Turn inward for your voyage! For all your arts you will not find the Stone in foreign parts.
Angelus Silesius (17c mystic and poet)
Self-awareness is the first area because it is a foundation for all the other areas. Yet, if it is so important, why are we not all already very self-aware? This is because there are some challenges that fog our self-awareness. What they are and methods to overcome them are suggested below.
Self-ignorance (‘I can’t be bothered’)
It is tempting to ignore our inner world as many other things call for our attention; but self-awareness matters for several reasons:
The better you know yourself, the more you can be in charge of your life. Imagine you find yourself in a land you know nothing about. You are likely to feel lost. But the more you learn about that land, the better you can navigate through it. The same applies to the landscape of your mind. If you want to take control, you need to know what is going on in there.
Ignoring your inner processes does not make them disappear – you are just less able to influence them.
Self-awareness can help you assess a situation more accurately (e.g. you may recognise that your desires or preferences in a particular situation are affecting your judgement).
Self-awareness can also help you form realistic expectations, which reduces disappointments (e.g. you may realise that you are not in the best frame of mind to win a game).
Understanding yourself can help you understand others too; for example, understanding why you get angry in some situations may help you understand why others get angry too.
Self-awareness can also help your development – you will know what direction to take and what you need to work on.
It is interesting! Our inner world can be as rich as our external one, so a life without self-awareness is impoverished and can make you more dependent on external stimulation.
These methods can help you increase your self-awareness:
Introspection or self-observation: simply stop and pay attention occasionally to what is going inside you (e.g. your thoughts, feelings, mental images, needs etc.).
Keeping a diary: expressing yourself in writing can help you feel better and recognise certain patterns that would otherwise go unnoticed (e.g. feeling irritated may be the result of a food allergy, but that link is difficult to spot without keeping records). To be effective, your diary should include the thoughts and feelings you had alongside events (e.g. ‘I didn’t say anything when she snapped, but I thought she was rude and felt hurt’). Keep analysing and judging separate though, as they can distort your recollection.
Self-disclosure: talking about yourself (to a friend, relative, or counsellor) is one of the oldest and best methods of increasing self-awareness.
Self-deceit (‘I may not like what I find’)
Self-deceit is usually used in order to preserve or enhance self- esteem. It can, indeed, make us feel temporarily better, but in time, discrepancies between the real person and a created image accumulate, which creates a conflict with reality. Being honest with ourselves is not always comfortable but it ultimately pays off. The following can help you check if you are deceiving yourself:
Know thyself, truly
It is easier to be objective if you create some distance, so imagine watching yourself in the cinema.
If it was another person with the same self-beliefs, would you think that he or she was objective?
Ask somebody you trust to tell you what they think, but bear in mind that others may not always be right. So, if possible, ask more than one person, or combine this with other ways of getting to know yourself.
Obscurity (‘I don’t understand…’)
Self-knowledge is not only about being aware of what is going on inside you, but also about understanding why. This may require a bit of investigative work, and we have plenty of opportunities for that. For example, the way you perceive and describe a scene, event or person is always to some extent unique, so it can tell you something about yourself (ask yourself: ‘why do I remember his hands but not his face – what does that say about me?’ ). If you want to find out why you feel a particular way, locating when exactly that feeling started and what happened at that point may help. Keeping a diary can be very useful in this respect. Some also suggest that using symbolic imagery may be revealing (1).
Symbolic self-representation: visualise or draw an image that symbolises yourself at this moment. If your inner self was, say a house, what would that house look like? Is it big or small, detached or attached, dark or light? What is in the cellar and in the loft? How do you feel in the various parts of the house? Which parts of you do they represent?
Dreams, daydreams and fantasies are particularly difficult to understand as they seem to work according to a different ‘logic’ form what we are used to. There is much disagreement about the purpose and meaning of dreams. One extreme view maintains that dreams are random and meaningless sensations, and the other that they are messages from a hidden part of our consciousness with universal symbols and language. A midway position considers dreams expressions of our states of mind. While when awake our experiences create, so to speak, our state of mind, in dreams our state of mind creates experiences. In other words, dreams are manifestations of our emotions, desires, thoughts and other drives. So they can be meaningful, but their meaning is not universal. A similar dream can have a different meaning for you than for somebody else. The following techniques can help you understand your dreams, but remember that the purpose of doing so is to learn about yourself, not to find some secret message about the future!
Understanding your dreams: in order to understand our dreams we need first to be able to remember them. The way to do so is to keep a pen and paper near your bed. When you wake up, don’t jump out of bed straight away – keep your eyes closed for a few moments and let your dream come back to you. Then write down what you can remember. You already know that dreams do not follow logic but associations, which is why they may be confusing and difficult to interpret. However, there are some methods that can help us with this.
Extract several major elements from your dream (e.g. objects, persons or events). What first comes to mind when you think about each of them? For example, if your dog is one element, what comes to mind when you think about it? Try to connect and make sense of these things that came to your mind – this could reveal the meaning of your dream.
Gestalt psychologists suggest engaging in a dialogue with whomever or whatever appears in your dream. For example, you may ask a person from your dream ‘Why were you there?’ Then imagine that you are that person and try to answer. Or you can ask a monster from your dream ‘Why are you chasing me, what do you want? Can we be friends?’
Another option is to focus directly on the feelings and sensations rather than dream images, and consider how they relate to your daily experiences. For example, if you were afraid in your dream, ask yourself whether there is anything in your life that brings the same feeling?
A final note: self-understanding is important, but avoid over- analysing yourself. Thankfully, there will always be things that we won’t understand fully – otherwise life could be really boring!
(1) Other symbols and an evaluation of this method can be found in Assagioli, R. (1965) Psychosynthesis. London: Crucible, 1990, p.287-302.