We are often told to “know yourself.” Different philosophers, religious leaders, and mental health specialists have given this advice. The ancient Greeks inscribed it on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi as a source of wisdom. Lao Tzu is quoted as saying, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.”

But what does it mean to know yourself? Is it just a catchy phrase, or is there substance behind it? Perhaps we are considering a new type of insight, a means of discarding outmoded self-concepts and replacing them with ones that are more fitting. Let’s distinguish the different facets of self-knowledge.

First, we might want to appreciate how we think, and what is behind our beliefs. This is the facet I will explore in this piece but before I do I want to briefly list some of the other facets of self-knowledge.

Second, we might want to get a sense of our emotions. We might believe that we feel one way, but may actually have different feelings. For example, when my mother-in-law Bessie died, I didn’t feel any particular grief. I was fond of her, but she was old and in poor health. Her death wasn’t a surprise. What was a surprise to me was a telephone call I made to put an announcement in the newspaper that Bessie had died — and without warning I found myself choking up. So there was an emotional reaction, even though I hadn’t been aware of it.

Third, we might get a clearer idea of our goals. We might feel tormented by uncertainty, looking for clarity about what we really want.

Fourth, we might benefit from a deeper understanding of our strengths and our limitations. It is too easy to get swept away by overconfidence, or to be discouraged by general feelings of inadequacy. We would do better if we could realistically assess our abilities and our weaknesses.

Fifth, we could get a better idea of the fears and attractions that govern our choices. We could appreciate their basis and even their origins so that we might prevent them from leading us to poor decisions.

Doubtless there are other facets of self-knowledge. I just want to show that there are different varieties to be considered.

Now back to the first facet, the one I want to examine more closely: Our beliefs. It is very easy to assume that other people think like us. When we size up situations, identify the causes of events, settle on a course of action, generate expectancies, we may suppose that others think in the same way and have the same mental models of how things work.

But I do a lot of scenario-based decision training, and I am struck by the differences in the way people think. In group sessions, one person will describe his/her understanding and then the next person will have a very different understanding of the same scenario. The third person will come up with something else entirely. And each person will have the same reaction: “I thought it was all so obvious; I never suspected there were so many other interpretations and analyses.”

I speculate that there is value in discovering the ways our beliefs and thought processes differ from others, and also the similarities. There is value in discovering what is unique and what is common, in contrasting and comparing. We can strive to see the perspectives of others. We don’t have to agree with them, but if we can start to understand them we can put our own beliefs into perspective. We can better know ourselves by trying to know others. 

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