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How Well Do You Know Yourself?

HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOURSELF?

We think we know ourselves better than others know us. But how well do we know ourselves, really? Who we think we are is a matter of perception, and research suggests that most of us are not very good at forming accurate perceptions, especially our self-perception. Yet self-knowing and self-awareness are considered by almost every major philosophy as fundamental to our ability to mature and to take control of our lives.

So what is perception? On one level, it is the act of seeing; I see the beach, and I perceive the light playing on the water. Psychology teaches us about another aspect of perception, that of forming perceptions: the process of interpreting and making meaning of what the information that we receive through our senses. Some of our perceptions are instinctive (for instance, infants across cultures seem to have an instinctive aversion to snakes), but many of our perceptions - perhaps most of them – are learned. They are based on our experience, expectations and other influences.

Our perceptions are affected by many factors, an important one being learning. We learn - from our parents and care providers, our teachers, peers, our society, our experiences and others’ responses - to form certain perceptions about different kinds of situations or people, and we will respond to them in learned ways. For instance, Aside from such instinctive responses, our responses to stimuli are based on how we perceive them. For instance, one person might enjoy heated discussions of ideas because he has learned, from parents and experience, that such exchanges are exciting, and give one a forum for expressing their ideas and opinions. Another person - whose experience with heated discussions has been largely negative, or whose family interpreted any disagreement as unwelcome conflict – may feel very uncomfortable or threatened around such blunt and frank exchanges of opinions.

Often, however, we are not aware of our perceptions, or of how they affect out behaviour. Suppose we have often worked with people who are not motivated and need to be persuaded to see the value in their task. We may form un-stated and unconscious perceptions of others and of what is required in a leadership position. These perceptions will influence how we behave in similar environments. When we lead a new group of people, we may automatically (without questioning the appropriateness of our actions) focus on promoting the vision and goals and on creating positivism and enthusiasm. Sometimes, it is only when our decisions and actions are somehow challenged or clearly not working that we begin to question our reasons for behaving in this way. Then, our unconsciously held perceptions may be isolated and become apparent.

Another influence on our perceptions is emotion: our perceptions always have an emotional dimension, which partly explains why they can be so hard to change. Imagine the smell of newly-turned earth. This sensation will probably be associated with both experience and emotion, such as our memory or a flower garden, the scent of flowers, or a warm summer day gardening with grandmother. It is virtually impossible to isolate the memory of the smell from those other memories. It is very difficult, perhaps possible, to hold a perception without referring (consciously or unconsciously) to some emotional and experiential context.

To illustrate this further, consider the ‘problem employee’. Some employers will see a worker who gets good results but prefers to work alone and do things in an unorthodox way, or one who is opinionated and freely expresses his or her opinion about the way things are done, as a problem. This judgement is based on the employer’s expectations of how an employee should behave, of the different roles of employer and employee and the nature of their relationship, the value of correct procedure versus the value of flexibility, the employer’s priorities, or need for control. That employer might believe that it is in the best interests of business to attempt to modify that person’s behaviour in some way. On the other hand, a manager with similar training but different experiences, expectations or values recognise in that employee someone able to make sound independent decisions and the initiative to act on them.

Self-Knowledge

Clearly, we are better able to form accurate perceptions of others when we are more aware of what influences our own thinking and behaviour. Lack of self-awareness, on the hand, can and does lead to faulty assumptions about others, and just as important, about ourselves. Just as employers can form wrong or ill-informed perceptions of others, they can form faulty perceptions about others, and about their own behaviour; also, about how they come across to others.

Though we may not be aware of it, every time we interact with others, we are communicating something about ourselves. If we are not sufficiently self-aware, we will not know or recognise what we are saying about ourselves, or how it may be affecting others’ perceptions of us. Knowing what we are communicating and what we want to communicate through our actions and words are therefore essential to gaining more control over ourselves and our lives. Without that knowledge, we tend to react out of habit, or to wait for others to make sense of what’s really happening. We tend to build up a picture of ourselves that is distorted by our ideals, our expectations, and our ignorance. What we do not know about ourselves or about how others perceive us, however, can have a great effect on our relationships and our lives.

Self-knowledge is the fundamental knowledge from which we can begin to develop the kinds of relationships we want. It allows us to identify and communicate our needs, concerns and goals. It helps us establish priorities in our relationships, which in turn allows us to invest more energy and thought into those priorities rather than spreading our energies too thin by trying to achieve success in all areas of our leader relationships. For instance, while we all like to be liked and create a happy environment in the workplace, our real priority might be to challenge ourselves to explore new approaches and take risks to achieve superior results. In that case, we should anticipate some discomfort, and possibly some negative feeling towards us. If we focus on being liked, we may be reluctant or unable to achieve what is really important to us, and will not achieve the kind of growth that is possible.

Lack of self-knowledge may result in lack of awareness of what we actually feel, want, or communicate, causing us to communicate in unsatisfactory ways. For instance, a team leader might feel frustrated by a group member’s continual criticisms, and act defensively. If the leader reflects on what is causing these defensive responses, she might begin to recognise a pattern established in childhood with over-critical parents, and understand that her defensiveness is a reactive pattern. This frees her to consider the appropriateness of a defensive response in this situation and to seek more appropriate ways of handling criticism.

Even if we choose to conceal or disguise what we know about ourselves, self-knowledge enables us to act out of intention rather than out of habit. Our actions can be more purposeful, more clearly thought out, and more precisely tailored to meet our needs (or perceived needs) at the time.

As for lack of knowledge about how we come across to others, consider the real life situation of one employer who believed he had a very good relationship with his efficient hard-working secretary. He was astonished when she resigned because of what she saw as his intimidating, aggressive behaviour and his lack of consideration for her feelings, for he had not realised that his straight forward, facts-only approach had made her feel so uncomfortable, or that she was feeling over-worked and under-valued.

Developing self-awareness

To become more self-aware, we must be willing to look at the three basic components of our behaviour: our thinking (what we think, believe and expect), our emotions (what we feel, fear, want or desire), and our actions (what we actually say and do). We can develop greater self-knowledge by applying a combination of strategies to these aspects of our behaviour. These strategies are:

· Acknowledging and consider others’ evaluations and judgements of us withut becoming defensive

· Attending to the effects of our behaviour and communications on others and on our lives (noting feedback and our effect on others’ behaviour)

· Consciously and purposefully observing and reflecting on our behaviour

· Actively seeking criticism and comment about our behaviours form a variety of sources (from more than one person, in more than one situation).

A person seeking to develop greater self-awareness might, for instance, encourage others to comment on or critique his or her approach in a situation (“Do you think I should have handled that differently?”), install a complaint or ideas box in the workplace, help create an environment where frank exchange of opinions is encouraged, observe and note the effect his or her communications have, ask colleagues for an honest assessment of his/her approach to certain issues, and so on. These strategies are not always easily practised, but they can be developed, and the reward for our efforts will be a more accurate idea of what we really say about ourselves.

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Further Information:
The authors of this article are staff of ACS Distance Education. This school operates from both Australia and the UK, offering over 350 courses (Hobby and Vocational). See www.acs.edu.au, www.acsedu.co.uk For Careers Advice see www.thecareersguide.com

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