As someone who was in therapy for 10 years during my youth and is now a psychotherapist, the notion of “getting to know ourselves” has always been vital. But recently, as I’ve been speaking with some of my clients, it’s occurred to me that many of us don’t know what this statement means, exactly. Some of us might think, “I already know myself, what more is there to do?” Others might be completely mystified by such a statement or even scared about the endeavor to know oneself. Having such a long history with psychology, personally and professionally, this task of knowing myself is automatic and intuitive for me…but it’s important to lay it out for those of us who are new to emotional and psychological explorations. Consequently, this is the goal of this post.
Getting to Know Myself & The Basics
Humans, like all other animals, are all about patterns and this is the most important concept to keep in mind, regardless of how you’re working to know yourself. However, because humans are so complex the task of seeing the patterns can be quite difficult and it can be rather overwhelming to find a starting point. To make this task more manageable, we need to identify some major areas in our lives that we can turn our focus and attention to in order to learn about how we are. These major areas consist of emotional responses, thoughts and beliefs, behaviors, preferences, interpersonal dynamics, and communication styles. The tricky part is that each of these overlap and influence each other. For those who are knew to what therapists call “psychological mindedness,” it’s best to take these one at a time. As we learn to master our ability to observe our mind and body, we can start to look at how the patterns intertwine. But again, this task will likely be too complicated for the beginner.
Where to Start
Get a journal. Yes, many people wince at the idea of journaling, but it is vital to in making headway. If you’re working with a therapist, journaling will deepen your sessions because you will have reflected upon yourself and your life in a concentrated outside of sessions. If you’re not working with a therapist, it will enable you to do the work that’s needed to learn about yourself. What is it about journaling that’s so beneficial? It’s an activity that supports a mental shift that doesn’t occur throughout our typical day. All of us are active through the day and inevitably doing something. Working, interacting, commuting, checking our phones, watching tv, etc. Most of us don’t set aside time to reflect upon ourselves and our life. Sure, we have passing thoughts but they are, passing thoughts. Journaling is psychological and emotional exercise. We walk throughout your day but to keep up your health, we often designate time to exercise at the gym or in some other way (or we at least know that doing so is good for us). Journaling and therapy is our psychological and emotional exercise. We won’t make gains without them. Even meditation has it’s limitations and often isn’t very appealing to many of us.
What to Journal About
This is a tricky question because each of us approaches situations differently. However, in an attempt to account for as many people as possible, I’m going to divide this into two ways. On the one hand, you can journal about Anything and this is probably best for those who have a very negative reaction to too much structure and prefer to approach things openly in order to learn and explore. Some people work better with structure because it helps them focus and have a plan. If this is the case, choose one or two areas, mentioned above, and stay within those to start. Another approach for structure is to write or talk about situations. This way we can address all of the areas but the situation keeps us focus and grounded. These are some good starting points but be open to how your journaling and therapeutic conversations develop and are most helpful.
Important Intentions to Have
Whether you’re journaling or in a therapy session, your motivation and intentions about the activity are very important. Why? Because they determine whether the activities are of benefit to you, both in the short-term and long-term.
Maintaining or developing a deep curiosity about any and all aspects of ourselves and of life is vital if we’re going to get to know ourselves. If we find ourselves saying, “I know,” a lot, then chances are you’re not that open to possibilities and learning. “I don’t know” is a really wonderful view to maintain because it means that you’re open to knowing and learning. When journaling or in therapy, Curiosity shows up when we pause and wonder about something. It shows up when we ask a question of ourselves or to our therapist and genuinely wish to understand. If we have the habit of putting the period on everything, we won’t learn that much.
A Desire to Understand & Consider Alternative Perspectives
We are always getting feedback from he world, directly or indirectly. We may ask others for their perspective or simply observe how they react to us. To understand someone else’s perspective is good because we learn of different options, views, or ways of relating to things. If we are focused on interpersonal dynamics, observing patterns in many people in response to us is very helpful. Each person relates to and sees things differently and to learn of their perspectives is to identify possible options for ourselves.
Emphasizing Truth and Being Humble
Learning what’s true and real requires that we accept the fact that we might be wrong about many things that we think. All of us do our best to make sense of ourselves and the world, but if we’re not open to realizing the truth then we run the risk of believing in a fiction rather than truly knowing ourselves and the world. To arrive at the truth, we need to reflect, think, consider and even analyze what we know while becoming aware of what we don’t know. Being wrong is actually a very good thing because it provides us with the opportunity to grow, learn, and adapt.
There’s More But…
I could inundate you with a great deal more because there are so many subtle things that happen for each of us during a journaling or meditation session, and when in therapy, I don’t believe more would be helpful. For those who are beginners, this is enough and if you want and need more, this is where a good therapist that you connect well with is invaluable. Just remember that as you begin this adventure and exploration, there’s nothing that needs to be rigid about the process. In fact, being playful with your experience and to experiment are both helpful and support an open mind. If you tend toward perfectionism or the obsessive-compulsive approach, these tendencies will serve as your initial topics to explore.