Why Is It Hard To Know Yourself

Aizaz Baqir
7 min readNov 25, 2020


“I am not this hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within.” are the words of famous Persian poet and mystic Jalal ad Din Rumi.

Consciousness is always and already there in the core of everyone’s heart, but because of our materially conditioned life, we tend to ignore or forget it.

Image credit: otrazhenie.wordpress.com

What Rumi seem to be conveying is that we are not just our body but our wholeness is so much more than the sum of our parts. Moreover, body is ephemeral while our soul is everlasting.

Similarly John Locke (an English philosopher and physician) also argues that self identity is not found either on the body or the substance as the substance may change while the person remains the same. He describes a case of a prince and a cobbler in which the soul of the prince is transformed to the body of the cobbler and vice versa., The prince still views himself as prince though no longer looks like one.

When Thales of Miletus, one of the sages of ancient Greece was asked, “What is difficult?”, he is said to have replied “ To know yourself.”

Part of the problem is our propensity to fool ourselves. It is a wilful blindness.

Thus we can’t help but agree with Anais Nin, who warns that the day comes when the risk to remain tight in the bud is more painful than the risk it takes to blossom.

One of the easiest way to know yourself is to know what people say about you in your absence. You can never know yourself if you can not bear criticism, so always be open to other people’s opinion about you even if you don’t like them.

However, it is also like seeing one side of the picture as people mostly have prejudiced opinions.

Thus knowing yourself is not just what you look like to other people or what you think you are. Knowing yourself is beyond figuring out your favourite colour, your favourite subject in school, or your favourite movie or drama serial or your favourite sport or leader or personality etc.

In other words, knowing yourself is, actually, the process of understanding you — the human being — on deeper level than the surface. It is a conscious effort; you do it with intention and purpose. Collective opinions of others about you are also just one aspect of you.

Therefore, a more systematic and mettle challenging method is to look yourself in the mirror (if it is also not foggy like your thoughts and perceptions) which, apparently, never lies to anyone. So many of our habits, patterns of behavior, and pre-set programming, according to some pundits, are buried in our subconscious. And putting a mirror up to ourselves also means to access the unconscious through self-reflection — i.e., putting a mirror up to ourselves and analyzing what we see or feel as objectively as possible so that we can better understand ourselves and how think, feel, and behave. But how can we really engage in this type of deep self-reflection? And although engaging in self reflection is not a luxury, but a necessity, how to perform this task in a meaningful way is another puzzle to solve.

In this age of technology, we are super busy, distracted (and addicted to our phones), and therefore, seem to have a harder time with self-reflection. Our mobile phones are constantly buzzing, social media is infinitely calling, and Netflix always has something new to binge on. But the self-reflection requires a reasonably tranquil mind. Some self-reflections begin with a short meditation, maybe several deep breaths, or some deep breathing to quiet inner voices or thoughts. Perhaps you prefer to loosen up your mind with an imagination activity or practice a bit of mindfulness (which includes self-reflection before really diving in).

There are so many techniques, but taking the time for reflection is a bit of a lost art. Most of us, unfortunately, are living unexamined lives and as Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Thus if we don’t intentionally choose to self reflect then we can be forced to do so by some outer circumstances or chllenges. Our best persona is discovered when we are in a critical and challenging situation, when going really gets hard and tough. Thus what you are really like on your bad days does, to a great extent, also define you. Hence if we keep running on the treadmill of life thinking we don’t have time to waste, we suddenly just crash and burn. That’s because the only way to keep up with the pace of life is to STOP. To hop off the treadmill.

Thus suffering is, in fact, not a useless pain, but a powerful tool that plays a crucial role in the journey of self discovery. That is why Rumi says:

However, self discovery is a continuous or never ending process as we are always changing in the face of new challenges and new situations. We are not just one story that we always tell ourselves about ourselves. Sticking with any single account of our mutability may be limiting. The stories we’ve told may become too narrow to define the whole of us as we are not just living in a universe but a universe also exists within us. You see yourself as either more continuous or less continuous than you’d assumed.

And as some pundits say, there’s a recursive quality to acts of self-narration. You tell yourself a story about yourself and then make an effort to synchronize yourself with the tale you are telling; then, inevitably, you have to revise the story as you or your circumstances change.

According to Demetriou (a developmental psychologist) self awareness develops systematically from birth through the life span.

Martin Heidegger, the often impenetrable German philosopher, argued that what distinguishes human beings is their ability to “take a stand” on what and who they are; in fact, they have no choice but to ask unceasing questions about what it means to exist, and about what it all adds up to. The asking, and trying out of answers, is as fundamental to our personhood or self-identity.

Even the smartest people are blind when it comes to know “who they really are” and so are you.

And, in my opinion, it is something like peeling a fruit. When you peel the layers of conformism or conformity and are able to remove all the labels that society has put on you, you shall be able to realize your authentic self. An authentic self is, probably, the one that has been buried under all kinds of societal pressures or debris of one’s own illusions.

Though the significance of self awareness can not be underestimated, “it is still”, writes leadership expert Warren Bennis, “the most difficult task any of us faces.”

And about 150 years after Thales, Socrates came along and reminded his audience that “self deception is the worst thing of all.”

However, openness to criticism and receptivity to facts and perspectives that challenge our own can arm us against denial.

Gold isn’t much to look at before it is refined. It is pretty dull, it lacks depth. Gold gets refined in the fire. It gets refined when it is heated and becomes uncomfortable. Then the rawness is no more. It doesn’t shine until it is sure that can’t handle flames anymore, and it has been through some serious stuff.

Then if we are able to remove our ego (like gold being refined by removing the dust), that is a hurdle between us and reality, we can be able to find ourselves. Our ego also melts during the suffering and then we start to shine like gold.

Rumi has very aptly explained it in following priceless words of wisdom:

“I lost everything, I found myself.”

Thus Humility (after the suffering) becomes the lubricant for overcoming the friction created by how we want to see ourselves and what we really are.

The apostle Paul observed: “If anyone thinks that he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”

Also remember that when you are forced to get down, it doesn’t mean that you are destined to stay down forever. After learning the lesson, you are promoted to next grade and thus you are a changed person with new identity. And as the identity keeps changes with changing circumstance the journey of self discovery continues unabated.

And as you keep learning and improving, you also keep finding yourself. It is an continuous journey. “We’re always changing, evolving and adapting to new life circumstances, so it is difficult to know if you can ever completely know yourself,” says Amy Przeworski, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Who you are now has everything to do with your past experiences, and that’s why taking a closer look at yourself is an ongoing process. “If you don’t make those links, then you don’t truly know yourself,” Przeworski say.

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Content/image source:

i) http://goolge.com.pk

ii) https://www.iep.utm.edu/thales/

iii) Demetriou A. And Kazi (2001)

iv) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-awareness

v) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/10/10/are-you-the-same-person-you-used-to-be-life-is-hard-the-origins-of-you?



Aizaz Baqir

I am a freelance writer and translator based in Multan, Pakistan having interests in reading, writing, travelling and social services.