New Methods #1 - Know Thyself one...

Do your character traits and beliefs represent your true self, or are you simply feeding into the narrative you were assigned at birth?

By Sharmadean Reid

5 January 2024

You may already have an idea of who you are. Or it may seem like too vast a question to address, but it’s likely that the version of you that exists right now, is the one that your society, your upbringing, and your close community has impressed upon you.

According to legend, 'Know Thyself', or Nosce te Ispum, was carved into stone at the entrance to Apollo's temple at Delphi in Greece. Scholars, philosophers, and civilizations have debated who the phrase was first attributed to but regardless of its origin, I believe that knowing who you truly are is the critical foundation of knowing what you want.

“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”― Socrates

Even before you were born, there was a narrative waiting for you. Your parents may have told you of their excitement before you arrived. They had high hopes for you. Of what you might represent to the family. They had a vision of you before your very existence. Your mother may have shared what you were like in the womb, interpreting every movement, kick, and turn of your foetal mass as a formation of your personality.

“She’s so active.”

“She loves this music.”

“She’s a night owl.”

“She likes it when I eat carrots.”

When you're born it continues with fervour. Compounded by the echo of wider family and friends.

“She’s very tired.”

“She wants that.”

“She doesn’t like that.”

“She loves the colour purple.”

The first way you begin to make sense of yourself is the stimulus you receive from your family as a baby. I remember on the day my son, Roman, was born, I proclaimed him to be wonderfully observant. Imagine that! I didn’t even have ten minute’s worth of data from him yet. He was a brand new human being, and I had already assigned a personality trait to him. I believed he was observant simply because he looked right at me with his big brown eyes, then he looked at his father and back to me again. The reality is, that at the time of birth, a typical newborn's eyesight is weak; the best they can see is blurry shapes. He wasn’t showing observance - he was simply focusing on the only movement in front of him. He had no idea of who or what I was.

Sometimes this story about ourselves can be negative. Such as if you were told you weren’t wanted or that you were unplanned. Or even that you were a “miracle baby.” (Imagine the pressure of that responsibility!) If you were estranged, abandoned or separated from your caregivers, as I was, the story deep in your subconscious, may be a hurtful one: that you were defective, not good enough, not wanted. I’ll be exploring these negative stories later on, but let’s go back to the knowing of your true self.

When we embody the character traits people think we have - such as Roman and his observance - we receive praise for it, along with a healthy hit of dopamine (our feel-good hormones) and we crave more of that encouragement. Roman could barely see, but the exclamation in my voice, the soft cooing, the positive reinforcement, meant that I encouraged him to develop this trait of “being observant” over the years. Now he notices everything. Nature or nurture? We can never really know because we get stuck in this cycle. We think to ourselves consciously or otherwise: “I'm {insert character trait here}. How can I bring it to the forefront and get more of that juicy positive reinforcement?” We develop this habit, without ever questioning whether the trait actually represents us or not.

Then in childhood, we are constantly tested against societal checkboxes through various grading systems. School reports telling us about ourselves. “Sharmadean can often be overenthusiastic.” “Sharmadean knows what she wants and how she intends to achieve it.” “Sharmadean now has a less selfish approach to group situations.” Grades herding us into pens, closing the gate and deciding that one facet of our personality - or whether or not we know Pythagoras Theorem - warrants a label for our entire being.

"Are you still looking for acceptance, measuring yourself against a system forced onto you by your surroundings?"

As adults, we’re no longer validated by grades but these formative years have already done their work. They’ve told us who we are. Psychologist Jane Loevinger argues in Measuring Ego Development that it’s not until around 25-years-old that we start to turn inward, become more self-aware, and think about what we inherently do and don’t like, as opposed to what society has told us we should like. When you look internally, is a pat on the back for that grade really what you want? Are you still looking for acceptance, measuring yourself against a system forced onto you by your surroundings?

Who we are isn’t discovered by simply following the patterns of our environment or by following the arc we were put on in school. Instead of testing yourself against society, now is the time to define what it is that truly makes you, you.

The New Method of Know Thyself aims to peel back your layers and analyse whether your assigned character traits and beliefs represent your true self, or if you’re simply feeding into the narrative you were assigned at birth.

Start to ask yourself “When did this become me?” When you discover a trait, whose origins you are unsure of, try to get to the root of it. Take the trait you want to evaluate and start playing with it, pulling it apart like playdough and turning it over in your mind. Who decided who you were? When was this decided? What is the evidence you have that you have to prove who you are? Is it still relevant today?

Sometimes it’s easier to keep travelling down a designated road than it is to turn back and have a go at writing your own map, but to me, that is like sleepwalking through life.. If you’ve been unconscious about your true self, now is the time to wake up.

Wake Up by Using the 5 Whys

There’s something powerful about asking why. In setting aside your judgement and bringing forward your curiosity. When you want to challenge something, drill down to the root of the matter by asking "why?" five times. It’s so simple but you will discover how something came to be. The ‘5 Whys’ technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies. It is a critical component of problem-solving training, delivered as part of the induction into the Toyota Production System. Toyota developed several manufacturing techniques after World War II that are interesting to research; I get a kick out of applying business frameworks to the self. Why should corporations alone get the value of self-reflection and analysis?

Here is how you can apply The Five Whys to move closer towards Knowing Thyself.

An example of a character trait : ‘Sharmadean is competitive and anxious to succeed.’


Winning is important. - Why is winning important?

I need the reward - Why do you need the reward?

Rewards (especially financial) are the only way I’ll get ahead in life - Why are the rewards the only way you’ll get ahead in life?

Because I can only rely on myself. - Why can you only rely on yourself?

I don’t come from a wealthy family. - Fifth Why - The Root Cause.

Thus you see the root cause of financial insecurity has shown up in my personality as being competitive and anxious to succeed. But why am I holding onto this? Now that I have created financial security for myself, do I still need to be competitive? As an adult with a home and a career, do I still need to hold onto the fear of only being able to rely on myself?

There’s a great fable for this. There was a woman who would cut the ends off a ham before cooking it every Sunday. She didn’t know why she did it, though. As it was her mum that taught her, she asked her instead: “I’ve always done it this way. Your grandma taught me.” So they both went to ask grandma why she did it. After questioning, the response was, “I’ve always done it this way. Your great-grandma taught me.” But why? “Well she had to - it wouldn’t fit in the tray, otherwise!”

This story demonstrates just how easily we can reinforce actions that no longer serve us. The fact is that you are your own woman and you can just get a bigger tray.

The Five Whys model is a useful reminder to pause, unpack, and reflect, giving you a chance to recognise and reprogramme behaviours that aren’t authentically you. Although it’s worth being aware that criticism of this model points out that it relies on the investigator's knowledge of the situation. So in short, you need to gather more evidence before you feel comfortable with your whys. But in a classic case of chicken and egg, your traits might be self-fulfilling impostions, and may direct the way you gather and assess evidence. Don’t get too bogged down in what’s right and wrong. Remember, we don’t believe in that. Just work on gathering as many data points from a variety of sources as possible. Start with the Five Whys, use personality tests, natal charts, art. Experiment with what brings forward your character and then ask yourself - is this real?

When I first started doing this work on myself, the work you are now holding in your hands, I found it challenging to say the least. The work of understanding yourself shakes your identity to it’s very core. I spent weeks, maybe months in a daze. I started to question everything I had ever done in life, and why. My whole reason for existing started to fall apart. Why had I been so desperate to be successful all my life? For a pat on the head from the invisible hand of my absent father? And the patriarchal society that represented him? If I wasn’t working for the pat on the head, who was I working for? Were the drivers for my success pure and true?

The walls of my internal house started to crumble. I was terrified I would just fade away into nothing. But it was at that delicious point that I started to build the house of my mind back up, brick by brick, with intention and purpose. This time, using my own design.

Action points:

Take some time to recognise the external factors and predetermined narratives that have influenced your behaviours, beliefs, and sense of self up to this day.

Continually question your understanding of yourself, asking “why?” to uncover who you truly are, what you like/dislike, and what external expectations no longer serve you.

Explore all the different ways to gather more insight and data points on yourself. Whether you’re more into astrology or prefer the scientific aspect of personality testing, I implore you to research yourself extensively.

New Methods for Women is a series of self development essays to help you step into your power. The Stack World Members can access a weekly discussion group on this essay. Every Monday at 7pm GMT.

The Short Stack

How to harness the power of Why to reflect on, recognise and re-programme behaviours that aren’t authentically you.

By Sharmadean Reid

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