Knowing Yourself: The Importance of Understanding Who You Are

Last week’s retreat post inspired a lot of people to share something about the escapes they enjoy but also something about why. The post’s focus on solitary retreats, in particular, seemed to steer discussion. Frankly, when I suggested the solo venture, I mostly had in mind self determination – the opportunity to concentrate on one’s individual needs without the inevitable compromises and inherent expectations that come into play when traveling with others. Several readers, however, opened up a broader theme in their comments. Self knowledge, they suggested, is essential in figuring out what’s optional and not optional to our individual well-being. There’s power – and sometimes conflict – in knowing yourself and letting that understanding help guide your life.

Last week’s discussion happened to center around the introvert/extrovert question. As a few self-identified introverted readers explained, individual retreats can be essential for those on the introverted “side” because they offer vital occasions for deep quiet and seclusion. According to the standard introvert/extrovert model, those who are more introverted than extroverted tend to stock their energy stores by spending time alone. Those who are more extroverted than introverted – we all have both inclinations after all – reenergize more by spending time with others. As a few folks explained, stolen moments here and there are great (introverted folks evidently become experts at finding those), but nothing replenishes as well as an extended portion of solely personal time. It’s taxing, even diminishing to be constantly running on empty. Knowing what you need – and taking it – is key. Having people in your life who also understand can be even better. As a number of introverted readers said, their spouses encouraged them to take their time away. Despite the short-term inconvenience, they knew their partners would return with more emotional energy to give.

Of course, there’s more to self-knowledge than the introvert-extrovert continuum (and more to the benefit of it than travel planning.) There are a million ways we come to understand the nuances of who we are. Most of us have probably taken a personality test of some sort for work or fun. The legitimate ones can be illuminating, but I also know people who feel more confined than liberated by their definitions. Nonetheless, under the right conditions they can be a good catalyst for self-reflection and realization. We inevitably gain self-understanding through our relationships, which can be startling mirrors to our strengths and weaknesses, our assets and insecurities. Parenting, for one, can shine a whole new light on our personal vulnerability. Harsh circumstances or events may pare us down to a definitive core. Challenges test us, and age in general inevitably reveals more. Life as it progresses has a way of showing what we’re made of. Likewise, learning to accept one’s self is one of the genuine gifts of growing older.

The experience of self-discovery is undoubtedly a peak of its own. Most knowledge comes gradually without immediate impact. Still, those moments of true realization can offer a surprising release from years of self-doubt or guilt. It may be something as ordinary as finally admitting you’re a morning person, a highly sensitive type, or a “type A” personality. Alternatively, it can be something more striking like recognizing a dependency or being diagnosed with adult attention deficit disorder. (A friend of mine had this experience last year.) In most cases, the experience affirms long-held intuition, which can offer a sense of reassurance. Nonetheless, the realization can change the way you think about your past – your successes and failures, your life choices and relationships. Suddenly, you’re bringing a revisionist mindset to your entire life’s story. Self-realizations can shift the ground underneath us, but they can also open up whole new fields of vision in doing so.

How we come by self-knowledge (and the discoveries we make) inevitably varies. What we do with these, I think, is the pivotal question.

The broad lifestyle focus of the Primal Blueprint isn’t meant to diminish our sense of individuality. Acknowledging the influence of our innate genetic dispositions doesn’t exclude valuing how those patterns play out in our individual identities. I’d argue that respecting the evolutionary dimensions of selves fosters a richer, more compassionate sense of our own – and others’ humanity. Knowing, for example, that an enriched environment results in beneficial epigenetic changes doesn’t fill in every detail of what that environment should look like for different people. Knowing that solitude was more conducive for certain kinds of learning activities in research groups doesn’t mean we all need the same amount of solitude. Recognizing that studies support the cognitive, cardiovascular, and immunity-related benefits of participating in art, music, dance, reading, and other cultural pastimes doesn’t tell us what book we should pick up or if we might do better to pick up our guitar.

Likewise, knowing we’re prone to dependency (from family history or our own past) informs how we socialize, what food we keep in the house, and how we choose to deal with stress. If we’re introverted, we might prioritize downtime in our schedules. If we’re type A, we might begin our foray into meditation from a more active angle or ensure we get some exercise time in first. If we have attention deficit disorder, we can choose to incorporate more frequent breaks and spend as much time in green space as possible. If we’re a morning person, we might front load our days with the more challenging projects and chores on the docket.

The Primal Blueprint made manifest is a continual dialogue between common patterns and personal inclinations. We’re active creators of our own well-being, negotiating with the circumstances and inner workings that organize our lives. When both our basic and distinctive needs are being met, we’re in a better position to make good choices for ourselves. We can envision a deeper sense of actualization in all areas of our lives. Understanding our individual preferences and inclinations can help us capitalize on these. In forging a healthy and fulfilling life, knowing the most effective means of getting there can make all the difference.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Share your thoughts on the power of self-knowledge. Have a good end to the week.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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