Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.    3-15,9-17

ABSTRACT:  Self-awareness is posited to be the foundation of effective self-management for human beings.  Our avoidance of self-awareness is explored and encouragement to overcome barriers to self-awareness is offered.

KEY WORDS:  self-awareness, awareness, self-management, life management

The highly reflective and philosophical cartoon character Pogo said something like “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  Pogo was commenting on the fact that so often our focus on fixing something in the environment (changing our spouses, going to war, etc.) is misplaced, since the real problem is our own views and emotions.  “Enemy” is too strong a word, of course, in this context, since this brief essay seeks to see human beings for who they really are and to have compassion for us all.

I’m advocating for the premise that most useful change in ourselves comes about through changes in self-awareness, either more accurate self-awareness or expansions of self-awareness.  Self-awareness is the key change route in most psychotherapies (except for the conditioning therapies that use habit training and desensitization).  We could just rely in our lives on whatever seems to come naturally to us and not worry about change at all, but that would be to ignore our capacities for awareness and reflection, which are the main abilities that differentiate us from other animals and are the main elements of being human that we have some control over within ourselves for use in making our lives more humane and civilized.

Reading Fenton Johnson’s musings on being alone with oneself (in Harper’s Magazine, April 2015) I realized more strongly how antithetical our consumer society is to the experience of really knowing oneself (and others), because that knowing must take place in quiet space, in nothingness in which what is within us can float up to awareness.  To be always stimulated (e-mails, tweets, news, TV, music, the city, the neighbors, the spouse, the children) has its excitement and its appeal, but it prevents most people from becoming comfortable with themselves.  This shows itself when we are alone, deprived of our stimulations, and become nervous or anxious or uncomfortable (partly because it seems so strange to us, but partly because we don’t know ourselves or how it is going to be to be alone with ourselves).

To be alone with ourselves promotes self-awareness, and, if we are willing, seeing everything about ourselves, including the things that we don’t like.  Since most of us think that our public self (what we show to others) is our real self, this is upsetting, because we are flawed, all of us, and the interaction with others that we usually engage in is one of competition and striving, in which we need to “look good” and to avoid showing anything to others that they could use to put us down and themselves up.  (Women are more subtle about this and employ different rules in interacting with men than they do with other women, but women are just as involved as men in jockeying for status position.)

If others saw who we really are, we expect that we would be exposed to the effects of their shortsightedness and prejudices (which we are likely to engage in ourselves), and we know that we wouldn’t want to be judged by them in a court of law (which is usually the same judgment we make of ourselves, which is the main reason we wish not to be more aware).

Since we can’t stand our shortsighted and prejudiced judgments of ourselves, knowing ourselves fully will ultimately require an embracing acceptance (just letting ourselves be for the moment), which can, if we are willing, lead us to also accept others the way they are, with their foibles, scary possibilities, and infinite potential to love and to help.

Communing with others in a more accepting way seems to happen for most people only during adolescence if they are lucky enough to have a best friend who is truly a friend, with whom they can explore their changing feelings and awareness, but if we are even more lucky it can happen with one adult friend who is willing to step outside the bounds of what is generally expected socially and consider who we might really be.  A few of us can have this with an intimate partner who shares not just physical intimacy with us but also “being” intimacy (regarding everything that is within us).  This is quite rare, although there are probably many more intimate partners who accept a partner’s oddities and problems but cannot talk about them and therefore can only provide mute reassurance and not the opportunity to deepen or grow.

The superficiality, shallowness, and meaninglessness of most of our conversations is remarkable, when inside, all parties are actually wanting to find something deeper to nourish their souls.  Most party conversation serves to offer the reassurance that we are still accepted by the group and, for some, chances to one-up others and try to raise themselves in status within the group.  We go to movies to admire the strong figures who seem comfortable going against the mob or the tide no matter what people think of them, because we are weak and would crumble with even faint criticism.  This fantasy experience doesn’t help us much, though, because even if we are inspired by it for a few minutes (just like with a self-help book), we return to ourselves—the selves that we cannot accept and dread showing to others.

One’s relationship to God or the divine can be a place to be fully oneself, if we believe in the ultimate goodness of God, but for most people that relationship is one in which they hope to hide their transgressions and weaknesses at the same time that they ask for things from God (much like we do with parents).  It is rare and frightening to be fully revealed to God (to really believe that He/She knows already everything about us), because our lifelong conditioning is so oriented toward hiding the “unacceptable” parts of ourselves.  God becomes, then, simply another possible way to gratify desires (and to hope for mercy at the pearly gates).  Part of Jesus’ genius was to open the possibility to all persons, even the poor and unacceptable, of being taken seriously by God and having an actual relationship with God, and this was a major force in allowing the early Christian church to spread, but soon the church was institutionalized, so that allegiance to the church, believing only certain specified beliefs, and gratification of desires (getting things from God) were the only important things, and believers could only relate to God through an intermediary such as a priest or a saint.

The major struggles of mankind for thousands of years have been seeking equality (as contrasted with societies built on pre-assigning different values to different groups) and seeking to reduce the necessary pain of living to a tolerable level.  Now that considerable progress has been made in both of these areas, the focus in “advanced” societies has turned to the gratification of desires.  Ironically, though, to make this a viable “business model” the desires of people have had to be stimulated, trained, and exquisitely honed so that the gratification of desire is itself the goal, since the main engines of this manipulated desire, sex and material goods, do not in themselves provide that much gratification.  Sex is wonderful, but it only stays wonderful if repeated endlessly, and we all know how getting that car we so wanted is great for a brief time and then becomes ho-hum.  We overrate the potential benefits of fulfilling desires, like children always believing that Christmas is the greatest day of the year, we never learn that some of that energy would do us more good if we turned it to less tangible goals, such as feeling truly centered in and comfortable with ourselves, and more other-oriented goals such as giving to others and contributing to the long-term welfare of our groups.

If we were truly centered in ourselves (knowing ourselves completely yet accepting ourselves and therefore free to have our own ideas and to choose wisely for ourselves), we would be less deceived by appearances.  Since human beings are so visually oriented, most people value beauty over character and substance and are eager to participate in an endless struggle to “look better” than others (fashion, joining a gym, doing yoga, abilities and achievements, status, social dominance) and to reap the benefits of many others valuing them for “looking better.”  If more people saw through this superficial valuing for the silly competition that it is and knew for certain that every person has inherent value just for being (even though of course we will always value some people more than others in relation to our own immediate welfare), then much human suffering would be avoided.

If we were truly centered in ourselves, we would not automatically revere the strongest and the richest, and we would vote for leaders who had the greatest abilities to benefit the people (rather than the handsomest or the one that agreed with our pet peeves).  We would also take democracy more seriously and stop trying to use the levers of power to benefit ourselves at the expense of others, since we would actually believe that everyone, because of his or her inherent worth, “deserves” just as much in life as everyone else.

Buddhism offers us the insight that desire is the root of most suffering, so more people are thinking about desire now, but most Westerners can only imagine change as involving wearing orange robes and chanting, so they are afraid to consider this marvelous psychological insight that is the basis of Buddhism.

The reaction of most people in reading this will be “but that’s impossible.  I know the people around me, and that atmosphere of competition and status jockeying is our only reality.  There’s no escape from it.”  This response, while a true representation of one’s experience, ignores the summing of individual behaviors that creates that atmosphere.  If you become consistently accepting and welcoming to others, their behavior toward you will become softer and more accepting.  They won’t stop their status jockeying in general, and you will be put down sometimes in that jockeying (sometimes with and sometimes without your knowledge), but if you stop competing, most people will be much more enjoyable to be around.  In addition, when you are engrossed in that striving and competition, you tend not to notice the many people nearby who have largely opted out of the game.  They are there, if you look for them.

To summarize, knowing everything about yourself and understanding it in a useful way makes life better because it helps you (a) to make better decisions, (b) to know what is truly good for you, (c) to accept yourself completely, (d) to feel completely comfortable with yourself, without doubt and self-criticism, (e) to accept others as they are, (f) to see everyone as basically equals, (g) to feel compassion for yourself and others, (h) to love more freely (because you don’t have to protect yourself as much anymore), (i) to not be fooled by the enticements of a consumerist culture, (j) to have more comfortable and fulfilling relationships with others, (k) to feel more calm and happy through the day, and (l) to help others with more wisdom and love.


As implied above, the greatest barrier to getting better acquainted with yourself and knowing yourself fully is the aversion we all have to seeing things about ourselves that we don’t like or that are unacceptable to others.  Therefore, most people venture into this area slowly, perhaps wondering about one thing at a time that they notice about themselves.  Forming some ideas about how to understand these things about yourself will seem uncertain and ungrounded for a while, but as you nail down some things that you know are true about yourself and why you do certain things, you will create a base of understanding that will make further understanding easier when you get to some really hard things.

The key is to start noticing everything about yourself (each of your feelings, reactions to things, actions you take) and examining your motives and what you hope to accomplish by your actions.  The explanations that most people give themselves regarding reasons for their behaviors are false and intended to justify themselves rather than to really understand (“I’m punishing you solely for your benefit”; “I did what I did because you….”), so question your initial explanations and justifications.  Be open to all possible explanations.  Once you commit to really understanding yourself, there is no need to continue to justify anything, because the point is not to make yourself feel better but to find out the truth about yourself so you can accept yourself and can better guide your own decisions and actions and therefore have a better life.

Self-awareness tends to lead toward self-acceptance, since we come to see that we are flawed and imperfect (and can never be completely otherwise).  To fight this truth is a losing battle (and pointless), so radical acceptance is the only reasonable alternative.

If we are committed to knowing about ourselves accurately (and also want to be happy), we will need to accept a great deal about ourselves that we initially don’t want to see or don’t feel great about.  Acceptance is simply “letting be,” without the need to push yourself to change.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t change, just that you aren’t pressuring yourself to act hastily or out of guilt.  This gives you the best chance to choose wisely what, if anything, to do.  In terms of change or self-development, a good rule is to expect to make all the change you want to in a given regard, and then to accept how you are without continued self-criticism or pressure to change.  We are not perfect and cannot ever be perfect, just as we can’t be good at everything in life.  These are truths about ourselves that must be accepted, because to reject them dooms you to self-criticism and self-belittlement for the rest of your life.  In order to gain greater and more accurate self-awareness, then, requires a certain amount of self-esteem (and achieving that self-awareness will itself improve your self-esteem considerably!).

It is helpful to have a companion on this journey, whether that is a spouse, a friend, a minister, or a counselor.  Having a sharing companion helps you both by getting an outside perspective on yourself and giving you practice at accepting another real person.  Meditation aimed at self-awareness only can be helpful, although you can accomplish the same thing by taking the time to think seriously about what you notice about yourself.   It’s even better if you schedule some time every day to do this (15 minutes?) and stick to it.  (Meditation can be completely divorced from Eastern religions and can be viewed simply as a psychological technique to help with self-awareness.)  Relatively liberal religious groups are a good place to look for an atmosphere that encourages this sort of self-examination, whereas more conservative religious groups have a tendency to give you a view of yourself that relates only to what the religion says is right rather than the full picture of yourself.

As you find out more about yourself, you will realize that others have many of the same issues and difficulties, and it will seem natural to soften your frequent criticism of them as you develop some compassion for yourself as well.  Stop trying to change them so that you can feel better, and stop putting them down for silly reasons (mainly to put yourself up).  Stop competing, but keep on trying to do whatever you want to do as well as you possibly can—just without the goal of comparing yourself favorably with others.  Stop trying to “be” anything.  Don’t try to be “cool” (which these days means visibly and unreasonably confident and uncaring).  Don’t try to match yourself to any image, within yourself or in the view of others; just be yourself as seems natural and as you choose to be.  This will seem very difficult at first, because we have no built-in guidelines for how/who we “should” be, so most people seek the relative safety of being like others.  As you question your true values and whether or not you are expressing them in your behavior, you will gradually decide what is important in life and will see the necessity, for your own welfare, of spending your energies pursuing and promoting what is truly important and meaningful, regardless of whether others have any sort of clue about this.

As you examine yourself and your life, you will also wonder about many aspects of our society, including its material and entertainment enticements and the assumption that everything that is new is good.  Without a firm base of accurate understanding of self and others, there is no basis for making useful judgments about what is good for us and what is not so good, but as you develop your own beliefs, you will have that base for choosing wisely.  However, anyone who is “different” from those around him will be subject to a certain amount of questioning and even sometimes rejection, so you will need to believe that knowing yourself fully is worth the negative results of being different.  (See the paragraph above listing the positive results of knowing yourself fully!)


(For additional information about wisdom, compassion, love, and self-acceptance, see the relevant essays on my website