Self-leadership starts with you – but what exactly is self-knowledge and why is it important?

Updated: Nov 12, 2020

‘Know thyself’ was the first of the Delphic maxims inscribed at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, ancient Greece. But this piece of wisdom and advice may date back even further than 2000 odd years, with its roots having been traced back to the classic Chinese ‘Tao Te Ching’ forming the basis of Taoism, to even further back to ancient Egypt.


Socrates believed that self-knowledge should be the foundation for every other enquiry in life.


More recently, the concept of self-knowledge has gained attention through the popularisation of emotional intelligence. The term ‘emotional intelligence’ was coined by researchers Peter Salavoy and John Mayer and later popularised by the work of Daniel Goleman. According to Goleman, emotional intelligence consists of four pillars covering twelve core competencies. The pillars are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management, with the fundamental building block of all emotional competencies being self-awareness. It seems like Goleman and Socrates agree. But is self-awareness the same as self-knowledge?


While the terms are often used interchangeably, I prefer to distinguish them.


Self-awareness versus self-knowledge

First, let’s take a closer look at the concept of self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to perceive yourself clearly through inward observation and reflection, or introspection. The prerequisite for self-awareness is that you are not your thoughts, but a separate entity behind your thoughts – the thinker. You can be completely (lost) in your thoughts and feelings, a phenomenon called being in an ‘associated’ or ‘fused’ state.


Let’s say you’re watching a sad movie and you’re feeling upset. You’re just in your thoughts and feelings of being upset. But you can also ‘dissociate’ or ‘defuse’ from your thoughts and feelings, such as when you take a meta-perspective (i.e. as if you were an observer from the outside) and reflect on what you are thinking and feeling. While watching the sad movie and being upset, you could think ‘I notice that I am feeling upset’. You are now taking a dissociative or defused perspective of yourself, as though you were an independent observer of yourself. You’re being self-aware. Self-awareness is momentary and focused on the observation of thoughts and feelings in the present. You can probably already guess that ongoing self-awareness is necessary but not sufficient for self-knowledge.


Self-knowledge is the degree to which we understand ourselves in our entirety.


Self-knowledge takes into account our history and life experience and our knowledge about why we think and feel the way we do. It is the mental representation of who we are on the background of our whole life. This includes knowledge about our talents and strengths, our beliefs, attitudes and values, our self-efficacy and passion. So, self-awareness can be understood as a special, but not exclusive method of gaining self-knowledge. But why is knowing yourself so important?


Self-knowledge allows you to understand why your experiences affect you and how. It answers questions such as:

  • What am I feeling and why?

  • What image do I have of myself and how does my self-image align with how others see me?

  • What do I perceive as my strengths and limitations?

  • What are my values/ what is important to me?

  • What is my sense of purpose?

  • How can I contribute to my community and be of service to others?

When pondering these questions, the importance of having a sense of who you are and its role in self-leadership becomes obvious very quickly. In order to identify the journey you want to take in your life, what dreams you hope to realise and goals you strive to achieve, you have to know where you’re at right now and what brought you here. Because only then will you be truly equipped to avoid inner conflict, make better decisions and exhibit self-control; and only then will you have the choice to accept who you are and to know what you’re hoping for and why. That is why the first step in self-leadership is dedicated entirely to you and to equipping you with the tools to answer this one question: who are you?


If you’re anything like me, you find this question frustrating, even rude. Because it’s so short and innocent, yet so challenging. Answering it can be a difficult and tedious, lifelong process. Not only because who we are can slightly change over time and how we reacted in confronting situations yesterday, what we deemed important or what we devoted our time to, can be very different from tomorrow. But also, because there is nothing we can quickly pinpoint and say “that’s me”. Instead, we rely on endless clues throughout our lives to give us a vague estimate. I couldn’t agree more with Benjamin Franklin, who put it this way “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and to know one's self”.


The road to a good sense of self-awareness isn’t a straight-forward one. Instead, it meanders through your own perception and that of the people around you, your history and life experience, how you would like to be, your personality, your passions, your strengths and weaknesses and what’s important to you (i.e. your values). However, there are a few tools you can use to get a solid sense of who you are. I’ve compiled them in a free guide of why and how to get to know yourself. You can access it here.


Maike x


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