Life is constantly in flux; our environment and “self” change continually.
Self-exploration helps us make sense of who we are, where we are, and how we fit into the situation in which we find ourselves (Bench et al., 2015).
Knowing ourselves is often difficult. We either lack the motivation to make the effort or fail to access the thoughts and feelings that offer valuable insight into our existence (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
This article introduces several tools, questions, and activities to help individuals and clients on their quest for self-knowledge.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself and give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
The quest for self-knowledge has been a long one. The roots of self-exploration can be found in the Ancient Greeks, the meditative Eastern philosophies of Taoism and Buddhism, and modern psychology (Iacovou & Weixel-Dixon, 2015).
Self-exploration, self-knowledge, and self-discovery are closely related concepts within psychology that point to our need to evaluate and make sense of our “self” and our relationship to others and our environment (Bench et al., 2015).
Modern psychologists describe such self-awareness as metacognition — the ability to think about our thinking and turn our thoughts on ourselves. Self-exploration is the process of getting to know our mind, and it is something that is an intrinsic part of the human experience (Fleming, 2021).
According to psychology, the process of self-exploration has many benefits, including the following (Dweck, 2017; Fleming, 2021; Bench et al., 2015; Iacovou & Weixel-Dixon, 2015; Niemiec & McGrath, 2019; Brown, 2015):
Improved awareness of our thoughts, beliefs, values, and behaviors
Better understanding of our inner landscape, helping us identify and use our strengths
Heightened self-awareness that facilitates personal growth as we confront our limitations, fears, and unresolved issues
Enhanced decision-making, when we become clearer and surer of our values, priorities, and aspirations, helping us set goals that create our desired transformations
Improved relationships, allowing us to connect and maintain bonds that meet our needs, desires, and communication styles
Becoming better at managing stress and coping with challenges, allowing us to recognize and prepare for what triggers us and identify learnings from the difficulties overcome
Being less judgmental, which by knowing and accepting our strengths and weaknesses, enhances our self-esteem and overall psychological wellbeing, allowing us to be more accepting of others
Discovering our authentic selves and being vulnerable while able to pursue more fulfilling lives and a deeper connection with ourselves
Self-knowledge — the product of self-exploration — increases confidence in who we are, allowing us to make decisions more easily while being adaptive and ready for change (Fleming, 2021).
The Self-Exploration Process: 4 Examples
There is no single process for self-exploration.
Instead, self-knowledge and self-awareness can be gained by combining several different approaches.
By cultivating a nonevaluative, nonjudgmental awareness of our experiences, we can observe the continuous stream of mental phenomena as they arise (Shapiro, 2020).
This metacognitive monitoring involves curiosity, acceptance, and openness. Rather than analyzing or interpreting, we simply observe our thoughts and emotions as they emerge without getting caught up in rumination or elaboration. Mindfulness allows for deep self-exploration and a heightened understanding of oneself (Khazan, 2019; Fleming, 2021).
Intuition offers another approach to self-exploration and increasing self-knowledge (Fleming, 2021).
By honing our intuition — when we arrive at knowledge without relying on reason or inference — we engage in the process of self-exploration, where we tap into our inner wisdom and innate “knowing” (Epstein, 2010).
In doing so, we cultivate a deeper understanding of our instincts and allow them to guide our decision-making and behavior.
Intuition is a potent path to self-knowledge and improved performance in the workplace and beyond. Studies show that intuition, as a form of self-exploration in business (Maidique, 2014) and medical professions (Nalliah, 2016), can boost decision-making and creativity.
Engaging in introspection
“A common metaphor for introspection is that it is like an archaeological dig, whereby people attempt to excavate their hidden mental states” (Wilson & Dunn, 2004, p. 504). And it can be a valuable tool for self-exploration.
Self-exploration often involves shifting the focus away from analyzing the reasons behind an attitude and our emotional states and instead examining the nature of how we feel.
By redirecting our introspection, we can increase the accessibility of our feelings and boost our predictive power for future behavior (Wilson & Dunn, 2004).
Writing as a form of introspection can be a robust process for engaging in self-exploration.
We can promote mental and physical wellbeing by dedicating a short amount of time (15 to 30 minutes) to writing about emotional issues over several days. This practice helps us gain self-understanding, reduce rumination, and alleviate intrusive thoughts and worries.
Visualization is a process of self-exploration that involves imagining future scenarios and observing how we feel, think, and behave. It can be used individually or as part of a therapy session (Thomas, 2016).
By visualizing possible future situations, we can uncover implicit and explicit motives behind our behaviors. Also, by revealing our thoughts and feelings, we can better manage our stress and enhance feelings of self-belief and self-confidence.
This technique allows us to tap into the feelings associated with unconscious motives and attitudes, providing valuable insights into ourselves (Hall et al., 2006).
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21 Questions for Exploring the Self
Questions offer a powerful approach to self-exploration.
The following worksheets offer different perspectives and can be combined or used separately to help clients develop a more profound knowledge of the self.
The Proust Questionnaire
The Proust Questionnaire was once a fun parlor game, but now the 35 questions within this exercise also provide an excellent opportunity for self-exploration.
A sample of 10 questions is given below:
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
What is your current state of mind?
On what occasion do you lie?
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
When and where were you happiest?
Which talent would you most like to have?
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
What is your greatest regret?
What do you most value in your friends?
Who Am I?
The following questions in the Who Am I? worksheet help us explore ourselves internally and offer a chance to introspect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in more depth.
How would your closest friend or family member describe you in one paragraph?
If one of your coworkers were to tell a story about you, what do you think they would say?
If your life partner were describing your biography, what kinds of things would they mention?
If you were writing to your past self, what would you choose to include about who you are now?
Imagine you’re talking to your future self. What would you say about what makes you you?
Reflective questions for personal academic performance
What areas are you strong in? What areas do you struggle with? What are your favorite things about school? What is your least favorite thing about school?
3 Activities for adults
About Me Worksheet
The following prompts in the About Me Worksheet are not intended for daily use but may be performed regularly throughout the year.
They help the individual focus on some positive self-knowledge, including:
I was really happy when … I am very proud of … My family was very happy with me when I … Something that makes me unique is …
3-Step Mindfulness Exercise
Mindfulness is a positive and healthy state to promote self-exploration and self-reflection and increase self-knowledge (Shapiro, 2020).
Use this straightforward three-step guide to cultivate a mindful state that you can carry with you throughout the day to promote greater self-reflection and self-knowledge.
Self-Awareness Worksheet for Adults
In this worksheet, the individual is encouraged to consider “Who am I?” by reflecting on several questions, including:
What are my greatest skills or talents? Which of them gives me the greatest sense of pride or satisfaction? What other talent or skill do you wish to develop for yourself? What are your five greatest strengths?
2 Worksheets for Your Counseling Sessions
Knowing a client’s strengths, emotions, goals, and values can ensure the counselor or therapist provides their best support.
And increasing self-knowledge in the client can bring clarity to their needs and hopes for treatment outcomes.
Reflective Questions in Therapy
This helpful worksheet includes questions for promoting deep self-knowledge, awareness of how they would like the future to look, and what has stopped them in the past.
What do I wish people understood about me better? What behaviors and beliefs do I want to let go of? Am I feeling supported by my family and friends? Do I feel I have grown and developed over the past year? What are my goals and dreams? Have my actions and decisions this past year reflected this?
Reflections on Learning From My Past This worksheet reinforces learning with counseling sessions and considers new behaviors for adoption.
What happened, or what was the event? How did it make you feel? How did you handle it? How could you handle it differently? What might be the outcome? What did you learn about yourself?
New York Times bestseller and psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores the two systems that shape our thinking and how we can get to know ourselves.
The first system is fast, intuitive, and emotional, while the second is slower, rational, and more deliberate. Understanding the difference between the two is essential for knowing ourselves and how we make decisions, helping us make better choices.
Finding Your Ikigai
Finding life’s purpose can be difficult. Try out the following self-reflective questions to identify your ikigai:
What do you love? What does the world need? What can you get paid for? What are you good at?
Look for similar answers for each question and attempt to find a purpose that aligns with all of them.
Self-reflection prompts Self-reflection is a powerful tool for self-exploration.
Use the prompts in this exercise to help make sure your life remains aligned with your purpose, goals, and values. Some examples include:
Has anything been bothering me? If so, why? For what am I currently proud of myself? What am I most grateful for this year? My perfect day looks like … The best advice I could give someone now is …
17 Self-Compassion Exercises
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, check out this collection of 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.
A Take-Home Message
We don’t always know ourselves as well as we think. Self-exploration offers a powerful tool for digging deeper into how we feel and think and the values that shape our lives.
While challenging, it has many benefits. Self-exploration can increase awareness of what we are thinking and how we are feeling, and support us in developing a clearer understanding of our strengths and how to use them more effectively.
Better self-awareness can also support us as we build and maintain relationships by learning to accept ourselves and others more readily.
We can also use deep self-knowledge to help us manage our stress more effectively and be able to overcome challenging times, recognizing what triggers our upset.
Ultimately, for ourselves as mental health professionals and our clients, the self-knowledge gained through self-exploration increases confidence in who we are, allowing us to make decisions more easily while being adaptive and ready for change.
Bench, S. W., Schlegel, R. J., Davis, W. E., & Vess, M. (2015). Thinking about change in the self and others: The role of self-discovery metaphors and the true self. Social Cognition, 33(3), 169–185.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Avery.
Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. Robinson.
Epstein, S. (2010). Demystifying intuition: What it is, what it does, and how it does it. Psychological Inquiry, 21(4), 295–312.
Fleming, S. (2021). Know thyself. Basic Books.
Hall, E., Hall, C., Stradling, P., & Young, D. (2006). Guided imagery: Creative interventions in counselling and psychotherapy. Sage.
Iacovou, S., & Weixel-Dixon, K. (2015). Existential therapy: 100 key points and techniques. Routledge.
Khazan, I. Z. (2019). Biofeedback and mindfulness in everyday life: Practical solutions for improving your health and performance. W. W. Norton & Company.
Maidique, M. (2014, July 23). Decoding intuition for more effective decision-making. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved June 21, 2023, from https://hbr.org/2011/08/decoding-intuition-for-more-ef.
Nalliah, R. P. (2016). Clinical decision making – Choosing between intuition, experience, and scientific evidence. British Dental Journal, 221(12), 752–754.
Niemiec, R. M., & McGrath, R. E. (2019). The power of character strengths: Appreciate and ignite your positive personality. VIA Institute on Character.
Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. Aster.
Thomas, V. (2016). Using mental imagery in counselling and psychotherapy: A guide to more inclusive theory and practice. Routledge.
Wilson, T. D., & Dunn, E. W. (2004). Self-knowledge: Its limits, value, and potential for improvement. Annual Review of Psychology, 55(1).
About the author
Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.