One of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves is true self-awareness.
Socrates’s maxim to “know thyself” was inscribed on the temple of Apollo as a directive to all, and other great thinkers like St. Augustine, Confucius, and Hypatia encouraged self-knowledge as well.
The questions below will help you to glean a greater understanding of your deepest truths, which might help you make the changes needed to live more authentically.
1. What do I really want for myself, beneath all my excuses?
We all have a litany of reasons why we don’t or can’t pursue various interests or endeavors.
Maybe we love the idea of something, but we don’t have enough time, money, or energy to do it.
Sometimes, we tell others that we’re interested in these things to gain their approval, and the (very valid) excuses give us an “out” as to why we aren’t throwing ourselves into them.
So, the question is: what do you want for yourself, rather than what you think others want for you or will be impressed by?
If you had the means to do what you truly wanted, what would it be?
2. Who am I when no one is watching?
Many of us perform to suit other people’s perceptions of us.
We might move, speak, or even eat differently depending on who’s around us, with our true selves only making an appearance when we’re alone.
This is why spending time in solitude and silence is invaluable—it’s only in this guarded space that we can be our absolute, authentic selves.
Try to spend a few days by yourself, and observe who you are when there are no observers around you.
How do you move your body? What do you eat? Which activities do you partake in when there are no critical eyes upon you? How free do you feel?
3. What really drives me and lights a fire under me?
We’re all motivated by different things, and what inspires one person may devastate another.
When it comes to inspiring you to leap into action, what do you consider the primary driving force?
Is it your own will to achieve your goals? Or are you more motivated by doing things for other people’s benefit?
Do you find that you’re reward-driven, such as earning medals or certificates, or do you like to receive accolades from those you hold in high regard?
4. What have I been pretending doesn’t make me unhappy?
Many of us tolerate situations or take part in activities that make us deeply unhappy while pretending that we’re feeling content and fulfilled.
As you go about your daily life, check in with yourself to determine whether you’re being performative, such as pretending to be happy to see certain people or do various tasks, or if the pretense of happiness is depressing you.
Do you truly love aspects of your lifestyle that you claim to embrace and adore?
Or do you secretly despise them and wish they were different?
5. When have I compromised my values and why?
Almost everyone you speak to will feel some measure of shame or guilt about an experience in which they compromised their values.
When you look back on your actions thus far, can you think of a situation (or several situations) in which you denied or compromised things that were important or even sacred to you?
If so, what were the circumstances in which these occurred? Did you have to compromise these values for the sake of self-preservation? Or to protect others?
And if you found yourself in a similar situation, would you compromise these values again?
6. What do I secretly wish was different about my life?
Are there aspects of your life that you tolerate, rather than celebrate?
If you were given all the resources you needed to live the life you absolutely want, what changes would you make?
Perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that you don’t mind the chaos of your current home life even though your soul is screaming for peace and quiet.
Or you’ve resigned yourself to plodding through your work routine without any challenge or fulfillment, instead of pursuing a career that makes you feel like you’re doing some good in the world.
So, what do you wish was different? And if you had the opportunity to change it, would you?
7. What have I stayed stuck in out of habit rather than choice?
As you go through your daily routines, ask yourself if the various things you do bring you joy, or if you’re just going through the motions because that’s what you’ve grown accustomed to.
Maybe you don’t actually like to drink coffee first thing in the morning and would rather have a smoothie.
Or maybe you outgrew your relationship ages ago and you simply haven’t gotten around to ending it because it’s become comfortable and routine.
In what aspects of your life are you simply maintaining the status quo rather than choosing to show up and do this because you sincerely want to do it?
8. What brings me the most joy and fulfillment when I actually do it?
When you think about the various pastimes you engage in, which of them make you truly happy, and which do you do out of obligation?
Have you been picking at a project for years because you feel like you have to finish it?
Which pursuits can you lose yourself in for hours and end up feeling content or rejuvenated, rather than drained?
Can you spend days reading and feel elated afterward? Or do you prefer to go to a festival and spend those same days dancing and laughing with a hundred new friends?
Be honest with yourself here, rather than answering in the manner that you think others would approve of or admire more.
9. What would I change about my past if I could go back with my current wisdom?
I don’t think there’s a person alive who doesn’t fantasize about going back and changing things about their past.
Some may have been cringe moments of utter humiliation, while others might involve making terrible decisions that either hurt others deeply or closed doors that may have led to spectacular opportunities.
Knowing what you do now, with the life experience you have under your belt and the awareness of time and perspective, what would you go back and change?
And furthermore, if you had the opportunity to make amends and change things now, would you do so?
10. What do I secretly wish people knew or understood about me?
It’s highly unlikely that you’ve reached this point in your life without being misunderstood on some level.
Maybe those around you don’t understand why you like to engage in certain pursuits, while others can’t conceive of how you might dislike something that “everyone else” loves.
It’s difficult to get through to people who literally don’t have the capacity to understand something about you, especially if you experience the world in a fundamentally different way than they do, like not being able to see certain colors, or being overwhelmed by sounds that others don’t even register.
If others could know or understand something about you via firsthand experience that might completely change their perceptions about you, what would it be?
11. What have I been waiting for before I finally start living for myself?
Almost everyone has a set point in life that they feel they need to reach before they start to live for themselves.
One person may think they need to wait until their kids are a certain age before they can go back to school or travel.
Someone else may feel that they need to wait until their spouse is healthier before they leave, or that they’ve made their parents sufficiently happy so now they can do something that they really want to do.
As such, they keep putting their own dreams aside until the stars magically align enough for them to do what their souls ache for.
So, what’s your excuse? What are you waiting for, and would the universe fall apart if you stopped waiting and started living for yourself now?
12. When have I sold myself short and why did I settle?
When you think about various situations in which you’ve settled for less than you were worth, can you pinpoint exactly when you made the decision to accept “good enough”?
Or even less than that?
And if so, why did you settle rather than waiting or working for something (or someone) who was worthy of you?
13. What do I love about myself that I rarely show to others?
As mentioned before, we’re often performative with other people in order to suit their ideas of us, or to be accepted and adored by them.
This often entails repressing aspects of ourselves that we may really like in order to fit in.
This begs the question: what do you love or otherwise appreciate about yourself that you hide around others?
Do you hide your sensitive soul behind sarcasm so as not to appear weak? Or maybe you love to sing (and have a great vocal range), but never sing in front of others just in case they mock or criticize you?
14. What am I truly afraid of?
We’re not talking about phobias like clowns or spiders here.
We’re focusing on the things that we may not want to think about because they make us feel uncomfortable.
Maybe you’re afraid of those you love finding out something about you that would make them see you differently.
Or you’re terrified of making a mistake while socializing that would end up with you being mocked or criticized, or even ostracized from the social circle(s) you both despise and yearn to be part of.
Only by understanding what you’re afraid of can you find a way to transcend that fear and re-empower yourself.
15. Do I live more in service to others, or to myself?
When you think about the things you do in your day-to-day life, do you find that you’re putting more of your time and energy into taking care of other people? Or seeing to your own needs?
This is a wide spectrum, and most people find a healthy balance between taking care of their loved ones and fulfilling their own needs and wants.
Issues arise, however, when the scales tip in one direction or another.
So, are you neglecting yourself for the sake of others? Or neglecting (or even mistreating) others for the sake of your own happiness?
16. How do I feel about the question “What do I do now?”
When it comes to asking myself open-ended questions, what I’ve found most telling is my response to the question “what do I do now?”, rather than the question itself.
When you ask yourself this question, do you feel inspired or optimistic about the fact that there are many different options available to you?
Or do you feel a wave of panic because you don’t already have a strong, certain path mapped out to follow?
How we respond emotionally to the question of what to do in any given situation is one of the greatest insights we can grant ourselves.
If you respond with panic, then that’s likely how you’ll react in a crisis situation if you don’t have a specific protocol to follow.
Similarly, if you respond with curiosity, you’re more likely to go with the flow and change direction as needed.
By asking yourself questions like these, you can delve into truths that you may have either been oblivious to or are actively avoiding.
Your answers may cause upheaval in some regards, but also amazing transformation in others.
Most importantly, you’ll get a couple of steps closer to the greatest gift you could possibly receive: knowing yourself.
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