When Shakespeare wrote, “to thine own self be true,” he must have assumed his audience knew themselves. Actually, self-awareness can be difficult to achieve, and defining who we are even harder.
Hippocrates, regarded as the “father of medicine,” believed that levels of different fluids thought to be in the body — blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile — determined personality. Today there are countless questionnaires, interview methods and tools, such as the Rorschach test, that purport to do the job.
We seem to be an introspective society — a visit to the therapist has become as routine as a trip to the grocery store. Yet, according to Dr. Eugene Goldberg, a psychiatrist in New York City, the majority of people walk through life without ever really knowing themselves.
“There are plenty of people who are totally blind. They’re called narcissists,” he says.
Experts point out that there really is no way to objectively define personality. There is no standard psychological theory about what personality is, or how to define it. At most we can say personality is based on an individual’s most consistent internal responses to life experiences, and that a self-aware person is aware of these responses.
Through your eyes
An important part of self-awareness is how well a person’s view of him- or herself agrees with the outside world’s perception. And, in at least some respects, we probably don’t see ourselves as others do.
A study conducted over the past 5 years at the University of Virginia, called “The Peer Nomination Project,” found a correlation of only 20 percent to 30 percent, depending on the traits measured, between the characteristics people assigned to themselves and those others assigned to them. Eighty percent of the time, though, friends agreed with each other in their assessments of others.
Dr. Eric Turkheimer, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and a principle investigator in the study, along with Dr. Thomas F. Oltmanns, says, “If there’s a bottom line to our study, it’s that neither self-report nor peer report is a complete picture of personality.”
That’s not to say that what we think about ourselves doesn’t count. In fact, Turkheimer says the study showed a combination of self-reported and peer-reported information can be more useful to a person than either form of information by itself.
Turkheimer cites an engineered group situation where some participants had actually predicted their own narcissistic behavior. Others in the same group saw the “narcissists” as cold and uncaring. “One [view] rounds out the other,” Turkheimer says.
“Seeing yourself in the same way that others see you is no guarantee of mental health or life satisfaction, but it is an element in good social relationships,” says Dr. Bruce Smith, a clinical psychologist who also teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.
For example, an individual who sees himself as straightforward and clear, but whose frank comments are viewed as hostile and aggressive by those with whom he interacts is likely to be puzzled and hurt by others’ reactions, Smith says.
Is ignorance bliss?
Don’t expect self-awareness to lead to satisfaction, however. Research says that happy people tend to overrate their skills and attributes, while those considered depressed are more realistic about their own performance.
The majority of people, in fact, consider themselves above average. And less introspective personality types, who simply don’t fancy inspecting themselves, may not suffer for it.
“It’s not necessarily true that if you’re less introspective you’re doomed to a life of misery or unfulfillment,” Smith says.
In general, though, knowing more about ourselves probably wouldn’t hurt, and seeing a mental health professional is a good place to start. Those who have serious questions about themselves, or suspect they may have problems, should strongly consider consulting an expert, doctors say.
“Psychotherapy is not something that you have to be in terrible distress or have mental illness to benefit from. It can be a very useful experience,” Turkheimer says.
Further, gaining self-awareness is a critical first step toward changing parts of our personalities we may not like. Most traits tend to stay stable over time. Some people tend to be more thoughtful and others tend to be more action-oriented or expressive, and these basic responses generally don’t change much. The way a person deals with stress or conflict is also consistent, Smith says.
However, treatment can help to modify responses and even change aspects of a person’s personality. But, as Goldberg says, “It takes a lot of work for both doctor and patient.”
One helpful tool, particularly for gaining information on the perception of peers, is group therapy. Following the questions of a skilled, licensed leader, members react to how others answer and behave.
“Sometimes there is a striking consensus, like ‘Are you aware every time you open your mouth you’re putting your foot in it?’ And nine people shake their heads,” Goldberg says. “We do correct each other.”
Stacy Lu is a free-lance health reporter based in New Jersey whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes.com and ABCNEWS.com.