Someone asked me the other day if I thought that we really ‘know ourselves’. The surface answer to this question, I thought, is yes. Do you know what your favourite colour is? What you like and dislike? What you value and what you avoid? What you want out of life, for you and your family? If you’ve ever given any thought to these things, then yes, you can safely say you know yourself.

However, there is a deeper level to this: a level where the answer to this question is quite possibly no.

I was reminded of the book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by me)”, by Tavris and Aronson, which was an insightful reminder about how we come to shape our own perceptions about who we are. If you’ve read any of the theory and research in the fields of cognitive dissonance and human memory (the main topics in “Mistakes Were Made…”), or narrative therapy and Gestalt psychology, you’ll know that this process is done largely through fallible processes.

If you’re not familiar with these areas, the crux is this: memory is highly prone to error, we as humans always want to put vague, disjointed pieces together to form a logical whole (i.e., we “fill in the blanks”), we justify our actions by reconfiguring our perception of an actual event or its outcomes, and we ultimately believe the stories we create for our own lives – accurate or not.

For years when I was a kid I believed that my older sister had a pet gorilla (where this belief came from, I have no idea). I was able to eventually discount this belief, of course, because of its absurdity. But my memories of this gorilla to this day still seem so real. So what about our memories and life stories that are more feasible than that: the ones that don’t include a 400-pound pet? They may be wrong too – we just don’t question them.

So what does this mean? Well, frankly, it means that we may not actually have had many of the experiences we remember; that our personal history and relationships didn’t likely go down exactly the way we think they did; and that on some level we may not even really be who we think we are! Kind of scary, isn’t it?

The point of this article is to remind and encourage us to look at those things that shaped our lives, relationships, and leadership styles – those specific events, the decisions we made, the conversations we had – and challenge them. Does it all really fit into that neat little package we envision, or were things really perhaps a little more unpredictable, messy, or chaotic than we care to remember?

Thinking about this, even if it stays rhetorical, can help to remind us that we’re all human: we’re all prone to mistakes and misperceptions, and we’re all really quite vulnerable in the big bad scheme of things. We try to do the best we can with what we’ve got – even if it means unintentionally skewing reality to protect our sense of control in this unknowable universe. We need to remind ourselves to think critically, admit our fallibility and develop our empathy – and be gentle with ourselves and others along the way.

Author's Bio: 

Chris Hammer, Ph.D. is a certified professional coach and licensed psychologist. He offers leadership and life coaching services, as well as various self-development tools for people who are passionate about reaching higher levels of success and becoming the best they can be.

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