What Is Self-Knowledge in Psychology? 8 Examples & Theories

Self-knowledge“Who am I?” A simple, yet profound question.

Another provocative question is, “Why do I act the way I do?”

If you’ve asked yourself similar questions, you are not alone.

When we don’t know ourselves or act in ways we don’t understand or aren’t fond of, it may be a signal that change is in order. But how do we change, and what needs changing?

Einstein once reflected, “How many people are trapped in their everyday habits: part numb, part frightened, part indifferent? To have a better life, we must keep choosing how we’re living” (Cooper, 2001, p. 131).

Ignorance, fear, and indifference do not provide the impetus for gaining self-knowledge or effecting positive change.

Conversely, self-analysis leads to self-knowledge, which is the necessary first step in initiating positive change (Schaffner, 2020).

Let’s explore how self-knowledge facilitates self-improvement and provides other benefits.

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What Is Self-Knowledge in Psychology?

Self-knowledge in psychology is “actual genuine information one possesses about oneself” (Morin & Racy, 2021, p. 373). This includes information about our emotional state, personality traits, relationships, behavioral patterns, opinions, beliefs, values, needs, goals, preferences, and social identity (Morin & Racy, 2021).

Self-knowledge results from self-reflective and social processes (Morin & Racy, 2021).

However, self-knowledge isn’t derived solely from introspection. According to Brown (1998), there are five sources that contribute to the reservoir of self-knowledge.

1. Physical world

This category of information is limited to physical information such as height, weight, and eye color.

2. Social comparisons

This source of self-knowledge occurs when comparing ourselves with others. Subcategories include upward and downward comparisons, in which we compare ourselves with someone better off and worse off, respectively (Brown, 1998).

3. Reflected appraisals

This source of self-knowledge stems from others’ evaluations of us. The term denotes the fact that we see ourselves reflected through the eyes of others (Brown, 1998).

4. Introspection

This source of self-knowledge is derived through inward observation of thoughts, feelings, motives, and desires. Introspection is interwoven with and integrally connected to self-knowledge.

5. Self-perception

In this category of self-knowledge, we learn about ourselves through observing and examining our own behavior.

Schaffner (2020) includes two additional sources of self-knowledge:

6. CBT-style approaches

Another source of self-knowledge emanates from a rational analysis of our negative thought processes through approaches similar to and including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

7. Mindfulness techniques

Mindfulness-based techniques help us assess and enhance our emotional intelligence skills, building self-knowledge (Schaffner, 2020).

In sum, self-knowledge is obtained through a combination of the physical, social, and psychological world.

Why Is Self-Knowledge Important?

Importance of self-knowledgeSelf-knowledge is “essential for healthy functioning because knowing oneself well leads to realistic decision-making pertaining to key aspects of one’s life” (Morin & Racy, 2021, p. 374).

Indeed, “People who do not see themselves accurately are likely to bungle their lives” (Begley, 2020).

Key aspects at risk due to lack of self-knowledge include life partner choices, education and career choices, and where and how to live (Morin & Racy, 2021).

Deficits in self-knowledge lead to over-estimation of subjective strengths, which can cause lower life satisfaction and poor academic performance (Morin & Racy, 2021).

Schaffner (2020) lists five reasons self-knowledge is essential for psychological growth.

  1. It satisfies the desire to learn and make sense of experiences.
  2. It prevents discord between self-perceptions and others’ perceptions of us.
  3. It emancipates us from the irrational whims of our unconscious.
  4. It facilitates proactive responses rather than reactivity.
  5. It is a necessary first step for positive change.

Huseyin (2017) suggests that self-knowledge demands us to develop a balanced suspicion of our feelings.

Other benefits include having less work frustration, less insecurity and envy, and less stress about money. In addition, we gain the ability to take responsibility for our emotions and have more empathy and compassion (Huseyin, 2017).

Finally, self-knowledge helps shape our understanding of others and is used as a reference point for evaluating others (Brown, 1998).

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How Can Self-Knowledge Lead to Self-Mastery?

Because self-knowledge includes honest self-assessments and other acquired information, we can use it to make positive changes and master aspects of our lives.

Self-knowledge is essential for “giving a meaningful narrative to our past, present, and future actions, a sense of continuity over time, a sense of being both unique and similar to others” (Bukowski, 2019).

Knowing ourselves enhances our ability to live coherent and fulfilling lives. In addition, it allows us to understand our basic motivations and fears, and enhances our control of our emotions (Schaffner, 2020).

Conversely, the inability to recognize our feelings leaves us vulnerable and at their mercy (Schaffner, 2020).

Stellar self-knowledge motivates us to pursue ambitious projects, relationships, and other challenges. Lack of insight can inhibit great aspirations (Begley, 2020).

Psychosocial domains ripe for change

Three domains ripe for change include blind spots, self-deception, and conflict triggers.

1. Blind spots

Blind spots are unconscious processes that “typically bias the access to and formation of self-knowledge” (Bukowski, 2019).

In this video, we learn that Brian Wagner views the world differently than most and uses his gift to help others identify their personal blind spots and overcome their self-limiting beliefs.

2. Self-deception

Baumeister (2010) describes self-deception as a kind of wishful thinking. In this state, we believe what we want to believe, bereft of rigorous justifications. Various biases serve as a vehicle for self-deception.

3. Conflict triggers

Conflict triggers are words or actions performed by another that are perceived as offensive and create conflict (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011). Taibbi (2019) suggests these triggers stem from unhealed wounds from our past.

Why few people seek self-knowledge

  1. Exploring unknown aspects of ourselves is risky, as it may reveal information that contradicts our current self-beliefs.
  2. Our culture is more interested in success and advancement than introspection (Huseyin, 2017).
  3. A variety of closely related terms distract information seekers, forming barriers to self-knowledge (Bukowski, 2019). Terms such as self-awareness, self-concept, and self-identity dilute the field of self-knowledge.

Let’s analyze some of these terms to provide greater clarity.

Self-Knowledge vs Self-Awareness

Self-awarenessWe have discussed how self-knowledge is useful for navigating life, but how does it differ from self-awareness?

Self-knowledge refers to information about subjective tendencies, such as our emotional state, personality traits, and behavioral patterns (Morin & Racy, 2021).

Psychologists view self-awareness as a stepping stone on the path toward self-knowledge (Alicke, Zhang, & Stephenson, 2020).

Goleman (1997) states that in self-awareness, the mind investigates experiences and the corresponding emotions. This investigation can be both nonreactive and nonjudgmental.

Goleman (1997, p. 47) simplifies the concept of self-awareness by defining it as being “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about that mood.”

Some benefits of self-awareness include enhanced emotional intelligence, empathy, and listening skills (Berger, 2018).

Strong empathy and listening skills are instrumental in communication and for building robust and enriching interpersonal relationships.

In addition, self-awareness boosts critical thinking and decision making. These are skills often associated with effective leaders (Berger, 2018).


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Self-Knowledge, Self-Identity, & Self-Concept

According to Sheldon Stryker, identity is “a ‘part’ of one’s self that is ‘called up’ while interacting with others” (Appelrough & Desfor-Edles, 2008, p. 478).

The number of identities associated with a person corresponds with the roles they participate in, such as child, parent, employee, friend, and spouse (Appelrough & Desfor-Edles, 2008).

Identity salience refers to how the person organizes their identities hierarchically, as not every identity has the same meaning or status (Appelrough & Desfor-Edles, 2008).

Self-concept is the image we develop about ourselves, which, contrary to self-knowledge, may or may not be reality based (Morin & Racy, 2021). Self-concept may be ascertained using assessments such as the Self-Concept Questionnaire. This tool asks 48 questions assessing domains of self, such as moral, intellectual, social, physical, educational, and temperamental.

Self-concept is developed based on beliefs about self, whereas self-knowledge is derived from various sources of information, including external evidence (Morin & Racy, 2021).

A lack of clarity, stability, and consistency of self-concept is associated with low self-esteem, chronic self-analysis, high neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low conscientiousness (Morin & Racy, 2021).

2 Real-Life Examples of Self-Knowledge

Naomi OsakaThe insight self-knowledge brings can lead to a wellspring of information needed to make critical decisions and take necessary action for health and wellbeing.

Naomi Osaka

The courageous actions of tennis star Naomi Osaka demonstrate self-knowledge. Osaka has won multiple Grand Slams and is among the world’s highest paid female athletes (Kelly, 2021).

Osaka made the difficult decision to put her mental health before her career and public image by declining to participate in the 2021 French Open press conferences (Kelly, 2021).

As public fervor grew, Osaka withdrew from the tournament and was subsequently fined $15,000 and given a stern lecture on tournament code infractions (Kelly, 2021).

It appears that Osaka knew herself physically, mentally, socially, and professionally. She was forthcoming on social media about suffering from protracted bouts of depression following her first Grand Slam win in 2018 (Kelly, 2021).

She took initiative to prioritize caring for herself over her career, despite social scrutiny. Osaka is a rare example of how self-knowledge can be used to make critical, sometimes life-altering decisions.

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl was a 20th-century psychiatrist and psychotherapist who, as a Holocaust survivor, emerged from horrific circumstances to create logotherapy and author numerous books (Frankl, 2006).

He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1905 and received his MD and PhD from the University of Vienna. Frankl’s (2006) early work focused on depression and suicide.

After years of waiting, Frankl received his visa allowing emigration to the United States. However, the decision necessitated that he leave his parents, wife, and siblings behind. After contemplation, Frankl allowed the visa to lapse (Schatzman, 2011).

In 1942, Frankl was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp along with his family. He was the only member of his family to emerge from imprisonment (Schatzman, 2011).

Frankl’s body of work, early achievements, and life-transforming decisions signify self-knowledge proficiency and reflect his goals, values, beliefs, and social identity.

6 Theories About Self-Knowledge

Various models and theories seek to explain self-knowledge. Below are concepts explaining how self-knowledge is acquired.

1. The unmediated observation model

The unmediated observation model, most notably associated with Descartes, posits that we attain self-knowledge through our own unmediated thoughts, separate from outside input or sources. This model is typically used for comparing other philosophical models (Gertler, 2003).

2. The transparency model

The transparency model involves making up your mind and rationally reflecting on and reaching a conclusion about the state of the world.

Using this model, we gain knowledge not just about our beliefs, but about any judgment-sensitive attitude. One attraction of transparency is the intimate connection between self-knowledge and agency (Jongepier, 2021).

3. Social constructionism

Social constructionism is a way of understanding ourselves and our world through the use of language to create a shared reality (Gergen, 2009). Constructionists theorize that meaning is created in relation to others.

4. The “looking-glass self”

This model, posited by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, asserts that our sense of self is developed through interactions with others.

In this theory, our appearance is reflected through the other person. We then make a hypothesis about their judgment of us and have a resulting emotion regarding that judgment (Appelrough & Desfor-Edles, 2008).

5. Narrative self

Narrative self is necessary for introspective reasoning and autobiographical memory reconstruction. It includes two branches of thinking:

  1. Paradigmatic mode, which accesses logical explanations in order to build a rational explanation of reality
  2. Narrative mode, which uses meaningful interpretations of ourselves to create a coherent explanation of our identity

These narratives combine the past, present, and future events into a coherent sequence (Bukowski, 2019).

6. Self-perception theory

This theory, proposed by Daryl Bem, suggests that people learn about themselves by observing behavior and making inferences (Baumeister, 2010).

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have an array of resources to boost self-knowledge for yourself and your clients. Below is a list of recommended courses, articles, and free worksheets from around our site.

Mindfulness X© course

This course was developed to increase mindfulness through analysis of the underlying workings of habitual thought patterns. The combined psychology, research, and practice behind mindfulness help participants better understand the workings of the mind, adding to self-knowledge.

Emotional Intelligence Masterclass©

Emotional intelligence is the ability to manage and interpret emotional encounters. Individuals with high emotional intelligence skills tend to handle everyday stress better (Gohm, Corser, & Dalsky, 2005), have meaningful and close relationships (Schutte et al., 2001), and higher levels of wellbeing (Fernandez-Berrocal, Alcaide, Extremera, & Pizarro, 2006).

Emotional intelligence provides a deep understanding of subjective emotional tendencies, adding to self-knowledge. This masterclass is an invaluable course for practitioners, as it includes high-quality material for practitioners to provide science-based training sessions.

Who Am I?

This worksheet invites clients to discover who they are by considering how others and different temporal versions of themselves might respond to questions about their identity.

For instance, clients will consider how their closest friends and family likely perceive them. They will also consider what they would communicate about their present-day identity to past and future versions of themselves.

Personal Values Worksheet

Personal values refer to the beliefs, principles, and ideas that reflect the core of each individual. They bring meaning to our actions and shape our preferences, behaviors, and decisions.

This worksheet helps clients explore what they view as meaningful and important, serving as a basis to determine how they might focus their energy and time.

Replacing Negative Self-Talk

This exercise acknowledges the role of self-talk in making sense of our lives. Participants are encouraged to reframe negative self-talk into positive self-talk, making a positive change in their daily narrative.

Track and Measure Success

Because we remember the things that went wrong better than our successes, it is useful to track wins to add to your personal success story. This worksheet helps keep track of successes, adding to the self-knowledge base.

Self-Assessment for Assertiveness Self-Discovery

One of the numerous benefits of self-knowledge is that it can help enrich assertiveness skills. This worksheet prompts participants to explore various positive aspects of themselves to bolster confidence and self-efficacy.

87 Self-Reflection Questions for Introspection

This self-reflection article provides definitions, questions, and exercises that allow us to know ourselves more holistically.

17 Strength-Finding Exercises

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop their strengths, this collection contains 17 strength-finding tools for practitioners. Use them to help others better understand and harness their strengths in life-enhancing ways.

A Take-Home Message

In this blog post, we’ve discussed several benefits and justifications for gaining self-knowledge.

Self-knowledge is essential for personal growth, decision making, and accurate self-assessment. It is the opposite of ignorance and helps us make sense of our experiences.

Importantly, self-knowledge is an essential tool to help in the change process. Change is hard. It requires intentionality and courage.

We humans spend a good amount of life avoiding the pain and discomfort associated with change.

The journey to gain self-knowledge seeks to dislodge us from our comfort zone to explore aspects of ourselves generally ignored or avoided.

The question I ask myself is, “How will I feel ten years from now if I choose not to look at all aspects of myself?”

Nelson Mandela stated,

“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”

Cooper, 2001, p. xvii

Although change may be difficult, healing, creativity, resilience, and passion are forged through change.

I believe waiting underneath our self-protective layers is a hidden wholeness.

So, who are you and what are you capable of? Aren’t you curious now?

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Strengths Exercises for free.


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    Enjoyed reading this article, how is it referenced?

    • Nicole Celestine, Ph.D.

      Hi Samuel,

      Here’s how you’d reference this in APA 7th:

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      Hi Lilian,

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      Hope this helps!

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