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Getting to know 'you'

I was set up for a blind date once with a woman who described herself in a letter to me as 'fun and bubbly!' The way people describe themselves is sometimes rather sharply at odds with the way others see them, I find. I spent the whole of that date wondering where the writer of the letter had got to… But that's enough about me. What about you?

Do you know much about yourself? Or do you just think you do?

When you refer to your 'self', do you mean the self that relaxes in front of the TV, the self that dreams at night, the self that gets angry, sexy, curious - or all of these combined? Do we all have multiple 'selves' that get wheeled on and off again as circumstances require, obscuring a truer, more timeless 'self', as the mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, for example, believed? And what about the 'average person'?

We get ourselves wrong

The average person doesn't think they are average. On average, people claim to be more disciplined, more idealistic, more socially skilled, a better driver, better at leadership and healthier than… the average person. Logically, this is impossible. The average person is not 'above average'. Average and above average people also believe themselves to be worse in many of these areas than average. So low self-esteem is really just misperception. If you really are as bad as you think you are, then you are ahead of most people, because you really do know yourself.

How do you really know someone? How do you really know yourself? Would you eat your best friend if you had to?

How to really know someone

After you meet someone for the first time, you might tell me "Wow, they were nice!" and I would want to know: How do you know? Have you been shipwrecked and stranded on a desert island with them, had to go into battle and trust your life to them, had to share your wealth, or be sold into slavery with them?

The fact is you can't know someone just from socializing with them. The closest bonds are forged in extreme circumstances. There will always be deeper and truer bonds between men who have fought in battle together, or between women who have survived against great odds, than the flimsy superficial associations that come from mere socialising. In extreme times the outer layers of self are peeled away and a truer self emerges. Connections with other people become more real. Team bonding isn't just about drinking in the same bar.

But what has Plato got to do with all this?

Plato and you

Quite a long time ago the Athenian philosopher Plato (first known describer of the 'platonic friendship' between men and women - see beginning of article) famously told us, presumably in Greek, to: "Know thyself!" This injunction implied, of course, that most of us don't and we really need to. Accurate self-knowledge is vital for real fulfillment. Since then hippies have gone to India to 'find themselves' without first checking behind the sofa. People go on 'self development' courses. What are they developing, exactly, I wonder? Do they know, or are they just after the warm fuzzy feelings?

All right, let's get to the crunch. Do people really perceive themselves accurately? On the whole? Look around at the people you know. What do you think? Naaaah! Of course they don't. Let's look at what people think they are like and what they are really like. Oh, and when I say 'people', I include myself.

Research Plato would have loved

Strong emotion always clouds perception and so distorts it. Self-perceptions of character and abilities are often filled with high doses of bias, misconceptions, and vanities - leading to high self esteem - or conditioned feelings of inadequacy - leading to low self esteem. People routinely and grossly over- and under-estimate their own honesty, aptitude, courage and attractiveness to others.

Researchers Mabe ,West and Dunning found that self-perception of ability and actual ability have a very low correlation. I already mentioned that the average driver believes they are above average drivers! Most people think they have an above average sense of humour (including me). More worryingly, family practitioners rating their knowledge of thyroid disorders failed to show any insight into their actual level of knowledge [1]. Other people can sometimes see our situation clearer than we can ourselves. College roommate ratings are better predictors of which romances will survive than self-impressions [2]. Peer ratings among junior doctors strongly predict who will do well on a surgical exam; self ratings do not [3].

We get other things wrong too.

Not listening to Plato

People over-predict the likelihood that they'll perform generous, ethical and kind acts. They overestimate the odds they'll buy a flower for charity, vote, maintain a successful romantic relationship, volunteer for an unpleasant lab experiment so a 10-year-old girl won't have to, and cooperate with one another when money is at stake. People consistently mis-predict themselves even though they are roughly accurate in predicting how others will perform in these areas [4].

It seems it is easier to know others than to know ourselves. This is why it is so important to have honest and fair friends and to listen to them. It's not that people are entirely wrong about themselves, but they tend to exaggerate their flaws or abilities. One of the roles of the court jester during the middle ages was to tell the King things about himself that others dared not. The rich and famous are often surrounded by people who never give them straight feedback about themselves, so they can turn into prima donnas and lose sight of themselves altogether.

We don't like to see ourselves as greedy, cowardly or unkind, of course, but surely any course in true 'self development' would need to provide a way of encouraging the participants to objectively observe these unacceptable parts of the self without tipping into self-chastisement, low self-esteem or self-congratulation? We need to know something before we can do something about it. Wouldn't you rather know?

Bypassing self-esteem

To be more honest with ourselves we need to bypass the whole self-esteem question. If your self-esteem is the most important thing to you (and in our society you'd be forgiven for thinking it is the most important thing), then the need to feel good about yourself will always push you into defending your self-esteem, and thus warp how you actually see yourself. When we can a) spot our weaknesses and deficits and b) get to know them and know when they'll arise and c) not be ruled by them, then we can start to develop real self confidence. Not the fake confidence based on refusing ever to look at ourselves and maintaining our self-deception.

The good old rationalisation

We use rationalisations all the time to explain away positively to ourselves and others why we did - or didn't do - certain things. Rationalisations are biased creations of interpretation rather than the fruits of self-observation. Pompous people use rationalisations (and so do governments). Rationalisations can turn vice into virtue - for example, by describing lack of generosity as 'being cruel to be kind', or laziness as 'thinking time'. Until we are clear about ourselves and what we are really like, we'll go on repeating the same old mistakes and put it down to that other popular rationalisation 'fate', or 'just my luck!' When you know yourself more accurately you can be more effective and successful, as you won't need to waste time and energy propping up your self-esteem though fabrication and self-deceit. Nor will you have to 'work blind', as you will know when fear, or selfishness, or whatever other weakness, is operating in you and allow for it, rather than pretending it isn't there.

Of course, the 'real you', your 'self', isn't in an ashram in India or behind the sofa or on a retreat - it's inside you right now. Possibly wrapped in layers of bias, habit, vanity, fear and conditioning - but it's there!


[1] Tracey et al, 1997; 'The validity of general practitioners' self assessment of knowledge'. Cross sectional study. British Journal of Medicine, 315, 1426-1428

[2] MacDonald and Ross, 1999; 'Accessing the accuracy of predictions about dating relationships: How and why do lovers' predictions differ from those made by observers?' Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25, 1417-1429.

[3] Risucci et al, 1989; 'Ratings of surgical residents by self, supervisors and peers'. Surgical Gynecology and Obstetrics, 169,519-526

[4] Epley and Dunning, 2000, 2006; 'Holier than thou: Are self-serving assessments produced by errors in self or social prediction?' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,79,861-875.

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