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Friday, February 24, 2012

Know Thyself

La dame à la licorne - la vue


As I was distractedly listening to the radio in the car, this ancient Greek aphorism came to mind: Know Thyself. The radio host was listing questions you should ask on a first date to get to know each other... and I thought that asking oneself the same questions could prove useful too.

I will come back with the specific questions, but first, an overview of what "Know Thyself" implies.

This aphorism enjoins us to gain knowledge about ourselves, and corresponds to the widely used term of introspection, a concept that's dear to my heart.

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (which has been criticized, but is nonetheless highly interesting) takes introspection into account: it is called "intrapersonal intelligence" (not to be confused with interpersonal intelligence).

(For those it may intrigue, other intelligence types, according to this theory, are the logical-mathematical, spatial, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, naturalistic and existential intelligences. Each person has a combination of those intelligences, in different proportions. I, for example, am strongest on linguistic, existential, intrapersonal and musical intelligences. On the other hand, it seems like I was not present when spatial intelligence was distributed... and the same might be true about the fine motor skills part of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence! What about you?)

Despite its limitations (to which no theory of intelligence is immune to this day, including the ubiquitous IQ concept), this broader approach of intelligence has the merit of taking into account all kinds of talents, not only the scholarly ones (although those are undeniably very important). I believe that broadening our concept of intelligence and valuing diverse talents could benefit most people (especially children) and, in turn, the society as a whole: individuals would learn to embrace their unique gifts (even if those are not "mainstream"), would feel better about themselves, and by fully developing those talents would share the outcomes with everybody else. A lot of kids are pushed in directions that have nothing to do with their actual interests and talents, just because mom and dad think it's the best way to go. Fast forward a few years, they've become frustrated adults, or they've completely abandoned what their parents wanted them to excel at. Let's rethink that for a moment.

Now back to intrapersonal intelligence. No matter who you are and what talents you have been blessed with, acquiring a fine-tuned self-concept is one of the things you can do to ensure you live a happy, full, satisfying life in which you fully blossom.

Coming to recognize how you feel, and why, is the first step to ensure you feel good more often. In some cases, actively working at modifying the way you feel (yes! this is possible! Think, for example, of developing a sense of gratitude instead of focusing on the negative) will significantly increase you overall satisfaction. In other cases, the wisest thing to do will be to fully accept the way you feel... all the while making sure you keep it in perspective. For example, if you feel depressed, angry or sad but have clearly identified the reason (which could range anywhere from losing a loved one to PMS-ing or having an argument with someone), you can reflect with detachment on what's going on... in a more lucid and - hopefully - peaceful way.

In both cases, stepping back from yourself and observing what's happening to you makes it easier to deal with otherwise overwhelming emotions. You're also less at risk for compensating with unhealthy behaviors. (Eg. Why the hell am I eating so much chocolate? Let's investigate this more in depth...)

Knowing what you want (and its most sophisticated sidekick: knowing what you DON'T want) is the number one tool for making the right choices throughout your life. No situation, life partner, job, place of living, etc. will ever be perfect, but if you have a clear image of what you're looking for, and know how to prioritize, chances are you will chose wisely. When you look back, you'll know you made the right choice, the best one in the circumstances. You'll be content with what you've put in place, in the life you've created for yourself. Which is pretty darn close to being happy, isn't it?

In turn, knowing yourself and understanding your ins and outs will also enable you to better understand others and develop empathy. Proof that spending some time thinking about your own self is not an act of selfishness! As long as you find a good balance between meeting your own needs and wants and respecting those of others! An endeavour that, on some days, proves to be harder than climbing the Everest without oxygen bottles. Saying no and putting your own needs first can be as tough as sacrificing your own good for someone else's! I'm sure some examples are coming to mind. Especially if you're a parent! (Or a devoted employee, volunteer, friend, etc.)

If you've read this post all the way to here, you now deserve the list of questions. So here they are!

1) How was your first kiss?

The answer to this question shows the relationship the person has with his/her own emotions, past, intimacy, relationships, etc.

Personally, my first kiss was... very wet. I pretty much needed a beach towel to wipe my face afterwards!

2) What was a "big win" in your life?

This gives information about the way the person sees and deals with competition. A very humble person, for example, might express feelings of discomfort at a "big win".

The first anecdote that comes to my mind is the following: back in grade six, I won an arm-wrestling contest against the one who was known as "the strongest dude in school". I felt bad when all his friends laughed at him for losing to a girl... but I fully appreciated the respect they all (including him) showed me afterwards! Especially since that guy in particular had been a bully to me back in kindergarten! I learned that brutal force WILL take you places when used properly, and I gained lots of confidence. (Thanks mom and dad for the tennis lessons that made that arm so strong!)

3) What was the first big thing you bought with your own money?

This brings to the surface what the person values the most, where his/her priorities lie, and his/her relationship to money.

My first big purchase was a good quality mini-hifi. My second one was a 3-month trip to Europe. Music and travel. What a surprise!

To those 3 questions, I'd like to add one, which might seem simplistic (and materialistic) at first, but to which the answer is very enlightening:

4) What would you do if you won the lottery?

The first reaction to this question is usually to list a bunch of "stuff" you'd like to possess, if only you were rich enough. You will probably also list a bunch of activities you'd want to indulge in. But keep thinking. What would you really do if you won the lottery? Would you quit your job? Go back to school? Move to another house/city/region/country? Would you put some in the bank or on the stock market? Would you start a business? Would you give any money to family, friends, charity organizations? If so, how much, and to whom? Be precise! How would you make sure it's fair? How would you deal with the discrepancy between your means and other people's means (especially family and close friends)? How would you handle some people's envy, greediness, and your own sense of imposture? Do you think your important relationships would change? Etc. The one time I seriously pondered this, the conclusion I came to was the following: "Forget about it, this would be way too complicated. I'm better off NOT winning the lottery!" (Plus,studies have shown that it does NOT make you happier in the long term.)

Finally. Some people might look scornfully at them, but I think books from the self-help section, especially the "good ones", can be helpful for knowing yourself and putting your particularities in perspective. Whenever I finish one of those books, I feel - slightly - wiser than before and, more importantly, I find myself more accepting of who I am. It's worth a try! Have you read one lately?


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