How to Accept the Unknown “Self”

“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us.  To live is to be slowly born.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Is it really possible to ever completely know ourselves?  For many of us, we sometimes think, feel, or behave in ways that “don’t seem like us.”  What does this really mean?  Surely, it is us, right?  Without the presupposition that self-reflection was a worthwhile endeavor, much of philosophy and psychology would never have blossomed.  If people throughout history had not spent their lives on quests to understand their true natures, many great ideas and works would never have been known.  For many, analysis of the self can be a tortuous affair.  Just as we think we have “it” figured out, we go and do something that seems “out of character.”  Where do these surprising thoughts, feelings, and behaviors come from if not from some deep unknown part of the self?

According to psychoanalyst Dr. Ken Eisold, “It is all too easy to discard information that will cause acute emotional discomfort.”  We work hard (whether we are aware of it or not) to protect ourselves from undesirable knowledge about ourselves.  Whatever the “self” is, it doesn’t like to feel threatened.  Some psychologists would call this aspect of self the ego.  The ego works hard to balance different aspects of the self: the part the wants to do the “right” thing (i.e., our conscience or superego) and the part that wants what it wants now (i.e. our impulsive nature or id).  I believe it’s important not to get put off by these terms on first glance if their psychoanalytic origins are unpleasant for you.  There is much value in what these terms are trying to tell us about different parts of ourselves.

If the self is in this constant juggling act of trying to balance our urgent impulses with our conscience, how can we make peace with this?  If it is really true that there are large parts of ourselves that remain hidden and unknown to our conscious awareness, how can we ever feel that we “know ourselves?”

Ways to Accept Unknown Parts of Yourself

A recent article on PsyBlog suggests the following strategies to make peace with an essentially unknowable mind:

1. Recognize that the mind makes up fantastical stories to try to explain itself.  These stories are not always true.

2. Introspection cannot always allow you to know what you really think or who you really are.

3. Excessive introspection can lead to rumination or depressive thoughts, which are more damaging than they are productive.

4. Try reframing the way you think about not being able to fully know the self.  Allow this to be liberating and freeing.

5. If the idea of not being able to fully know the self is excessively frustrating, begin to focus more on being mindful of your thoughts and behavior.

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Eisold, K. (2011, February 23). Unknown knowns [Web log message]. Retrieved from

Featured image: meditation by AlicePopkorn / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

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