Self-Knowledge — the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

One of my favorite ways to learn and teach philosophy is by exploring “thought puzzles.” Presenting and talking through a series of these thought puzzles was by far my favorite way to introduce students to philosophy because at its core, philosophy is the study of fundamental questions human beings ask. So, I thought it might be fun to look at some of the puzzles of self-knowledge here.

In a recent blog post, I explored this puzzle: self-awareness seems to be a valuable skill for human beings to develop and yet, research suggests that because of a thing called the adaptive unconscious, we don’t know ourselves all that well.

Here I want to challenge the claim that self-knowledge is actually good for us. Let’s weigh the evidence.

Self-Knowledge: The Good

On the surface, self-awareness or self-knowledge (I’ll be using these terms interchangeably unless and until I find a reason to make a distinction) seems undeniably beneficial for human beings.

  • When we’re self-aware, we have a better shot at setting realistic goals that are actually attainable. This suggests that self-awareness is a prerequisite for success.
  • When we’re self-aware, we’re less likely to say offensive things that could result in ridicule or a pop in the mouth.
  • When leaders are self-aware, they’re more likely to hear and support their employees, so they’re more likely to have good relationships with them and see better results.

Practicing self-knowledge and connecting with our needs, our wants, and our emotions is central to what we think of as emotional intelligence. So it seems to be what we all need to lead happy, healthy, satisfying lives. So far, so good.

Self-Knowledge: The Bad

But (you knew there was a big ol’ “but” coming) self-knowledge has a dark side too. Consider someone who suffers from serious depression. Is self-awareness and emotional intelligence beneficial for this person?

You might think it’s helpful in that a depressed person who simply tries to ignore their depression and carry on as if everything is fine is effectively a ticking time bomb. It’s much better for a depressed person to face their mental illness, so they can get help.

The trouble is self-knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead us to take action. A depressed person who knows they’re depressed, but feels deeply ashamed about their depression may be very self-aware. However, this is only helpful information if they decide to take action and when we feel shame, we’re less likely to take action, not more likely. In this case, maybe a little less self-awareness would be beneficial.

Organizational psychologist, Tasha Eurich, shares some strong insights about all of this. It turns out that there are better and worse ways to be self-aware and introspective. This quote sums it up:

Introspection is arguably the most universally hailed path to internal self-awareness. After all, what better way is there to increase our self-knowledge than to look inward, to delve deeply into our experiences and emotions, and to understand why we are the way we are? When we reflect, we might be trying to understand our feelings (“Why am I so upset after that meeting?”), questioning our beliefs (“Do I really believe what I think I believe?”), figuring out our future (“What career would make me truly happy?”) or trying to explain a negative outcome or pattern (“Why do I beat myself up so much for minor mistakes?”).

But this kind of self-reflection doesn’t necessarily make people more self-aware and it doesn’t necessarily make them happier. In fact, those who spend a lot of time ruminating on their inner thoughts — especially asking themselves “why” questions — end up feeling more stressed and anxious and have more negative beliefs about themselves.

Self-Knowledge: The Ugly

Beyond worries about introspecting in the “wrong” way, there’s evidence to suggest that we are actually better off when we ignore who we are altogether. That’s right, it might turn out that an outright rejection of self-knowledge is the real key to living a happy life.

Let me give you two examples:

1. Habit Change

I’m reading James Clear’s Atomic Habits (yep, I’m late to the party) and one of the big concepts in this book is that if you want to change a bad habit or create a new habit, the trick is not to focus on what you want to change, e.g., winning a race, publishing a book, but rather it’s to focus on who you want to be, e.g., “I’m a winner,” “I’m a published author.” So it looks like if you want to change your habits, you need to convince yourself you are someone you decisively are not (yet).

2. Extraverts Get Ahead

In one experiment, researchers asked groups of participants to complete 20-minute, joint problem-solving exercises. Then they randomly selected some participants to act extraverted (enthusiastic, energetic, talkative, assertive) and others to act introverted (shy, quiet, reserved, passive). At the end, they asked participants to rate the leadership quality of other participants (and themselves). They also asked participants to rate how they felt.

The results are interesting. As we might expect, those instructed to act extraverted were ranked higher on leadership skills than those instructed to act introverted. But what was particularly interesting was that the participants acting introverted also ranked themselves especially poorly on leadership ratings — they rated themselves even lower than their group members.

This research suggests that if you’re an introvert and you want to get ahead, you should do your best to act like an extravert. In other words, to get ahead, act out of character (unless you’re an extravert, I suppose).

Conclusions

What conclusions can we draw from all of this? Well, I’m still mucking around as I try to sort out what I’m learning through my research. So I’ll share my conclusions with you, but everything should be taken with a grain of salt.

First, it’s clear to me that there are better and worse ways to practice self-awareness. My next task might be to figure out criteria for determining better and worse. At any rate, I’m quite certain it’s not as simple as coming up with a list of ways to cultivate self-awareness, like this. Such a list may be helpful as a starting point, but beyond that, I’m not so sure.

Second, I’m wondering about the unintended consequences of ignoring who we are or trying to change our introspective practices. Identity crises come in a lot of different forms. And although there may be practical benefits to introverted me acting like an extravert, I know from my own experience, there is an energy tradeoff for behaving in this way. I suppose I’m seeking the line between setting aside my identity and living a double life.

What do you think? I’d love to know I’m not pondering this stuff all alone in the dark.

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks. She loves helping experts who are long on ideas, but short on time write business books. Find out your writer type with her Writer Profile Quiz.

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Emily Crookston

Emily Crookston

Emily Crookston is the Owner and Decider of All Things at The Pocket PhD. She’s the ghostwriter for rebels, renegades, and mavericks.