How to know yourself should have been one of the first reflections. This is foundational for anyone who wants to improve themselves. Unfortunately, many of us don’t think about asking profound questions to understand ourselves better. Most of the time we need an event to shock us into introspection. The same happened to me. But it took me a bit longer to reflect on those events before I was able to write about knowing yourself.
My goal for this post is to help you avoid running into the wall. If you have already done so, to guide you when finding out who you are. I will start with the importance of learning how to know yourself. How I apply Stoicism to help me with this process. And then look at how this will set you up for the journey into self-exploration. Apollo’s temple in Delphi had one inscription signifying the importance of this topic:
“Know Thyself”MAxim at Apollo’s temple in delphi
Keep the raft afloat
Before we look more into how to know yourself, we will examine the why of this question. Why do we need to know who we are and what good will this do for us? Let’s compare ourselves to a car driving on the road that seems to be functioning the way it should. At least to us, it would sound that way. But to an experienced mechanic’s ears, it could use a tune-up. We should become our own mechanics and be like her who listens to cars, we need to listen to ourselves. We must examine ourselves to make sure that we are firing on all cylinders. Moreover, to make sure we’re not pretending to be a sports car, while we are actually a convertible.
“First say to yourself, what manner of man you want to be; when you have settled this, act upon it in all you do”Epictetus, Discourses, Book Three Chapter 23, To those who read for mere display
We must train our senses and point them inward instead of having them focus on the external world. Once we find our authentic selves, we will realize that the world around us will change. What senses are we talking about here? We want to focus on our thoughts, opinions, perceptions, and emotions. By evaluating how these act in different situations, we can start to find our authentic selves. While we are drifting through calm waters, everything seems fine. But as we hit the rapids we can tell what we are made of. If we are confident in who we are, we can keep the raft afloat and remain peaceful.
There is no backing down
From the why we must know ourselves, we are now moving to the how. Once we have pinpointed who we are or should be, then we can start the fine-tuning. This process will be geared towards what our nature is. The Stoics understand the importance of nature, as we can see by this quote from Marcus Aurelius:
“And why is it so hard when things go against you? If it’s imposed by nature, accept it gladly and stop fighting it. And if not, work out what your own nature requires, and aim at that, even if it brings you no glory. None of us is forbidden to pursue our own good.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditation, 11.16
He speaks here of nature around us and of our personal nature. To find our personal nature, our core, we need deep introspection. A process that can be scary, because it might reveal things we are not willing to face. Yet, if we wish to live a good life, we need to strive for Virtue. In this case, we need to show courage, one of the cardinal virtues. There is no backing down, we need to be honest and true to ourselves. What are our weaknesses and what are our strengths? How do we deal with people and situations and how would we like to act?
We can rely on our own footing
The problem why we can be confused about who we are supposed to be is because society has set its parameters. From our childhood, we have examples and messages around us showing us what the good life is. Depending on where we grow up, there might be differences in the details. But in the big picture, there are many similarities. We need to be successful, own a house, a car, have a family, a well-paying job, and a fancy title. This is a tough stereotype to break through. And many of us only realize that this is not our path once we are well on our way. That’s when the wall hits us. By then we find ourselves hoovering over a safety net. All these externals are there to provide us with comfort and reassurance.
For some, there is no other option, though; that net needs to go. Because we see its true nature. It’s built on the dreams of others and will not catch us when we fall. We need to focus on putting the next foot on the cord, without looking at the net. With each step, we will learn to accept ourselves. We need to place it with confidence, honesty, and by staying true to ourselves. What we will notice is that the cord itself isn’t that far from the ground. We can pick ourselves up if we misstep. And the people around us who are heading in the same direction can lend us a shoulder or arm if we need to. But in general, we can rely on our own footing in life.
“To stand up straight, not straightened.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 3.5
Knowing yourself leads to the true self
How to know yourself then boils down to having the courage to be who you truly want to be. Take stock of your strengths and weaknesses and find ways to improve them or to make better use of them. The details of a job, money, or possessions are not important at this stage. We need to understand the values we want to live by. As a guide, you can create a philosophy of life. By doing so, you can find tools to help you. In Stoicism, the goal is to live a peaceful life by pursuing Virtue. The four virtues are; Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Temperance.
Finding out what your values are, and what your own philosophy of life might be, requires a lot of listening. You can choose journaling, meditation, or some activity that brings you peace of mind. But it starts with being quiet and listening to ourselves. Our true self.
Once you have a better understanding of who you are, we need to use that information to get rid of some obstacles. The first one is your ego. Knowing who you are is a humbling process. Our part in society might not be as big as we think it is. We must play our role, and do our duty as it befalls us. Accepting our true nature is a big step. Alongside this process, we need to remember to be kind to ourselves. Living a good life and content life is a difficult task in and of itself, focus on this first. Our ego often causes pain and suffering. It tends to have a different view of who we are.
That’s where you can be found
After dealing with the ego, we need to check the labels we have been given. When asked who we are, the first answer is often our title in the office, titles invented to soothe our ego. Hardly ever do they represent who we really are. Are you your job or do you have other things to offer? Were you raised to be a senior specialist officer in some organization? Instead of using words and other labels to know who we are, let’s use our senses. Feel your way towards yourself. When you feel quiet and calm, ready to be in the present moment, that’s where you can be found.
The final way we can have a better look at who we are is by looking at the world we have created around ourselves. This is a mirror of what we send outward. The cause of these externals is us. We gather the people who feel attracted to be with us. We can either do everything in our power to have people cling to us. Or we can follow our own path and then see who walks in a similar direction for a while. They might join us until the end or go in different directions. But as long as we stay true to who we are, we will have the capacity to enjoy the moment they are walking with us. Why? Because we are at peace and have more time to look around and appreciate things better.
How to know yourself
A famous quote, wrongly attributed to Aristotle does ring true to me. (For a source on why it is wrong, watch this video: Gregory Sadler, 10 Awfully Fake Aristotle Quotes)
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.”Unknown, but not by Aristotle
It might not be the beginning of All wisdom, but it sure is a good start for us. Michel de Montaigne wrote his essays using himself as the main subject because he felt he was the best expert on it. Become the expert on your most important topic, yourself. Ask yourself the questions: Who am I and who do I want to be? Think about your values. Trust your instincts and feelings. Then be strong and courageous to pursue this life. And don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Getting to know yourself is the most interesting journey you will make, you might as well enjoy it.