Self-Knowledge: 5 Obstacles That Block Us From Knowing Our True Selves

Self-Knowledge: 5 Obstacles That Block Us From Knowing Our True Selves

O Jesus, Supreme Light, grant me the grace of knowing myself and pierce my dark soul with Your light, and fill the abyss of my soul with Your own self…

Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (297)

St. Faustina said that “knowledge of self is the beginning of wisdom.” 

St. Catherine of Siena called it the “cell of self-knowledge.”

St. Teresa of Avila wrote that the first step in a life of holiness and union with God is self-knowledge.

St. Athanasius summed it up succinctly when he said, “No one can know God without knowing himself.”

Up and down the centuries the saints have echoed the idea that self-knowledge is the key to a relationship with God, and vice versa; knowing God is directly related to knowing ourselves.

But what does it really mean to know ourselves?

The concept is an ancient one—the words “Know thyself” were inscribed above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Early Greek philosophers wrestled with it. Benjamin Franklin wrote in his 1750 Poor Richard’s Almanac that “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”

While it would take volumes to get to the heart of what it truly means to know ourselves (and we might still be a mystery to ourselves afterwards), it is not difficult to see why it is essential for the spiritual life.

And yet, if it’s essential, why is it so elusive?

Lent, of course, offers an excellent opportunity to consider this question. And in my own consideration of what to take on spiritually during the penitential season, it occurred to me that I would like to know myself better; to perhaps, in a more intentional manner, lift the veil and take an honest look at what is inside me.

A few years ago I attended a talk about the spiritual life and a fellow attendee asked the speaker (a priest) how we can better understand who we are. The priest’s response was not complicated: Start by asking God. He explained that God desires for us to see clearly who we are so that we might draw closer to Him and rely on His goodness and mercy in all things.

I made this one of my Lenten themes and each morning since Ash Wednesday I have whispered the following prayer: “Lord, help me to see myself as I am.”

Small Beginnings

small steps toward God

In the book Christian Mastery, Fr. Basil Maturin calls us to consider how we think about God: what draws us to Him?

He wrote,

The spiritual life of most people may be said to begin from one of two starting points: the thought of God or the thought of self. There are many whose minds turn to God with a natural instinct. The things of faith have ever been a reality to them.

…There are others who have been driven to God through the knowledge of their own great needs. The natural tendency of their minds is to turn inward, not outward. They have been driven to look outward and upward by what they have found within.

Christian Mastery by Fr. Basil W. Maturin

If I am honest I can recognize that, while eventually I turn upwards (towards God), oftentimes it is only after I have first turned inwards (towards my own inclinations).

Fr. Maturin goes on to say that the amazing thing about Our Lord is that He is not concerned about our starting point. This knowledge does not make Him love us any less. He knows us better than we know ourselves, and He always desires to draws us to Himself. If we start by looking at ourselves, and THEN realize our need for Him, He doesn’t turn us away for not starting by looking at HIM.

Not surprisingly, in the weeks since I began to regularly whisper those words to God, “Help me to see myself as I am,” I have had ample opportunities to do so.

Without exposing the details of my personal self-discovery, it is sufficient to say that daily I am amazed by some little insight: a cynical encounter with another person, a sudden awareness of an inner negative monologue, a realization that I have allowed an emotion to hold reign over my heart—all this has opened my eyes to what is under the surface. As if a light has been cast on things previously in the shadows, I find myself paying closer attention to the workings of my interior life.

And let’s just say: all is not well with my soul.

Why Is Self-Knowledge Hard?

Narcissus by Caravaggio
Narcissus, looking at himself without true self-knowledge

While there are many obstacles to self knowledge, some are fairly straightforward and perhaps not as difficult to overcome as we might think. The following are five reasons we might struggle to see ourselves as we really are.

1. We don’t examine ourselves regularly.

One of the reasons it is hard to see ourselves for who we are is partly because we simply don’t take the time to do it regularly. We may have time for prayer but do we really examine ourselves?

There are myriad ways in which sins can manifest in our lives, and there are many ways we can become sluggish in our attempts at rooting them out. A regular examination of conscience, nightly before bed if possible, can not only help us to recognize where we have fallen short, it can also instill in us a desire to strive to overcome sin in our life.

By simply recalling the events of our day—the things we wish we had not done and the things we wish we had—we can begin to stretch that spiritual muscle and, in turn, become more keen at recognizing sin in our life. It is not surprising that many religious orders do this everyday.

I remember teaching faith formation to second graders who were preparing to make their first confession. My co-teacher had a simple a way to illustrate the effects of a good nightly examination of conscience. She held up a banana in its peel and told the students to imagine that she had two knives: one quite dull and the other quite sharp.

“Which one should I use to cut the banana?” she asked.

The class all yelled out the answer: the sharp one! Yes, the sharp knife will slice through the peel and the banana, while the dull knife will likely just bruise and leave a mushy mess, she told them. Then she explained how a good examination of conscience is like a sharp knife. It helps to keep us sharp in recognizing our sins and in preparing for confession. Interestingly, it also assists us in knowing ourselves better. It is not difficult to imagine, using the mushy banana as an image, how a lack of regular examination might also affect our sense of who we truly are.

I loved this analogy, but I often forget the lesson myself. The point of an examination isn’t to feel bad about ourselves or to focus on our sins—the goal is to grow in self-knowledge and focus on God’s mercy. We can evaluate our actions of the day with any number of guided examinations or checklists, such as the Ten Commandments or the Seven Deadly Sins. After calling to mind the ways in which we didn’t love God as well as we could have, we can make an act of contrition, pray for forgiveness, and resolve to do better in the future.

We might also look over our thoughts and emotions that accompanied us throughout the day.

How was I feeling throughout the day? What was good and what was bad? What caused distress, anxiety, or anguish? Was I tempted in those moments towards resentment, envy, or despair? What can I do tomorrow to turn these thoughts toward God?

Answering these questions can, over time, show us patterns in our behavior that we might not have noticed before, show us our vulnerabilities, and help us to see ourselves in a more honest light.

Overcoming Deadly Sin by Good Catholic

Prayer: O God, help me to sharpen the view I have of myself so that I might recognize where I have sinned and rest in the knowledge that without You, I can do nothing. Amen.

2. It’s easier to see the faults of others than to recognize our own.

Paolo Veronese, The Conversion of Mary Magdalene
The conversion of Mary Magdalene. US:PD.

One may have a very deep knowledge of human character in general, and yet be profoundly ignorant of one’s own character. We look with the same eyes, yet the eyes that pierce so easily through the artifices and deceptions of others become clouded and the vision disturbed when they turn inwards and examine oneself.

Christian Mastery by Fr. Basil W. Maturin

Another obstacle to true self-knowledge is that we are often focused on the faults of others, while minimizing our own.

This is, unfortunately, an aspect of our human nature. Someone once described it more crudely by saying it is like bad breath—we can smell it on others but not on ourselves.

We interact with others on an ongoing basis but we don’t hold up a mirror to ourselves; consequently, we can have a false view of who we are.

Father Basil Maturin proposed a practical method to use for gaining self knowledge. He said we should test out those things that we question about ourselves.

“Do as you would do if you wished to gain any fresh knowledge of nature: question yourself by action. In other words, if you believe that you are generally charitable – resolve, for instance, in the morning to mortify yourself in speech so many times a day. See at the end of a week’s time if this is more difficult for you than you had imagined.”

Christian Mastery by Fr. Basil W. Maturin

Another tactic we can use in gaining self knowledge and dealing with others around us is to attempt to discover our predominant fault.

If we examine ourselves regularly, we’ll be able to identify a particular sin that gives us the most trouble. (If you are like me you don’t have to think very long to know what that sin is.) Through awareness of our predominant fault, we can see where we need to improve immediately, and with the most attention. 

One of the happy effects of noticing our own predominant fault is that we find ourselves more tolerant of other people and whatever their predominant faults might be!

Prayer: O God, help me to desire to know the truth about myself and to recognize that sin that continually causes me to turn from You—help me to be more lenient with others than I am with myself.

3. There is a lack of silence in our lives.

Lack of silence.

A further reason for the lack of self-knowledge could be a lack of silence in our lives. Silence is a crucial aspect of the spiritual life and yet we all know how noisy the world is that we live in. Today, with constant access to technology, even when we are alone we can often be connected to people everywhere.

Because of this, we feel disoriented when we are faced with time in silence.

Yet if we don’t make time for silence, we will not see the fruits of any serious attempt at developing the interior life of the soul. St. Teresa of Calcutta, although often surrounded by people, practiced interior silence as a way to draw closer to God even throughout the noise of her everyday world. She wrote how she could still be present to those around her even while giving to God the “silence of my heart.”

For Mother Teresa, silence was a prerequisite to prayer and the ability to meet with God.

Perhaps for us this is as simple as an interior nod or upward glance that might bring to mind our Lord in our heart:

It is clear that the habit of giving an upward glance to God at the moment of action is a great assistance in aiding us to behave always with a pure intention and in freeing us from our natural impulses and fancies, so, that, retaining our self-mastery, or rather, God becoming the sole Master, all our movements become dependent upon the Holy Spirit. We see in the Gospel that whenever our Lord was about to undertake some important step, He always paused for a moment to raise His eyes to Heaven, and only after this moment of recollection did He take up the work He had to do. ‘He lifted up His eyes to Heaven’ is a phrase that recurs with significant frequency. And doubtless, when there was no outward sign of this prayer, there was the inward offering. The ideal is the same for us. The constant subjection of self to the guidance of the Holy Spirit is made easier from the fact of His presence in the soul, where He is asked explicitly to preside over all our doings . . . We shall not submit wholeheartedly to the invisible Guest unless He is kept in close proximity to us.”

Raoul Plus, S.J. How To Pray Always

Cardinal Robert Sarah says in his book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise that because we are bombarded with exterior (and sometimes interior) noise, we must practice silence.

He describes the frightening effects of noise in our everyday life in the following from his book:

Our world no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking, at a devastating speed and volume, in order to say nothing. Modern civilization does not know how to be quiet. It holds forth in an unending monologue. Postmodern society rejects the past and looks at the present as a cheap consumer object; it pictures the future in terms of an almost obsessive progress. Its dream, which has become a sad reality, will have been to lock silence away in a damp, dark dungeon. Thus there is a dictatorship of speech, a dictatorship of verbal emphasis. In this theater of shadows, nothing is left but a purulent wound of mechanical words, without perspective, without truth, and without foundation. Quite often “truth” is nothing more than the pure and misleading creation of the media, corroborated by fabricated images and testimonies. When that happens, the word of God fades away, inaccessible and inaudible. Postmodernity is an ongoing offense and aggression against the divine silence. From morning to evening, from evening to morning, silence no longer has any place at all; the noise tries to prevent God himself from speaking. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost; he is broken up into countless worries, fantasies, and fears. In order to get out of these depressing tunnels, he desperately awaits noise so that it will bring him a few consolations. Noise is a deceptive, addictive, and false tranquilizer. The tragedy of our world is never better summed up than in the fury of senseless noise that stubbornly hates silence. This age detests the things that silence brings us to: encounter, wonder, and kneeling before God.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise

Prayer: O God, help me to make time for silence, even if it is only in my heart, so that I might learn to listen to You. Amen.

4. We aren’t spending “quality” time with God.

Jesus in the house of Martha and Mary by Johannes Vermeer

At the beginning of this article, we considered the fact that true self-knowledge can re-orient us to God.

The flip side of that is also true. The more united we are with Our Lord, the closer we come to seeing ourselves as we truly are. This is one of the reasons why prayer is so essential for true self-knowledge. And yet another obstacle to seeing ourselves as we are might be that we have become somewhat complacent in our prayer.

Even if we think we pray a lot, we may still fail to give God our best time or effort.

This is something I have discovered during my own Lenten experience. Because I have a daily prayer routine—with morning, noon, and night prayer, along with a Rosary or Divine Mercy chaplet—I can be lured into thinking that my prayer life doesn’t need to improve or that I am doing a great job staying “in contact” with God, as if it is some kind of schedule to check off.

Two Necessary Components of Prayer

In the Good Catholic series School of Prayer, we are reminded that the mind and the heart—our intellect and will—are the two highest powers of the human soul. The intellect is our power of knowing, and the will is our power of loving; this is what it means for us to be made “in the image of God.”

God gave us a mind and a heart so that we could use them to communicate with Him. In fact, there is no greater use of our intellect and will than to pray.

Engaging the attention of our mind and the affection of our heart in conversation with God is the beginning of prayer, and St. Augustine claimed that those who do not do this are not truly praying, and that God does not hear them.

Many cry out to the Lord, not with their own voice, but with their corporal voice alone. Let the “inner man” in whom Christ dwells by faith (Eph. 3:17), cry out to the Lord, not with the noise of lips alone, but with the affection of the heart.

God does not hear as men hear. Unless you cry out with a voice from the depths of your lungs and with your tongue, men will not hear you. Unless you cry out to the Lord with your thought, the Lord does not hear you. Your thought is your cry.

St. Augustine

If we think we are praying, but the attention of our heart and mind is willfully focused on something other than God, we are not actually praying.

Likewise, if our heart and mind is turned toward God even while we are doing something else, we are actually praying.

These two things—our thoughts and our affections—are required for true prayer. The ultimate goal of the Christian life is to be in communion with God (that is, to pray) at all times and in all situations. This is the level of intimacy that God desires to have with each of us.

School of Prayer by Good Catholic

One of the best places to go for intimacy with Our Lord is to visit Him in the tabernacle or in Adoration. Just as frequent visits with friends strengthen our relationships, the practice of spending time in the presence of Christ is a powerful way of growing in intimacy with Him. The quiet and peace that is found in an adoration chapel can be transformative, which is why it is also a place befitting for paying attention to what is happening on the interior.

Many of the saints have claimed that the more time they spent in adoration the more they were molded to Christ.

There is adoration at our parish and a few years ago I started to attend weekly. After a few months, I found myself drawn to Adoration and noticed that I was longing for that time even a day or two before it came. Although there are times when it takes me a while to focus or to allow the distractions of my mind to dissipate, I can truly sense the nearness of God.

The time you spend with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the best time you will
spend on earth. Each moment that you spend with Jesus will deepen your union with
Him and make your soul everlastingly more glorious and beautiful in Heaven, and
will help bring about everlasting peace on earth.

St. Teresa of Calcutta

Prayer: Help me to make time for You throughout my day and to offer You more than just a prayer routine. Instill in me a desire to spend time with You, that by knowing You more, I may know myself, and in knowing myself, rejoice in Your mercy toward me.

5. We are offended by our nothingness.

A final yet important obstacle to self-knowledge is our pride. While this deadly sin has plagued us since the time of our first parents in the garden, we see it rampant in our world today. We live in an era of pride, of excessive (and even false) self-sufficiency, and of hypersensitivity—we are easily offended. And yet these features are in opposition to a sound spiritual life.

In one of St. Catherine of Siena’s first visions, Jesus asked of her:

Do you know, daughter, who you are, and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be blessed. You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is.

From The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena

Perhaps we are somehow tempted to be offended by this dialogue between Our Lord and St. Catherine. When I first read this I admit it was a bit shocking to my sensibilities.

But why is that? Could it be our pride is offended?

One of St. Catherine’s confessors was Blessed Raymond of Capua who wrote about this vision. He explained the beautiful truth entailed in those words:

And here it is given and it is put in a way that only a Saint can relate: “You are she who is not… I (the Lord) am He who IS. … Here is a healing remedy, for what wound of pride can enter into a soul that knows itself to be nothing? Who can glory in anything he does? And thus all vices are driven out by the words, ‘You are not'”.

Blessed Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Sienna
Catherine of Siena by Domenico Beccafumi

Blessed Raymond further explains, “All creatures are engulfed in nothingness — made from nothingness, tending toward nothingness.”

In other words, our nothingness should not offend us. Christ said “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We ought to desire this knowledge about ourselves because not only does it bring with it the virtue of humility and the assurance of Divine Providence, it also makes us holy.

Sin is a nothingness, a lack of a goodness that should be present, so that when we sin, we move back toward nothingness.

Kevin Vost in Aquinas on the Four Last Things: Everything You Need to Know About Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell

The thought of our nothingness is not something that should weigh us down. The opposite is true. This awareness is actually a sign of progress in the spiritual life and in the process of gaining self-knowledge. Benedictine monk and author of Humility Rules: St. Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self Esteem, Fr. Augustine Wetta, O.S.B. explains:

The closer you draw to the perfect holiness of God, the more your own imperfections will stand out against the pure light of His holiness.

Humility Rules: St. Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self Esteem by Fr. Augustine Wetta

Not only are we confronted with the humility of what the words of Christ to St. Catherine mean, we are at the same time faced with the understanding that our anxieties and fears are also diminished by their truth. As Blessed Raymond attests:

Whenever I or any of the other friars was afraid of any danger, Catherine would say, “What have you to do with yourselves? Leave it to Divine Providence. However much afraid you are, Providence still has his eyes on you and is always aiming at your salvation.”

Blessed Raymond of Capua, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena

Perhaps this is the real insight of self knowledge. When we see ourselves as we are—as creatures made by our Creator—we recognize His goodness and mercy and can “leave to Divine Providence” all that we are and do in this life. We are better equipped to let go of all that separates us from God!

Every human being is infinitely loved and infinitely precious. We haven’t earned that Divine dignity; it is a gift. Nonetheless we convince ourselves that we must somehow show ourselves worthy of God’s love – that if we are charming or charitable or brave enough, He will feel obliged to reward us. Self-abasement is the antidote to this delusion. It is the practice of reminding ourselves that we are nothing without God’s grace…

Ironically this healthy sense of nothingness, understood correctly, brings with it a deeper sense of confidence and freedom. As Janice Joplin said, ‘Freedom ‘s just another word for nothing left to lose'”.

Humility Rules, Saint Benedict’s 12-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem

As we can see, self-knowledge is not only about discovering who we are, but also about seeking beyond ourselves – to virtue and truth and, above all, God. We are made in the image and likeness of God which means we can’t have self respect unless we first have respect for who God is.

For gaining self knowledge we can’t do better than to pray the words of St. Faustina often:

O Jesus, Supreme Light, grant me the grace of knowing myself and pierce my dark soul with Your light, and fill the abyss of my soul with Your own self…Amen.