Most frequently attributed to Socrates in several of Plato’s works, the expression “Know Thyself” is heard today as an exhortation to get in touch with and clarify your innermost wants, fears and desires. When we hear it, you can almost see the liberal arts college Valedictorian speak: “go forth, young graduates, with the self-knowledge that our college has (presumably) helped you acquire!” If we take a step back from our information-grazing to inquire, in the midst of our lives, what can it mean for us today to pursue self-knowledge?
The question touches on the ways in which our thoughts and actions can be mediated by our emotional reactions, what is sometimes called the unconscious, what some today call “implicit knowledge.” Socrates encouraged his companions to investigate their thoughts and he would sometimes identify what he saw as the reactive emotion that gave rise to them. If you can work to become less reactive to your emotional triggers, you can still allow your experience to inform your perceptions without being overwhelmed. Fast forward to the 21st Century and in some regards not much has changed. Awareness of our emotional experience is even more central to what we now consider self-awareness. Each age answers the Oracle’s “know thyself” with a new answer. Today we can see our emotional picture as a fundamental form of self-knowledge, a knowledge that precedes philosophical inquiry which deeply informs our perceptions.
Socrates was mainly concerned with the content of thought, using dialectical reasoning to encourage his companions to deepen their ways of thinking. It took until the early 20th century before Sigmund Freud revolutionized the way we think about emotions by proposing the existence of the unconscious, working to free his patients from repressed emotions. Since Freud, what we know about emotions has grown to include knowledge about how the brain and its structures work, which has changed the way we think about emotion and the language we use to describe it.
We now know that emotionally laden memories are processed differently than more regular memories. A brain structure called the amygdala is involved in storing emotional memory and such memories cannot be easily recalled by the conscious mind but are cued by association and may be experienced as fragmentary and surprising. We often react out of fear without knowing why we are reacting that way.
You can develop greater self awareness by paying attention to the ways in which you are triggered. It helps if you can allow some time to reflect on what happened, to question a reaction or decision you made in retrospect. It also helps to develop an awareness of your in-the-moment emotional experiences. One path to take is that mindfulness. People have practiced mindfulness for thousands of years. Mindfulness can help you to observe the chatter of the mind as it happens, and if you do it enough you will see patterns emerge. In the West, mindful meditation often seems to be practiced in solitude. By contrast, in traditional Buddhist practice, there is always a mentor, a more experienced guide who can give the disciple confidence in their unrealized potential.
This person can reflect back to us some of what they have seen, and therein lies the chance to gain self-knowledge. They can sometimes be off the mark, and we usually have a felt sense that this is the case when they are wrong, but this can also clarify for us what is not emotionally true, which moves us along the a path of dialectic reflection. With this person you can experience being known, of seeing yourself come into view. This attuned companionship can help you see beyond the explicit level of conscious awareness. And this is where it is clear that this type of relationship is the province of psychotherapy, but not exclusively. You might be fortunate enough to experience this in another kind of relationship with some kind of mentor, or a friend or relative who has developed a high degree of emotional self- and other-awareness. Yet what makes experiential psychotherapy such a powerful resource in the project of self-awareness is the sustained focus on the careful unfolding of the self.
Socrates attributed the phrase “Know Thyself” to an inscription at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, where people would go to ask the Oracle questions about themselves. Perhaps the Oracle would be satisfied with the paradox that to better know yourself, you must be known by another. We are fortunate to be able to have a kind of emotional experience that has the potential to change our perspective on the world and our place in it. To deepen the way you can know yourself is to deepen your relationship with another.