Smart guy, Plato. If you study his writings, you’ll quickly realize that people haven’t really changed all that much in the last 2,500 years.
This admonition, to know thyself, is one of the most important yet oft neglected elements of our lives. It’s also pretty much the only reason that psychiatrists exist, because we tend to suck royally in the self-awareness department.
First though, let’s actually define “thyself.” It might seem pretty straightforward, almost “duh” material…but it isn’t. Let’s turn to neuroscience for a bit, and see if we can’t distill the concept of self down to its most basic elements.
Did you know that we all live in the past, literally? Our senses gather data and deliver that data to the brain, but they do it at different speeds. Because of this, our brain takes in the information provided and attempts to get it in sync…but this means we are literally living a fraction of a second in the past, because that is the amount of time needed for the senses to gather data, send it to the brain, and get it processed and delivered to the conscious mind in a way that makes sense.
While the brain is performing this miracle of parallel processing, it is also trying to make sense of the data coming in, comparing that data to other data already stored in our minds, and determining which data to send to the conscious mind, and which to the subconscious. This filtration process is known as latent inhibition.
Because of this, not only are you physiologically incapable of living in the present, but you’re equally unaware of a large portion of what goes on around you. You are seeing, experiencing, and remembering your existence through an incredibly complex filter.
I tell you this simply to help you understand two basic concepts: that you are, literally, composed of things that have already happened, and that your perception of reality is going to be at least slightly different from that of everyone else around you.
We are, at our very core, the sum of our experiences in life. Our personality, our thoughts, and our memories are all derived from our experiences, but because the brain filters things, suppresses memories, and permits only a portion of reality to be perceived by the conscious mind, it’s not easy to actually “know thyself.”
So how then, in the face of all this, do we become sufficiently self-aware to take control of our lives? Through training.
I’ve found four key steps that have helped me to become as self-aware as I believe it’s possible to be. Here they are:
1. Keep a journal – A journal is an incredibly effective way to bridge the gap between the conscious and subconscious, and it also serves as an aid to both memory formation and recall.
Take time every day to write things down. It could be notes throughout the day, or thoughts at the beginning and/or end of your day.
It can be difficult to be fully aware in the moment without training, and this will help you to gain that awareness retroactively, which you can then apply more easily in the future…just like building a muscle. I’m a big fan of the 5-Minute Journal.
2. Meditate – When I say meditation, I don’t mean chanting or sitting funny or anything like that. I just mean taking time each day for a relaxing, undistracted period of introspection. Ten minutes at the beginning and/or end of the day is plenty.
Think about your day, start to finish; the things you experienced (or have planned), the decisions you made (or will make), and most importantly, why you made or will make them.
I find it very helpful to meditate prior to journaling, as my mind is then full of thoughts and insights to write down.
3. Pause – The human brain is wired, first and foremost, for survival, for a quick response and near instantaneous action.
This isn’t a bad thing, but anything that’s controlled by our lizard brain, that’s capable of putting us on autopilot, needs conscious oversight.
I’ve found that the easiest way to disable autopilot is to learn to pause before making an important decision or responding to something that makes you angry. Take a deep breath…and wait.
By doing this, you gain time to analyze things in more depth; why you were about to respond a certain way, which way you should actually respond…and by doing this, you can gain great insight into your decision making process, and train yourself to make better decisions and to respond to things deliberately instead of automatically.
4. Self-Analyze – While you’ll certainly do a bit of this as part of journaling, meditation, and pausing, true self-analysis is a very different beast.
If you were to visit a psychiatrist, their core function would be to teach you to self-analyze, to help you to become aware of who you are, why you do things, what’s troubling you, what you’re really feeling, etc. It’s basically guided self-awareness.
Well friends, you don’t need a shrink to do this. Everyone, and I mean everyone, should become intimately familiar with who they are, and why they are the way they are. It can be an uncomfortable process, but it has immense and lasting value.
I choose to go through this process constantly. Whenever I do something important, whether it’s making a decision or taking an action, I try to analyze it after the fact to better understand why I did what I did.
I make great efforts to be aware of my feelings, and to think carefully about why I feel the way I do. What caused it? Why did that event cause that feeling? Why did that feeling trigger that choice?
By going through this process as well, you can come to know yourself exceptionally well, and the better you know yourself, the better you can plot a course for the future you want.
Like a sailor navigating the seas, if you don’t know where you are, if you can’t get your bearings, you can’t determine where you should go with any accuracy.
You need to develop a mindset of self-awareness, to prevent yourself from dropping into autopilot whenever possible, and to regain control of your mind from your subconscious.
If you work hard to integrate these 4 things into your daily life, to turn them into habits, you’ll come to know thyself better than ever before.