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We all know that we should be honest with ourselves. If we know ourselves and our role in the world, and if we understand the consequences of our actions, we will be better prepared for life’s challenges.
We also all know someone who lacks this kind of self-awareness. It is easy to see the self-deception of others, since we have no stake in their delusions. It is also easy to criticize.
Yet all of us, to varying degrees, have a faulty conception of ourselves and our place in society. We misunderstand our motives and rationalize our actions, feeling justified even despite negative consequences.
To revise this conception is a worthy task, which entails many pitfalls and trials. However, once we overcome these challenges, our progress can never truly be set back, and we prosper.
RATIONALIZATION VS CURIOSITY
The world around us continually bombards us with feedback about ourselves and our actions.
People hold certain opinions of us. They have specific responses to our specific actions. Our choices have particular consequences, intended or otherwise, that often change between the short-term and the long-term.
We may choose to learn from this feedback, or not. If we are receptive, we will meet it with curiosity and perhaps enthusiasm. We see it as an opportunity for positive change and growth.
If we are not receptive, we evade this feedback, seeking not to learn from perspectives that conflict with our own. When confronted with this kind of feedback, we dismiss it (sometimes with hostility).
But even if we dismiss the source of this feedback, it remains with us in our minds. To resolve it, we persuade ourselves of faulty, incomplete narratives. In other words, we rationalize.
REALITY VS PERCEPTION
A COLORED LENS
This rationalization goes above and beyond the specific; it is not limited to certain actions or people. Our rationalizations can include sweeping generalizations about our identity, life story, and value in the world.
These generalizations come in many varieties; those who tend towards the grandiose may think of themselves as heroes or saints, acting as defenders of some righteous cause. Such people often overcompensate, aggressively seeking opportunities to assert their identity. This comes from a fear that someone might challenge them (or even worse, that they might come to doubt themselves).
Others may think of themselves as perpetual victims, seeing the world with indifference or hopelessness. They excuse their actions by convincing themselves that nothing matters, and nothing could ever be different.
These are two sides of the same coin. We may consider ourselves unique, and thereby either virtuous or hopeless. In consideration of the complex influences and factors that act on us, we either excuse ourselves of our behaviour, or resign ourselves to it. In either case, we become convinced that the world revolves around us.
This matrix of belief would be incomplete without a correspondingly distorted perception of others.
When others exhibit the same behaviour as us, we assume that they are simply malicious, ignorant, or oblivious. We deny them the rich history that led them to their identity and decisions; in the story of our lives, they are two-dimensional characters.
In our hypocrisy, we criticize most energetically what we resent most in ourselves. We attempt to disown these traits, shifting the focus away from ourselves.
Even if we are aware of our flaws, we might still project them. When we assume others are as nefarious or negligent as we are, we thereby excuse ourselves.
Our minds establish these sophisticated narratives to sidestep the pain that they would otherwise be forced to confront.
This is a pain that would force us to acknowledge the mistakes we have made, the harm we have done, and the changes we need to make. It threatens our belief in ourselves and our choices, leaving us vulnerable and disillusioned.
Any such pain can be deftly swept away by a sufficiently complex framework of rationalization.
Nevertheless, to confront this pain is still a far cry better than the alternative. Our rationalizations are deceptively costly.
We may alienate ourselves from others who expect accountability from us, robbing ourselves of opportunities and relationships. We repeatedly make choices against our own interests, because we are afraid to change our beliefs or strategies.
We make the same mistakes over and over, and each time we do, we are faced with the same reality vs perception dilemma: do we confront a difficult reality, or do we double down on an evermore costly delusion?
OVERCOMING A LACK OF SELF AWARENESS
ACCEPTING CRITICISM & LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
The solution is in taking others’ feedback seriously, and holding ourselves accountable. If our actions lead to bad consequences and negative responses from others, we should respond with curiosity, and open ourselves to a bit of doubt; the feedback the world offers us always has some grain of truth.
We often use our first-hand understanding of our own motivations as justification for negative actions. We thereby enable ourselves to take similar action in the future.
But this first-hand understanding can be used towards a more constructive end: self-forgiveness. If we can recognize the motivations for our mistakes, we might be able to acknowledge them and come to terms with them. This way, we can change them for the better.
OPENING OUR MINDS
One of the best strategies for developing self-awareness is knowing what you don’t know.
This is more difficult than it sounds. We know the reasoning behind our own opinions, and we don’t know what reasoning we’re overlooking. We think we are right most (if not all) of the time, and that anyone who disagrees is somehow ignorant.
But if we are wise, we should stop to consider that reality informs belief. This means that anyone with a contrasting opinion has a real reason for believing it. True enough, this reasoning may be narrow or incomplete. Yet, if we disregard it, we will miss whatever value it does hold.
Sometimes, others around us are indeed biased. Nevertheless, this should not be taken as evidence of our own mental clarity. We may well be oblivious to our own mistakes.
Where we do see that others are not honest with themselves, we should strive to imagine the depth of their history and identity, questioning what could have led them to where they are now. We should see them with compassion, not judgment.
After all, judgment of others is not useful to us. It is a tool that we use to evade responsibility for ourselves. Evade as we might, all we can really do is hold ourselves accountable. Nothing else will help us.
LACK OF AWARENESS VS FAULTY AWARENESS
When we clear away our delusions, we open ourselves to the development of a more authentic sense of self-awareness.
This process of development, however, is not concluded simply because we are open to it. Though it is a lifelong process to develop identity, some of us have already laid the groundwork.
Others have not. This is especially true of people who are either young or facing a crisis, as well as those who have recently discovered a new sense of open-mindedness or curiosity.
People who are just beginning this process are much more volatile; since they have no reference point for their own identity, they are much more susceptible to influence and suggestion, leading them to swing this way and that.
This is a natural part of experimentation and exploration. We gain a clearer view of a spectrum if we immerse ourselves in its extremes. Our identity may become dominated by one facet of our character, while our more sensitive side is suppressed.
In time and with experience, we will come to reconcile all aspects of our personality with the world around us.
The road ahead is long and challenging. We are continually in a state of transition, and our work is never truly done.
But although we move continually from one transition to the next, we still prosper from those transitions we have successfully overcome. This means that, once a self-deception is mostly resolved and a foundation of true identity is laid, our work can never be truly undone.
Even if new challenges present themselves and we revert back to old thinking, we will have learned from the process. It is much easier to repeat a success than it is to achieve it for the first time.
The question of what we stand to gain from all this has a simple answer: everything. Though self-awareness is only one piece of the puzzle, its effects radiate to all aspects of our lives; if we practice personal accountability, we become trustworthy. Self-esteem and relationships flourish, and opportunities come knocking.
If we understand our place in the reality we occupy, we can function better within it in every regard.