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Reviews | What psychology tells us about self-awareness


One of the most disturbing findings in modern psychology is that we often don’t know why we are doing what we are doing. You can ask someone: why did you choose this house? Or why did you marry this person? Or why did you go to college? People cook up a plausible story, but often they really have no idea why they chose what they did.

We have a conscious self, of course, the voice in our head, but this conscious self has little access to the parts of the brain that are the real sources of judgment, problem solving, and emotion. We know how we feel, but not how or why we got here.

But we also don’t want to admit how little we know about ourselves, so we make up a story, or a storytelling. As Will Storr writes in his excellent book “The science of storytelling“:” We don’t know why we are doing what we are doing, or feeling what we are feeling. We fabulous when we theorize why we are depressed, we fabulous when we justify our moral beliefs, and we fab when we explain why a piece of music touches us.

Or as Nicholas Epley puts it in his equally excellent “Mindwise“” No more psychologists ask people to explain the causes of their own thoughts or behaviors, unless they are interested in understanding the storytelling.

I admit that I do not like this discovery. It hurts my sense of dignity. I like to think that I – my conscious self – somehow live my own life for reasons that I understand. I’m not just a neural string puppet.

I also like to think that we can actually understand why we are doing what we are doing. For example, George Orwell wrote an excellent essay titled “Why i write”Which offered compelling reasons why he had become a writer: he wanted to appear intelligent in public, he liked to play with language, he liked to understand things, he wanted to change the meaning of events. I like to think that the rest of us can achieve at least half of the precise self-knowledge in our motivations like Orwell did.

Finally, I feel bad for all those people – from René Descartes to modern orators – who have said that the key to life is to “know yourself”, “to look within” and “to do the right thing.” interior work ”. This advice appears to be narcissistic nonsense in light of recent research.

I reached out to a group of psychologists and psychotherapists whom I really admire to help me reject the prevailing theory so that I can feel better about myself.

I asked Marie pipher, the legendary therapist and author of “Reviving Ophelia” and many other books, if she asked her patients “why” questions. She said she preferred the “what, when, where and how” questions: When do you notice feelings of inferiority? Basically, she wants customers to become more attentive observers of their own behavior.

It doesn’t really ask them to engage in introspection as we normally understand it. She asks them to use mental equipment that people could use to assess the behavior of others and use it to assess their own behavior. Perhaps the best way to see yourself is to break out of the deceptive rumination spirals of your own self-awareness and think of yourself in the third person.

She also takes it for granted that telling stories about ourselves is the best we can do. She says people come to her with “problem-saturated” stories and she tries to move them to different stories that will give them a sense of control and pride.

Then I contacted Dan McAdams, the Northwestern scholar who specializes in how people tell their life stories. McAdams also doubts that we can ever really know why we are doing anything, so we are forced to fall back on narratives or what he calls “personal myths.”

These stories are inevitably problematic. Our pasts are not a stable set of evidence from which to draw explanations for our actions. We are constantly rebuilding our pasts based on current goals. In addition, our explanations for our behavior may simply be wrong or self-serving. A guy might think he’s failing in relationships because he never got over the girl who dumped him in college, but he might just have a high degree of neuroticism that he never had a deal.

For McAdams, some stories are better than others. Stories that are closer to “what really happened” are more reliable than those that are distorted by self-flattery and self-assertion. On the other hand, and here’s the tension, we want our stories to be positive and affirmative. Americans, McAdams discovered, tend to tell stories of redemption – I was going up, I was hesitating, I was coming back better.

Yet if the quality of our self-stories is so important, where do we go to learn the craft of self-storytelling? Shouldn’t there be an institution that teaches us to revise our stories throughout life, so that we don’t have to suffer for years and end up in therapy?

I called Lori Gottlieb, the author of “Maybe You Should Talk To Someone”. She also views therapy as a form of storytelling. But she is much more optimistic that we can actually get down to the sources of our behavior. In fact, we can understand our “why’s”. In fact, she says it’s essential.

First, humans have made huge strides in understanding the roots of their behavior. If you fear intimacy and tend to avoid emotions, you can check out Attachment Theory to get a glimpse of how the attachment pattern you learned as a toddler is influencing your relationships today. ‘hui. Plus, if you look at the patterns in your life – you tend to be dumped in a relationship for about three months – you can discern the underlying causes. You do something off-putting at three months for a reason, and you can gradually come to discern the source, the “why” of this pattern.

Gottlieb says that if you just try to change your behavior without understanding the source of it, you will never achieve lasting change. You need to understand the “why” so that you can recognize the behavior when it happens again and determine what prompts you to behave the way you do.

Finally, I called Epley, the author “Mindwise”. “Spending two decades studying mental reading has really highlighted the importance of humility in life,” he said. “Both recognizing that we don’t have privileged access to our minds, so lower your self-confidence, and neither do we know each other as well as we think.”

Maybe we can’t get to know ourselves through the process we call soul searching. But we can acquire a fairly good self-awareness by extrospection, by observing the behavior closely. Epley pointed out that we can achieve true wisdom and a good enough self-awareness by looking behavior and reality in the face to create more accurate narratives.

Perhaps the dignity of a human being is not to be Achilles, the daring and thoughtless actor. Perhaps the great human achievement is to be Homer, the wise storyteller. By telling increasingly accurate stories about ourselves, we send different beliefs, values, and expectations into the complex confines of our minds, and – in ways we may never understand – it leads to better desires, better decision making and a more gracious life. .