Posted by: thealienist | April 8, 2010

Foundations of Mental Health: Self-Awareness

Some people go through life without any interest in their own thoughts, motives, or feelings.  They seem to deal with every situation reflexively.  I suppose that if this works for them there is no reason to change, but for most of us this leads to problems.  Our thoughtless (in the truest sense of the word) statements and actions offend those around us or fail to produce the results we want.  We get frustrated by feelings of a lack of control of how our lives are playing out.  Some force seems to be causing us to deviate from our preferred path.  This force seems invisible but irresistible, but in truth it is simply too close for us to see.Every person’s mental life is a mixture of wishes, assumptions, expectations, emotions, fantasies, memories, semantic knowledge, self-image, ideals, training, and more.  Given the complexity of our mental lives, it is a wonder that our behavior is as orderly and effective as it usually is.  For some, the behaviors that spring automatically from this complexity is sufficient to give them a level of functioning that they find emotionally and physically satisfactory.  Most of their behavior seems to be guided by the relatively simple mechanisms of classical and operant conditioning.  They do things that have rewarded them in the past and avoid things that have not worked so well.  Their emotions and appetites are linked to regularly occurring stimuli in their environment such as the clock, the natural diurnal cycle, the t.v. schedule, internal body rhythms, and social influences.  This is not to criticize this way of living.  If it works for these people and brings them happiness without causing excessive distress to others, it is understandable that they would choose to live this way.  But for some of us, this manner of living is not sufficient.

For many, the behaviors that seem to automatically spring from us detract us from our goals.  We say things, and sometimes continue to say things, that we later wish we had not.  Our behaviors seem to be directed at goals we do not understand and which may be contrary to our consciously acknowledged desires.  We feel anxious or depressed without any rational reason and tell ourselves things that rob us of our motivation and hope for success.  We could decide simply to take the path of least resistance and accept our behaviors and their outcomes, but this leaves us feeling empty and makes life seem meaningless.  For us, a greater understanding of these behaviors and a sense of an (at least moderately) orderly mental life would help us to feel more in control of our lives, more responsible for our choices, and more accepting of the outcomes of our actions.

The search for these mysterious forces and hidden goals leads us on a quest for self-awareness.  Many, but not all, types of psychotherapy focus on improving self-awareness.  Psychodynamic psychotherapy encourages patients to give voice to their mental life without censorship.  Cognitive therapists teach their patients to identify the thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs they have about themselves, certain situations, and the world in general.  Existentialist and humanist therapists seek to have their patients claim responsibility for their lives, including their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  These and other therapies are advanced by patients examining themselves and choosing to see themselves for who they truly are.  They urge patients to see themselves and to value themselves “warts and all.”

One of the main frustrations I had in learning to do psychotherapy was my mentor’s refusal to gratify my curiosity about what kind of psychotherapy he did.  I asked him directly and found him evasive.  I examined the books he had in his office for clues but found no distinct focus.  I tried to determine from his supervisory technique what kind of therapist he was, but much of our supervisory time was spent with me responding and reflecting on his observations that my patient “didn’t seem very interested in her own thoughts and emotions.”  As my period of supervision with this man continued, it became clear to me that much of what I was supposed to accomplish as a therapist was in increase my patient’s interest in their own mental life.  Since that time, I have found that as my patients start to seriously consider their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and to claim them as their own, they get well.  My job is often to model ways of being interested in them.

One of the most difficult parts of being self-aware is to accept yourself for who you are.  It is easy to accept the parts of us that we like, but those are not often the parts of us that get us into trouble.  It is much easier to ignore those parts of us we don’t like.  We can ignore our appearance if we see ourself as ugly.  We can ignore past deeds and their outcomes if we are ashamed of them.  We can attribute our disturbing thoughts to the influence of some evil spiritual force or person.  If we get particularly desperate, we can imagine that those parts of us that we don’t like are actually superior aspects of our person.  For example, it might not be that people don’t agree with me because I’m wrong, they simply don’t agree with me because I’m so much more intelligent than they are!  The problem with these ways of dealing with ourselves is that we end up producing a distorted self-image, and this distorted image leads us to misunderstand our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

By making ourselves blind to those aspects of ourselves that we don’t like, we give them the power to operate unchecked in our lives.  If I refuse to admit that I am often angry, then I will not be prepared to deal with anger when it arises.  If I overestimate my desire for academic success and ignore my desire for Cheetos and cartoons, I will constantly be amazed at my procrastination in my studies.  If my family forces me to pursue becoming an engineer and I ignore my desire to be a dancer, I may not understand why I spend so little time studying mathematics despite my best efforts.  The solution to these and many other problems is to choose to see yourself for who you truly are.  You may be able to do this on you own or with your friends.  Sometimes people need the help of a therapist who can help them see themselves and understand what they see.  Regardless of how you do it, I urge you to do it.  Knowing yourself has great value.  Though self-knowledge is not for everybody, many would agree with Socrates who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”



  1. Click
    If a new article becomes available or if perhaps any changes occur on the current publication, I would be interested in reading a lot more and finding out how to make good usage of those approaches you discuss. Click


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