Sir Socrates, I Have a Question for You

Have you ever felt stuck in some kind of a weird rut? You feel as if nothing could get you out of this weird mood.

These are usually days, at least for me, when I talk to myself a lot. Whenever it gets messy in my head, some self-reflection sits well with me.

The last time I experienced a creative roadblock, I was looking for a way to understand myself better. Then I remembered that there once lived this legendary Greek philosopher. “The wisest man alive”.

So, dear Socrates, I have one question for you. How do I get to know myself?

Socrates’ self-knowledge philosophy

Socrates never left any written words behind. All we know about him comes from his contemporaries. From Plato’s writings, we know that Socrates dedicated his life to the aphorism know thyself. His life philosophy is all about self-knowledge and introspection.

Socrates liked to hold conversations with his fellow Athenians. He’d ask them questions and they’d answer with either yes or no. He wanted them to reflect on their life choices so they could figure out what matters in life.

He believed that the Greek gods chose him to teach ordinary people what it means to lead a virtuous life. Socrates considered self-reflection as an important self-improvement tool.

His political views turned him into an enemy of the democratic government of Athens. Teaching young people got him into trouble. Socrates was tried and sentenced to death.

At the end of his trial, he said:

An unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates understood that the ego drives our human nature. That’s why we must examine ourselves to know what brings real value to our lives.

How do we define self-reflection?

For one, it’s an ongoing process, constantly happening in our minds. It’s the cornerstone of self-knowledge.

But how does it happen? Do our minds do it intentionally?

We learn about ourselves by thinking about ourselves. Self-reflection is an internal thought process. I like to picture it as a conversation you have with yourself inside your head.

We contemplate our past experiences, future expectations, and check our current mental states.

You cringe at your old social media posts. You daydream about a potential job you could have once you get your degree. You decide not to go out tonight because you’ve got work in the morning. This cognitive process helps us learn, make sense of things, and understand our own behavior.

Everything you’ve ever heard, read, or seen determines how you view yourself. The self-image we create is often not the most reliable representation of who we are.

Can we trust our own thoughts?

The knowledge of ourselves is measured by how good we’re dealing with our personal biases. This goes both for situations when we reflect on our past and imagine our future.

In a 1998 study, social psychologist Timothy Wilson showed how we mistake our present feelings with our past attitudes. Researchers put together a group of students who were against marijuana legalization. The student had to choose between a speech or a subliminal message, both supporting marijuana legalization. Also, they had to choose the recording they believed would have less influence on them. Most of them believed a speech wouldn’t impact their opinion. In reality, the speech made some students change their views. They felt as if they’d been in favor of marijuana legalization before the experiment.

If you’re an animal rights activist now, doesn’t mean you’ve always felt this way. Something happened that made you become one.


Now, we do like to dwell on our past. But we also like to visualize how our future would look if x,y, or z would happen.

What if you save enough money to get yourself that dream car in three years’ time? This very moment that thought excites you. You think you’d be over the moon, driving that thing for the rest of your life. 

But, that might change in three years. In three years you might earn more than you’re currently earning. Buying an expensive vehicle won’t seem like a life-changing thing anymore. When we predict how we’ll feel about something happening in the future, we can be wrong. Wilson calls this affective forecasting.

Or how about this. Have you ever felt guilty for leaving the dirty dishes in the sink overnight? You immediately picture yourself crying over a couple of mugs.

I present to you- the retrospective impact bias. It makes you think of any bad scenario that could happen if you don’t wash your dishes right away. In fact, nothing bad or good is going to happen in the morning. Your dirty mugs are going to stay where you left them. You’ll most likely be in such a hurry you won’t even think to look at the sink.

The retrospective bias is useful for sticking to your obligations and meaningful habits. Still, we should be careful not to overplay the consequences of something we haven’t faced yet.

Contradictions in reflection

There’s a fun little paradox in reflection. When you reflect on why you wore that ridiculous dress to the party last weekend, what are you reflecting on? Yourself, right? But, if you’re the object of reflection, then who is doing the reflection?

You’re the one doing the reflection and being the center of your own reflection. The who and the what. So, then if you’re doing the reflecting on yourself, isn’t it the same as self-reflecting?

Let’s look at this example. You and your friend have fun talking about embarrassing situations. You’ll immediately think of your own experiences that you associate with shame. Your friend tells you a story of how they once spilled coffee all over themselves. You won’t completely relate to the situation if you’ve never experienced it. You’ll agree it’s embarrassing. Your critical mind agrees, but you won’t find it embarrassing at a personal level.

  • When you reflect, you think: Spilling coffee over myself is embarrassing.
  • When you self-reflect, you think: Losing my voice in the middle of a presentation is embarrassing. It happened to me before.

How can we get to know ourselves better?

Do you want to get more unbiased self-knowledge? Scientists have been studying what we can do to know ourselves deeper.

Let’s say I have this belief that losing a job makes someone a complete loser. So, if it ever happens to me,  I won’t be able to recognize the positive impact a professional failure can have. I won’t believe I’m competent enough to switch careers. Such a mindset makes a person miss out on so many new opportunities.

What about the parts of our mind that we can’t control? We simply can’t introspect our unconscious thoughts. We lose our temper for no reason or struggle with people-pleasing. To be more self-conscious, we should be able to recognize our impulsive behavior and learn from it.

Other people are also a great source of insight because they’re got a different image of who we are. Next time you yell at your sister for stealing your clothes, try to remember why you got mad in the first place. Perhaps you were tired or annoyed at something else. In usual circumstances, you have a great bond with your sister.

And when your best friend tells you she’s worried about you dating another toxic guy, it’s not a personal attack on you. She is less subjective when it comes to your codependency in ways, you may not even be aware of.

If you’re looking for even more neutral resources, explore scientific literature. A podcast or an article that deals with psychological topics can give you a better angle.

I am my own Socrates

Without a doubt, examining one’s inner world to get more self-knowledge is useful in many areas of life.

Why do we sometimes fail at relationships? 

How to be more confident?

How can we do right by others?

These are all valid reasons to do some self-reflecting from time to time.

While talking to ourselves, we ask questions. Essentially, we’re our own Socrates trying to figure out who we are, why we are who we are, and how we want our lives to be.


Cover photo: by Mark Timberlake from Pixabay