HOW TO “KNOW THYSELF” Is an Ancient Greek Maxim the Ultimate Self-Help Advice?

Disclaimer: This article is an overview of a complex topic. Readers wishing to explore further are advised to check out the video and reading recommendations at the bottom of this page. 

WHAT: How To Know Thyself

“How to know thyself” is a question Homo Sapiens have been asking since they acquired the ability to self-reflect. Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? What is the meaning of life? Surface answers usually pertain not to who we are, but which roles we play on life’s stage. I am a father, mother, husband, employee, friend. We slap similar labels on others within moments of meeting them. Meanwhile, the person that stares back at us from the mirror remains an enigma.

Knowing thyself isn’t taught in schools, or in social settings. As a result, many of us spend our entire lives taking our marching orders from decades worth of stale information and outdated emotions. We stumble through life blind and befuddled as to who we are, what we want, or how to get there. Eventually, we become products of our environment; leaves that get blown around by cultural conditioning and societal programming until they touch down in a puddle and remain forever stuck.

Ancient Greek philosophers identified this inability to self-reflect as one of the most significant stumbling blocks a human could meet on their path to personal development. In response, they coined the  phrase “gnōthi seauton.” or ‘know thyself.’  They acknowledged that arriving at any personal philosophy to guide us through life’s peaks and troughs is a challenge. However, they also knew that the rewards of this introspective journey towards knowing thyself can be immense.

When it comes to “knowing thyself,” modern psychologists and ancient Greek philosophers are on the same page. At its most basic, it begins with voluntary exposure to the holes in one’s character. After appearing into one’s personal abyss,  ideas regarding how to fill the gaps in one’s character begin appearing. After doing the personal development work outlined therein,  the fragmented self becomes a cohesive, functional whole. Or that’s the idea. In practice, it demands an honest, exhaustive, brass tacks audit of one’s strengths, weaknesses, experiences, and desires. You’ll also need to develop an appetite for humble pie.

woman knowing her removing mask to reveal butterflies
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There’s more than one path to know thyself. The shorter road involves psychedelics. The longer road involves psychotherapy. Then, there’s the third, arguably more effective way that requires you to leave neither your head nor your home.

First up, you’ll need to summon a little courage, particularly when you realize that knowing yourself requires sacrificing the illusion that you already do. Beyond that, the only tools you need are peace, quiet, and a pen and paper.

Become the Author of Your Own Life Story

The psychological, emotional, and cognitive benefits of expressing oneself through writing have been known about since forever ago. Once down on paper, our written reflections act as a ‘magic mirror,’ reflecting back how our emotions and experiences interconnect to shape our personality, behavior, actions, and reactions.

Each time we put pen to paper is a new beginning. Under the bright heat of self-examination, we can explore our subconscious, and discover and change habits. To get to know thyself through writing allows us to deconstruct and reconstruct ourselves. Ultimately, it’s about granting ourselves the permission and confidence to claim ownership of a new reality.

know thyself through writing
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Begin with a frank written examination of the events that shaped you.

  • What are my biggest regrets?
  • Which personal foibles keep me from reaching my true potential?
  • Why do I what I do?
  • Why do I react the way I react?
  • What incidents in my past shaped my current behavior?
  • What scares me, and why?
  • Why do I sabotage myself?

Upon articulating these questions via the written word, the answers may come quicker than you’d expect. Once you understand how specific feelings tie directly back to, say, a childhood incident, the resulting cognitive grasp allows you to resolve the incident and move on. Remembering, articulating, and analyzing pivotal positive and negative life experiences helps us rectify our character flaws, define our strengths, and develop, and implement a plan to engage life head-on. Essentially, the mental material you are searching for is precisely the same content that professional therapists are paid thousands to uncover.

With your past put to rest, it’s time to ask where you see yourself in the following months and years. Think about:

  • What is the engine that fires me up in the morning?
  • How can I learn to respect myself more?
  • How can I create a life of health, happiness, and abundance?
  • What does my happy place look like?
  • What stands between you and it?

Points to Consider Along the Way:  

The quest to know thyself is a never-ending journey. Remember that answers vary according to the scenario, and will change depending on what stage of life you’re in. Remember that different versions of yourself exist at different times. Each of these is an overlapping, ever-changing assemblage of competing interpretations, motivations, and traits. Once you understand this you’ll see that the quality of the introspective journey is more important than some imagined finish line.

To “Know thyself,” said Aristotle “is the beginning of all wisdom.” He made no mention of the end, which underscores the point that true introspection isn’t a destination or a weekend wellness retreat. It is a lifelong endeavor. If guidance is needed, go online and search for the self-authoring course devised by psychologist Jordan Peterson.


Any setting that encourages contemplative thought, inner reflection, and expressive writing.


Resolving to know thyself can be a sharp, painful journey. Feelings of dread, particularly when setting out, are not uncommon. In the short term, looking into one’s own personal abyss has been known to cause depression, particularly when the abyss starts talking back at you. Psychologists would say the very fact there is an ‘abyss’ indicates you remain weighed down by past events, and that recalling and writing your way through them will help. The exception to this rule applies to those suffering very recent trauma that they have not had time to process. In the immediate aftermath of an awful event, deliberate attempts to remember it may cause more harm than good.


According to Plato, Aristotle, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and others, the quest to know thyself is the most rewarding and valuable journey any human can take. To those who do, the maxim that ‘the world is your oyster’ isn’t some platitude. It’s their daily meal.


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