To know oneself is not easy. This may seem a rather paradoxical statement, since according to general belief everyone knows himself best. But one needs, in fact, quite a technique and, as it were, a special training, if one really wants to know oneself.

That this is the case has been known to the wizards of all ages. Mention has been made already of the inscription at Delphi. Another fact worthy of consideration is the following. It seems to have been, and to be, a general conviction among the teachers of true wisdom that to attain perfection man has to find a teacher or a leader who controls the steps of the beginner, warns him of the mistakes he makes, and points out to him the pitfalls besetting his way to progress. Progress is not possible without self-knowledge; but to attain this, the advice of a master and a special technique seem to be indispensable. The idea of a “spiritual director” is not a peculiarity of Catholicism, though, of course, Confession as a sacrament is. Chinese, Muslim, or Indian wisdom recommends that a man desirous to advance on the road to progress ought to choose a “director.”

This advice implies the idea that another person may eventually know more about one’s personality than does this person himself. The first thing for attaining real and reliable self-knowledge seems, therefore, to be that one learns to look at one’s own self in the objective and dispassionate way of another person.

The observer cannot perceive immediately what is going on in the mind of the person he studies. All he observes are this person’s behavior, his actions, his gestures, his words, the inflections of his voice, the expression of his face. All this he sees, it is true, not quite in the same way as he sees the other visible things, because he knows beforehand that every word and every action has a definite meaning and that it is an expression of what is going on in the mind. The things he observes are more than just visible facts, they are “signs” of something else. This we know without having accumulated any previous experiences; this knowledge is part of our original endowment. A certain understanding of signs is found already in some animals, especially in those living in groups or herds. But this faculty is very limited, and there are but very few and simple signs. Knowing something for a sign and understanding what is signified by it, are, however, two very different achievements. There are some signs in whose signification we cannot well be mistaken; for example, a gesture pointing at something is generally understood. But even signs which at first sight seem to be quite univocal may have, according to circumstances, several meanings, or they can be given quite another signification by some slight modification. To grasp this fact, one has but to remember the many shades of laughter and smile: joy, disappointment, irony, malice, triumph, shame, despair, doubt, and some other sentiments too may find expression by laughing or smiling.

The peculiar process by which we become aware of the meaning of a sign has been alluded to already; it is called interpretation. Its results may be right; they may also be quite wrong. A good many of the difficulties we experience in dealing with other people and of the troubles which make life a burden arise from wrong interpretations. It is indeed sometimes not easy to discover the real meaning of a person’s behavior. To understand a person thoroughly, one has to be able to look at the world, at things, at people, at situations exactly from the point of view this person holds; to know this point of view, one has to be very well acquainted with this person’s history, his antecedents, his nearer and his farther goals, his momentary mood, and his habitual temperament. This being the case, one rather wonders at the light-mindedness and rashness of some people who pass judgments on their fellows without caring for sufficient information. Our opinions of other people are, moreover, very much influenced by our own prejudices, preferences, likes and dislikes, by our own interests and moods; they are therefore often very far from being objective and reliable.

There is, therefore, no guarantee that the opinions others have formed of our own personality are true so far as to afford us a trustworthy idea of what we are. If a man would ask several of his acquaintances what they believe him to be, the answers would be—provided they are sincere—very different. Notwithstanding these drawbacks, the opinions of others on ourselves may be rather useful, if we only came to know them. Generally, we are not apprised of what others think of us; but when we become, by chance, aware of their opinion, we do not believe it to be true, especially when it diverges much from what we think or when it is not complimentary enough. People tell what they think of each other usually only in a fit of temper; and this may indeed distort their opinion.

By paying some attention to the casual remarks of our fellows we may, however, guess at their opinions. We will probably disbelieve them, feel offended by them, think of ourselves as misjudged and as badly treated—seldom will we feel that they overrate us—we will call them clumsy idiots, incapable of true understanding, yet it is worthwhile to give their ideas some consideration. We might at least ponder on them a little and inquire whether there is not a grain of truth in them. Distorted as our image may appear in this mirror, there will still be something of our shape to be discerned.

More reliable than their remarks is the general behavior of our neighbors. It reflects the impression our own conduct makes on them. They do not, as a rule, trouble to analyze our character, or to make a special study of it. They do not even have, very often, a clear idea of what we are. But they have one nevertheless, clear or dim, according to which they fashion their behavior.

Strange though it may appear at first sight, the behavior of our neighbors depends much more on our real and unspoken motives, even on motives we ourselves are not conscious of, than on those we believe to be at work in our minds. This can be gathered from the same kind of observations on children that were used already before to prove the existence of an original intuition of another personality. A child still naive, natural, untainted by conventions, and in possession of his unspoiled instincts will, for instance, refuse to make friends with a stranger though he may try very hard to be kind and friendly; the child somehow sees through such a man’s behavior and feels this kindness and friendliness to be only perfunctory, to be untrue, a mere mannerism and hiding in fact a callous and unkind personality. Or a child will seek the company of a man apparently gruff and cold, because the child’s intuition is aware of a truly kind mind hidden beneath the rough surface.

Education and the observance of the rules of social life indeed overlay, as it were, this natural and primitive intuition. But no original faculty disappears, really; it goes on functioning, even though man is not conscious of it. The attitudes of men toward each other depend much more on unconscious knowledge of another’s motives than one would care to assume.

It is for this reason that the behavior of others, as dictated by their more or less unconscious opinion, becomes interesting in regard to the approach to self-knowledge; this is true especially of those who are friendly toward us, and those who belong to the inner circle of our acquaintances. Whenever the behavior of a friend, of one who likes us and whom we like, denotes something like resentment or that he is about to withdraw, we ought to take account of this as a danger signal. But even the behavior of our friends—and in a way of our enemies too; they can be sharp-sighted enough—affords not more than just a platform from which to start. The real work has still to be done.

To get a trustworthy idea of ourselves, we have to try for an objective and dispassionate image, free as far as possible from prejudices, from all overrating vanity so easily leads to, and from all underrating too that results very often from unsatisfied ambition. We have to discard what we used to think of ourselves and to look at our personality with the cool eye of the scientist studying a strange animal. We have to try to form an opinion more impersonal, more objective even than the one others may have formed. We have to make a diagnosis of our own self after the manner of a physician. This is indeed a very difficult task, and an unpleasant one too. We have to face all the things we used to look away from, to dig up all kinds of memories we were but too happy to forget, to confess to ourselves all we had carefully hidden in the depths of our minds. As the famous German philosopher Immanuel Kant somewhere remarks, the ascent to the Divine leads through the Hell of self-knowledge.

There is but one way for attaining a reliable idea of self. If we want to know what another man is really like, we study his actions and his whole behavior. We have to do the same thing with our own life. In doing this we have to discard all knowledge of our motives, our ends, our thoughts, and our feelings. Not as if they were without importance; far be it from us that we fall into the error of those so-called psychologists, the behaviorists, who believe that psychology has no other task than describing behavior. This is in fact no psychology at all, or if it is, it is just an introductory chapter. There will be a time to deal with the conscious contents of our mind too; but we have to begin with an analysis of behavior. And to know exactly what our behavior is like, we have to turn our attention to the effects produced by it in reality.


This article on How to Know Oneself is adapted from the book Self Improvement by Dr. Rudolf Allers which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post on a reflection from “Self Improvement” by Dr. Rudolf Allers: cover used with permission; Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash

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