The Arduous Task of Getting to Know Yourself

By Malavika Eby

Hey there! It’s time to check in with yourself. Here are some questions— 

Answer them in your head, I’ll do them too, and we’ll see how we do!

  1. What’s your favorite color, in general and in clothing?
  2. How long can you stay in a social setting before your energy runs out?
  3. What’s your favorite thing to daydream about?
  4. How do you feel about your life at large right now? When was the last time you reflected on the big picture?
  5. Lastly, what core value is most important for you to possess? How about for a friend or loved one? (Core values are things like justice, kindness, family, wealth, power, stability, etc. They indicate the values which we prioritize, that most strongly motivate our decision-making process. I’ll talk more about this soon.)

Got your answers? If yes, then let’s talk for a bit about the “why” behind these tedious questions and all the seemingly-needless introspection. (NOTE: You can find my answers at the end of the blog.)

So many of us go an entire lifetime without ever stopping to understand ourselves the way we understand our best friends, significant others and even colleagues. But I wonder, if one can indeed permanently avoid the arduous task of getting to know themselves, doesn’t that indicate to us that this level of self-reflection is unnecessary? I mean, we couldn’t go years without our lungs or some modicum of common sense.

To tell you how I answer this question, let me start off with an excerpt from the closing chapter of my book, The Gift That Keeps on Giving:

I’ve heard people say that life is just a process of growing into yourself. With every hardship and celebration and another year of being alive, we get closer and closer to becoming ourselves, becoming more visible. It’s easy to lay low and disguise our quirks and flaws because we think it keeps us safe. Going beyond what we’re told, exploring ourselves and our passions, finding our footing, those are the things that make us feel like we’re beyond just a body taking up space.

I’m making a bit of an assumption here, I know, but I imagine that most of us reading this blog are individuals with the wonderful privilege of having enough foundational security, connection and self-esteem to work on things such as embracing our visibility and developing a strong sense of self. I mean, sure, periodically we’ll encounter difficult periods during which we’ll return to security-preserving behaviors, and notions such as purpose will be the last things on your mind. But throughout this continuous back-and-forth ebbing between security-preserving and growth-seeking, we will likely have a significant chunk of time during which we can work in the direction of growth, regardless of the size of our steps. 

If you’re starting to feel confused, never fear. I’m touching on Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman’s Sailboat Metaphor, a visual modeling of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (usually presented as a pyramid) which you can see here.

Illustration by Andy Ogden

For a quick rundown, you can read more about the metaphor here

Let’s get back to the point: I count the practice of self-understanding as the central mast connecting security to growth, the base of which is “exploration.” According to Kaufman’s website, “exploration is motivated by curiosity, discovery, openness, expansion, understanding, and the creation of new opportunities for growth and development,” which makes perfect sense here. 

How could we possibly reach new heights in our potential, recognize a sense of meaning in our lives, grow into the people we’ve always aspired to become, all without even understanding our identities just as they are right now? I would liken this to an attempt to follow a map without being aware of our current location. Silly, right?

What I’m trying to say is that I believe we each have immense intellectual, creative and humanitarian potential inside of us, just as theories of self-actualization would suggest. But to be able to experience what it means to be “fully human,” or “beyond just a body taking up space,” we must develop the habit of self-reflection and a genuine curiosity to get to know ourselves, if not for the purpose of growth, then at least in respect to the fact that you are truly wonderful and deserve to be understood.

On that note, here are some self-tested suggestions which you can use for clarity on your strengths and areas of improvement, your goals and fears, your favorites and dislikes, and the many versions of yourself which have represented you at some point, for better or for worse:

  • Journal what’s on your mind on a nightly or weekly basis. Despite contrary opinion, emotions are not dumb or childish – we all feel them, and the ability to recognize and regulate them makes us mature and in better control of ourselves, not the other way around. Try using your writing as a release, one where nothing is necessary to hide or sugar-coat.
  • Map out a list of activities which you love, excel at, are curious about, and/or can afford you a comfortable living one day. Try sorting these into different sections of the venn diagram below.
Taken from Performance Excellence Network
  • Reflect on your boundaries, whether they are ones you’ve set in the past or plan to set in the near future. Are you aware of your expectations from interpersonal relationships, and if so, do you respectfully communicate them? This question can be applied to family settings, friendships, work environments, etc.
  • Play the Core Values game (here’s the link to a deck). Instructions: Sort each of these core values into one of the categories (Very Important, Important and Not Important). For each card, ask yourself how deeply this core value weighs into your decisions, especially the ones made in times of stress and/or competition. Compare and contrast how you would feel leading a life absent of this core value. When you’re done sorting, eliminate the Important and Not Important cards, leaving only the Very Important pile behind. Now, repeat the sorting process with the Very Important cards until you’re left with only 10-12 core values in the Very Important category. The point of this game is to shed clarity on your personal priorities – it helps to be outwardly aware of all these factors which we subconsciously incorporate into our decisions anyway. 
  • As I say quite often, carve out alone time for yourself on a daily basis. This time, whether five minutes or thirty, is sacred and cannot be sacrificed for work, time with friends, or any other busy activity. You can choose to do anything during this period of “me time” – work on a creative pursuit, lie awake in bed, read, etc. The point is for you to have a peaceful space outside of life’s demands, exclusive to you. I find that it’s usually during these times that I can think about things that might be bothering me in a judgement-free zone and sort out my troubles in a calm, strategic and self-supporting way.

I’ll cap my suggestions at five, but know that there are so many more ways for you to continue on this path of exploration and self-understanding. My favorite thing about reflecting on humanity and our characters is that there’s always more left to learn. Though somewhat counter-intuitive, this is especially true when it comes to ourselves because we have access to an entire unceasing library of thoughts and emotions, many of which might take years to process. 

As such, I would probably hesitate to put my work and friendships on hold for a multi-year journey of self-discovery. Not because I don’t value self-discovery, but because of its nature. What we all can appreciate about self-understanding is that it’s a lifelong task consisting of little bitty revelations, moments alone and introspective periods here and there. 

You will always have enough time to get to know yourself. What you need to conjure up, however, is the energy to work toward a state of self-awareness, and the clarity that your sense of identity deserves to be strong, secure and understood, not a tangled mess in your busy mind. 

We may be able to survive without an idea of who we are, but could we really live? I don’t think so.

Also, for those curious, here are my answers to the introductory check-in questions: 1) Magenta and plum in general, white, baby pink and black to wear. 2) Three hours in small groups, maybe an hour and a half in larger ones (I’m telling you, those numbers get smaller every new month of being in a pandemic). 3) The future! But more specifically, the work I’ll do and the people I might be surrounded by. 4) I feel generally content with my life – there are complicated details in the short-term but I’m hopeful for the future. 🙂 And it might have been a couple of days since my last “mental check-in.” 5) It’s important to me to be a learner, someone who uses mistakes as stepping stones to become a better version of myself. As for the people around me, I think I value love the most – people who are kind and loving, bringing out the best in others.

Citations:

Kaufman, Scott Barry. “Sailboat Metaphor.” Scott Barry Kaufman, 25 Apr. 2021, scottbarrykaufman.com/sailboat-metaphor/. 

Ogden, Andy. Sailboat Metaphor. 2020. scottbarrykaufman.com/sailboat-metaphor/. Accessed 17 Oct 2021.

Pasricha, Neil. 2016. Toronto Star. www.thestar.com/life/relationships/2016/09/06/why-north-americans-should-consider-dumping-age-old-retirement-pasricha.html. Accessed 17 Oct 2021.

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