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August 17, 2012 9:37 pm
One of the main motivations for seeking therapy is the desire for self-knowledge, the satisfaction of finding out why we act as we do and how we got to be the way we are. Many people are prepared to spend years excavating some kind of inner chamber to uncover the causes of feelings and behaviour in the remoteness of childhood.
Aside from the fact that there is no carbon dating to verify what we find there, it is limiting to think that this is all self-knowledge can mean. Insight, for instance, can be understood as the clarification of habits of thought, assumptions and patterns of behaviour. Not so much a question of making the unconscious conscious, as Freud would have it, but of making the implicit explicit, as existential therapists might put it.
Any self-knowledge project is under threat from the large amount of psychology research telling us that most of our functioning is unconscious. Nothing is spared – feelings, attitudes, personality, motives. We think we are not angry or jealous when it is clear to everybody else that we are. We really believe we love someone before realising we really don’t. We take an instant dislike to a person with no awareness that it’s because they remind us of a horrible maths teacher, or we fail to realise it’s the smell of croissants that has moved us to give money to a beggar.
The case may well be overstated: having limited access to our inner workings isn’t the same as having no access at all. But even if the springs of actions are shrouded in mist, some insight is still possible. We just have to seek to supplement our internal perspective with a slightly more detached one, taking into consideration how other people see us, the role of the context we’re in and even what the research tells us about how little we know ourselves.
Making the implicit a little more explicit, throwing our world view into slightly sharper relief, can still help us to gain more control over our choices, which is, after all, what self-knowledge is all about.
Just as it is common to hear people say that you cannot love others unless you first learn to love yourself, Plato warned that you must know yourself before you can hope to understand less accessible aspects of reality. On this view, it is a neat linguistic accident that “metaphysics” starts with “me”.
Yet the cleverest philosophers, psychologists and artists are evidently not always blessed with pellucid self-awareness. And even if specialists in human understanding can’t see themselves truly, what hope is there for the rest of us?
More than we might think, if we can learn from the mistakes of lumbering intellectual giants whose fatal flaw is often complacency and over-confidence. Experiments have suggested that if people are primed to believe that they can make objective judgments about others, they actually become more likely to be swayed by prejudices and stereotypes. Given that, I don’t think it’s fanciful to suggest that experts who believe they have some kind of special insight into human nature might be too confident that they have privileged routes to self-understanding and might assume more is visible to their inner eye than they can actually see.
Such blind spots can grow if self-examination gets channelled through the narrow confines of a strong theoretical idea about what the best object of self-knowledge truly is. A psychologist might see herself through the lens of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a philosopher might focus excessively on the contents of his conscious rational deliberations. The result can be a fixed and limited image of self that leaves out other elements, such as core values, cultural assumptions or unreflective impulses.
And that’s where hope lies for the rest of us. Perhaps what we most need to know ourselves is honesty and humility, which expertise tends to erode rather than strengthen. If that’s the case, then when it comes to self-knowledge, amateurs who are fully aware of their limitations might be better equipped to succeed than over-confident professionals.
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