A journey to myself
Who am I? What do I want? What would I like to achieve? Existential questions that we ask ourselves, sometimes frequently, sometimes hardly at all, depending on our life situation. We encounter our own «I» – as the self is called in social psychology – every day and still don’t always exactly know what constitutes our self, or what we really want. In this post we want to focus on this personal self. You are the focal point. How well do you know yourself? Do you believe you know everything about yourself? We can let you in on one secret straight away: the journey to your own «I» is not a quick trip. During your life, you will get to know yourself over and over again, and learn new things about yourself too. Nobody will be able to give you a simple answer to this question; you will need time and patience to embark on the process.
What is the self?
You probably can’t fully answer the question «Who are you? » in one simple sentence. You might even say that it depends on the situation. The self will have different aspects depending on the social context we currently find ourselves in, our mood or the time when we are asked about it. When you’re with your family, you behave differently than you do with your friends, or when you’re at work. Accordingly, the self consists of different attributes that we don’t show all at the same time. The literature distinguishes between two central aspects of the self: the «I» and the «me». The «I» here means the self as a subject. This aspect represents the active part of the self – a sort of force – that we use to shape our life circumstances and functional skills. The second aspect of the self is the self as object («me»). This means our feelings and convictions about ourselves. These are usually those things that you list when someone asks you to describe yourself. So the self is a construct of knowledge and feelings. These constructs consist of values, beliefs, emotions, expectations and goals. The self is dynamic and may always continue to evolve. While we have a certain stability, the self is – of course – not set in stone. What’s more, the two aspects (I and me) cannot be separated from each other. The self is not something that solely develops within you, but is strongly influenced by your external, social context. We develop a sense of who we are by interacting with other people. To do this, you make use of the answers and/or reactions of others, you acquire values and attitudes, and you give meaning to your experiences. Frequently we are unaware of this active social construction process. You select whom you interact with, which groups you wish to belong to, which behaviours you exhibit, what external appearance (e.g., your clothes) you want to show to the outside world and what you post on social media. We all have goals for how we want to be and how we want others to perceive us. What are you motives? How would you like to be perceived? Ambitious? Creative? Generous? You will be influenced by whatever your goal (motive) is. You align your behaviour with your goals and maybe you are familiar with the unpleasant feeling that sometimes your behaviour is actually counter-productive. We are not always aware of our motives, which can cause certain problems.
Of course, we can’t just simply express a wish and expect it to be fulfilled without further delay, however much we would like this. Constructing our identity is affected by biological attributes such as temperament. We are also limited by our social experiences (e.g., relationships, culture), not to mention our skills and abilities. Despite these limitations, it is possible to get very close to the self we would like to be. One question is absolutely central here: who do YOU really want to be?
Self-knowledge: how can I get to know myself better?
Surely I should be the one who knows me best? Why do I even need to get to know myself? Close your eyes and listen. What is happening inside you? Why do you like some things but not others? Knowing yourself sounds entirely simple – after all, we have all the answers within ourselves, so all we need to do is find them. Right? But it isn’t that simple. Again and again, we find ourselves in situations in which we seem a stranger to ourselves. We behave, react and think differently from the way we thought we would beforehand. We don’t want something, or would rather not do something, despite having previously assumed that it was the right thing to want or to do. We believe we know who we are and what we want, but this belief is not always confirmed. Does this sound familiar?
Frequently we do things without asking ourselves why we’re doing them in this way. Many things happen subconsciously. To better enable you to get to the bottom of your behaviour, thinking and feelings, it is important to know how we actually obtain knowledge about ourselves.
The first way to get to know yourself better is to turn your gaze inwards. Introspection means thinking deeply about your internal circumstances and analysing them. This helps us to be more consciously aware of our thoughts and feelings. If you write record your life experiences in writing, this can also result in understanding yourself better (Journaling). For example, you could keep a diary and take an intensively critical look at yourself. You could also imagine certain situations (e.g., a presentation to an audience) and try to simulate the emotions that you would experience then. Mostly we want not just to be more aware of our thoughts and feelings, but also to learn why we have these specific thoughts and feelings, why we exhibit specific modes of behaviour. Eliciting reasons based on introspection is very difficult. Our brains almost always need to process a great deal of information all at once. The result is that many things run automatically and subconsciously, so why we find it difficult to deduce the real reasons on this basis. In addition, we tend to push thoughts and feelings out of our memories or consciousness if we don’t want to have them or acknowledge them. And of course, they also affect our lives.
Self-awareness through observing behaviour
Observing behaviour means specifically observing your own behaviour, which will help you to obtain information about yourself. Pay close attention to how you behave in various situations. What have you established? Is there an activity you like doing, even though you have always thought that you didn’t? How do you feel before and after a presentation? Does a huge weight fall from your shoulders afterwards, even though you felt you were cool with it beforehand? Maybe you were more stressed than you realised! As with introspection, it can also happen here that you ignore certain modes of behaviour because you don’t want to be aware of them, which leads to a natural distortion.
Another way of acquiring knowledge about yourself is using social sources. This means observing how others respond to you, for example. Their responses may be verbal or non-verbal. In addition, comparing opinions, abilities and attributes also actively forms the self. This social comparison can help us to evaluate ourselves better, and can also happen entirely subconsciously. Interacting with other people can also supply us with information about ourselves. Significant people from your surroundings have a considerable influence on who you are. Consequently, new and past relationships with people important to you are a central source for the self. Feedback can even help us to shed light onto blind spots and learn more about ourselves. Studies have shown that feedback from others gives us new perspectives, with information that we cannot access ourselves. This does not mean, however, that you should take all feedback entirely seriously from now on. Not all feedback corresponds to the truth. However, pertinent feedback can motivate us to think deeply and tackle the newly acquired information. Maybe you will perceive the information as irrelevant, but store it somewhere in your memory, until it actually proves itself useful.
It is not always easy to observe your own behaviour in your day-to-day life. When interacting with others, we are too easily distracted to be able to listen to our inner voice and observe ourselves from the outside at the same time. Not all our feelings, thoughts and intentions are so obvious that they are immediately clear the moment we turn our attention to them. What’s more, some information is simply not available, because it is hiding in our subconscious. This is where mindfulness comes into play.
Mindfulness and self-knowledge
A characteristic of mindfulness is that you turn your attention to current experiences / situations (feelings, thoughts, behaviours) and become consciously aware of them. This, however, means genuine awareness, and not additional development / processing (of, say, your thoughts). The second component of mindfulness is observing without judging. This means a general openness, curiosity and acceptance of your own experience (current situation). While this happens, there can be no expectations or attempts to change the experience. When you use mindfulness, the result is that you can perceive and process a larger quantity of your thought-, behavioural and emotional patterns. Observing without judging reduces your defensiveness to information that you don’t wish to associate with yourself. If you allow yourself to experience negative feelings like this, it becomes easier, and you can then use mindfulness to identify your emotions and categorise them better. So mindfulness exercises could help you to get to know yourself better.
What’s the point of knowing myself well?
When you know how you will react to different situations (feelings, behaviours) in the future, you will be able to make better decisions. You will feel less disappointed about unforeseen events, which will lead to higher life satisfaction overall. If you know yourself and your needs better, you will find it easier to pay attention to them and do yourself good.
Specific questions provide you with the option of getting into a conversation with yourself. We have listed a few of them for you here.
Questions for you
- What are my strengths? And what are my weaknesses? And are they really weaknesses?
- Which person from my surroundings is most important to me? Whom can I rely on?
- What am I really proud of?
- What am I not so proud of?
- What am I worried about or afraid of?
- What am I grateful for?
- What do I like / enjoy doing?
- What new things would I like to try?
- If I could wish for one thing, it would be...
- Where do I feel safe?
- If I wasn’t afraid, I would...
- What do I like about my job / my studies? What do I not like?
- What does my inner critic say to me?
- How do I take care of myself?
- What does me good?
- Do I prefer to be in company, or alone?
- What is important to me in life? What are my values? What do I believe in?
- What are my goals (short-term and long-term)?
- What is my favourite memory?
- When I feel bad, I look after myself by ...
- What makes me stressed?
Maybe you can think of other questions to take with you on your journey?
- Changes can disrupt our lives. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but depending on the change (e.g., losing your job), one of your social roles may vanish and you will experience a time in which you no longer really know who you are. Following such changes, you need time to find yourself again and, if need be, to re-orient yourself. Give yourself this time.
- Don’t forget yourself. You too have needs to be met. And they can easily be forgotten if you put the needs of others above your own too often. It’s important that you remember to pay attention to your own needs.
- Stick with your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Consider whether your weakness really are exclusively weaknesses. And whether that’s your opinion or the opinion of outsiders. We are not perfect, we can do some things really well and others less well, and that is exactly what makes us unique.
- The self is not set in stone. We continue to develop throughout our lives. Be open, and curious, observe your feelings, thoughts and behaviours, without judging them. Knowing yourself better will positively affect your wellbeing.
- Social contacts are important. You can learn a great deal about yourself when interacting with others. Don’t accept every piece of feedback without thinking about it. Not everything you hear from others is true. When was the last time you met with those closest to you?
- Holidays are particularly suitable for making a bit more time for yourself. They provide you with the opportunity to try out new things, make contact with new people and consequently learn more about yourself. Why don’t you take up a new sport? Is there anything you have wanted to try for a long time now? Where would you like to travel? Who would you like to get talking to?
When did you last take some time to get to know yourself? We hope you enjoy the ride!
Bollich, K. L., Johannet, P. M., & Vazire, S. (2011). In search of our true selves: Feedback as a path to self-knowledge. Frontiers in psychology, 2(312), 1-6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00312
Carlson, E. N. (2013). Overcoming the barriers to self-knowledge: Mindfulness as a path to seeing yourself as you really are. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2), 173-186. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691612462584
Jonas, K., Stroebe, W., & Hewstone, M. (2014). Sozialpsychologie (6th Edition). Springer.
Mindhelp. (n. d.). 22 Fragen um dich selbst besser kennenzulernen. Wuda GmbH. https://mindhelp.de/22-fragen-kennenzulernen/