Previously we explained how ignorance of our own personalities can impede our personal growth and relationships. Blind spots to self-knowledge, or what I’m calling ‘self-blindness,’ is so common it seems basic to the human condition. How can we overcome it? First, we can indicate barriers to self-knowledge, and second, practicing mindfulness may help us gain self-knowledge.
Those familiar with Buddhism might be confused with the idea of getting ‘self-knowledge’ through ‘mindfulness.’ There are Eastern traditions that consider mindfulness part of the path to realizing there is no permanent, individual self to know. However, for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume we have personalities capable of knowing. Let’s assume you and I each have tendencies of mental states and behaviors that don’t change drastically day-to-day without a distinct cause.
According to self-perception theory, people come to know themselves by observing their states and behaviors during given situations over extended periods of time. For instance, remembering my prior reactions to being near steep drops, I can guess that if I’m standing near a gorge or on a precarious bridge, I’ll feel uneasy. I also know if I’ve had two beers, I’m likely to speak louder than if I were completely sober. Self-blindness occurs when there is insufficient information of the personality or when the information available is incorrectly understood. Psychologist Simine Vazire’s work (2010) offers two barriers to self-knowledge: informational barriers and motivational barriers.
Informational barriers are those caused by lack of information or lack of quality information. For example, we can’t access other people’s internal states, so we don’t have knowledge of other people’s states to compare our own to. Maybe Sally thinks she’s extremely neurotic but if she could compare her thoughts with those around her, she’d realize she’s average in that regard.
Also, some things about our personalities aren’t obvious to our consciousness. We aren’t always aware of the nonverbal cues we give others, since we can’t see ourselves from a third-person perspective. Have you been surprised by the sound of your voice in a recording? You probably have habits of speaking which you could control if you were aware them. Lastly, it’s difficult to access objective information about ourselves. We can record ourselves on video or take tests that measure abilities against chosen standards, but we often lack unbiased evidence of our personalities.
Even if we are overtly offered information about ourselves, there’s no guarantee we will absorb any of it. Motivational barriers to self-knowledge occur when information of personality is available to someone, but that person unconsciously rejects it. This is perhaps due to ego-protecting desires, as we talked about in the case of narcissists. Some people—I’m guessing most of us—tolerate themselves by creating idealized self-images. Also, people tend to discount information that is far from what they expect. (Carlson, 2013) People with chronic self-doubt think to themselves, “She’s just being nice,” when receiving an honest compliment. Motivational barriers refer to the motivation to either self-enhance (support an idealized self-image) or self-verify (preserve one’s current self-image).
Psychologist Erika Carlson (2013) explores the theory that mindfulness can combat informational and motivational barriers to self-knowledge. To be mindful means to pay attention to one’s present experience without evaluating or elaborating on it. You can contrast mindfulness with introspection, which is often evaluative and elaborative. While introspection involves focusing ‘inward’ like mindfulness does, it can involve fabricating a narrative rather than just experiencing the self. “I must be sad, because…” Mindfulness involves observing one’s experience in an unbiased manner.
By being mindful—observing yourself in an unbiased and nonelaborative way—you can counteract informational barriers and motivational barriers to self-knowledge. By paying attention to your thoughts and behaviors as they occur, you should receive more information about your personality. By being nonevaluative, you should obviate any motivation to self-enhance, self-verify or otherwise distort the evidence you receive.
Carlson, E. (2013) Overcoming the Barriers to Self-Knowledge: Mindfulness as a Path to Seeing Yourself as You Really Are. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(2) 173–186.
Vazire, S., Mehl, M. R., & Carlson, E. (2010) Shining a light on the blind spots in self-perception. Talk presented at the 15th European Conference on Personality, Brno, Czech Republic.