“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; Mastering yourself is true power.”
-Lao Tzu, Chinese Taoist Philosopher

“Know Thyself.” The meaning of these two words are attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates and inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Some Eastern philosophies believe that one’s entire life is a journey towards self-discovery and almost all therapies and a host of self-help seminars provide us with a platform to supposedly know ourselves. People have pursued this quest for years through self-contemplation, meditation and prayer.

But, can we really know ourselves and what does “know thyself” mean?

As the world has gotten more complex and technology more advanced, instant 24/7 communication is rampant. As a consequence, most people take little if any time for introspection. Add to that the fact that we are biologically and experientially in a constant state of change and you have the perfect storm for being perceptually blind. That’s not helpful to living an exceptional life.

Consider this: to understand one’s self is to understand other humans as well and in a world that is so ingrained in fear and anxiety, it is vitally important that we understand, appreciate and honor others. That’s why – for the first time in over three decades – I have actually experienced business leaders providing training for their people to be more self-aware, to recognize fear-based, self-sabotaging behavior and to treat each other with dignity. The world of business is in a state of transformation because its leaders know that if their employees are going to remain loyal and their customers are going be given the care they deserve, their people must grow in self-awareness. The same holds true for all relationships – from your family members to your friends.

Yet the core issue is that looking at the truth of who you are takes courage – because you might not like what you see. The good news is you can always make new choices by thinking differently and to think differently, you have to be able to perceive more empowering choices.

So, let’s get back to the question: How do you know who you are?

Do you know yourself? If so, how do you know? After all, the eye cannot behold itself. You can, of course, look in the mirror. But, according to scientific research none of us really acknowledge the truth of what is real but, rather, project our subconscious image of ourselves, positive or negative, on what we actually see.

So, that doesn’t really help. You can look at your driver’s license or birth certificate. But, again, that isn’t going to tell you very much except your age. Indeed, it presents yet another picture which you probably don’t think represents you accurately. What does that leave? Can you guess?

I believe that the way to know who you are is through the eyes of others because people tell you who you are – if you are willing to pay attention. You may think that I’m suggesting that you do some kind of survey. Actually, that’s not a bad idea if you were willing to take in what you heard without getting defensive or depressed and if others would really tell you the truth.

Let’s take business as an example. If you wanted to know who you are as a company, it would seem logical that you would ask your best customers. The problem with this approach is that the majority of what you would hear would most likely be how great you and your products or services are. A much better approach would be to seek out those individuals who do not choose to buy your products or services or do not like you as a company, and learn from their criticism. If you combine that criticism with your best customer’s positive reaction, you would have a much more rounded and realistic view of who you, as a company, are. But how do you apply this principle to your personal life – without having those around you fill out an evaluation form?

You need to look at the people in your life and ask, “Are they life-enhancers or life-diminishers?” If they are life-enhancers, that reflects back on you – your self-image of who you are. On the other hand if you see the majority of people in your life as life-diminishers, that might be a clue that you need to work on your self-esteem.

“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there.”
-Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor (A. D. 161-180)

In addition to looking at the people in your life, here are a few tips to help you “know thyself.”

  1. Seek out, listen to and gain perspective from the works of philosophers and authors. Hang out with people you know have developed a strong sense of self-awareness.
  2. Learn from your past. Acknowledging and examining past mistakes and failures can teach you a great deal about what better choices you can make in the future.
  3. Examine your core values. Knowing what you believe and what you stand for will give you great insight as to why you make the choices you make.
  4. Acknowledge and examine your fears. Your fears – rejection, failure, success and change – often dictate your actions and your actions influence everyone with whom you come in contact. The examination of your fears will diminish the hold those fears have on you, allowing you to make visible, more empowering choices.
  5. Be open to change. You are always in the process of change both physically and environmentally. As you grow and mature you will have many different experiences and those experiences will color your perspective. So, take sensible risks, step out of your comfort zone and expand your horizon.

The more you know yourself, the more control you will have in your life.