Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living” whilst Aristotle thought that “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom“.
People often ask me why it is so important to know ourselves and why the self-development world insists so much on the value of learning to know the inside – and specially the dark places – of our psyche. Can’t we live happily in ignorance?
I use a lot of T.A (transactional analysis) in my clinical work, and when using that theoretical frame to examine my client’s struggle, I often find the journey of self-discovery being an essential part of solving their issues.
When people struggle in their communications and interactions with others, in T.A terms it is often the reflection of slipping back into the inappropriate ego-state. Let me explain.
According the the T.A philosophy, we constantly hold in our psyche our inner child – the part of us that still responds in the same way we used to do as children ; our inner parent – the internalised and unquestioned voice and beliefs we absorbed from our parents in early years ; and our inner adult, the empowered part of us who responds appropriately to external events.
I have noticed in myself and in my clients, that when conflictual situations arise between people, it is often a sign that we’ve slipped into our inner child or inner parent and stop responding to each other from our most resourceful state: the Adult.
So for example, when I missed my meeting yesterday and felt hugely guilty, profusely apologising and undermining myself, I was responding from my inner child. When my colleague responded with disdain and was judgmental, they operated from their inner parent – and especially the critical part of them.
When my client’s partner was too busy for them and neglected their needs and my client started to sulk and give them the silent treatment, they were reacting from their inner child. And when their partner responded by saying “Oh come on, don’t be such a child!” they were obviously stepping into their inner parent.
The best way to communicate – and by best I mean the most efficient and productive, is from our inner Adult. Being able to analyse the data with all our knowledge and resources, being able to step back and respond rationally and appropriately is definitively a characteristic of our empowered self. I’m sure you’ve noticed in the past that this kind of attitude was always more fruitful in addressing difficult situations than criticism or helpless reactions.
And that’s when I think of Socrates. We have learnt those parent and child responses very early on, and spent decades practicing them with those around us. I don’t know about you, but most of the time I’m not even aware of which ego-state – to use T.A jargon – I’m in. And in hindsight, I always recognise it would have been much more effective to respond differently. In hindsight. Does that resonate? Have you also found yourself in situations where afterwards you’ve thought “oh, I should have said/done this?”
So how can we respond in the best possible way in the moment rather than in hindsight?
One of the best way I’ve found is to be able to step into the adult. But in order to do this, we need to first recognise when we are not in the adult. And that’s when Socrates becomes handy: we need to know ourselves so well that we are able to switch states immediately.
Learning to spot our inner child’s responses and feelings, or identify which parts of us are coming from those unexamined beliefs we took from our parents seems to be the way forward. Because the minute you identify those patterns you’re already on your way back to the Adult. And then you can hold back and not react, and instead ask yourself “How would the Adult respond to that?” as well as identifying what unmet needs or open wounds have been triggered in you.
There are various different techniques you can then apply to take care of those unfinished business from the past, but at least you’ve interrupted and started to change the patterns. This is the first step towards Adulthood mastery 🙂
As for unmet needs and wounds, a therapist or a coach can help identify them or create various strategies to address them. I’m a big advocate of nurturing your inner child once you’ve identified the pain. But also knowing your needs and values could be a good starting point.
If you’re interested in exploring this further, I’d be delighted to have a chat with you. In the meantime, enjoy Socrates’s advice “know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves”