PhilosophyPsychology

What is meant by “Know Thyself” in Psychology

12 Mins read
know thyself
know thyself

The maxim ‘know thyself’ is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates. It is inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. The phrase is often used to tell people the importance of self awareness and self knowledge. We believe that we are innately very gifted and each and everyone of us has something amazing that if it were discovered, would open doors for us and make us shine.

The problem is that many people don’t really know the meaning of ‘know thyself’.

They think its all about discovering your persona and embracing it relentlessly. Always resisting outside influence and change to it.

That is wrong. Very wrong. Its why most people fail when they hit a rock on a path they thought was clear due to their gifts and persona. They think that sticking to their self, guts, beliefs and judgement is somehow going to make the world bend to their will.

Socrates struggled with this maxim for the rest of his life, and from Plato’s account of Socrates, it was stated that his eventual conclusion was this – “I know that I know nothing“.

This should make you wonder. Why did one of the greatest philosophers start his journey by saying ‘know thyself’ is the most important thing. And only to end by saying ‘I know that I know nothing’. That is rather odd isn’t it?

According to an accurate historical account of Socrates, it is believed that Socrates said something similar to this when he encountered someone who was wiser than he. After which he ended up seeing how little he knew and got humbled by the existence of more unknown entities.

Which is to simply say, Socrates and all the other philosophers who have contemplated on this issue, found out that to know yourself isn’t about who you are. Knowing yourself isn’t about knowing your stagnant and relatively fixed personality. It is not just about figuring out your gifts and talents. This is because, you are an always growing, adaptive and changing being.

Your beliefs, values, principles and society will change and in so doing change you. Some of it will be growth some of it will be negative change. Which is fair to say that knowing thyself is all about knowing your state of being plus your potential for good and bad.

The simple meaning of ‘know thyself’

Know thyself simply means to always be in a state of constant watch over your actions and who you are. You know thyself by watching and paying attention to yourself – like a snake, viciously, with no emotional reaction but with truthful judgement, as if you don’t know who you are. That’s the beginning. You then challenge yourself to increase your potential positively. That’s how you develop your potential to the fullest.

Its a process, not a destination. You are always encountering new things that change you, make you grow and transform you.

That is where the power of knowing thyself lies. Its the ability to pay attention to your relatively fixed personality, your beliefs, values, temperament, actions, gifts, skills, failures. After which, you should be able to face all of this with facts and not feelings. The pursuit of the truth should be primal if you are willing to know thyself, or else you won’t be able to know who you really are and which path you should take.

The truth will enlighten you to see the good and the bad, the productive and destructive. This will help you encourage the productive side of you and shun the destructive side, which takes effort, time and dedication. One of the ways you know the truth is by empathy.

Empathy is a huge part of emotional intelligence. It helps us to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, understand their point of perspective. Understand their struggles, where they are coming from, the challenges they face, why they see the world the way they do.

You will get to understand the inner working of the human mind by studying history. History is a huge indicator of the proclivity of the human mind. People often think that just because they didn’t live in a certain era they would do things differently if they were taken there .

You always hear people say:

“If I lived during the times of the Nazis and Hitler I wouldn’t support their agenda.”

“If I lived during the times of Noah I would have entered the boat”

And so forth.

Really? You think the people who lived then had a different brain and consciousnesses than the one you have? They were all human beings biologically the same way as you are, The only difference is that you live in different eras and different societies. Our society does a great job at governing most of our beliefs and thoughts, but it doesn’t dictate them, we choose them, stick to them and entertain them.

This goes ahead to show us that we are all capable of evil and capable of good. Our minds are just inclined to go with the one that makes us survive and boosts our superiority over others. So if you think you wouldn’t have been the bad guy, then you should know this – by your own statement – you would have been the worst.

The psychology behind ‘know thyself’

You may wonder why I brought up the Nazis, and Noah’s ark. The idea is to try and show how the human mind works by using the light side and the dark side. I will continue this analogy with the theory of Yin and Yang.

Yin and Yang

The theory of Yin and Yang originates from Chinese religion. The symbol above of Yin (White with a black dot) and Yang(Black with a white dot) is used to tell us that everything that surrounds us is made up of two opposite forces that harmoniously unify to favor movement and, in turn, change.

Basically speaking our minds are in such a way that there exists two opposing sides of the same coin. One side favors destruction and chaos, the other favors prosperity and order. However, you can’t exist in either of these states without the potential of becoming the other. Hence, the white and black dots on the opposite sides.

Which is to say, you are always in a constant state of motion between destruction and prosperity, neither of which will ever completely take you. There will always be hope or fear of turning into the other, which will in turn push you into action.

Watch this TedEd video to know more about Yin and Yang:

Cognitive dissonance is a state in which a person has beliefs, actions and ways of thinking that contradict with each other, hence, can’t exist in the same space at the same time. All of us experience this and it creates a lot of mental discomfort.

The best example for this is a smoker who loves smoking but also knows he needs to quite for him to have good healthy. These two things can’t exist at the same time. One of them has to supersede the other. This decision becomes a huge problem when the person doesn’t truly know themselves to find a priority between the two.

Festinger’s (1957) cognitive dissonance theory suggests that we have an inner drive to hold all our attitudes and behavior in harmony and avoid disharmony (or dissonance). This is known as the principle of cognitive consistency.

When there is an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance), something must change to eliminate the dissonance.2

We all have certain stereotypical associations to specific people around us. Maybe its a person of a certain race acting a certain way, or gender based stereotypes. However, if we look keenly we tend to realize its just our perceptions and not the truth.

Stereotypes arise as a result of constant interactions, social beliefs and propaganda. By mere interactions, our brain picks up on things that we do not think about and starts associating it with common events. So, when you constantly interact with people, you will tend to not really think, consciously, about how they conduct themselves. You just interact. But over time, your brain will start noticing patterns and correlations.

Your brain will then try to see the common denominator for these similarities. In the end, it will land on things like, “men who dress like this act like this” or “women who are successful act lie this” or “I hate children because they act like this” or “I won’t marry a girl who likes this artist” or maybe “men are trash” and so forth.

Your brain comes to these conclusions, not because they are necessarily true, they may be, but it comes to these conclusions because of similarity comparison.

You may be tempted to think of stereotypes as truths but the fact is – your brain is just trying to find a reason for these similarities because you are not consciously and actively trying to engage with your thoughts to find the reason why, so it jumps the gun to help you solve the issue as best as it can, all on its own.

The fix to this is therefore to pay attention and truly ‘know thyself’. You can start by practicing mindfulness and self reflection.

Now you can see why many philosophers and psychologist advocate for self knowledge. Among them is the great philosopher Fredrich Nietzche.

In the his book The Gay Science(1882- 1887), Nietzsche claims that the great majority of people “lack an intellectual conscience.” They judge without engaging critically; they rely on their own assumptions and social prejudices; and they refuse to question the motives behind actions and thoughts.

He said this knowing well that most of us tend to think we are in control of ourselves when in reality we aren’t. We fail to see the complexities of the mind , the effects our surrounding has on us and how our brains try to help us fix it, often to no avail.

He continues to say:

‘They live without a “desire for certainty” ‘ Nietzsche criticizes the lack of self-reflexivity with which the majority of people float through life, always escaping responsibility and hiding behind their weaknesses. He describes such evasion of the self, stating, “You have no idea what you are experiencing; you run through life as if you were drunk and once in a while fall down a staircase.” He criticizes denial, hypocrisy and mediocrity.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is a celebration of the free spirit – one who does not allow himself to be tied down to any certainties or truths, and who engages in radical skepticism to question anything and everything.

This doesn’t mean you do not believe in something like religion, spiritual stuff or principles, no.

Some things in life require belief and trust, things like love. However, you should always be questioning your beliefs and challenging them to see if they stick or fall apart in the face of truth and facts.

The last psychological truth to ‘know thyself’ is the orderly patterns in which our minds operate on. Psychology thrives on understanding the human mind because long time ago we noticed the patterns. We couldn’t put the puzzle together but with continuous study we are noticing that there is a method to this madness.

On top of that, we have the butterfly effect. (Read more on the Butterfly effect in my previous article – Why Is The Butterfly Effect Important?)

The butterfly effect in psychology is referred to as a concept in which the tinniest, smallest of human decisions made can cause a chain of events that over time will result in something bigger that would have otherwise not have been predicted when the small decision was being made.

Your actions, beliefs and goals no matter how small are not insignificant. They matter, you matter, everything matters.

Simply to say, there is meaning.

If your brain is wired for a specific personality, inclined towards some behaviors and repels others, then that means there is a strategy. And wherever there is a strategy there is a goal. And wherever there is a goal, there is meaning.

“Know thyself’ strives to let you seek that meaning for yourself. Only you can know that. We are all different with various goals, ambitions, wants and values. Most of which are from genetics, environment, society and peer influence. Which is to say, none of us have similar stories, only a few similarities.

You find: purpose, meaning, direction and happiness, by focusing on knowing yourself, its a continuous process not a destination.

So how do you ‘know thyself’

Psychologists such as Jordan Peterson have been quoted countless times advising people to carry themselves as if they were empty vessels. To be like kids, ready to internalize every aspect, concept and thought without judgement or emotions. Only in so doing will we figure out the truth, understand the world and ourselves better.

You Know Nothing …(insert your name here)

You know nothing Jon Snow. Lol.

That is the first step, you should carry yourself as someone who is open to new ideas and willing to learn, challenge and criticize: not only your own beliefs but others’ too. Only after critical analysis of all sides will you be assured of obtaining an answer.

We should all learn to critically think. Most of us go into debates with biased and preconceived notions so as to prove them right rather than figure out the facts.

This makes it worse when we find out we are wrong, because then we become bitter and resentful to the point of being stubborn in our beliefs despite them being wrong.

Don’t ignore your consciousness, cause its God, and every man knows the face of God.

Jordan Peterson approaches the idea of God as not God Himself but as our consciousness trying to speak to us. That is why he recommends the Bible to believers and non believers alike.

He says that the scriptures are an accumulation of centuries of people’s wrestle with their consciousness resulting in an eventual balance between the sanctity of humanity to its proclivity to self destruction. Hence, understanding the face of God.

I highly recommend you go view his Bible Series videos on YouTube – The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.

I like his approach because it makes sense of Proverbs 1:7;

“The fear of the Lord (Your Consciousness*) is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

Proverbs 1:7

The idea is that the fear of your mind and what it can do, its capabilities and potentials are the gateway to wisdom and prosperity. It always knows what is going on, what is right and what is wrong, the problem is, it is also inclined to be subdued by our desires and foolish reasoning.

Kendrick Lamar also hints on this in his song Swimming Pool;

“Okay, now open your mind up and listen me, Kendrick
I am your conscience, if you do not hear me then you will be history, Kendrick
I know that you’re nauseous right now and I’m hopin’ to lead you to victory, Kendrick
If I take another one down I’mma drown in some poison abusin’ my limit”

Kendrick Lamar, Swimming Pool

You should approach your mind (consciousness) as careful as possible without leaving any stone un-turned. Always questioning and expounding on your own being by facing it with truth, love, prosperity and facts.

Know your personality.

Of all the things that comprises you, your personality is by far the most fixed of them all.

Your personality explains by large everything that constitutes you better than any metric in existence. Therefore, if you truly want to get to know yourself, you should take this personality test from Truity.Com . Its called the Big Five Personality Test, its free but for a comprehensive result you will only have to pay as little as $9. Sweet deal right? . I recommend you get the comprehensive answer to know how to orient yourself in the world.

The Big Five Personality Test focuses on five aspects that comprise of our own behaviors, habits, ways of thinking and tendencies. It dives into these five areas to help you know how to orient yourself in the society and become so self aware that you know how to be yourself truly. This will in turn help you find meaning in your own life by respecting the sovereignty of your own individuality and fitting that into the societal beliefs and practices.

Challenge Yourself

You may have noticed that overtime you mind tends to shift in its thinking. The more knowledge and experiences you have the wiser and stronger you get. Read books, watch educational videos, visit interesting places, art shows, galleries, museums, art shows et cetera.

You need to be in constant motion, once you see you are headed down the wrong part, shift gears, correct yourself and challenge your mind to do better. Once you have mastered something, move on to the next big thing, don’t stick to what you have already mastered, spread yourself because once you stick to one thing you limit yourself.

If you limit yourself then you are not knowing yourself.

That is the continual process of ‘knowing thyself’, always moving by pushing the limits and boundaries to see how far you can go.

More on this by Jordan B Peterson himself:

Footnotes

  1. Press, S. (2020). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance | Leon Festinger. Retrieved 9 September 2020, from https://www.sup.org[/efnNote]

    You can see why it is important to know yourself so that your actions and way of thinking can be aligned. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

    As you may well know, we often tend to think things that we don’t act out and also act out things that we do not think of.

    This phenomenon is referred to as the adaptive unconscious in psychology. Sigmund Freud was one of the first psychologists to recognize that many mental processes occur without conscious awareness. People often express emotions and personality, make judgments and decisions, form impressions and evaluations, learn information, and even pursue goals without conscious awareness or attention.

    The brain is so vast that it does so many things in a minute. Our cognitive functions tend to process other things without our conscious knowledge of those things. Only through examining our actions will we get to understand why we came to think and act like that. This brings me to the killer point – implicit bias.

    According to Very Well Mind, An implicit bias is an unconscious association, belief, or attitude toward any social group. Due to implicit biases, people may often attribute certain qualities or characteristics to all members of a particular group, a phenomenon known as stereotyping.1Jost JT. The existence of implicit bias is beyond reasonable doubt: A refutation of ideological and methodological objections and executive summary of ten studies that no manager should ignoreResearch in Organizational Behavior. 2009;29:39-69. doi:10.1016/j.riob.2009.10.001

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I'm a psychology enthusiast and a fried chicken lover. I write bite sized articles unpacking the complexities of the human mind. The mission is to advocate for what's more important in life - the pursuit of the truth and the highest good one can do with that truth - for themselves, the people around them and the society as a whole.
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