Self-Knowledge:

People become interested in learning about psychology for different reasons. One reason is to understand someone who has caused problems for the person. One man might want to understand why his father abandoned him. Another is trying to understand why his father used to drink and beat him. And so on. Sometimes the person has a secret fear that he or she will turn out like the problem person and is trying to figure out how to prevent this.

Another reason is a simple interest in "what makes people tick." In college, courses such as "Abnormal Psychology" or "Personality Theory" might sound fascinating in themselves but might also tempt people into thinking they will learn about people and that this will help them in the career of their choice. If they go into sales, they will be able to sell better if they understand what motivates people. If they go into government, they will be able to know how to handle difficult and irrational people. And so on.

Another reason for studying psychology is a theoretical interest in the human mind. Just as certain people become fascinated with studying how crystals form or how plants grow or with the mating habits of chimpanzees or the way the human circulatory system works, some people become interested in how children learn or what stimulates people to anger or what makes people choose spouses or what makes people happy or why some people become religious and some don't. Just as some medical doctors became doctors to cure a sick mother or due to their own fears of death, some people study psychology because of their own problems or problems of those important to them, but some seem to go into psychology just because they find it fascinating.

Still other people go into psychology to help others. A woman may have raised three children and is looking for a career and everyone can see she is a natural for going into psychology and doing for others what she has done for her children. She's a natural for helping people, and she's good at it.

Many are attracted to psychology, because they are in pain. Many of these enter psychotherapy, and they do this because they are looking for advice and support. They hope a therapist will be able to tell them what they are doing wrong and give them some words of wisdom and help them get going in the right direction. They might ask for some medication to ease their pain, or they wonder if the therapist does bio-feedback, or they ask for a manual to learn a method for dealing with problem parents or spouses or children or bosses or with their own depression. Or they may simply want to complain and to have someone understand what they are saying and see it their way and agree with them. Sometimes such a patient will quit therapy or change therapists if the therapist suggests that the problem might lie with something the patient is doing.

Of all the reasons given so far, not one of them is even remotely connected with wanting to learn about ones own self, yet this is a motive that makes some people study psychology, go into therapy, and, often, to become therapists themselves.

As I suggested, most people who enter therapy are not going in in order to learn about themselves, but, rather, they go in to therapy to feel better. It is one of the most common things in therapy for therapists to see (or think they see) exactly what their patients are doing that leads to their problems, but, when they explain it to the patients, the patients become defensive and don't listen and even get angry. Freud called this resistance, and many strategies have been developed by therapists for handling resistance.

Not all schools of psychotherapy think it is important for patients to look at themselves, but some of those that do require therapists to be in their own therapy and to be open to self-examination. How can you ask of someone else what you aren't willing or able to do yourself? This need to insist on a self-analysis shows that even therapists in schools that believe that patients will only get better if they examine themselves, that even these therapists find it unpleasant and difficult to analyze themselves and will often avoid it unless they are forced.

From one angle, it is bizarre that it should be such a big deal to look at oneself. We can turn our gaze on the ocean or on a garden snail or on an automobile or on other people such as our neighbors and examine them more or less dispassionately, so why should there be this one thing that is so difficult for us to examine? (Please see the article on Complexes and the one on Projection for some ideas on the subject.)

From my experience there are two related reasons why people begin to take a genuine and passionate interest in studying themselves. The first is that they have come to believe that they can decrease their pain and increase their happiness by learning about themselves. And the second is that they have had some sort of experience that they don't understand and that fascinates and maybe scares them and makes them wonder about who they are and what they are and that they want to understand. Often these two reasons are intertwined.

Now there are a few more points to be made here. First, in all cases I can think of, people who become interested in examining themselves become quite self-centered. But though this may be difficult for those surrounding them like spouses or children, it is no more or less difficult than being the spouse of or child of someone who is absorbed in the study of any emotional subject they believe is important such as politics or religion or making money.

Second, like all areas of study, there is a body of knowledge that has accumulated over the ages and that has been passed down that can help (though not always) in the project. In studying this body of knowledge, just like in other fields, the right teacher may (or may not) help. And, as in all fields where natural phenomena are the objects of study, there is a point where the student has to leave the body of knowledge and the teachers and go out on his or her own.

It may seem unique and odd that a person could become fascinated with a field of study where the object of study is a single person, but this does happen. There are people who study Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon. The only difference here is that the object of study is the person who is doing the studying.

It may not be the same in the East, but, in the West, colleges do not offer courses on self-examination. A student who feels the urge towards self-examination may attend a college hoping to learn about people in general in order to apply it to him or her self. However, this student may very well wind up feeling alienated from a curriculum that feels unrelated to the particulars of what is going on with him or her.

These people may find what they are looking for in some religion or in psychotherapy. In this last case, the therapist, like it or not, becomes a mentor and teacher and winds up explaining to the patient what he or she might expect to find, what effects these discoveries will have, possible outcomes, and some thoughts about different ways to handle the inevitable difficulties.

Third, as in all fields of study, novices often exaggerate the importance of their field and the value of their own work in it and the stage of their knowledge. Beginners in every field can be quite naive and sappy, but it may be worse here. Since it is possible to read Socrates and Buddha and Jesus and Shakespeare and other such figures as recommending one or another practice of self-examination, it is particularly tempting for people in this field to imitate these people and to walk around pretending to be one or the other (or to be even greater) to themselves and to others. This can simply be obnoxious (leading to a stilted, flowery, pompous, spiritualistic language and demeanor and dress), but it can take a turn towards dangerous if they try to convince others to follow them, and it can be even worse if others actually do follow them.

This problem is enhanced due to experiences that are often had during a serious self-analysis that seem so special and vast and deep and profound that the person can hardly help thinking of him or her self as pretty special and unique and superior, a feeling that Jung called inflation. This term is appropriate as it suggests that a tiny pin prick can pop the bubble, and, in fact, a dramatic alternation of moods is typical of this process.

There can also be wild alternations in self-evaluations from feeling superior to all people ("they are only interested in money and status and things and pleasure and knowledge of superficial things") to feeling inferior to everyone ("I must be crazy; I'm out of it; I can't fit in or get along or do what everyone else is doing").

And other people may also have trouble evaluating the person, especially if the person starts saying what he or she is thinking. Some people some of the time might elevate the person and even worship him or her. Most people will probably see this person as naive and grandiose and maybe paranoid and delusional. In fact, if things move in the wrong direction and become extreme and can not be defused, the person may wind up being hospitalized.

Fourth, as in all studies of natural objects, studying the self is an open-ended process. The self changes, and there are always surprises, so no one can say that, once and for all, "I know who I am". Risking the danger of sounding overly dramatic, I think the process of self-examination can be compared to a journey, but this can be said of all serious commitments to learning in any field. On all journeys, including this one, there are stages, there are dangers, there are temptations and diversions and by-paths, and obstacles, and victories. And there are drop-outs.

Fifth: The process of self-examination has stages, so it can be seen as a kind of development. And there is a stage of self-examination where people have to face how they look at and treat other people including people they love. This is such a critical moment that I think it deserves a name, but I can't think of one. This is a stage in which the patient faces the fact that he or she is no different from anyone else. The patient is not special. If anything, he (or she) is worse. He is so self-absorbed he is not living up to his obligations. His exaggerated sense of self importance and delusional ideas about who he is and about his potential have led him to treat others scornfully and from an aloof position. It becomes clear to the patient that it is no longer enough to act respectfully and to act humbly, but it is time to face facts and to change for real.

It is hard to put this point of change into words, but it is not a new and wonderful experience or a beautiful, brilliant discovery. In fact, it is not just an internal change at all. It is a decision to act differently (because one has seen how badly one has been acting and how it has affected others and even oneself), but it is not just a decision. It is also the acting on the decision and not just once but over and over again for the rest of ones life. And this action, at least at first, is not fun and it does not feel particularly natural. It is work — hard, unglamorous, often un-noticed and un-noticeable work.

What is more, this is work that does not make people special or different or important but brings them up to the level of other people who have already figured all this out. This can be a shock to ones vanity. Of course there is a good side to feeling that one is part of humanity.

Sixth: What starts out as self-examination, a turning of ones attention inward towards the minutiae of the inner life, winds up as a discovery of how one is and has been in the world. If the process doesn't stall here, it will lead to a re-evaluation and re-understanding of ones moral worth. And this should lead to a new way of looking at and of understanding and of evaluating and of acting towards other people including loved ones. It can be sobering that, from the point of view of others, this will be no big deal, as it is what they hoped for from you and expected from you all along.

It is only at this point that people can be said to know others, and it is because they have made a radical advance in knowing themselves. There has been a radical turning point that Jung called a transformation. A transformation point is where the self enters a new stage of development.

So, if all goes well, what starts out as an isolating experience, a self-centered and alienating activity, leads to a transformation where the person becomes a plus to him or her self and to others. (Of course transformations of the self, like transformations of the seasons, one into the next {for example, Winter into Spring}, do not always happen in an orderly A, B, C fashion.)

Given the diverse nature of people, it seems important to remind ourselves that the transformation process will progress differently in different people and that everybody has a different starting place. It is also worth remembering that the transformation process is not always successful and that there are many points at which it can take a sinister turn.

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