Do we know ourselves better than others know us? The answer to this question may seem obvious: we know ourselves better. Yet, our weaknesses can escape the light of awareness because we’re too close to our own experience. In his book, Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson emphasizes this point.
Research in social psychology suggests we can be both prejudiced and non-prejudiced at the same time. At a conscious level, we can abhor being prejudiced, however, at a non-conscious level, we may act in prejudiced ways. We go into a coffee shop, see people of a different race, and move away from them toward tables that contain people more similar to us.
I’m known for being fearless, based on routes I’ve established that require a lot of mental focus. In the past, I tied my identity to being fearless. It made me feel more important than others. I’ve done a lot of research since then about how the ego likes to play the “more important” game. Therefore, at a conscious level, I pay more attention to keeping my ego in check. At an unconscious level, however, my actions can reveal this deep-seated belief.
For example, recently my wife Jane and I went to a local grocery store to buy some food. We were walking down an aisle, approaching a place where two aisles intersect. A store employee was pushing a large cart down the aisle that crossed ours. Both of us were entering the intersection at the same time. My immediate thought was that he’d stop and let us pass first because “customers are more important than employees.” This is a common belief that businesses teach to maintain a high degree of customer service. My wife stopped, but I continued walking, believing he would stop. Instead, he continued into the intersection with his large cart, forcing me to stop.
I felt like he was being disrespectful, which irritated me. Jane observed the whole encounter and scolded me saying, “He was pushing a heavy cart. Why didn’t you stop and let him pass? Do you think you’re more important than he is?” My actions demonstrated the old belief of being more important, which was more powerful than my conscious awareness of seeing people as equal to myself.
Deeply held beliefs require awareness to move beyond. We may think we value equanimity, but it takes daily, conscious experiences to live it. We do this by clarifying our values and then creating daily practices to change what we think into what we do.
We can approach this in two ways. First, we develop self-awareness techniques. We can write down our values for how we want to behave and then observe them daily. What’s critical, though, is developing the witness position, the ability to observe objectively. Operating from the witness position allows us to unhook from thinking so we can observe it. This increases the likelihood of recognizing when we fall victim to old beliefs.
Second, others can complement our process of developing self-awareness. Coaches can be particularly helpful. Someone outside our direct experience can see behaviors that we’ve habituated for many years and suggest practices for moving beyond them.
The concept of being a stranger to ourselves may seem odd, but life is an ongoing process of learning more about who we are. Self-awareness practices and feedback from others can guide the whole process. With conscious practice, we can become friends to ourselves. Our conscious thinking and unconscious acting can synchronize without one contradicting the other.