Self knowledge is a tricky achievement. It requires us to say “I don’t know,” more often than we like.
Self knowledge means more personal power. You can more effectively use a computer when you know more about it, and in the same way, you can more effectively use your own brainpower, mind and body when you understand them better.
There is, however, one big stumbling block to learning more about ourselves. It is our tendency to rationalize, as demonstrated in the extreme in the following true story.
Jack, while hypnotized by his therapist, was given the post-hypnotic instruction to get up and put on his coat whenever the doctor touched his nose. Once out of the trance, he and the doctor talked. During the conversation, the doctor scratched his nose, and Jack immediately stood up and put on his coat.
The doctor asked why. Jack said “Oh, I thought we were finished,” and he took off the coat. A few minutes later, the doctor touched his nose again, and Jack again immediately stood up and put on his coat. “It’s getting cold in here,” he explained. By the third time, it was getting more difficult for Jack to explain his behavior, yet he still tried to.
Now, is this scenario really unique to hypnosis? I don’t think so. We are often just assuming that we know all that goes into our decisions and actions.
Like poor Jack, we feel compelled to explain ourselves, and to believe our own explanations. Of course, this isn’t self knowledge, but self explanation, or rationalization, and it is one of our strongest human habits.
Self Knowledge Versus Self Explanation
When a child throws a book at his brother, and his mother demands “Why would you do that!?” What usually happens? The child answers, “I don’t know,” which is true, but entirely unacceptable.
With five seconds to come up with an answer, the best psychologists couldn’t understand the child’s action with certainty, yet a five-year-old is expected to do just that.
Though he may not understand, he learns quickly how to explain himself. With this pressure to explain, it is no wonder that by adulthood, we rarely say “I don’t know” when asked about our behavior.
Instead, we simply create an explanation. Isn’t this a problem if we want true self knowledge? How do we learn the true causes of our behavior if we already have our explanations?
Self Knowledge – I Don’t Know
A better approach is to say “I don’t know.” If it helps, follow it with “Maybe it’s because of…” and let the explanations spill out, but don’t be too quick to accept any of them. It isn’t always necessary to explain.
For example, suppose you are avoiding a certain person. If you never know why you are avoiding them, isn’t it better to leave the question open than to accept a false explanation based on a habit of self-justification and rationalization?
When you leave questions unanswered, you may someday have a better understanding. A quick answer just means a quick stop in your thinking, and less self knowledge.
Why not just say, “I don’t know.” Isn’t it better to learn to accept your ignorance, and to keep observing yourself? Don’t let self-explanation get in the way of of self knowledge.