Learning to know myself, and grow myself.
November 4, 2012 5:52 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to trust (and know) myself?

I seem to have a lot of difficulty accessing and affirming my "gut feelings" about things. I'm in a pretty unstable place in life right now, and I can't seem to find solid ground. I would love to hear how you all deal with intuition, or lack thereof, pertaining to your thoughts and feelings.

It doesn't help that I was a pretty fearful and anxious person growing up, and my parents (one in particular) were overinvolved, domineering, and thought they knew what was best for me. This culminated in a lot of fighting during my teens, but even as I argued with my parents over just about everything, I was still convinced that they were right about stuff. As I grew up and struggled with depression, anxiety, and guilt, I came to overdepend on my parents' advice in many areas. This has been a longstanding habit that I'm only finally starting to break (I'm 26), but I see the same interactions and overdependencies/enabling playing out between my parents and younger sibling, and I get that it's bad.

I think that I'm just starting to "know" myself now, but I still don't, really. And I'm afraid I never will.

Also, I'm in therapy right now. My therapist has confirmed that I need to try and separate my own internal voice from that of my family, and I'm just getting started.
posted by freeform to Human Relations (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The "coin trick" usually works for me to ascertain my gut feelings on a 2-option issue.

Let's say I can't decide whether I want to work at job X or job Y. I grab a coin and tell myself that if it flips heads I will go to work at job X. I then flip the coin. As soon as it's in the air, I find myself hoping it will land tails up. That's my answer. It helps to be very earnest about this, to really tell yourself that you are going to do whatever the coin flip says.

This is also a mindfulness thing - meditation may help. Mindfulness in Plain English got me started (this is a good choice if you're anti "woo" as I am).
posted by zug at 6:00 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

It comes with time and patience. And even then it can be a struggle sometimes. Your life will be full of many ups and downs - you'll feel stronger at some points than at others - this will affect how much you trust yourself. We cannot unfortunately preserve ourselves in a bottle when we're at our best.

And FWIW, I don't think you can ever really know yourself - you're a constantly changing individual. All you can do is go with it.
posted by heyjude at 6:11 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I paid insurance claims for five years. It taught me a lot about ideas like looking for patterns of behavior (which I do anyway, but it helped me improve on how I do this) and that some kinds of evidence are stronger than others. In fact, one very strong piece of evidence can outweigh three wishywashy ones that suggest the opposite. Knowing which is which in a given situation has been wonderfully helpful to me.

I tend to be very socially insightful and can infer a great deal on a smidgeon of information. But my track record used to be very hit or miss. For a long time, I was prone to jumping to conclusions on almost nothing. When I get it right, I look like Sherlock Holmes. When I get it wrong, I look like something akin to a conspiracy nut. That job helped me firm up a methodology for how to judge. One of the things it taught me was to say "I think it is A, not B, but I don't yet have enough information. So I will try to get a bit more information before I act on my suspicion."

It is okay to infer something but acting on it too soon, without real reason to, can be wonky. I am not only better about waiting a bit for confirmation, I am better about judging when/if to act at all. I have less internal need to just announce something. I think I did that to try to figure out if I was right and it often made me look like an idiot. I have a better methodology these days, which gets me more consistent results.

I talk a lot about "intuition" with my oldest son. A favorite story: Some doctor had an amazing track record of referring patients for testing (I believe for syphilis) before they were recognizably symptomatic. So they put two other doctors in with him to watch him and try to figure out how he did it. Eventually, they found a new, subtler symptom which showed earlier than others, some kind of eye flutter. The doctor who was using "intuition" actually was using a specific symptom but had not consciously pinned it down.

Similarly, my oldest son and I frequently try to analyze why we have a particular impression -- we try to do what those two doctors did and pin down what we are seeing but can't quite put our finger on. We operate on the assumption that "intuition" is based on real information of some sort but incomplete conscious analysis. So we try to firm up the analytical part. Then it goes from "gut feeling" to something more solid and defensible. We know why we dislike something, thought someone untrustworthy, etc. That helps us the next time we have the same impression and it takes less time the second time to conclude our "gut" should be honored even if there isn't time right this minute to go over it all with a finetoothed comb.
posted by Michele in California at 7:01 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

One idea that might work for you: Write what you feel, whether in prose, poetry, free-form, or whatever. Just express it in some form, and continue to do so over time. You will discover what form of writing works most naturally for you, and you can go back and privately review your thoughts and ideas at your leisure. This method has worked for me in the past because it helped me focus on how to best express what was bothering me. Just getting the thoughts on paper reduced my stress and acted as a form of therapy.
posted by 1367 at 7:52 PM on November 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Personality typing systems can be somewhat useful for helping you sort out your motivations and values, which may in turn help you to get a stronger concept of which voice is actually yours. I'm partial to the Enneagram myself. Meyers-Briggs is popular as well.

As far as making decisions, someone on Ask (wish I could remember who) recently said something to the effect of: If you are having trouble choosing between several options, it means the options are probably roughly equal in terms of good and bad features; because if one choice was a lot better and one a lot worse, it wouldn't be hard to choose.

In the difficult-to-choose situation you are likely to have a satisfactory outcome no matter which option you pick. So just make the choice already, and then start dealing with any problems as they come up. As a person who has a terrible, agonizing time making decisions I found that to be very helpful advice.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:08 PM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

"Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement"

You have to try stuff in order to build a gut sense. Fear and anxiety keep people from trying stuff. Each of our circumstances is different, but I think there's a generalizable truth in this.
posted by rhizome at 8:14 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I just wanted to quickly reply to @Serene Empress Dork: I'm an INFP (haven't done the Enneagram yet, but I will).

Also, thanks to everyone for answering thus far. I have a lot of self-confidence issues, and feel like all my time living in my head has rendered me kind of stupid. I'd like to reduce my fear and anxiety, per @rhizome, and feel like I'm actually living. In the world.
posted by freeform at 8:16 PM on November 4, 2012

This question almost sounds like I could have asked it.

I think zug's coin trick is useful. When faced with a decision, choose one path and pretend as if it's been decided, and see how it feels. This probably works best with big decisions, like "should I move to X city?" Then you start acting it out, looking for a place to live, finding a gym, envisioning life there, etc. Does it all horrify you or make you anxious? Well, then try the other choice on.

A big thing that I have learned is that there are many paths. I thought there was one best/optimal path and I had to spend all my time figuring out which one it was and then going for it (and checking with my parents just to be sure). FALSE. You can always change course. This is a nice safety net as you're learning to trust yourself. (I still have trouble really acting according to this belief, especially because my family does not seem to share this belief.)

Another thing that has helped me is that I have had a few experiences that showed me my intuition was right, in the sense that I learned I could trust it. One of them was big--would I accept a job offer and move cities. I had an absolutely terrible time during my interview/visit. I guess I can't be proven right that I would be miserable had I taken the offer, but I am certainly not miserable now and am glad I did not get pressured into going (it was prestigious and, on paper, a very good opportunity). The other was mostly inconsequential--but also helped me realize that I am attuned to what is going on around me and to my own feelings about it.

A related problem is that ambiguity makes me anxious. I really want to have a decision or plan of action I'm working towards. Sitting with uncertainty can be very hard but probably also instructive.
posted by kochenta at 8:18 PM on November 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Plenty of good stuff has already been said.

I would just add, don't assume that there necessarily has to be a hidden "you" with fully formed opinions and feelings that you're currently unaware of. Finding oneself or learning to know oneself is not just observational. It's also an act of self-creation.
posted by perspicio at 10:05 PM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]

One thing that I found helped a lot was silence, or at least as close as I can get to it in an urban area. At first I was really uncomfortable - I was so used to the distractions of music or TV or what have you that I had a hard time sitting with myself in silence. As time went on, I was a lot more comfortable with it - and with myself. When I am feeling frazzled or anxious or uncertain, I will turn off all the distractions and just sit quietly with a mug of tea, looking out the window. It helps a lot to center me and quiet my brain, which helps me to figure out what's going on, or what I need to do next.

Also, I second perspicio - you are creating you, every moment of every day.
posted by RogueTech at 7:42 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

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