Know Yourself? 6 Specific Ways to Know Who You Are
This post will reveal six elements of self-knowledge that can help you understand your own identity. As you live your daily life, you can look for clues to these important building blocks of the self.
- Happiness. You will be happier when you can express who you are. Expressing your desires will make it more likely that you get what you want.
- Less inner conflict. When your outside actions are in accordance with your inside feelings and values, you will experience less inner conflict.
- Better decision-making. When you know yourself, you are able to make better choices about everything, from small decisions like which sweater you’ll buy to big decisions like which partner you’ll spend your life with. You’ll have guidelines you can apply to solve life’s varied problems.
- Self-control. When you know yourself, you understand what motivates you to resist bad habits and develop good ones. You’ll have the insight to know which values and goals activate your willpower.
- Resistance to social pressure. When you are grounded in your values and preferences, you are less likely to say “yes” when you want to say “no.”
- Tolerance and understanding of others. Your awareness of your own foibles and struggles can help you empathize with others.
- Vitality and pleasure. Being who you truly are helps you feel more alive and makes your experience of life richer, larger, and more exciting.
The Building Blocks of Self: Your VITALS
The capital letters in “VITAL Signs” form an acronym for the six building blocks of the self, or VITALS, for short. The letters stand for Values, Interests, Temperament, Around-the-Clock, Life Mission and Goals, and Strengths/Skills.
“Values”—such as “helping others,” “being creative,” “health,” “financial security,” and so on—are guides to decision-making and motivators for goals. Research shows that just thinking or writing about your values can make it more likely that you take healthy actions. The motivation provided by worthwhile values can also keep you going even when you are tired, as shown in many psychology experiments. If you want to self-motivate, know your values! (For the research, click here.)
“Interests” include your passions, hobbies, and anything that draws your attention over a sustained period of time. To figure out your interests, ask yourself these questions: What do you pay attention to? What are you curious about? What concerns you? The focused mental state of being interested in something makes life vivid and may give you clues to your deepest passions.
Many people have built a career around a deep interest in something. For example, a friend of mine broke his leg when he was 11 years old and was so fascinated by the emergency room that he decided to become an emergency physician.
“Temperament” describes your inborn preferences. Do you restore your energy from being alone (introvert) or from being with people (extrovert)? Are you a planner or go-with-the-flow type of person? Do you make decisions more on the basis of feelings or thoughts and facts? Do you prefer details or big Ideas? Knowing the answers to temperament questions like these could help you gravitate toward situations in which you could flourish and avoid situations in which you could wilt.
In the 60s, spontaneity was valued over planning. I tried hard to go with the flow, but it seemed to me that I wasted a lot of time that way. Going against the grain of my own personality turned out to be a daunting task that wasn’t really worth it.
The “around-the-clock” category refers to when you like to do things—your biorhythms. Are you a morning person or a night person, for example? At what time of day does your energy peak? If you schedule activities when you are at your best, you are respecting your innate biology. As I look back on my life, I realize I’ve been a morning person since birth. Those fun sleepovers with girlfriends? I loved being included, but I didn’t like staying up late.
One joy of my adult life has been finding a partner with biorhythms like mine. We wake up early and go to bed early; we both get snappy unless we eat three square meals a day. We hate brunch. While the idea of biorhythm preferences may sound trivial compared to lofty qualities of the self like “values,” your daily life is more pleasant when you are in sync with your biology. In every area, it’s easier to enjoy life when you don’t waste energy pretending to be someone you aren’t.
“What have been the most meaningful events of your life?” This was a question I liked to ask when students would see me for career counseling at the community college where I worked. One woman of about 40 years old got teary-eyed as she tried to answer. “Recently,” she told me, “I found it incredibly meaningful to care for my aging father as he declined and went into hospice. I was able to be there and hold his hand when he died.” As we talked about the difficulties and rewards of her father’s last days, she had an “aha” moment and realized she wanted to become a hospice nurse. (She accomplished her goal and was one of the leaders of her class.)
“Strengths” can include not only abilities, skills, and talents, but also character strengths such as loyalty, respect for others, love of learning, emotional intelligence, fairness, and more. Knowing your strengths is one of the foundations of self-confidence; not being able to acknowledge your own superpowers could put you on the path to low self-esteem. Become a person who “takes in the good,” listening for compliments and noticing skills that could be clues to your strengths. Here’s an example: An acquaintance tells you that she loves the soothing sound of your voice. What could you do with that knowledge? Likewise, knowing your weaknesses can help you be honest with yourself and others about what you are not good at. You might decide either to work on those weaknesses or try to make them a smaller part of your personal or professional life.
1. Your Personal Productivity
We’ve all been taught to work in a way that might not seem natural to us as individuals. I think many of us don’t like working because we don’t work in a way that makes sense to us.
For example, my peak performance period for work occurs around 7 am to 12 pm each day. I also prefer a mix of working on my own and collaborating with others a few times a week. I want the value of my work to be based on the quality of my output, not the amount of time I “put in” at the office.
Additionally, I need to spend at least an hour a day performing a physical activity outside like walking, yard work or paddle boarding to energize myself. I also want the freedom to decide how much time I spend with my family.
The needs I listed above are the ingredients that optimize my “personal productivity.” It’s not what makes everyone productive, but it’s what makes me productive. Most likely the ingredients for your personal productivity will be different from other people as well.
I wouldn’t be nearly as productive if I had to spend most of my energy trying to conform my work style with a one-size-fits-all standard. One of the most draining experiences of my life has been working out of alignment with my work needs.
I once thought being more productive meant getting more done in less time. I thought managing my time more effectively was the key to my productivity. I now realize the key to my productivity is all about how I manage my limited energy.
One of the biggest boosts to my energy was making the decision to work in alignment with my needs. I may have 10 hours a day to work, but I now realize I only have 3 to 4 hours of energy to create high-quality work.
3. Your Values
I like to think of values as your personal code for guiding your actions and responses to any variety of circumstances. They provide a core set of parameters for how you will design your life and work going forward. They are the foundation of your personal productivity.
One of my core values is valuing experiences over material possessions. When I’m about to buy a physical product, I always think about how it can either enhance my experiences or detract from them.
I also value simplicity. I’m not necessarily looking for the easy way out, but rather actions that make the best use of my time and energy. I am constantly seeking ways to reduce the number of decisions I need to make each day or the number of steps in a given process.