Your “self” lies before you like an open book. Just peer inside and read: who you are, your likes and dislikes, your hopes and fears; they are all there, ready to be understood. This notion is popular but is probably completely false! Psychological research shows that we do not have privileged access to who we are. When we try to assess ourselves accurately, we are really poking around in a fog.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.” This famous quote is often attributed to Socrates. But what exactly do you know when you “know yourself?”
Below there are six elements of self-knowledge that can help you understand your own identity. As you live your daily life, you can look for clues to these important building blocks of the self.
But first, why is it important to know yourself?
Maybe it’s obvious, but here, in a nutshell, are a few reasons why you might want to know your own nature:
- Happiness. You will be happier when you can express who you are. Expressing your desires will make it more likely that you get what you want.
- Less inner conflict. When your outside actions are in accordance with your inside feelings and values, you will experience less inner conflict.
- Better decision-making. When you know yourself, you are able to make better choices about everything, from small decisions like which sweater you’ll buy to big decisions like which partner you’ll spend your life with. You’ll have guidelines you can apply to solve life’s varied problems.
- Self-control. When you know yourself, you understand what motivates you to resist bad habits and develop good ones. You’ll have the insight to know which values and goals activate your willpower.
- Resistance to social pressure. When you are grounded in your values and preferences, you are less likely to say “yes” when you want to say “no.”
- Tolerance and understanding of others. Your awareness of your own foibles and struggles can help you empathize with others.
- Vitality and pleasure. Being who you truly are helps you feel more alive and makes your experience of life richer, larger, and more exciting.
Hopefully you are now convinced that self-knowledge is worth having (for those of you that needed convincing!). We’ll now move on to those “VITAL Signs” of self-knowledge.
The Building Blocks of Self: Your VITALS
The capital letters in “VITAL Signs” form an acronym for the six building blocks of the self, or VITALS, for short. The letters stand for Values, Interests, Temperament, Around-the-Clock, Life Mission and Goals, and Strengths/Skills.
V = Values
“Values”—such as “helping others,” “being creative,” “health,” “financial security,” and so on—are guides to decision-making and motivators for goals. Research shows that just thinking or writing about your values can make it more likely that you take healthy actions. The motivation provided by worthwhile values can also keep you going even when you are tired, as shown in many psychology experiments. If you want to self-motivate, know your values!
I = Interests
“Interests” include your passions, hobbies, and anything that draws your attention over a sustained period of time. To figure out your interests, ask yourself these questions: What do you pay attention to? What are you curious about? What concerns you? The focused mental state of being interested in something makes life vivid and may give you clues to your deepest passions.
Many people have built a career around a deep interest in something. For example, when I was in the 6th standard, my aunty and uncle gifted us their computer as they were migrating to Indonesia. I was so fascinated by all that I could do then and was curious about how it works. That’s what got me all interested in programming.
T = Temperament
“Temperament” describes your inborn preferences. Do you restore your energy from being alone (introvert) or from being with people (extrovert)? Are you a planner or go-with-the-flow type of person? Do you make decisions more on the basis of feelings or thoughts and facts? Do you prefer details or big ideas? Knowing the answers to temperament questions like these could help you gravitate toward situations in which you could flourish and avoid situations in which you could wilt.
A = Around-the-Clock Activities
The “around-the-clock” category refers to when you like to do things—your biorhythms. Are you a morning person or a night person, for example? At what time of day does your energy peak? If you schedule activities when you are at your best, you are respecting your innate biology. While the idea of biorhythm preferences may sound trivial compared to lofty qualities of the self like “values,” your daily life is more pleasant when you are in sync with your biology. In every area, it’s easier to enjoy life when you don’t waste energy pretending to be someone you aren’t.
L = Life Mission and Meaningful Goals
“What have been the most meaningful events of your life?” I remember a story I had read of a 40 year old woman. She got teary-eyed as she tried to answer this question. “Recently,” she writes, “I found it incredibly meaningful to care for my aging father as he declined and went into hospice. I was able to be there and hold his hand when he died.” As she talked about the difficulties and rewards of her father’s last days, she had an “aha” moment and realized she wanted to become a hospice nurse.
Ask yourself the same question: “What have been the most meaningful events of your life?” You may discover clues to your hidden identity, to your career, and to life satisfaction.
S = Strengths
“Strengths” can include not only abilities, skills, and talents, but also character strengths such as loyalty, respect for others, love of learning, emotional intelligence, fairness, and more. Knowing your strengths is one of the foundations of self-confidence; not being able to acknowledge your own superpowers could put you on the path to low self-esteem. Become a person who “takes in the good,” listening for compliments and noticing skills that could be clues to your strengths. Likewise, knowing your weaknesses can help you be honest with yourself and others about what you are not good at. You might decide either to work on those weaknesses or try to make them a smaller part of your personal or professional life.
Even if you know your “VITAL Signs,” it’s hard to remain true to yourself because you are constantly changing and because society’s values often conflict with your own. I love this quote from fellow habits author Gretchen Rubin:
“My first commandment is to “Be Gretchen”—yet it’s very hard to know myself. I get so distracted by the way I wish I were, or the way I assume I am, that I lose sight of what’s actually true.”
For all of us, being yourself sounds easier than it actually is. But there are a few signposts. When you’ve made a discovery about one of your “VITAL Signs,” you’ll feel a sense of excitement. Acting on self-knowledge will give you energy and save you energy. You’ll feel freer and stronger because you no longer conform to how you “should” feel, think, or act.