We are Bad at Knowing Ourselves – But Therapy Can Help!

For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with Greek mythology. I could not get enough of the deities and heroes of ancient Greece and their triumphs against evil with their awe-inspiring powers. In addition to being transfixed by the general magnificence of the gods (particularly the female ones; looking at you Artemis.), I was also drawn to another common figure within many of the myths: the sage. In Greek myths, the sage is there to provide prophecies, wisdom, and guidance, to our heroes on their various heroic journeys. I loved the idea of having a wise figure you could go to that magically understood all of your problems and, armed with that knowledge, could dispel the exact advice that you needed to hear.

One of that most legendary sages was the Oracle of Delphi, who often famously came to the aid of the god Apollo, extolling enlightened advice when he was caught in some sort of divine pickle. And it was to Apollo that she supplied one of her most famous maxims: know thyself.  Of course, being the literal god of knowledge, Apollo had no particular trouble with this assignment. However, for us mere mortals, the task of truly knowing and understanding ourselves turns out to be a bit more of a herculean effort.

According to social psychologists, there are actually several ways in which the non-divine can come to learn about themselves, and of these, the simplest and most obvious process is that of introspection. This technique involves looking into yourself, unpacking and analyzing all of your thoughts and feelings to figure out the meaning and rationale behind your actions. And the logic behind this is idea is fairly straightforward: I’m the only one who gets access to everything that’s going on in my head, and if I have all the important evidence, shouldn’t I be the best judge of my behavior? While this seems like an intuitively accurate concept, the research has not proven kind to this simple conclusion. Turns out, we don’t know ourselves nearly as well as we think we do.

Various experimental studies by Nisbett and Wilson (2 famous social psychologists) that we often have no idea why we behave the way we do, and sometimes we will even make up reasons out of thin air (reasons that we honestly, truly believe) to give rationality to irrational decisions. Wilson contends that this inaccuracy is in part due to the sheer volume of information that is constantly being processed by our brain. In our efforts to find meaning, we can easily misunderstand our own thoughts and feelings because it is simply too difficult to digest and understand all of the processing and calculating that can go into making a single decision.

While I don’t have my own oracle to help me along with this tricky process, I do have something that is my opinion just as valuable: an amazing therapist. I have been seeing the same woman for years now to help me through various life traumas, and while the majority of the work is on me to self-introspect and unpack my feelings, the therapist’s work is often to call out my own misunderstandings. I can explain a behavior or a decision to my therapist, describe what I think of as my reason for doing it, and she can identify if that description makes sense with the facts and with everything she knows about my personality and my story. In other words, a therapist can be the perfect means by which to address the issues inherent in introspection, helping us process our feelings more slowly and more accurately. We all need a little Delphi to our Apollo!

Written by Helena Lorenz, B.S. 

Clinical Intake Specialist