Knowing Thyself Versus Changing Thyself

By Marla Estes

knowSocrates’ admonition to “know thyself” flies in the face of many modern ideas that urge us instead to “change thyself!” If we’re not happy all the time, we have a collective tendency to think something is wrong with us, that we should alter our mood with Prozac, positive thinking, buying or acquiring, working harder or seeking solace in relationship. In order to be OK with ourselves, we have to change rather than become curious about understanding all parts of ourselves.

Worse yet, there is the notion that if only we can get rid of aspects of ourselves — our anger, hate, greed, envy, sadness, vulnerability, our shameful parts — all will be well.

One of the criteria for which qualities we decide to keep and which to expel is our concept of what we consider to be “good.” Carl Jung said “Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being.” In essence, he would rather be whole than good. What does whole mean? The dictionary says: Containing all the elements properly belonging; undivided; in one piece; or not broken, damaged, or impaired; intact. For me, wholeness goes hand in hand with both authenticity (being our “real” selves) and integrity.

What do I mean by integrity? It’s about our insides and outsides being congruent. A conversation in Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Movie Tie-In): A Novel goes, “My insides don’t match up with my outsides.” “Do anyone’s insides and outsides match up?…” “Maybe that’s what a person’s personality is: the difference between the inside and outside.” What we show to the world is our persona, and what we hide is our shadow.

Psychoanalyst Pittman Mcgehee quotes one of his clients: “There is somebody in me who doesn’t like me.” It’s difficult to have our insides match up with our outsides when we reject any aspect of ourselves. Part of psychological growth is movement toward ending this self-rejection.

Carl Rogers, psychologist, said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” It’s important to cultivate a sense that we are “OK,” while knowing there is room for growth. One difficulty in inner work is that often our internal terrain is hostile, created by negative self-talk, voiced by an active inner critic. Inner discord is caused by a part of us trying to change or get rid of other parts. By accepting ourselves more and more, we cultivate a friendlier, more hospitable inner environment. Self-acceptance comes in part from getting to know all aspects of ourselves.

Knowing thyself includes starting from where we are as opposed to where we feel we should be. While there is nothing inherently wrong with affirmations and positive thinking, often these ideas act as another form of self-rejection.

When our emotions are ignored (most often unconsciously), these aspects can slip out “sideways.” Author Debbie Ford writes, “Whatever we refuse to recognize about ourselves has a way of rearing its head and making itself known when we least expect it.” When we stay with our feelings and “inquire within,” we have a chance to untangle old wounds that need addressing from authentic feelings that need to be honored. Anger is a good example. We may be angry at a friend who made the same remark our mother used to make; loaded back then, it is innocent in the present. On the other hand, she may have crossed a boundary. Our anger can let us know when someone is going too far.

By avoiding any of our feelings, we bypass the opportunity to know and heal ourselves, and to become more authentic.

marla estesAnother post on Beyond Meds by Marla Estes: Making the Unconscious Conscious: Embracing the Dark Night of the Soul

Marla Estes, M.A. is the founder of the School of the Examined Life, LLC. She facilitates inner work classes and workshops, often using film as a portal to explore our psyches. blogMaking the Conscious Unconscious

Other posts about embracing all our feelings on Beyond Meds:

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: