This has been my mantra for the past few years. I’ve both praised and relentlessly practiced introspection. Whenever I encountered external problems, I obsessively searched for their causes within. I prided myself to be brave enough to visit the darkest corners of my psyche.
More people than ever realize that getting to know themselves may be the best investment they ever make. But as we’re reaching the first anniversary of living in a pandemic-ridden world, I’m starting to see a new piece of the puzzle.
What the unusual state of the world is exposing in my mind may be enough of an insight. Last year, we’ve all been presented with challenges that potentially showed us more about ourselves than we were ready to face. To me, this means that now isn’t the time to dig my mind even more in search of yet another self-revelation.
Actively doing so only makes me question my reality. I no longer know if my insights really are insights — or are they just by-products of my mind’s cognitive biases and other default wiring?
Finally, I also don’t want to turn self-awareness into yet another improvement quest. I must admit that, recently, I found myself treating soul-searching as just one more goal. And when you get obsessed with a goal like that, it easily turns into unhealthy self-obsession.
On the one hand, we’re told that self-awareness will help us show up as our best selves in relationships. However, when we become overly invested in the self-discovery quest, we might forget that other people even exist.
One of my favorite quotes on this topic comes from psychologist John Amodeo:
“The greatest gift we can give another person is the gift of our own personal growth. The more we know ourselves and develop the courage and skills to communicate our inner experience, the more that trust and love can flourish.”
This seems accurate: The more mature we are, the richer our relationships. But what if we pursue personal growth to the point when it detaches us from the rest of the world? In the times when self-help is a commodified industry, aren’t we at risk of reducing self-awareness to a purely egocentric pursuit with the main purpose being to prove our worth to ourselves?
The risk here is — as Niklas Göke put it — that “you might succeed in self-improvement, but fail in being human.”
A vivid example of how we package, market, and sell personal growth is Peloton ads — including the controversial “The Gift That Gives Back.” They suggest that reaching our full potential is strictly related to discipline, grit, and determination. The actors in the videos wake up at 6 a.m. and, despite almost unthinkable resistance, get on a Peloton bike. They grind their teeth and just do it no matter what.
After a completed workout, you can see it on their faces that pushing through was so worth it. There’s nothing that could compete with that feeling. Transcending one’s limitations is presented as the ultimate source of reward.
And, we buy into it. After all, our culture constantly repeats that nothing worth having in life comes easy.
Now, there’s certainly a lot to be said about the value of getting outside your comfort zone. But that’s not the only component of growth. Every athlete knows that after a tough workout, recovery is required to maximize results. The same goes for personal growth — we all need a good mixture of challenge and comfort to advance as human beings.
This may mean that the most profound growth — such as developing self-awareness — needs to happen through the comfort of letting it be organic, not forced. If you try to plan and optimize every inch of your self-discovery path, you’re more likely to become self-obsessed than self-aware.
Nathan Adlam wrote an article where he comments on “Fight Club” Tyler Durden’s statement that “self-improvement is masturbation:”
“We’re all developing ourselves whether we want to or not. It is impossible to go backwards in life. Some people like to call attention to it and call it self-development. Some people have never had such a thought in their life.”
“The paradox of self-help is that the more self-help information you consume, the more you think you need help. When in fact, the last thing you need is help. You don’t need help. You need to love yourself. Enough so that you stop consuming self-help and start living.”
A big part of the self-help industry thrives off our sense of inadequacy — also when it comes to self-awareness. It suggests that we should be more aware or awake by now. Instead of helping us appreciate ourselves for who we are and grow from there, we’re fed the idea that to respect ourselves, we need to continuously push our limits.
This approach frames personal growth as a solitary pursuit, isolated from the rest of the world. It often doesn’t take into account our individual circumstances and resources. It rarely cares about events like a pandemic or mental illness. Most importantly, it doesn’t fully appreciate the contribution others make to our self-discovery.
I imagine it must have been quite intuitive for people of pre-internet generations: The ultimate lessons in self-awareness are our relationships. The intimate ones and the family ones. Those with co-workers, friends, and even brief exchanges with strangers on the street. We can only learn so much about ourselves by sitting alone in a room, meditating on our strengths and weaknesses. Those strengths and weaknesses manifest most clearly when we come in contact with someone.
Different people show us different parts of ourselves. Often, they expose what we can’t see on our own. That’s what shadow work is about — viewing those around us as mirrors that reflect what we can’t perceive inwardly. For example, what annoys you in your mom or your partner may be a reflection of that part of yourself that you never learned to accept, and maybe can’t even see. If it wasn’t for those people reminding you, how could you possibly become aware of it?
As I’m dipping my toe in intimate partnership after a long period of singlehood, I see this every day. The parts of me that I had forgotten about are coming to the surface again. No, I don’t think they’re pretty, and no, I wasn’t able to perceive them on my meditation cushion. But when they come up, at least I know they’re real. I know they’re showing me a way to self-awareness that I’d forgotten about.
When life events like a pandemic, intimacy, loss, or success present personal challenges, this may be enough for your self-exploration. In times like this, it may serve you to let go of the deliberate, structured attempts to build self-knowledge — and just give yourself to those events as fully as you can.
Hold no judgment about how evolved you should be by now. Make no plan as to what you should be able to learn from this. Leave the self alone — and practice the awareness part primarily. Pay attention to the people you interact with day-to-day. They may show you exactly what you need to know, without you attempting to be self-aware.
Lastly, remember that your self isn’t any one tangible entity. It emerges through interactions with your environment and needs context to do so. It’s fluid to the point that many people argue it doesn’t even exist — at least, not in the sense that we’re used to thinking about it.
Maybe the possibility of your non-existence will help you laugh a little and relax. This way, you could stop treating self-awareness as yet another metric of your worth, and see it as an exciting adventure instead.
I don’t know about you, but I could use such a change in perspective for sure.