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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49 thoughts on “Knowing Yourself: The Importance of Understanding Who You Are”

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  1. I agree that understanding how an what we are all about as an individual is very important. I believe that having a healthy mind is just as important as a healthy body. In fact the two are related. Knowing who we are and not trying to be someone we aren’t goes a long way toward real happiness and allowing us to live a better life.

  2. Beautiful post. As an introvert with hidden extrovert talents, I always appreciate the alone time each day as a way for your conscious to unravel what it has learned that day. Almost like your subconscious working out things while dreaming. So its almost like dreaming while your awake. Sorting all the drivel and mindless chatter and finding out what you really learned that day. Its glorious.

    1. Great article Mark. I like the idea of being able to switch from being an introvert at times to being an extrovert when the occasion calls for it. When we embrace our shadows, we become the expression of both light and dark. I am an empath so I naturally draw energy from my surroundings – whether good or bad. Learning to detach and recharge has become instrumental in my attempt to be more extrovert orientated.

  3. Great post, Mark. My annual solo backpacking trip continues to foster personal growth and allow me to better understand myself and my motivations, even after ten years.

  4. I didn’t even realize some of this is very true for me until I read it. I’m definitely an introvert type of person – I love being social, but it is taxing for me.
    Before my daughter was born, I worked from home (so determined my own schedule) and could easily make time for myself. I’d get on my bike and just take a casual ride wherever, whenever. But, since my daughter’s been born, I’ve found myself getting to a place of feeling completely overwhelmed and totally miserable being home full time with her. Being a new mom, that turns into guilt real fast.
    I was keeping this overwhelmed feeling at bay by every once in a while (in a complete panic) getting a grandparent to take her for the day, while my husband was at work. After that, for no reason that I understood, I was magically all better. So, it’s been probably 4 months since the last time I had that kind of break and I’m literally coming apart at the seams. I just emailed this article to my husband – I think it is time for me to start taking real breaks regularly! Thanks.

    1. Casey, I can completely identify with you. I’m an introverted SAHM with two young children. I actually began working from home part-time years ago because I wanted the money to pay for part-time childcare. It seems like a nonsensical notion, but even work was preferable to never getting any time alone to think and be.
      Don’t feel guilty for who you are and what you need. Plan ahead and give yourself the chance to get away from time to time. As I know personally, we’re all better moms for it!

      1. When I was a mother (introverted with extrovert leanings) of young children, the thing that saved me (saved us all!) were long, long walks with the twins in the stroller – I got a jogger so we could do some tough terrain – and long car journeys so I could think.

        Doing the walks almost from birth was great training – they lasted until 20 months in the stroller. And if you do hills, man, that’s a great workout.

        1. Yes, those were the days of walks/jogs along a country road with the kids riding in the little Red Wagon and mama (me) pulling it. Long car drives (and bike rides – motorized and otherwise) used to be as essential to me as air.

    2. Wow, I can completely understand this…I’m surrounded by momma’s who get energy from being with their kids, and while I loooove my daughter (and one on the way) my introverted nature gets drained by being “on” 24-7. I think I’ll try and do better about scheduling regular breaks just to be by myself–not just use babysitting for when I’m teaching lessons or when I have to. Hmmm….

  5. I think it’s very important to “know thyself”–but without time to think in quiet, I believe this can be a difficult thing to do. I find time alone very rejuvenating. I had never lived by myself until January of this year–of course I was alone at times at a dorm on campus, but I’d never had my *own* completely private retreat. The effect on my mental ease has been huge. If someone lives with others, I think it is vital to find time to be alone and meditate, reflect, do what you care about, and so on. I have a much better idea of who I am and why I’m that way. Of course, time with others is great, too–it’s important to learn about new and different perspectives to grow as a person–but many of us are in constant company as it is.

  6. Fascinating post. In this modern rah-rah world we live in, there’s just not enough time for the introverted to recharge. I am seriously considering a solo venture for that much-needed rejuvenation.

    1. Always make time to give to yourself, especially if others require your time (like kids, a spouse, or taking care of an elder).

      One thing I like to do I call, “Planned Spontaneity”. A complete oxymoron that provides me with a block of time that I can do whatever I want. Sometimes it is an hour, sometimes it falls on a work day during business hours, sometimes it is a weekend road trip. Whatever, it doesn’t matter because it is yours. Plus mixing up your normal routine can be exactly what you need.

      1. Like discretionary money, discretionary time is an important part of the personal and the relationship equation.

  7. Thank you for this post, Mark. I live in an area where 95% of the population works in the same industry. I work alongside the majority and hate it. A larger paycheck is the only incentive to advance in this career path. There is no fulfillment, and no direct positive impact on society. I am searching for more and I know deep down in my soul that making a difference means so much more than making a ton of money.

    It is so hard to go against the grain. Self-realization in the face of conformity is never easy. For those of you, like me, who are fighting this battle, allow me to quote the late Steve Jobs.

    “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

    1. Steve was right, of course :-). Who said – pigeonholes are for pigeons?

    2. I’d be worried that the industry you work in is a bubble – when it pops, you’ll be SOL. Pick up some new skills before it does.

  8. Great post, my friend. I love spending time with others, sharing activities, going out, etc. However, I think that, sometimes, we need a time to be alone. I usually get alone to set goals, to review things I’ve done and things I’ve might done wrong, to reenergize, and to meditate. Nobody has been born to be alone, but it is true that sometimes you need your space.

  9. Great post as always Mark. I’ve noticed more and more in my own life that as I get the physical health stuff worked out, I’ve been focusing more on mental and emotional health. It seems like a good next step, and I really appreciate how you’ve begun turning in the same direction as well.

  10. Personality tests not only help determine who we are… but also how we interact with those around us. A greater understanding of how others receive us helps maintain peace and sanity at home, work or in unknown parts.

  11. Mark,

    Thanks for this post! Self awareness is vitally important in so many areas of life, whether it is diet, exercise, stress management, work environment, etc. Turning it on is the key to knowing when things are/are not working… and it is absolutely essential as you point out for making lasting changes. I am a physician with a mission on my own blog of pointing out self-knowledge as the key to welness and burnout avoidance for peofessionals. Keep up the lifestyle posts, as they draw an even bigger audience (like mine) to the Primal way!

  12. Mark,
    I read your post’s every day, my boyfriend can attest to this, 🙂 but today was a little different. I have been going through some changes in my life over the past several months. I took a leap of faith and moved to California, learned a LOT about nutrition and the importance of taking care of myself and those I care about by changing the way I interact with food. I have been *pretty* healthy throughout life, I’ve played sports at the collegiate level, my parents always focused on fruits, vegetables and proteins, but it was still structured by conventional wisdom. Your blog and my boyfriends ability to take even the most complex interactions in the body and explaining them to me like I’m kindergardener have really helped me on my journey to health.

    I’ve read your previous post’s about silence, taking retreats, all that… but today’s post really hit me. “We inevitably gain self-understanding through our relationships, which can be startling mirrors to our strengths and weaknesses, our assets and insecurities.” The past few months of struggling financially and emotionally have really shown me a different side of myself, and looking through the lens of my relationships has shown me how much I really have grown as a woman. Today’s post put life’s challenges into perspective, and encouraged me to take each challenge as an chance to grow and to reflect on the opportunities life gives me. Whether these opportunities are cast with shades of gray, or sunshine, they can all elicit the same outcome: a sense of accomplishment, pride, and desire to continue growing once you get through them. Rather than giving up, I need to “keep on truckin’ “.

    I definitely needed to be reminded to take some time out, and listen to myself. So, thank you for creating a space that we can all come to check in with ourselves, nutritionally, physically, and emotionally. You are a really inspiring individual, and I’ve been trying to figure out a way to become more like you as I continue to navigate through my 20’s. 🙂

  13. People who reflect, who know themselves, understand their boundaries. They know where they end and other people begin. They don’t get caught up in energy-wasting drama. They also don’t ‘fix’ other people. A wise person close to me one said ‘The key to life is healthy boundaries.’ If we have strong ones we can be successful in all walks of life.

    1. Alison, beautifully said. I hope you don’t mind that I copied it to read again and again. 🙂

  14. Thanks for this post, Mark! Knowing oneself, taking time to self-reflect and be curious about who one is and why one repsonds to life the way one does is the single most important thing a person can do for oneself, because, as you point to, who we are is the foundation, the basis of every single thing we do…changes we make, relationships that we keep or let go, successes and failures, goals, everything. Our culture in general does not promote this kind of self-awareness, so I’m so glad to see you pointing out its importance. For anyone interested in self-discovery work, I highly recommend Riso and Hudson’s book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram. This is a personality typing system that takes a more holistic approach to the individual, including the spiritual dimension. It had a huge impact on me and made a big difference in my life.

  15. Mark is right that most people are a more or less balanced mix of both introversion and extraversion. The term here is ambiversion – which describes about 68% of the population, according to Wikipedia:

    What the originator of the I/E axis/dimension – Carl Jung – had in mind when he formalized this notion was the mature, developmental stage called “individuation”. Individuation is similar to the notion of self-actualization, the term coined by Kurt Goldstein.

    The basic idea of individuation was to understand and to express ALL aspects of the self – both the dominate and the subordinate aspects. For example, if a person’s natural tendency is toward introversion, then developing the extraversion aspects brings about balance. And, vice versa – which is why we see so many extraverts being advised to take retreats, etc.

    The other dimensions involved are intuition- sensation; perception – judgement; and thinking – feeling. Again, we all have each of these dimensions within us and the goal is to find a functional, dynamic balance between and amongst them. To challenge ourselves to step out of our comfort zone to explore and to develop our subordinate aspects. For example, we see people who approach life with their head, encouraged to get in touch with their heart/feelings. People who tend to be judgmental, to simply allow something/someone to “be”. So forth and so on.

    To bring this notion of individuation into relation with Mark’s original thought about self-determination – the individuated person is most likely to be a healthily self-determined person.

  16. My Japanese parents taught me well. They were both busy and working each day but took time for their own hot bath each night before bed. As an adult, I have carried on this “tradition” and now understand why they needed this daily alone time with no kids and no talking.

  17. I love that you did this article. In becoming primal, I’ve discovered different aspects of who I am that I may never have unlocked had I never stumbled upon this type of lifestyle. It’s certainly refreshing to gain more knowledge about who you are.

  18. Love this post! I think knowing who we are truly deep down, accepting ourselves and living in freedom of that is critical to health. It’s almost a ‘spiritual’ side to wellness if you will……..our thoughts really impact our health – best to think good things about ourselves, be comfortable with who we are! I love the idea of retreating and solitude – I spent the past several years really coming into knowing who I am and learning to really love myself! It’s so liberating!

  19. Hi Mark, great post again, love your work…

    As an observation, the clarity of thinking I get from not eating grains, and eating great paleo foods, plus the wellbeing I get from following this practice, is a great way to get the insight on life the universe and everything…

    Found a link in this site to Lierre Keith, and Paul Check, Jaminets and Drs Eades, Gnolls, Weston A Price, Taubes, and uncle Tom Cobbly and all…

    The inward journey begins again after each new chapter of knowledge from the outside is absorbed..

  20. I love that statement ” we’re active creators of our own well being.” That really is what the Primal Lifestyle is all about.

    And I agree with some of the other commentators as well. The clarity of thinking we get from eating this way is what makes thinking about these things a possibility.

    Food, exercise and basic lifestyle is the 101 course. Thinking beyond that is the advanced course.

  21. while i love reading the science-y nutrition related stuff on here, i feel as if there is a great balance between that, and the more theoretical topics, which i also love reading on here. keep it up mark!

  22. The thing about grok is he probably did not experience shame in the way we do. I feel that shame is a NAD. Grok woulnd’t have been shamed into repressing his feelings and his true self. I’m sure that if you rubbed him the wrong way he would have hit you with a stick; while I’m not condoning hitting people with sticks (as much as they may deserve it), I believe that merely admitting to ourself that they deserve it/our feelings were hurt/you are not happy/this is not want you want/need, is enough to give a voice to our feelings, instead of shoving them back down our throats with food.
    But shame is harder as a habit to give up than grains. Go primal with feelings!!

  23. As a happy introvert, during my 24 year marriage and bringing up two children, I have taken a two week break every year to walk, sail or do other things on my own. I had three months sailing In Scotland and it was by far the most memorable of the times I spent alone.
    As an introvert, during sad times, like the after death of my mother, my best friend and such, I always need that time alone. It is healing for me.

  24. thanks for the post/s Mark. I stumbled upon this site a month or so ago and now always start my morning with it . . .good stuff

  25. Why more time in green space if you have ADD? I haven’t heard that one before – although as an ADD/dyslexic I love gardening.

  26. I am my own worst nightmare and my very best friend! Choose one or the other, but choose wisely 😛

  27. This post comes at the right time for me, as I have recently begun a meditation practice. I have found immense relief and comfort in knowing that I have 20 minutes to be quiet and allow my mind and body to really connect each day. I can’t afford any solo vacations, but we do what we can with what we have!

  28. Great post. Getting to know our true selves is one thing that led us to this lifestyle. Interdependence is such a freeing concept…

  29. Great post, does anyone know of any good personality tests? I’m looking for some enlightenment.


  30. thanks. i really appreciate it. thank you also Mr Fikry for giving me this kind of idea when im still studying at almentor.

  31. As I was looking for the good content on this particular topic get to inspire and I this blog I find some of the amazing points. I appreciate your work and research.