Why We Don’t Always Know Ourselves and Why That’s a Good Thing

Some of my best friends don’t know themselves well. Moreover, there is often value in not knowing. Nonetheless, both those with lots of self-awareness and those without tend to overrate their knowledge of “who they are.”

We humans benefit from believing our march through life is an honorable endeavor. Most of us stop at red lights, let pedestrians cross, and smile when a stranger says hello.

Few take glee in admitting they’ve harmed others, broken rules undercover, and spoken untruth. We prefer to believe we deserve whatever we’ve achieved, rather than attributing our triumphs to cheating.

When a man acts beneath his best, he tends to justify his actions. Sometimes the reason he gives to himself is loyalty. At other times his sense of unfairness justifies employing the identical ruthless tactics the enemy uses against him.

Another category of rationalization includes survival in a competitive world. If you work in a dark-sided corporate or political culture, continued employment might demand persuading yourself, “this is just the way things are done.”

All of us travel through an imperfect world of flawed inhabitants, not an idealistic one. As we grow up, experience reveals the best man doesn’t always win, power and money increase mating opportunities, and who you know sometimes trumps what you know.

The adaptation to conditions “as they are” can evoke less than saintly behavior.

You might wonder why we possess this readiness to violate the messages we hope our kids learn in their religious education. In part, we must credit our resourceful ancestors.

In wartime, periods of scarcity, or episodes of other physical dangers, they used all their know-how and ingenuity to survive. Sometimes deception saved a life, as did theft when their child or tribe confronted famine. Strength, smarts, and strategy, along with viciousness, defeated enemies.

Can you imagine your chances if you lacked any motivation to act in your own interest? Two-thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish sage, raised this issue and more:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I?

A too accurate peek at our mirror image allows uncomfortable truths concerning ourselves and our beloved social circle.

Every successful marriage, for example, values the spouse for more than what he is. A loss of trust might follow from full recognition of the worst in those around us, forcing a crippling exaggeration of danger.

The magnification of personal defects also creates a frightful sight. Without psychological shielding, the soul is brought to its knees. One’s life might be reinterpreted as a fraud. How could we function in the world without a few of the lies told by ourselves to ourselves?

With a built-in capacity for at least a bit of self-deception, we face away from weaknesses like an unbridled penchant for antagonism or the avoidance of confrontation. Many of us project our shaded motives and dispositions on those different from us in race, religion, or politics.

Blindness to our situation frequently leads to emotional pain and poor choices. When the discomfort becomes considerable, therapists are consulted. The unveiling of revelations, however, must involve a gradual and careful process. The therapist shouldn’t disarm us by obliterating the beliefs on which we lean.

As Marshall Greene wrote in 1997, defenses help “the patient ward off disturbing feelings such as anxiety, anger, disgust, depression, envy, jealousy, guilt and shame.”

Counselors grasp this. Each of them encounters a phenomenon called “resistance in the service of the ego.” The psychologist takes care not to approach the client as though his mind is a walnut requiring a hammer blow to crack it.

The ache of past hurts, as well as the stark and startling acknowledgment of character limitations, can sink the patient before he learns to swim. Clients must float before the internal uncovering strips him of defensive buoyancy and his long-established tool kit of life skills.

The ancient Greek Temple of Apollo included the inscription “Know thyself” in its forecourt. Perhaps the designer should have considered a safer alternative:

“Know thyself (but not too much)”

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The first image comes from an unknown Google source. The second is the work of Loveteamin. Finally, Barlow in Hiding is the work of Andrew Smith. The last two pictures are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

If you are interested in powerful theatrical representations of families with an uncomfortable relationship with the truth of who they are, you might read or watch Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman or Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.