Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Guide to Self-Understanding

Making good decisions requires self-understanding. To help people make choices that are right for them, I have compiled a list of issues that relate to self-knowledge and decision-making. This post is a bit long, but it's meant to be like a crash-course. Here is my guide to self-understanding:

1. Social Influence Is Pervasive

Making your own decisions might seem easy enough. If you make a choice entirely on your own, without discussing it with anybody, then no one else has influenced you. Your choice must be what you really want deep down, right? Not exactly. In social psychology class, we learned that social influence is pervasive; we act like others are watching when they're really not. The influence that other people have on us is with us even when those people aren't there. That means that when you're writing down a list of priorities or things that you're looking for in a decision, outside influences may cause you to include things that don't matter to you or suppress things that do matter to you. With all the outside factors influencing you, it takes a conscious effort to use what really matters to you when making a decision. Try these exercises:

Priority List - Make a priority list based on what really matters to you, regardless of the order in which you actually do things. Maybe you've always been told that school came first, but you know in your heart that basketball is more important to you. Your parents and authority figures may tell you what to do (which is not okay, but that's another blog post), but only YOU can decide what you like, what you care about, and the order of your priorities. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Qualities - Close your eyes and pretend that you're not at a an interview. You're not trying to talk your way into something or convince anyone of anything. Now list the top qualities that really describe you. If everything on the list is socially acceptable, go back and add things that are not socially acceptable. There should be qualities on the list that you would never share with a potential employer (unless you're just extremely honest all the time). Knowing what you're really like will help you to make better decisions. Ignoring non-socially-acceptable traits will give you an inaccurate perception of what you would be okay with.

What Matters - If you're making a life-changing decision, make a list of all the things that matter to you. Don't just think about what you want out of the new situation - also write down everything that you already have in your current situation and would not be willing to lose. After you've made your list, think really hard about what you may not have included. Think of the least socially acceptable thoughts in your mind, the things that you would never tell anyone about. These could include:
- Being the center of attention.
- Feeling special, even if it means being a big fish in a small pond.
- Being in an ethnically diverse environment, or not being the only person of your race.
- Being able to express negative feelings the way you want to.
- Being surrounded only by people who are accepting of your sexual orientation or gender identity.
- Not being criticized for your size or encouraged to lose weight.
- Always having a lot to do.
- Always having a lot of free time.
- Not having to spend too much time alone.
- Not having to spend too much time with other people.
- Having complete control of your own living environment (noise, light, temperature)
- Getting to continue playing your video games, watching your TV shows, reading your books or fanfiction, writing your blog, etc.
These are just some examples, but you get the idea. When you're making a life-changing decision, you can't address requirements or desires if you don't acknowledge them.

Know Your Conditions - When I list out my own top qualities, the first trait on my list is contingent. That's because most of the positive qualities that I would normally list are contingent upon certain needs being met, and when those needs aren't met, I don't have those good qualities anymore. If you're going to present yourself in a certain way in order to get something, make sure you know the conditions under which you are actually going to be that way.

2. Tune in to Yourself

So you're making a decision, going forward with it and telling yourself that everything's going to be alright, but something doesn't feel right. Something inside you doesn't quite trust the choice you're making, but you push that voice aside and do what you think you need to do. Sound familiar?

Desire has to come from within.  Maybe you've been raised to think that you're going to marry someone of the opposite sex and have children. Maybe all your friends can't wait to go away to college. Maybe deep down inside, you don't have these desires, but you suppress what you know about yourself because of what you're told you're supposed to want. (This has happened to me). No matter what other people tell you you're supposed to do, no matter how you've seen something portrayed in the media, and no matter how much your culture values an experience, the desire to do anything has to come from within you. Listen to that nagging feeling that tells you that it's not such a good idea. If you're confused about what you want, sit down and list the sources of your desires.  Ex: Do you have a personal desire to get away from home, or are you assuming it will be fun because everyone else is looking forward to it? If your friends weren't so excited about it, how would you feel? If all of your desire for something is based on other people, you don't really want it. Desire has to come from within.

Widening Your Range - If you're looking at different choices, people will often tell you to keep all your options open. This is perfectly fine if you want to keep all your options open. But you know yourself. If you know that you won't be happy with choices that don't meet certain criteria or our outside of a certain range, then don't feel obligated to consider those choices. There is nothing wrong with having a smaller range of possibilities. It might be harder to find what you're looking for, but expanding your range when you don't want to opens you up to things that you know you won't be happy with. The next thing you know, you're picking a "close-to-home" college that's actually 4 hours away. How wide a range of possibilities you consider should be based on how open you really are to all the choices, not an external pressure to widen your range.

Fear/Comfort Zones - When our 7th grade class took a field trip and got to go zip-lining and rappelling down a mountain, I was very, very scared. But somewhere inside, I knew that I wanted to try, and I am glad that I did. But when I was worried about going to college, it was a different kind of worried. It was an I really don't think I want to do this kind of worried. People will tell you to do things that you're afraid to try and get out of your comfort zone, but you know in your heart and your mind that there is a big difference between wanting to do something and being afraid, and not wanting to do the thing at all. Don't let people push you into something just to get out of your comfort zone. You know the difference, so trust yourself.

Getting Used To It - Getting used to something does not always make it okay. If you're late to class because you keep getting lost in the building, getting used to the school building will fix the problem. If the kids in your class make fun of you and call you names every day, getting used to your school isn't going to fix the problem. Lots of people will tell you that becoming accustomed to something will make the problem go away. But you know the difference. Somewhere inside, you know whether or not a problem is just going to disappear over time. If you need to get out of a situation because the problem isn't going away, trust yourself. Don't let people convince you otherwise.

3. Your Subconscious Doesn't Always Get It

Cognitive dissonance is the disagreement between two pieces of information in your mind, which causes you to think differently. Example: You like to do something that you know is dangerous or harmful, but you also know that you don't want the negative effects. These two pieces of information - your behavior, and your desire to not have the negative effects - do not make sense together and create negative psychological tension. The easiest way to relieve this tension is for your mind to decide that the behavior must not really be that bad after all.

In a study on cognitive dissonance, people were asked to complete a tedious task and rate how much they enjoyed it. They were then asked to tell another participant that the task they did was really fun and engaging. Half of the participants were paid $1 to do this, and the other half were paid $20. Then they were asked to rate how enjoyable the task was again, after they had told someone else that it was fun. People who received $20 maintained that it was boring, but people who received $1 rated the task as more fun. This is because the people experienced cognitive dissonance: the fact that they were bored during the task was inconsistent with the fact that they had told someone else that it was fun. The people who received $20 had a strong enough reason to say that the task was fun when it wasn't, which is why they maintained their opinion. But getting paid only $1 wasn't a strong enough reason, which caused the people to change their mind and think that the task must have actually been fun after all.

The very act of doing something reinforces the fact that we like it. The act of not doing something reinforces the fact that we don't want to do it.  As the study reveals, your subconscious can only process major reasons. If you're required to take a class you don't like in order to graduate high school, that's a major reason, and you can easily maintain the fact that you don't like it. But if something is recommended but not required? If something is non-socially acceptable, but not prohibited? If you do something because of peer pressure? Your subconscious doesn't get it. Even if you know that you did something out of peer pressure, your subconscious will automatically correct the dissonance by saying that you must have liked what you did.
(Click here to read more about cognitive dissonance)

While it is essential to listen to that gut feeling that tells you something is wrong, it is also important to understand how your mind can play tricks on you. The exercises in the Social Influence Is Pervasive section will help you to reduce cognitive dissonance.  Here is another suggestion:

The Reason Behind It - make a list of all the things you do, and explain the real reasons that you do them. Remember, you're not trying to make any kind of impression. No one is seeing this list but you. Don't be afraid to list reasons like:
- Because all my friends are doing it, and I'd feel left out of the conversations if I weren't doing it too.
- Because I want to get closer to a person I like.
- Because my friend pressured me and I didn't feel comfortable saying no.
- Because it makes my parents or guardians happy.
- Because it makes me more popular.
Do not avoid listing reasons like these because they make you feel embarrassed. The purpose of this exercise is to understand what you really like and don't like. You may not admit to anyone that you're only taking AP chemistry to be lab partners with the person of your dreams, but this is very good information for you to keep in mind before you try to major in chemistry at college.

It is also helpful to make a list of things that you do only once in a while, and explain why you don't do them more often. Are you just not that interested in hiking, or would you go hiking more often if you lived closer to a trail and had people to go with?  You know these things on a logical level, but your subconscious may not.

4. Involving Others

Making the choice that's right for you doesn't mean you can't consider anyone else's opinion. People can be a great resource of information, if you know what to do with the suggestions they offer.

People Who Know You Well - If you have people in your life who know you really well, almost as well as (or better than) you know yourself, they can give you good advice in your decisions. Since they are not in the middle of the situation, they may spot issues that you didn't notice because you're more focused on other things.

Get the Facts - It's great to talk to someone who has experience, like someone who lives in the city you're thinking of moving to or goes to the college where you're thinking of applying. But it's important to separate facts from opinions. Let's say you're thinking about joining the volleyball team, and you ask someone on the team about the time commitment. A good response would be "Practices are two hours a day." A bad answer would be "I do this and ten other clubs." (Yes, I've actually heard this answer a lot). This second response is not helpful because this person could just enjoy being busy, they could find the activity easier than you do and therefore spend less time on it (in some cases), and you don't know how much time they really spend on those other clubs. The fact that this person is in ten other clubs may have nothing to do with you and your situation. Don't base your decision on a response that is this subjective. Insist on getting all the facts.

People Are Promotional - What runs through your mind when you're watching commercials? Maybe someone tells you that you must have a particular product, when you know you're just fine without it. Maybe you do like that brand of cereal, but not enough to get up and start dancing. Sometimes when people have had a great experience, they start trying to sell their experience to you, kind of like a commercial. You can tell your friend how glad you are that they had a great time, but don't automatically take their emotional reaction into your decision unless you know that you and your friend are the same on this.

Understand Cultural Biases - Every culture values certain things more than others, and these values enter into people's opinions on what you should do. We tend to push people towards what we think is good and away from what we think is bad, before we even listen to what the person actually wants. If you ask around about whether you should join the school debate team, accept an internship, take a farther-away job that pays more, or apply to a summer abroad program instead of going home, most people are going to say yes. That doesn't mean that any of these things are right for you - it means that "yes" is the answer you will get because of our cultural biases. Be aware of this when you take opinions into account.

5. Your Past, Present, and Future

Lots of times, people older than you will tell you that they know more about your future than you do because they are older than you. But here's the catch: they're not you. I'm not talking about mentors who advise you on what you need to do to achieve your goals - people who are where you want to be can be very helpful. I'm talking about unsolicited advice from people who don't know anything about you or where you want to be - people who think they know these things simply because they're older than you. If someone has experienced being a certain age and you haven't, that person knows about their own experience of being that age. It doesn't mean that they know what your experience of that age will like. You know yourself better than anyone else - past, present, and yes, even future.

Try this exercise: Make a list of things you've done in the past that you're glad you did, and explain why you're glad that you did them. Then make a list of things you've done in the past that you regret, and explain why you regret those things. These can be things that still affect your life now, or things that only mattered at the time. Now look over your reasons and see if you notice any similarities among the kinds of things you're glad you did and the kinds of things you regret. These patterns are likely to be true in the future.

I've found that I'm glad about things that made me happy at the time, and I regret things that made me miserable at the time. If something was miserable at the time but benefited me in the future, I still regret it because it was miserable at the time, and I dislike the fact that I am benefiting from something that I didn't want to do. Whenever adults talked about the future, they always told me that I would be happy that I did things I didn't want to do and regret doing things that I did want to do. But it has been just the opposite, and I knew at the time that it would be. If you know you what matters to you and if you know how you feel about your past, you can safely predict how you'll feel in the future about what you're doing now.  No one else's experience will be exactly like yours; trust what you know about yourself.


Understanding yourself does not mean that every decision you make will be right for you any more than being good at math means you'll always answer every problem correctly. The way to develop self-understanding is to learn from your mistakes. To ask yourself, "Why did I think that this would be good for me, when it wasn't?" "Was this a total surprise, or did I ignore warning signs that this was a bad idea?" "Did I learn anything new about myself that I should take into account in future decisions?" One of my goals on this blog is to help people make the decisions that are really right for them. Self-understanding may take time, but it will help lead you to where you want to be.

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