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Philosophers and psychologists from all over the world have studied humanity’s self-consciousness. But, for many of us, the concept of “self” remains elusive.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be Descartes or Socrates to dig a little deeper. With just a little time and effort, you can learn more about yourself.
And the process of self-discovery is worth it. It makes us better leaders, family members, and friends. When we know what makes us tick, we can improve our mental health and lead authentic lives.
From adolescence to adulthood, you've been on your own journey toward self-discovery. So here are some self-knowledge examples and theories to help you know thyself.
What is self-knowledge?
You probably know your favorite color or ice cream flavor already. But self-knowledge is more complicated than that.
At its core, it’s really about examining your thought processes, beliefs, values, and behaviors.
That allows you to start living more authentically. You can look for a career more in line with your values, set boundaries in your significant relationships, and become a more confident person. Studies show cultivating self-awareness can help you become a better employee and more satisfied with your job.
6 theories of self-knowledge
Of course, as with all things philosophical, this quickly grows complicated. Throughout history, thinkers have proposed theories about how to get in tune with your internal mental state.
These are different but equal ways to try to understand the sources of self-knowledge. Reflect on these, and you’ll be better equipped to examine yourself.
1. The perceptual model. Philosophers John Locke and Immanuel Kant imagined self-reflection as a sensory experience. Just as you would direct your attention to a tingle on our skin, you can do the same for your sense of self.
This model theorizes that you can “see” the things that make yourself tick — and thus try to understand them — by turning your attention inward.
2. The inferential model. This approach is based on the idea that the “self” isn’t something we can see. Rather, it’s something you can discover through inference, logic, and analysis.
It assumes that all humans are reasonable (albeit imperfectly). That means you can understand and change yourself based on reasoning alone.
When you discover a feeling or emotion, you can use an inferential model to ask, “Does it make sense for me to feel this way?” The goal isn’t to invalidate your feelings but to identify the cause. This can reduce feelings of power over you.
3. Trivial vs. substantial self-knowledge. Some thinkers make a distinction between types of self-knowledge. On one level, you have trivial self-knowledge. An example of this would be, “I am aware that I am wearing a shirt.”
On another level, you have substantial self-knowledge. This refers to your deeper feelings, emotions, and values. For example, “I value loyalty in other people.”
Both involve a type of self-awareness, but operate at different levels of consciousness.
4. Understanding emotions. Emotions can oscillate between the trivial vs. substantial categories. For example, at the trivial level, understanding your feelings is relatively simple — you don’t have to think long to know, “I am sad.”
But some other feelings and emotions are trickier. They exist at a deeper level and aren’t as readily available to your higher awareness. You might be subconsciously resentful of a person or thing.
5. Understanding “why?” There’s a distinction between identifying your own thoughts, beliefs, and values and understanding why they exist. Investigating the “why” can reveal deep truths about yourself.
6. Self-ignorance and self-deception. This theory refers to your capacity to ignore your feelings and emotions. But not paying attention to them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. That’s why you need to consciously reflect on your inner workings.
Why is self-knowledge important?
Self-awareness is a fundamental part of being human. When you leverage your inner thoughts and consciousness, you manifest a skill that comes from 200 million years of evolution.
If you don’t activate this part of yourself, you’re leaving a fundamental human trait on the table. And your mental health will suffer. Chronically low self-esteem can harm your mental health and cause hostility, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, or disorder eating habits. Being unable to recognize your strengths will lower your quality of life.
When this happens, you give yourself up to external forces influencing your behavior rather than making choices on your own. You allow emotions to get the best of you. And you may fall into patterns of behavior holding you back from happiness.
Benefits of self-awareness and self-knowledge
Self-awareness and self-knowledge help uncover the emotions acting on you every day. Then, once you’re aware of them, you can take back control. You can make changes that are more in line with your authentic self.
Here are some of the many benefits that come with self-understanding:
- Self-acceptance: When you know yourself, you can take steps to accept your personality traits and show greater self-compassion.
- Improved self-esteem: When you learn to love yourself, you treat yourself better and expect others to do the same.
- Less self-doubt: Decision-making will be easier because you know what you need at any given moment
- Better decision-making: You’ll make better decisions aligned with your core values and beliefs, bringing you closer to your life purpose.
- Improved well-being: Knowing yourself is a form of self-care. Doing this work will improve your overall health — socially, mentally, physically, and more.
- Increased emotional intelligence: It becomes easier to empathize with others when you understand your own emotions.
- Positive self-perception: Self-awareness isn’t just about highlighting your flaws. It’s also about knowing what makes you a great person.
- Better self-management: Impulsivity loses when you’re self-aware. You’ll understand your triggers and learn not to react negatively.
- Live with intentionality: Self-knowledge empowers you to make decisions about your life instead of being influenced by external factors.
14 examples of self-knowledge
Here are some examples of self-knowledge. These are some of the outcomes you can expect from your inner explorations.
- You understand your own emotions and what you’re feeling
- You know your insecurities and coping mechanisms
- You know your beliefs, independent of others
- You know what gives you joy and make time for it
- You’re aware of your strengths and weaknesses
- You know what you need in interpersonal relationships
- You understand when to trust yourself (and when not to)
- You recognize your patterns and seek to break them
- You know your limits and when to set boundaries
- You know what you value in yourself and others
- You have better self-control in difficult times
- You accept yourself without any judgments — quirks, flaws, and all
- You can let go of negative thoughts and negative emotions
- You avoid defensiveness and accept criticism
Self-knowledge real-world example
Some people possess a level of self-awareness worth admiring. Here’s a real-world example to inspire you on your journey.
In 2021, race car driver Lewis Hamilton showed exemplary sportsmanship and self-knowledge during a contentious championship. He was on track to win the final race of the season, which would clinch him the world title.
But a controversial decision by the race managers put him at a substantial disadvantage. In the final corners of the final lap, his rival overtook him. Lewis lost the championship.
He could have been angry and contested the results. Instead, he congratulated his rival and quietly left after the closing ceremonies. He then took time away from the media for self-care to heal from an emotional loss.
As a professional athlete, he’s undoubtedly aware of his competitive nature — a trait that could have led to brash decisions. But, because he understood this part of himself, he controlled it. This is a beautiful display of self-knowledge.
12 tools to know yourself better
There are many tools you can use to know yourself better. Here are some to keep in mind as you embark on a journey of self-knowledge:
- Keep a journal
- Notice recurring emotions and conflicts
- Check in with yourself daily
- Talk it out with a friend or family member
- Ask for feedback on your behavior
- Write down your goals, plans, and dreams
- Describe yourself in the third person
- Look at your history, and turn it into a story
- Always ask yourself, “Why am I feeling or behaving this way?”
- List your strengths and weaknesses
- Ask yourself self-assessment questions
Self-knowledge vs. self-awareness
These two terms are often thrown around interchangeably. While self-knowledge and self-awareness are related, they’re distinct concepts. Here are some of the differences you should know:
1. Self-awareness is a stepping-stone toward self-knowledge
Self-awareness is about tracking your emotional states, behaviors, and patterns. Self-knowledge is the outcome of this process.
2. Self-awareness is about what we do; self-knowledge is about who we are
Through self-awareness, we understand our own behaviors, emotions, beliefs, and values. We use them to build a self-concept — the story we tell ourselves about who we are.
3. Self-awareness is an observation, while self-knowledge is an intervention
We may discover limiting beliefs, behaviors, and patterns that hold you from achieving your potential. Self-knowledge will let you address these traits and make healthy changes.
The bottom line
Understanding the self-awareness and self-knowledge examples we’ve highlighted will set you on a path of personal growth and self-improvement. They’ll empower you to make positive changes in your life, bringing you closer to your authentic self.
Self-discovery requires patience and self-discipline. If you need help staying accountable, try working with one of BetterUp’s professional coaches. Together you can mobilize these self-help examples, set milestones, and live a better life.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions