Unknow Thyself

Shame is a powerful and lingering emotion. And for a variety of reasons, some of us are more prone to it than others. One of my earliest childhood memories is related to the shame that took place in my elementary school when my Indian English teacher asked me to stand in front of the class and tell everyone why I was absent the day before. If my memory serves me well, his intent was never to put me on the spot or embarrass me; he was just being friendly. I stood up as he requested, but my brain went blank. I mumbled some words in Amharic, but of course, he couldn’t understand them. He then asked if I could repeat what I said in English. I couldn’t. The whole class broke into laughter, and I crumbled.

A few years down the line, while I was still in that same elementary school, the “cool” and popular girls in our class decided to rank the rest of us who were “simpletons” in their eyes from “the most attractive” to “the least attractive” and broadcast it for everyone to see. After some deliberation, they released the verdict. I saw my reflection through their eyes, and no amount of soothing and affirmation from my beloved mother helped. I left that school with a shattered self-image — feeling unattractive, inadequate, and unworthy. Those heinous acts might have been classified as classic bullying behavior these days, and may have even resulted in landing me in therapy and disciplinary measures against the perpetrators. But at that time, we didn’t even have the vocabulary for it, let alone the tool to manage it, and as a result, were unable to make sense of, name, and process the ensuing emotions. Instead, I swallowed the labels that were ascribed to me and allow them to define me for a considerable amount of my teenage years and beyond. When you are a developing child, you tend to see yourself as others see you.

Decades have passed between those ill-fated days and now, and a lot has happened since then. Ironically, the little girl who couldn’t muster to utter the words “I was sick” to her English teacher now stands in front of her graduate students every week to teach. But what had transpired between those years consisted of a series of knowing and unknowing myself, and it’s the latter I would like to focus on today.

In her TED talk, psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb spoke about the power of unknowing oneself through editing the stories we tell ourselves. She said, “We talk so much in our culture about getting to know ourselves. But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself.” Many of us are familiar with Socrates’ oft-quoted phrase, “An unexamined life is not worth living,” and I have dedicated a good portion of my life to knowing myself — partly due to my contemplative nature and partly because I, too, am a strong advocate of examining oneself and practicing self-awareness. It’s also a discipline that I try to inculcate in my students even though the social media culture in which we are swimming these days is facilitating groupthink rather than individual self-reflection.

The notion of unknowing oneself, however, was quite revolutionary to me the first time I learned about it. Soon after, upon some deliberate inspection and introspection, I realized that those negative self-images that were cemented during my childhood years were still coloring my current self-perception. It dawned on me that I have been latching on to those self-images for far too long despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In those narratives, my character was never painted as bold and brave and determined but rather as weak, unable to defend herself, and simply not enough. However, out in the real world, there is another narrative unfolding in my life simultaneously, and in this version of the story, I am characterized as overcoming and self-aware, disciplined, passionate, humble, and insatiably curious. Despite gaining this insight, however, I know that if we are not careful, it’s far easier to be governed by those old stories, especially when we are facing novel and challenging situations that cause us to be self-conscious and anxious. In those situations, I might advise asking oneself:

What are the stories I am telling myself right now, and how accurate are they?

Feven Seifu

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