We're not born knowing ourselves

Let's just get that out of the way right now, even though it's a bit counterintuitive.

No one else is in a position to know you better than you are, but we seem to be masters of avoidance when it comes to facing the truths about ourselves. We actually exert a fair amount of energy avoiding self knowledge! I suppose this is because if we find ourselves coming up short (in our own estimation), that brings a certain pressure to do something about it. But imagine the freedom of really knowing and understanding yourself and how powerful that might be in guiding you with every kind of decision or prioritization you ever have to make in your life.

How I discovered the power of simple questions

Two or three years ago, I joined a group of women, led by the wise and wonderful Dr. Cyndi Briggs, in a 30-day program of self-discovery called “Play in May.” I was seeking some clear direction for my life, and the class involved journaling about things we saw or did and noting how we felt about them. In her wonderful non-judgmental way, Cyndi suggested that if we found any of her exercises unappealing, we should ask ourselves why and keep asking ourselves questions until it led to an insight. At first I thought this a little loosey-goosey, but I was determined to stay open to learning (and I've always followed instructions).

About the second week, Cyndi asked us to get out art paper and find colored pencils, paper, highlights, markers, or any kind of creative tools we might enjoy to express ourselves by making collages or journal art.


That threw me right up against my dominant left brain. Didn't want to do it. Didn't even have any art supplies around (being in such creativity denial, I couldn't think of anything as an art supply unless it was purchased at an art supply store).

But I remembered her advice to ask ourselves questions, so I did.

Me: Self, why do you find this exercise so unappealing?

Self: Well, it feels like a waste of time. I've got better things to do than sit around and doodle.

Me: Why do you think it's a waste of time?

Self: I don't know. It just feels childish, and I can't see what it will accomplish. And besides, I'm not creative.

Me: Aha! Now we're getting somewhere! Why do you think you're not creative?

Self: Because I'm terrible at art and it doesn't feel productive.

Me: Okay, you mean if someone gave you a beautiful, clean sheet of paper, there wouldn't be anything you'd want to do with it?

Self (in moment of blinding insight): Yes, of course there is—I'd want to put WORDS on it!

By asking myself those few questions (and paying attention to the answers), I suddenly realized how important writing was to me and how much I needed to expand my definition of the word “creative.” Of course I'm creative, even if it's not so much in the realm of visual arts. I'm creative when it comes to writing. I'm creative when it comes to problem-solving. I'm creative in all kinds of ways, so I've stopped using that inaccurate self-description “I'm not creative” that I'd used for six decades. What freedom and insight!

So how do you get to know yourself better?

Entire books and courses and evaluation instruments have been written and developed to tell us how to gain self knowledge, and many of them have great value, depending on the kind of introspection you're seeking. But for now, I urge you to start simple and trust your heart to guide you into ever-widening areas of self-exploration.

Here are five simple questions that you can ask yourself at different times in your life and in different circumstances. The answers may surprise you—or not—but they will be helpful guideposts on your journey towards self knowledge.

1. Why did I do that?

When you understand what drives you to do things or avoid things, you come to understand your priorities, likes, dislikes, and core values. And if there is a disconnect between an action and your core values, this question will help you explore and reconcile it. Incongruence between what we do and what we think we should do is the source of much unhappiness.

2. How does this make me feel?

Happiness, sadness, anxiety, fear, frustration, satisfaction—all these and more could be how you're feeling. Stop and take stock. Pay attention to how you're feeling before asking yourself the next question.

3. Why do I feel this way?

Here is where the digging can reveal buried treasure—or corrosive poison—deep inside. Answering this question will teach you to identify those things that make you wildly happy or give you tremendous satisfaction. Once you've done that, you can be more intentional about choosing activities that make you feel this way. On the other hand, this question can also send you back in time to childhood traumas, hurtful incidents (real or imagined), grudges, regrets, anger, and more. Getting to the root of these festering and potentially damaging emotions can lead to incredible healing, much the way lancing a boil can release toxins and speed healing. And remember: this question can go beyond emotion and include physical symptoms. Why does my hip hurt? Why am I always tired? The answers to these questions can lead to health and well-being.

4. Of all the people in my life, who is most important to my well-being and happiness?

This question goes hand in hand with another question: “Do my actions and the way I spend my time reflect the importance of these people in my life?”

5. If I were at the end of my life looking back, what would I do differently?

This question opens up a thought process about what you want your legacy to be and what actions would most likely lead to it. If your current priorities do not move you in the direction of this, then you have a golden opportunity to shift gears and go in a different direction.

Just start: more questions will follow

To be sure, there are hundreds of questions you can ask yourself that will help you understand yourself more fully, and these five questions will lead to others. Start with these and let me know if they help. I highly recommend writing down your questions and your discoveries. Reading your journal entries later can help you see patterns or gain insights you might not be able to see at the moment. If you want to read other posts about journaling at Heartspoken, CLICK HERE.

What questions have you found that help further your self knowledge?

Photo credit: “Alice in Wonderland” by Sergey Nivens via Dollar Photo Club, my favorite source for stock photography
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