort) and the ability to mature your emotional responses and build up your decidedness in taking action. Self-knowledge is not of the easy, empirical sort: it takes some attitude, and will. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.