Beyond Self-Awareness: Self-Development

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Developing a solid sense of who you want to be and how to get yourself there takes something more than insight about who you already are or how you came to be that way.

Some time ago, a person I’d worked with on character development issues asked me a question — actually, a set of closely related questions — that I’ve been asked hundreds of times over the years. The inquiry went something like this:

  • Why do I do these things I do?
  • How did I get to be the way I am?
  • Is it just the way I’m “wired”?
  • Is it all the way I was brought up?
  • What am I all about, anyway, and can I ever really know?

Many folks, especially bright, caring, conscientious, and insight-craving folks seem particularly eager to understand. They want to understand themselves, how other people see them, and especially, the things that shaped them into the person they are. (They’re equally inclined to want to understand the same things about others, especially the “significant others” in their lives.) While helping folks to gain insight and awareness certainly has its rewards, there’s an even more vexing question — actually, a two-part, deeply interconnected question — that I always like to ask as a follow-up to the proverbial “Who am I?” And most of the time, when I ask it, even my most insight craving clients will appear both taken aback and challenged. That question goes something like: “Who do you want to be?” and, perhaps even more importantly: “How willing are you to take on the burden of forging a stronger, healthier, more respect-worthy version of yourself?” Knowing who you are and what made you that way is one thing, but having a solid sense of who you want to be and how to get yourself there — well, that’s quite another.

In my book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], I define the process of character-building as “the lifelong process” by which we develop the capacities to live responsibly among others, to do productive work, and, above all, to love. And I summarize my perspective on how all this is typically accomplished in this way:

Even though a person may begin life as a prisoner of his or her natural endowments and the circumstances under which he or she was raised, one cannot remain a “victim” of environmental circumstances forever. Eventually, everyone must come to terms with him or herself. To know oneself, to fairly judge one’s strengths and weaknesses, and to attain full mastery over one’s instincts and inclinations are among life’s greatest challenges. Ultimately, anyone’s rise to a life of integrity and merit can only come about as the result of a full self-awakening. One must come to know oneself as well as others without deceit or denial. One must honestly face and reckon with all aspects of one’s character. Only then can one freely take on the burden of disciplining oneself for one’s own sake as well as for the sake of others. It’s the free choice to take up this burden or “cross” that defines genuine love. And it’s the willingness and commitment of a person to carry this particular cross freely and faithfully even unto death that opens the door to a higher plane of existence.

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When I was young and naive in my clinical work I found myself feeling particularly impressed after helping a person come to some important insights, especially insights about themselves. We were a proud team, my clients and me — always looking for that proverbial “ah ha,” moment, and relishing in those moments when we seized them. But it wasn’t long before I came to realize the relative second class status of insight when it comes to the process of self development and the preeminence of commitment. Taking on the burden to do better and to be better — that’s where one’s personal “salvation” really is. (I give several examples of this in The Judas Syndrome [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].)

I’ve written before about what’s really involved in personal change and growth and why insight itself is never enough (see, for example, “The Work of Change: Why Insight is Never Enough”). But words on the subject are by no means as powerful as a living example, so I thought I’d share one, with details altered to preserve anonymity.

A middle aged woman and girls’ soccer coach told me of an encounter she had with a 15-year-old student at a community event. The student was failing in several classes and was at risk of eventually dropping out, yet held high but unrealistic hopes that she would eventually secure a college sports scholarship and go on to become a professional soccer player. The woman tried to convince the girl how important it was to apply herself academically, but the youngster acted as though she knew better. What struck this woman more than the arrogance of youth she was witnessing was the complete lack of awareness the young girl displayed about the extent of her grandiosity and the unrealistic nature of her outlook on things. She also knew that the intensity of the reaction she had to the girl’s attitude was largely due to the fact that she herself had always struggled with the same issue. It riled her to think that she may have ever come across to others as being as arrogant and self deceitful as the young woman who was clearly touching a nerve in her. It was because of this that she re-affirmed her commitment to the new path she had embarked upon some time ago. “I’m determined not to be that person,” she proclaimed. “I know I have a tendency to be pretty cocky myself and I’m going to keep my eye on it and when I catch it, I’m going to do my best to keep it in check. I know I have to, for my own sake. It’s not just that I don’t want others to see me that way, I don’t want to be that way myself anymore, so I’m going to keep working on it. I always want to be confident, but I know what’s happened before when my head got bent too far out of shape and I’m not going back there.” Now, without a lot of insight, there’s no way this wonderful woman could have come to this place in her life. So by no means am I denigrating the value of insight. But in the end it’s not this woman’s insight but her commitment that will take her where she wants to go. That’s is why, as I illustrate through several examples in Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], when it come to the issue of character change, willingness and commitment trump insight and awareness every time.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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