Zach and I are in month three of Our Happiness Project (we're following along with Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project) and this chapter is all about aiming higher at work. In addition to our monthly recaps, each month I also like to share one tip or piece of information that really sticks out to me and has helped to either change a habit or perspective in regards to improving happiness. For me this month that was reading about the importance of self-knowledge over self-esteem. I have been working on my own personal theory about this for a while and was just talking about it with my sister last month, so reading it from Rubin with expert wisdom to back it up was like a giant "Hallelujah!"
Throughout The Happiness Project, there are regular references to Rubin's Twelve Commandments of Happiness and right at the top of the list is "Be Gretchen." Not to be the best, or smartest, or fastest at anything, but just to be herself. To be perfectly honest, in the past I have sometimes fought with the concept to just "Be Ashley." I grew up the middle child, and as all you middle's know, you're basically born into a role of mediator, appeaser, and overall compromiser. Being agreeable becomes sort of a survival skill for yourself as well as a necessity in a larger family to avoid constant chaos. Anyway, because of this I was often considered "the shy one" or "the nice one," and neither of those categorizations made me feel particularly great. It's not because those qualities are inherently good or bad- in fact I love Zach for being both shy and nice- I just didn't really feel like they described me very well. Though I do tend to be pretty reserved and don't require much attention, I'm actually quite outgoing. And while I like to consider myself thoughtful and caring, "nice" isn't really horribly accurate either. To me it implies someone who is sweetly modest, but I'm a bit of a rule-breaker. I'm also sarcastic, opinionated, and very direct, so there's a bit of disconnect with that term as well. These are small problems in the grand scheme of the world, but still, I felt like I wasn't completely being seen for who I am. It was kind of a 2-D representation of myself.
As a teen I totally rebelled against those inherited personas. I worked really hard to prove people's ideas about me wrong. I became the life of the party, I tried to act fearlessly, and decided I was unaffected by the cares or concerns of people around me. I dressed loudly, lived loudly, and basically wanted to be anything other than "nice" and "shy." From an outside perspective I may have seemed confident, and in some ways I was, but I wasn't very authentic or self-knowing or even whole.
Here's the point where you might be thinking, "Who cares? Every teen feels like they don't know who they are." And I get that. But the problem is, a lot of us carry that into adulthood. As referenced in the book, Erasmus observed, "The summit of happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is." Simple as that. However, our society is so invested in social extroversion or status masked as self-esteem that some of us go through our entire lives under a veil of false self-esteem without really understanding the depths of who we are, without ever really reaching authenticity or happiness.
Self-esteem is a result of self-judgment. It is literally a self-estimation, an appraisal, of our personality traits against a perceived standard of value. Because of this, self-esteem is conditional and unstable. If we meet a certain condition of worth, we have self-esteem. If we don't, we have a lack of self-esteem. According to Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D. for Psych Central, "This dichotomous, dualistic, conditional view of self cuts us apart and fragments our wholeness." Self-esteem is conditional and always changing. If I get a promotion, my self-esteem will soar; however, if I get laid off, my self-esteem will plummet, even though I remain the same person.
Self-knowledge is different because it is unconditional. Where self-esteem is measured through comparison of others, constant evaluation of oneself, and other always changing variables, self-knowledge is the acceptance of who you are at any given time. It is an acknowledgment of the reality that you are a full person, with strengths and weaknesses, living a life that is in progress. Your evaluation of worth, therefore, is circumstance-free.
Why does any of this matter? Well if you want to be happy in work and in life, you have to understand who you are and what you're meant to be, perceived flaws and all. Not who you wish you were or who you think you should be, but who you actually are. For me this means accepting everything I am as much as the things I am not. I am empathetic, though I am not very sentimental. I am driven and adventurous, but I am also a worrier and I don't care for the outdoors. I am funny and friendly, but I'm definitely not one of those people who is just naturally charming or always "on." I love books, art museums, thrift shopping, and "bad" tv. I have realized that I really don't like politics or sports all that much and I'm much too picky to ever be a foodie.
I spent a lot of time and effort throughout my 20s to get to a place of understanding who I am. I sought counseling in college when I couldn't pick a career path. I loved going to my counselor, where I was given tasks like creating a mood board about who I am and what makes me happy. I was also given the task of asking five people close to me to assess my biggest strengths and weaknesses. That exercise was a little unnerving but also eye-opening and informative. If you, like I was, are in a place where you would like to seek more self-knowledge, here are a few places I would recommend starting.
1. Seek Out Feedback (and Listen)
Much like the strengths and weaknesses task above, understanding how you are perceived is a powerful step towards understanding who you are. Asking people you trust questions like, "Could I have handled that situation differently?" or "How do you think I could improve in this area?" can shed some light on how people view you. When doing this, be prepared to be surprised and potentially hurt, but try not to be defensive. If you can take this criticism productively, you can help remove limits that may hold you back in the future. That being said, we are talking about judgments made based on the value system of others, so some thoughts should be taken with a grain of salt. For instance, if someone thinks I'm insecure because I don't like taking photos, that doesn't necessarily make it true. I'm just simply not great at it, so it's not my favorite activity. However, I can choose to look at that as something that I need to work on so that I don't appear insecure to others who might have an influence on my career and potentially miss an opportunity in the future.
2. Seek Out Personality Assessments
While I don't think taking Buzzfeed's "Which Dead 'Game of Thrones' Character Are You?" quiz is going to give you any information actually useful to life, there are several online tests that are worth looking into for gaining self-knowledge. The acclaimed Myers-Briggs test is my favorite because it gives very detailed, and in my opinion very accurate, information into how to most effectively use your personality type in the world. The official test can be pricey ($50-$100), but there are lots of free abridged options online. Other free tests that I like are the Princeton Review Career Quiz, the RHETI tool based on the Enneagram concept, and the Keirsey Temperment Sorter (which, by the way, told me I am driven by a quest for self-knowledge- ha!).
3. Test Your Limits
Once relationships are established, human beings are very adept at morphing their behaviors to fit the situation. This is an important social skill, but like my middle child story above, adaptation can cause us to lose sight of who we are at the core. It can be as elaborate as solo overseas travel or as simple as training for a 5K. Anything that pushes your limits, mentally or physically, will help you to realize that your boundaries aren't fixed but temporary, and that your situation does not encompass the sum of your being.
Finally, I just want to state that increasing self-knowledge is not about changing who you are. If you're becoming increasingly aware that a personal blind spot may be causing you to make bad decisions, feel depressed, etc., that's a good signal that it is in fact time for a change. But for the most part, it's more about making realizations or shifts in perspective that allow you to be more understanding and accepting of yourself so that you can have true confidence. As always, I hope this offered some insight into the things I study and work on in my own life, but please know I am coming to you as a continuing work in progress. I don't presume to have it all figured out, these are simply some of the methods that have helped me to make progress. If you have any other input in ways that you've increased your self-knowledge I'd love to hear them in the comments!