“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us To see oursel's as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, And foolish notion”
Although these lines were written by Robert Burns, Scotland's most famous and honored poet, over two hundred years ago, they continue to have important psychological significance. The purpose of this post is to explicate the psychological implications of his words and provide some practical ways for you to obtain accurate new information about yourself.
Having grown up with a great aunt who quoted Burns on a daily basis, I can still only lay claim to a "wee" bit of understanding of his dialect. My interpretation is that he wishes, somehow, we were gifted with the ability to see ourselves the way that others see us, because it would save us from many mistaken actions and erroneous ideas, particularly wrong beliefs about ourselves.
Why obtaining accurate self knowledge is important
Burns' idea about seeing ourselves as others see us, implies not only that how others see us is more accurate than how we see ourselves, but also that others see us from a different perspective, a perspective that was either impossible for us to take or one that we were not willing to take. In case the observations of ourselves by others may provide more accurate and new information about ourselves. We may become aware for the first time of something about ourselves we never noticed before; and it may be something that we don't like and want to change or remove. It is only when we have obtained accurate and valid information about ourselves, either through feedback from others or using the special techniques described below, that we are in position to decide what changes, if any, we would like to make to improve ourselves.
Why obtaining self-knowledge is difficult but not impossible
Modern day psychological research has abundantly shown that the self has surprisingly limited ability to accurately observe itself unless one uses specialized strategies. There are at least two reasons why self knowledge is difficult to come by.
Firstly as pointed out by Mark Leary, a prominent social psychologist, in his 2008 book "The Curse of the Self", "The inherently egocentric and egotistical manner in which the self processes information can blind people to their own shortcomings and undermine their relationships with others." (p. VI). Leary further cautions that on that the egocentric egotistical self has a hard time not only accurately observing the self but others too, although it seems to a lesser extent. So even Burns' recommendation about valuing the opinion of others about ourselves has to be taken cautiously.
Secondly a lot of recent research has shown that much of human behavior arises outside of awareness, from what is called the "adaptive unconscious". As Timothy Wilson explains in his 2002 book "Strangers to Ourselves", the adaptive unconscious is the ability of the mind to work on auto pilot, usually at a faster pace than the conscious mind could. The adaptive unconscious differs greatly from the famous conflict-ridden Freudian unconscious. A good example of the adaptive unconscious is our ability to drive a car and simultaneously talk to someone beside you at the same time. The mental autopilot can drive the car and allow you to focus on the conversation. But the fact of so much of our lives being on autopilot means that we are not aware of much of our behavior and so cannot access it directly. This again limits our ability to accurately and completely observe ourselves and hence understand ourselves. In summary, the egocentric egotistical nature of the self and the mind's frequent use of the adaptive unconscious, combine to make accurate self- knowledge difficult to come by.
Strategies for observing the self accurately
Fortunately special strategies have been developed to help us obtain objective knowledge about the self. I have listed below some of these specialized strategies and a brief explanation of how they work to provide more accurate self knowledge.
- Journal daily. For many people, journaling is "the way of choice" to obtain knowledge about the self. As explained by Christina Baldwin in her beautifully written book "One to One" journaling provides a way to construct a mental vantage point from which we can stand apart from the self and hence see ourselves more clearly. On page 9, Baldwin writes "we are capable of having a relationship with our own minds. We are capable of building into our consciousness a point of observation of ourselves." Hence with respect to the Burns quotation above, journaling and specifically the construction of a "point of observation" allows us to see ourselves as others see us. In fact it allows us to see ourselves even more accurately than others do but for this to occur, we must learn how to journal skilfully. I have written more about journaling here but I recommend if you are interested that you read Baldwin's extremely informative book for information about how to journal.
- Join a support group of people with whom you have some common concern. The concern may be a common interest e.g. bird watching or a common problem e.g. cyber addiction. This provides you with the opportunity to observe others like yourself. In my experience nothing can work as quickly and effectively to change me as observing others with whom I identify. Sometimes I see them do wonderfully intelligent things and I model myself after that; other times I see them do foolish things that I recognize I have done myself and I "miraculously" stop doing that silly thing.
- Practice Mindfulness Meditation. These ancient practices involve daily practice of observing the content of one's own mind e.g. thoughts, feelings, and actual behaviours. In this way one not only is obtaining information about the self but one is strengthening the brain circuits involved in the very process of observing the self. One is strengthening Baldwin's "point of observation".
- Obtain feedback from others. The simplest and most direct way of obtaining knowledge about how other see us is to just ask them to tell us. This strategy can work if we are brave enough to ask and if we have others who we can trust to give objective feedback in a compassionate way. Indeed this is part of why people seek out counselling. However there are several practical difficulties with this technique including that others are not always available. What we want feedback about may be too personal to share with others or we may in fact avoid such feedback due to shame or embarrassment. Another problem is that we remain dependent on others for the feedback.
- Listen to an audiotape or view a videotape of yourself interacting with someone else. These electronic means of observing ourselves often provide us with astonishing new information about ourselves which can initiate rapid change.
- Engage in spiritual practices such as prayer, spiritual meditation, or contemplation.
Although valid self-knowledge does not come easily, it can be obtained using the strategies just outlined. I suggest you try one or more of these ways to self-knowledge and find at least one that is suitable for you. Daily practice of your favorite way and the new self-knowledge obtained will expand your conscious universe, facilitate fundamental personal change, and permit you to live the kind of life you really, really, want to live.
Copyright © 2014 by Dr. Brian S. Scott