What is "self-knowledge"?
January 17, 2010 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Is self knowledge different from self-awareness? How does self-knowledge lead to personal growth? What is personal-growth anyway?

I'm not sure whether I've completely failed to grasp an important concept here or whether it's so obvious that I'm not even seeing it.

I think there is a difference between self-knowledge and self-awareness.

I think "self-awareness" means being aware of what one is doing in the here and now e.g. am I treading on someone's toe? am I talking too loud? do I really think my friend's new project is a bad idea or is it that I'm secretly envious? can I really not afford to spend $1.50 or is it that don't want to spend anything at all on this particular person / cause / project?

I can see how all these can lead to being better behaved and treating other people better and thus other people treating you better, but I don't see a mechanism for how it would make your life better in any larger ways. i.e. being rational and having good manners are great, but are they going to lead to, say, a sense of fulfillment? the ability to be happy in your job? the not-minding of things that have gone horribly wrong? the ability to get motivated? (Or am I on the wrong track with those ideas as reasonable goals of self-knowledge?)

What is self-knowledge and how is it useful? Is it the same as personal growth? What things could a person, having lived with themself all their life, not know about themself without outside help? How would finding these things out be useful?

Is "self-knowledge" a goal or a side-effect of psychotherapy?

I've done web searches but what I've found has been abstract and theoretical or conceptual and spiritual, what I'd like is some useful plain examples -- examples from real life or examples of what could happen in real life.

What facts could a person not know about himself that would lead to him having a better life if he were to find out these facts? And what category of facts can one discover through psychotherapy, or other means? e.g. Could I discover that I thought I couldn't boil an egg but it turns out that I'm a cordon-bleu cook? I'm guessing that's not a good example, but if it is, how would psychotherapy (or travel, or meditation or whatever) reveal that, and why would I not already know it? and if it isn't a good example (which it probably isn't) then what is a good example? "Self-knowledge" suggests to me something beyond the here and now, something more central and permanent than just being aware of how I am behaving. I would consider self-awareness very useful but I wouldn't count it as personal growth.

Can everyone benefit from having more self-knowledge or are many people transparent to themselves right from the start?

So... what is self-knowledge and what are some real-life (or potentially real-life) examples of how it is found and how it is used?

posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you have a lot of questions here. I'll try to answer with some anecdotal evidence.

Certain commonly accepted sayings would indeed suggest that people are not entirely transparent to themselves. People are known to make comments like:
"I surprised myself,"
"I can't say why I like (or don't like), that but I do (or don't),"
"I'm not prejudiced, those people are just lazy/dumb/dishonest/etc." (So, in fact, they obviously are prejudiced).

Unless you think these comments, and many like them, are nonsense, it would seem clear that people are not transparent to themselves.
posted by oddman at 4:09 PM on January 17, 2010

These terms are defined differently by different philosophers, spiritual persuasions and wacked-out self-help books. They mean different things depending on who is talking about them, so questions about the differences between them are almost impossible to answer.
posted by embrangled at 4:15 PM on January 17, 2010

Great question!

As per your understanding so far - I think you are correct - self-knowledge is a bit like useless navel-gazing, sort of after the fact type stuff. *Unless you are really good at implementing changes from recognized past mistakes.

Self-awareness, however, is really good in the NOW. I defer to Eckhart Tolle and his many books if you want to know more about being in the NOW.


Essentially, my job now is sales, and I deal with huge amounts of people 2 days per week. When I meditate, my experiences improve, as do my sales - but the main thing is I'm present and spreading positivity - I'm having fun, and I share that!

That is self-awareness.

I don't get hijacked by other folks' bad moods, instead, my focus on the task is improved, and usually I lift their mood.

*In this example, self-awareness helps me interact better with others in the moment, self-knowledge helps me look back on my performance and tweak my mistakes so that I don't repeat them next week when I am performing my job.

Hope that helps.
posted by jbenben at 4:18 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

My self-knowledge tells me I should be able to answer this, but my self-awareness is that I'm uncomfortable attempting it. My personal growth allows me to give it a try anyway.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:44 PM on January 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

To wax philosophically, I think of self-growth as a dialectic where self-awareness and self-knowledge feed into self-creation. For example: (1) you feel unhappy, (2) you realize that you are often unhappy, and (3) you decide that you want to be less unhappy — and the cycle continues as you try to live up to your new self, and maybe next time you're unhappy you: (1) are more sensitive to what kind of unhappiness it is, maybe it feels like stress, (2) you realize why you are stressed, and (3) construct a plan to counter the stressor.

Writing that down, I started thinking that maybe the Buddhist psychodynamics could be interpreted in terms of this dialectic. Your actions and perceptions leave karmaic traces that need to be processed to build on or modify the self-image, the ego, the created self, etc. But the Buddha's path is a way to self-create your self into something that is tranquilly responsive, almost like shorting the circuit so awareness and knowledge can work instantly. Is this right?

Great question!
posted by mbrock at 5:44 PM on January 17, 2010

I think the big difference is that self-knowledge is not about time and space, but self-awareness is probably about little else. Probably. ; )

Self-knowledge seems cumulative and, although constantly changing, unbound by where/when you are. Self-awareness happens only when it happens.

Does this help?

It seems obvious to me that both are necessary, and probably lead to each other. Probably.
posted by Waldo Jeffers at 5:51 PM on January 17, 2010

Self-awareness leads to "discover" self-knowledge. You have self-awareness in the here and now, however, self-knowledge is knowledge you gain about yourself by being self-aware. Up there (in your brain) it's not either/or, it's an interaction and combination of many things happening.

Hence, let's say a friend shows an emotion to you on their face and you think "oh, i feel bad when jack/jill does that". That was your self-awareness (recognizing the emotion on the face, recognizing the feeling in yourself) "turning into" self-knowledge (you are now aware of the fact that their emotion impacts how you feel).

It's the nuanced difference between the present and the past.
posted by iNfo.Pump at 7:14 PM on January 17, 2010

Self Awareness and Self Knowledge are two sides to the same feedback loop. When used together they contribute to an upward spiral that one could call "personal growth." Self-Awareness allows one to develop Self-Knowledge - which then informs subsequent Self Awareness and so on and so forth.

Self Awareness is cultivating the ability to look at your ACTIONS objectively, as you would a stranger, doing whatever you can to suspend the belief systems on which you operate and to be as honest and clinical as possible. This is difficult in that the same brain that is operating under a learned set of beliefs has to step back and look at itself objectively (eg. "I am interested in this girl but I seem to be sending her too many txts / messages / phoning too often that is scaring her off and telegraphing that I have nothing better to do" VS. "Why doesn't this girl like me? GOD! If she knew me or answered the phone she'd see how cool and not-creepy I am" - or whatever)

Gaining mastery of self-awareness in this way leads to SELF KNOWLEDGE - understanding your in-built propensities that pull you towards certain modes of action (as per the example above - "when I like a girl, I tend to push her away - therefore I will use this self knowledge to remain self aware and limit this action"). Once you 'know' your propensities you can use self awareness to watch for them, correct them, or watch for new ones.

Keep in mind that the type of self-knowledge I am discussing relates to the type of things that we hide from ourselves or are oblivious too mainly due to the lies we tell ourselves. This self-knowledge is not necessarily as clear as "I like fajitas." While liking fajitas is certainly self-knowledge, very few people lie to themselves about food preferences mainly because liking fajitas has few consequences to the ego - whereas admitting that you damage your personal relationships by being overbearing is self-critical, and few people can deal with this.

What facts could a person not know about himself that would lead to him having a better life if he were to find out these facts?

Facts like - "I have an unhealthy desire to be validated / ego stroked / loved (for example) that causes me to act in ways that beget suffering."


"When I say I don't like 'X' type of person, it is because there is something in 'X' type of person that I secretly see in myself / don't like about myself / envy"

These are types of ideas that we hide from ourselves because it is easier to blame others than ourselves for our problems and situations. Assuming responsibility and wrestling with our own imperfections and actions requires time and energy to find problem areas and fix them. It is WORK, and most of us are busy enough. It is much more efficient to simply blame others or lie to ourselves and continue on with the business of living than to stop at every turn and devote cognitive energy to the long-term effects of every one of our actions or beliefs.

And what category of facts can one discover through psychotherapy, or other means?

Exactly the type of facts I listed above. Consider it uncovering our "limiting beliefs." We are essentially products of our belief systems in that what we believe largely dictates how we act. Well, why wouldn't I know my own limiting beliefs without psychotherapy / meditation / travel / whatever? - Because 1) psychotherapy / meditation / travel are often platforms for doing the type of introspective WORK that is required to develop self awareness and untangle your self awareness into useable self knowledge 2) It is very difficult to see the forest when you are amongst the trees...a brain operating on a warped belief system is often using this warped belief system to look at itself. A faulty lens can hardly examine itself clearly. In this regard, psychotherapy is useful in that it provides a third-party observer who is usually gentle enough to coax the mind into proper self-awareness.

To sum up. Self Knowledge -in the context of personal development - is knowing in what way your belief systems are warped such that they cause you to behave a certain way (which you observe through Self Awareness). By "knowing" yourself, and your propensities to act, in this way, you are able to change - hypothetically.

Also self knowledge is liking fajitas, a LOT.
posted by jnnla at 7:17 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Self-knowledge and self-awareness are the same. Personal growth is about learning to see who you think you are as an object -- in a disinterested, dispassionate way -- rather than as a subject. The "self-" prefix refers to this kind of reflexiveness; looking at yourself, not as yourself.

How could you not know something about yourself after living with yourself for years? This question already presupposes that you are fully an object for yourself & totally transparent to yourself. If this was true, then yeah, you would know everything about yourself, but there are lots of reasons why it's not true:

- You may have lived in your house for years, but could you tell me how exactly how many steps it takes to cross your living room? Probably not, because it's not salient information, and yet you could probably do it blindfolded. There is a difference between knowing something and knowing that you know it; implicit unconscious knowledge vs. explicit conscious knowledge.

- If you looked at a bunch of close-up pictures of eyes, could you tell which was yours? The thing that sees doesn't see itself.

- Some people work hard to not know things about themselves, through repression or disavowal, because the truth is too traumatic. This is normally where you'd need psychotherapy.

Self-knowledge isn't an end-in-itself. It only matters if you are in some kind of crisis or deadlock that your current self can't cope with. I also agree that there is no final achievement of total self-knowledge, because looking at a subject as an object entails constructing a new subject, a new eye that can perceive the blindspots and limitations of your old eye, but not itself and its own blindspots, etc. A therapist is not always necessary, in fact, it's the exception rather than the rule. Most adults are aware that they are subjects, which is not something that infants are born with, but no-one has to point that out, they figure it out on their own after a few months.

Also, it's interesting to note your examples of self-awareness: am I being too loud, am I stepping on someone's toes. Technically, this is not awareness of yourself, but awareness of how other people are aware of you. Kind of like how feeling self-conscious is actually feeling that other people are looking at you.

You might try googling "ego development", particularly Jane Loevigner's stages of ego development. Her description of 10 stages of ego development and how they are different from each other is fairly concrete; coincidentally, stage 5 is called "Self Aware". Kohlberg's theory of moral development is even more concrete because it describes how different stages approach morality.
posted by AlsoMike at 11:37 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think that self-awareness is what you do and that self-knowledge is why you do it.
posted by Solomon at 12:01 AM on January 18, 2010

I agree with those above who say that self-awareness is short-term or the 'now', and self-knowledge is long-term. For example, I know that I wear my heart on my sleeve and am poor at acting. That's self-knowledge. I can use that knowledge to choose a career path, for example, that would prevent me from pursuing a career in politics.

I'm aware that I'm currently grappling with self-doubt in the face of a job search. I know this because I have taught myself to step back and recognize that the reason I hesitate to press "send" on an email to a company is because I'm not certain I would qualify for the job. But I can reason with myself and say, "what have I got to lose"? And press send anyway. I know the self-doubt is a temporary feeling, that I won't always feel this way.

I can reason with myself on issues that arise from self-awareness. I can maybe even change those things. But it's a lot harder to change things that arise from self-knowledge; it's hard to be dispassionate when you naturally respond strongly to emotional stimuli, for example.
posted by LN at 10:23 AM on January 18, 2010

Response by poster: Whoa! Well thanks for replying, fun discussion, but I was looking for practical examples of how self-knowledge is useful but most of the replies went straight back into the abstract -- interesting abstract but still too abstract for my literal mind.

Take jnnla's example of self knowledge "I have an unhealthy desire to be validated ... that causes me to act in ways that beget suffering."

OK. Well there it is. Does it particularly matter whether or not a persons knows what causes them "to act in ways that beget suffering"? It would only matter if they could do something about it.
Knowing that they "have an unhealthy desire" isn't going to make it go away. So have they really benefited from knowing about it? Maybe they feel worse because not only are they acting in ways that beget suffering but they are also guilty of having an underlying unhealthy desire.

Self-knowledge could just make such a person feel really, really bad, no?
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 10:32 PM on January 18, 2010

Response by poster: I mean first of all you'd have to know that you were causing suffering, then you'd have to know that it came from your unhealthy desire, then (the hard part) you'd have to know how to fix your unhealthy desire. Self-knowledge does always seem, in philosophical, spiritual and psychological discussions, to be an entirely positive thing. But is that true?
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 5:51 AM on January 19, 2010

Does it particularly matter whether or not a persons knows what causes them "to act in ways that beget suffering"? It would only matter if they could do something about it.

If you don't know the real cause of your suffering, then you definitely won't be able to do anything about it. That's almost always the situation before people start looking for self-knowledge, they've tried everything else. Concretely: let's say you find yourself in a situation where your wife is hurting your feelings, you feel pushed aside & not supported, etc. No matter what you try, you can't change her behavior. Then someone might say that it's because you have an unhealthy need for validation. Just knowing this does help, if you believe it, because next time you feel unsupported, it might help you keep in mind that your emotional reaction isn't completely the result of her actions. That could help you use emotional skills like affect regulation (assuming you have them) to keep your emotions from getting out of control and over-reacting.

Unfortunately, this advice is popular (*cough* metafilter) because lots of people think the primary problem with having issues is that they are affecting others. The implicit message is often "Don't let your problems upset other people, keep them to yourself," and the real question of why the person has this excessive desire to begin with is left unexplored.

Wading out even further, the excessive desire might be caused by a childhood experience with a parent, or a series of relationships left the person with a deep conviction that they aren't really deserving of love. Let's say the current situation is that you lost your job and you are furious because you feel like your wife is unsympathetic -- the residual anger from past experiences is transferred into the current situation, and you try to fight those old battles. Your excessive investment in the argument is because it functions for you as a symbol or a metaphor for some other conflict, and self-knowledge here means knowing the deeper conflict it represents for you, rather than what's on the surface.

People's investment in these kinds of conflicts seems irrational because their reaction seems out-of-proportion to the objective content; progress is made not by making their reactions more rational, but finding out what hidden conflict is being fought for which their reactions would be rational. For example, they are fighting against an internalized belief that they are fundamentally unlovable. Winning the argument would prove (temporarily) that they deserve to be loved.

Sometimes people stop here because they've dug pretty deep and think they've found some profound truth -- maybe self-esteem-boosting exercises are used, to create an opposite belief that you are lovable. But often, this is just another illusion. We should ask again, why do you feel that you are unlovable? The ultimate answer is something like: when you were a kid, you didn't feel loved enough because your mother had some flaw -- she was preoccupied & oblivious or possibly worse. As a child, you couldn't confront this truth because it was too traumatic -- what would it mean if you could believed your mother was neglectful and incapable of love? You might suffer a total breakdown, or come to hate your mother which you think might put you in physical danger, so the only to way to survive is to account for her lack by erasing it, by inventing a flaw in yourself.

In other words, your deep belief about yourself that you aren't even aware of but motivates your behavior is a lie you made up to protect yourself from an even more traumatic fact about your mother, that you truly can't face.

To summarize the whole thing, I'm going to switch to a simpler example - a pathological fear of clowns:

- 1st level: you genuinely believe clowns are scary/mean you harm (something out there is the source)
- 2nd level: you realize the fear of clowns stems from psychological anxiety when you encountered a clown at a birthday party when you were a child (some "fact" about you)
- 3rd level: you realize that your fixation on clowns is a way of avoiding the confrontation with the real trauma, that your parents were oblivious or dismissive of your fear at the birthday party (real trauma)

This might sound strange, until you ask a naive question: why do adults have pathological fears of clowns, but generally not of doctors and nurses, who gave them physically painful vaccinations as small children. The answer lies in the parents: most parents know that doctor visits are potentially traumatic for children, so they are responsive to their child's distress. But they often dismiss their child's fears of clowns (or Santa Claus, puppets, etc.) as irrational, exposing a traumatic fact to the child: "My parents don't know how to protect me." The clown anxiety is generated to fill in the gap left by the repressed trauma, almost like a distraction. How could my problem be with my parents when my anxiety is so obviously about clowns?

If people tell you self-knowledge is easy and fun, then they are probably trying to sell you something. After all, there is a reason that you repress certain facts -- they're very difficult to bear, it's easier to push them out of awareness.

Caveats: not all psychological problems are like this, and when they are, they aren't always about the mother or parents. These are just examples intended to illustrated the structure of repression.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:55 PM on January 19, 2010

Response by poster: I like the example but am still not sure of the benefit. I have now exchanged my inconvenient fear of clowns for the soul-crushing realizations that my beloved parents failed me and that I am damaged goods.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 4:28 PM on January 22, 2010

Response by poster: So although I like the example I'm still not seeing the benefits. Anyone?
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 8:33 PM on February 17, 2010

« Older How can I see every season of The Amazing Race?   |   I want to print cheap Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.