What is self-understanding and why is self-understanding important?
If you Googled anything along the lines of “What do you mean by self-understanding and self-concept?” you probably experienced what I did. A bunch of psychological babble and scientific explanations with enough “self” definitions to add up to a seeming self-frenzy. (Seriously, myself, yourself, and herself are all confused.)
But despite these brain puzzles, self-understanding is an important concept to grasp. That’s because understanding of self is the foundation for finding the life you want to live – and then creating it.
Developing your self-understanding will improve your life, guaranteed.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, here are some explanations about self-understanding, self-awareness, and self-concept in a way that might actually make sense.
What is Self-Understanding?
Self-understanding is your ability to understand who you are and what led to who you are.
You understand your thoughts, feelings, and actions, as well as the why behind them.
This recognition of your motivations helps you develop your sense of identity.
Essentially, it encompasses the answer to the question, “Who am I?” with the evidence to support it.
Think of it like tackling a complicated math problem. Some people don’t know how to solve it. Others can write down the correct answer, but they don’t really understand what steps went into solving it. Some individuals, however, can show all their work and understand the steps leading to the correct solution.
Having an understanding of self includes both aspects: an answer to yourself and knowing how it came about.
Think of self-understanding as the broadest and deepest layer of how you think about yourself. It’s like viewing yourself in your “Room of Life” from an outside, objective perspective.
What is Self-Awareness?
Self-awareness and self-understanding are sometimes used interchangeably, and that’s not a bad thing. However, if you want to distinguish the two, you can think of self-awareness as the first step to understanding of self.
Self-awareness is being aware of yourself and your life. Before you can understand why you do something, you’ve got to recognize what you’re doing in the first place. This means identifying your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in the present moment.
Being self-aware also encompasses things like your values, aspirations, and patterns, among others.
Let’s go back to your Room of Life metaphor. If self-understanding is like looking in from an outside perspective, then self-awareness is like turning the lights on in the room. You’re aware of what’s happening.
You’re also aware of your self-concept.
What is self-concept?
Ah, the last “self” in our self-trifecta. Self-concept is the label you give yourself when answering the question “Who am I?” It’s how you see yourself and, more importantly, the words you use when describing how you see yourself.
Our sense of identity is a complicated thing, but it begins with our self-concept.
It’s crucial to understand that self-concept is the end of the statement, “I am…” It is not the end of the statement “I feel…” This distinction is because self-concept takes on a more permanent nature.
(Note: self-concept is not permanent, as you’ll read about later on, but our brains tend to think it is.)
If the Room of Life is your self-understanding, and the light is your self-awareness, then the nametag you put on is your self-concept. And it influences everything.
Why are Self-Understanding and Self-Concept So Important?
Just as clearly defining all of the “self-understanding” distinctions can be confusing, so is the journey itself. We are all complicated beings with intricate personal stories, conflicting emotions, and influential evolutionary tendencies. Throw in some cultural expectations and individual personalities, and we’ve created some of the most complicated math problems out there.
Oh, and on top of it all, most people believe they’re more self-aware than they are. (Our brains literally trick us into thinking this.) It’s like that kid who thinks they’re good at math but they’re really not.
So why is it worth trying to solve?
The more complicated, the more meaningful.
How we view ourselves drastically impacts how we interact with the world around us. Remember our self-concept is how we answer the statement, “I am…” Our answers become ingrained into our thinking. When reinforced over time, we begin to shape our lives around these concepts.
The harm is that many of our self-concepts limit us more than they help.
Limiting Beliefs and Self-Concept
In college, I began labeling myself as a “bad auditory learner.” I need to read something to understand it, I’d say to myself and others. And so, for years, I wrote off many opportunities to listen and learn something new. A couple of years ago, my research taught me that learning styles are much more malleable than we assume. Since then, I began to practice the skill rather than avoid it.
And you know what? I got better. I also didn’t miss out on opportunities I ended up really enjoying.
The label of “visual learner” is nothing out of the ordinary, nor life-changing. Yet think of all the things you say to yourself that might hold you back. Maybe you think you’re not good enough, not worthy, or too (insert negative adjective here). Every day our inner critics get the best of us.
When we give ourselves a label, we put ourselves into a box. Too often, these boxes tend to trap us rather than build us.
Self-understanding allows us to see what labels we give ourselves, where they come from, and how positive or negative they are to us. Then, once we understand everything, we can make the necessary adjustments.
Developing our self-awareness also gives us more evidence to work with. We don’t have to guess who we are; we can draw informed conclusions. This comes from check-in questions like:
- How does this make me feel?
- What do I want at this moment?
- What did I learn from this?
By developing your self-understanding, you can better align your life with your core values.
How do you develop self-understanding? 6 Strategies to Improve Your Self-Understanding
1. Become more self-aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I’ll add to it – you definitely can’t understand what you don’t know. Becoming more self-aware of your day-to-day experiences will help you insurmountably in the long run. Whether it’s naming your emotions, recognizing your thought patterns, or identifying your behaviors, you’ll gain valuable info when it comes to your understanding of self.
2. Notice how you talk to yourself
With so many “self” things happening, it’s easy to overlook the driving force. Specifically, how you yourself talk to yourself. Self-concept encopasses how we label ourselves on the grand scale, but we’re talking to ourselves every minute of the day. Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. If it helps, compare your inner dialogue with how you’d talk to a friend (or how they might talk to you). Are you treating yourself with respect? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? The more you can tune into your attitude, the more conscious you can be of your direction.
3. Learn to silence your Inner Critic
I don’t care who you are or how you talk to yourself; we all have an Inner Critic that likes to bring us down. While all our Inner Critics take on a slightly different tone, they all follow the same theme. They hold you back from reaching your full potential. Part of self-understanding is embracing what you discover. A shame response is entirely natural when it comes to discovering who we want to be. That’s why being vulnerable is key in creating a self-concept you draw power from.
4. Ask yourself better questions
Ask anyone you know. Developing your understanding starts with asking questions. And when it comes to self-understanding, it’s got to start with the right questions. Too often, people shy away from hard questions because it makes them feel vulnerable. However, it’s precisely in asking these questions that we learn the most about ourselves. You also want to steer clear of questions that put you in a victimized or negative mindset. Whenever possible, ask “what” questions that focus on what you learned – not what you lost.
5. Seek feedback from others
If I haven’t said it enough already, I’ll say it one more time: it’s impossible to be self-aware. Too much of our biology is working against us. So, no matter how much self-work you do, you’ve got to seek feedback from outside sources. Try to gather perspective from friends and family who know you best. If you’re not comfortable asking someone, then learn how to tune into external situations and physical cues. Your self-understanding isn’t just how you see yourself, but also how the world sees you.
6. Always stay open to rethinking your identity
The key to self-understanding is owning that you’ll always have more to learn. Who you are today will be different in a week, a year, a decade. We’re continuously evolving based on our life experiences. Therefore, the worst thing we can do is attach ourselves to a permanent identity. The more you can embrace a constant attitude of rethinking, the more self-aware you’ll be.
Our Behaviors Create Our Identity: How to Change Your Self-Concept
We wrongly believe that our thinking changes our identity, and then our changed behaviors follow. For example, I might be a super anxious person. I’ll think to myself, I’m going to be a calmer person, deciding on a new self-concept. Then, I assume that my “new” self-concept will help me do more yoga, meditate, and achieve this new persona.
Our brains don’t work that way. In fact, they work the reverse.
See, our brains like evidence to be persuaded of something. The more evidence, the stronger conclusions they can draw. Therefore, to get our brain to develop this new self-concept, we’ve got to start doing the things that prove the self-concept to be true.
For example, if I begin to do more yoga and meditation, my brain will begin to believe I’m a calmer person. Eventually, I will be able to define myself as such.
Dr. Ben Hardy calls this “building identity capital.” And it’s important to note when thinking about self-understanding.
As you work on the six tips above, keep focused on your behaviors as much as you can. Ultimately, action is what will help you develop your self-understanding and self-concept.
Conclusion: Self-Understanding, Self-Awareness, and Self-Concept
The abundance of psychological literature on “self” can be overwhelming. Don’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty distinctions and explanations. Instead, put your focus on the benefits of self-understanding and how to develop your own understanding of self.
You can start by following these six strategies:
- Become more self-aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions
- Notice how you talk to yourself
- Learn to silence your Inner Critic
- Ask yourself better questions
- Seek feedback from others
- Always stay open to rethinking your identity
Want to build your self-understanding even more? Receive a free PDF copy of my eBook, The Art of Being Self-Aware, below.