Insights and Strategies for Improved Self-Knowledge

18 March 2024
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How our Mind Moves

Two men were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind.

“It’s the wind that is moving,” stated the first one. “No, it is the flag that is moving,” argued the other.

A Zen master, who was walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. “Neither the flag nor the wind is moving,” he said. “It is MIND that moves.”

This Zen story beautifully illustrates the concept of perception and how our mind interprets and make sense of the world, which is a key component of self-knowledge.

Our understanding of ourselves and the world is a construct of our mind. Our mind gives meaning to our experiences and shape how we perceive reality.

Understanding this is crucial for self-knowledge, as it highlights the importance of introspection and mindfulness in recognizing our thoughts, beliefs, and biases.

We only understand ourselves and the world by learning how our mind ‘moves’.

This movement of the mind shapes our understanding of ourselves and our personal reality.

Our mind perceives, processes, and experiences. By altering our thoughts and viewpoints, we expand our experiences and feelings, transitioning from self-deception to self-awareness.

Definition: Self-Knowledge

If you ask AI what self-knowledge is, you will, at best, get a limiting answer and, at worst, one that will distort how you see yourself and those around you.

Often, we are unsure of who we are and don’t know where to look for answers.

While most people know what they like, a mountain of research revels that self-knowledge is a rare attribute.

Here’s my personal definition of Self-Knowledge:

Let’s break this down!

I do not develop my self-knowledge in solitude.

I am in a continuous process of learning, unlearning, and relearning, or not, depending on how present and selective I am.

The circumstances I create for myself, the things I gravitate towards, and the norms I accept shapes my self-knowledge.

Why Self-Knowledge Matters

I lived in ignorance of my true self for a long time, too afraid to explore the depths of my being.

After years of suffering, I reached a breaking point. At that moment, I had a profound revelation.

Limiting my identity to a specific place or time is not possible, and no single experience determines the course of my entire life.

What I call “my identity and existence” goes beyond these limits, as I am deeply connected to the universe and everything within it.

Feeling isolated and disconnected from the world is a deceptive illusion that limits me to my own desires and intimate relationships, trapping me.

To escape this trap, I had to broaden my self-knowledge, as it lays the foundation for personal development and growth.

Common Misconceptions about Self-Knowledge

One of my mistakes in the past was to think that self-knowledge was a goal in the sense of an end in itself.

I thought once I knew my likes and dislikes; I needed to build a life around that.

Self-knowledge isn’t a goal, but an ongoing journey that never ends.

As I navigate through the seasons of life, facing new experiences and challenges, my understanding of myself continues to evolve.

I have been on a journey of self-discovery for over twenty years. I have realised that there is always more to learn, and I am still at the beginning of that journey.

Self-knowledge is not definitive, but nuanced and conflicting.

I am constantly evolving and learning new things about myself.

Last week, I discovered things about myself that were previously unknown, and next week, I will uncover even more.

Finally, I used to think that introspection was the only way to gain self-knowledge. I’ve since learned that while introspection is important, I come into being through my interactions with others and my experiences in the world.

Most importantly, self-knowledge results from detachment.

Stepping back and observing my thoughts, emotions, and behaviors without being overly attached or emotionally involved.

Looking at each experience from a third person perspective allows me to understand myself better.

This process helps me identify patterns, biases, and potential areas for improvement.

The Four Basic Components of Self-Knowledge

We humans often find it difficult to think clearly when suffering, with most of this suffering stemming from a lack of self-knowledge. Our fears and shame contribute to this struggle.

To transition from suffering to happiness, we need accurate guidance to understand the root causes of our suffering and how to alleviate it.

Increased self-knowledge guides us towards a path that reduces our suffering by illuminating the way forward.

I consistently revisit and evaluate four areas to better understand myself: thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and personal environment.

Let’s look at each one.

1. Thoughts

Understanding my thoughts is an important starting point in self-knowledge.

My thoughts are a constant stream of consciousness, shaping my perceptions, attitudes, and actions.

They reflect my beliefs, values, and experiences, making them a rich source of self-discovery.

By examining my thoughts, I gain insights into my cognitive patterns, uncover implicit biases, and identify areas of growth.

This practice requires daily mindfulness and introspection. It can be challenging and uncomfortable because it requires me to question my own views.

Therefore, developing a deeper understanding of my thoughts is a key aspect of self-knowledge and personal growth.

2. Emotions

Emotions play a critical role in my self-knowledge.

They are my internal response to experiences, shaping my reactions and interactions with the world.

Understanding my emotions provides insight into my values, beliefs, and motivations. It also helps me manage and express my feelings in a healthy, constructive way.

This understanding improves my decision-making, problem-solving, and stress management skills.

As I grow and experience new situations, my emotional responses change, making emotional self-awareness a lifelong learning process.

3. Behaviours

Understanding my behaviors is a crucial aspect of self-knowledge.

The way I act is a visible representation of my thoughts, emotions, and values, influenced by both my conscious and subconscious mind.

By observing and analyzing my behaviors, I gain insights into my habits, preferences, and tendencies.

This help me identify habitual patterns, recognize triggers, and understand the impact of my behaviour on others and theirs on mine.

I use my behavioural awareness to make changes that align with my goals and values, fostering personal growth and improving relationships.

4. Personal Environment

Where I live, work, and the city I live in have a significant impact on my mood, behaviour, and self-perception.

Living in a busy city draws me to a fast-paced, dynamic lifestyle. Living in the countryside encourages a slower, more reflective lifestyle.

An uncluttered environment promotes calmness and focus on what’s important. Conversely, a cluttered environment leads to feelings of stress, distraction, and overwhelm.

My personal environment, which ultimately contributes to my self-knowledge, shapes my preferences, habits, and values.

My social circle, family, friends, and coworkers, has a major influence.

These interactions have the power to challenge, affirm, or enlighten me.

For instance, an observation from a friend about a trait I wasn’t aware of led to a deeper understanding of myself.

Similarly, conflict exposes hidden aspects of my personality and prompt growth.

The cultural context is another crucial element.

The culture I grew up in shapes my beliefs, values, and norms. It influences my understanding of what’s considered right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, important or unimportant.

My cultural lens shapes my worldview and sense of self.

Everything in my personal environment acts as a mirror, reflecting many aspects of my identity.

By examining its influence, I deepen my self-knowledge.

Four Tools to Improve Self-Knowledge

Throughout the day, I prioritize four specific practices, regardless of my intentions or goals for the day.

Each of these four practices helps me tremendously to better understand thoughts, emotions, and experiences, increasing my self-knowledge.

1. Observe without Judgment

I practice staying fully present in moment. No multitasking, closing every loop before moving on to the next.

No matter how uncomfortable or uncertain, I do my best to observe my thoughts and emotions without judgment.

I welcome any overpowering feelings and emotions that arise, inviting them in for a cup of tea.

This practice helps me recognize my emotional patterns and understand myself better.

I am no longer waiting for things to happen, but actively making things happen.

Note to Self:

  • This is a practice, not a goal. It takes time and there will be setbacks.
  • The strength of this practice lies in staying present with whatever arises and showing empathy towards yourself.

2. Self-reflection

Nature and solitude are a big part of my life. I spend a considerable amount of time analyzing particular topics or concepts.

Understanding why feel and act the way I do requires me to quit the noise and reflect.

Note to Self:

  • Self-reflection is key to knowing myself better and growing as a person.
  • Don’t get sidetracked by new, shiny stuff.
  • Keep your focus on your own lane, it’s worth it.

3. Writing

My brain is all over the place, like a cluttered desk.

My brain is overflowing with ideas, concepts, and mental models, all fighting for my attention.

Writing is like cleaning and organizing that desk.

There’s a strong connection between writing and improved thinking.

Writing forces me to slow down my thinking process, organize my ideas, clarify my thinking, and identify any gaps or inconsistencies in my reasoning.

The act of writing itself engages my brain in a deeper processing of information. I am not just passively consuming my own excessive thinking; I am actively analyzing, interpreting, and reformulating my understanding.

As I write, I often expose underlying assumptions I wasn’t consciously aware of before. This allows me to challenge them and refine my mindset.

Through writing, I delve into a topic from various angles and consider contrasting viewpoints, allowing me to gain a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding.

Writing clearly about a concept helps solidify my knowledge and highlights areas I need to understand better.

Each day, I write my thoughts, emotions, and experiences, labeling them as “Notes to Self” and tagging them for future reference.

I review my notes briefly each day for 5-10 minutes and dedicate 20-30 minutes every Sunday to go through the past week’s notes.

Writing allows me to clarify and define my intentions for the upcoming week.

Note to Self:

  • Writing is your therapy, coach, and mentor.
  • Writing is a powerful tool for boosting clarity, promoting deeper understanding, and fostering creative problem-solving skills.
  • Don’t miss a day, and you’ll consistently gain insights into your inner self.

4. Continuous learning

I imagine my brain as a muscle. The more I exercise it through reading and learning, the stronger and more flexible it becomes.

Reading non-fiction books is the mental workout my brain needs to stay agile and adaptable throughout my life.

Learning not only exercises the mind, but also introduces new ideas and perspectives, encouraging critical thinking.

I don’t read passively, but engage with the text. I take notes to pinpoint the main ideas, rephrase book passages, and make connections with other fields.

I write articles to enhance my learning and better understand myself.

I only read what is practical in my life. If a theory or concept doesn’t offer pragmatic skills like emotional intelligence or communication, I disregard it.

Note to Self:

  • Reading enhances learning, broadens worldviews and fosters compassion.
  • Reading cultivates the tools you need to navigate relationships more effectively.

Common Pitfalls to Avoid on the Journey to Self-Knowledge

The path to self-knowledge may be well-intentioned, but also filled with pitfalls that easily derail our progress.

Here are a few to watch out for:


I like to think well of myself, and sometimes that means I downplay my weaknesses or mistakes. To avoid this, I need to open to feedback, even if it stings.

The “fixed self” mindset

Believing that my personality and traits are set in stone hinders my growth. While self-knowledge is about understanding myself, it’s also about understanding that I must evolve.

Confusing self-esteem with self-knowledge

Self-knowledge involves recognizing my strengths and weaknesses – not about boosting my ego.

Getting stuck in the negative (or, anything really)

I avoid focusing solely on my weaknesses or getting stuck on anything for an extended period.

Final Thoughts

The journey to self-knowledge is a lifelong endeavor, one that requires continuous introspection, learning, and growth.

Understanding myself is profound and transformative.

The ultimate goal is to live a meaningful and honest life. To do that, I don’t need more things. I need more self-knowledge.

The only path towards progress is to have a complete understanding of every aspect of my soul, including shame, fear, and limiting beliefs.

Life isn’t merely a series of events that occur to me; it is a series of opportunities, even when it may not seem that way.

I am not a victim of life circumstances. I have a choice.

Thank you for reading. If you’ve made it this far, you’re among the 1% who finish what they start.

I will leave you with a few thought-provoking questions to further stimulate your thinking on this topic.

  • What does self-knowledge mean to you?
  • How can you be more mindful of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors?
  • What steps are you willing to take today to start your journey towards self-knowledge?
Recommended Books:

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

by Brené Brown

Brown discusses vulnerability’s importance for self-discovery and connection.

She suggests that embracing vulnerability leads to genuine and significant relationships.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman explores two systems of thought that drive our decision-making.

Emotional Intelligence 2.0

by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves

Bradberry and Greaves explores emotional intelligence, providing practical steps to better understand and manage emotions.

Man’s Search for Meaning

by Viktor Frankl

“Man’s Search for Meaning” is a memoir by the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.

Viktor suggests that we can find purpose and meaning in life, even under tough conditions.

This is my all-time favorite book and a valuable resource for understanding your values and motivations that I keep coming back to.