Rethinking Self-Awareness: Freud versus Socrates

Most people who are interested in helping others to improve their careers would agree that individual differences in self-awareness impact career outcomes. This talk builds on that agreement by analyzing three topics: (1) How to define self-awareness? (2) Does self-awareness matter? And (3) How to increase self-awareness?

How to Define Self-Awareness? Sigmund Freud is credited with popularizing the notion that people are unaware of the reasons for their actions. According to Freud, social behavior is driven by unconscious forces—motives and desires that are hidden from conscious awareness. Although people can provide explanations for their behavior, these explanations are rationalizations; people act for reasons they don’t understand, and then invent justifications for why they behave as they do.   Although Freud popularized the concept of the unconscious mind, Karl Marx (and later sociologists) also argued that people grow up in particular cultures and social class environments and internalize their local values, and these values subsequently control their lives in unconscious ways. So for both Freud and Marx, people are largely unaware of the reasons for their actions—and these reasons are outside their control. The existentialist philosopher J.P. Sartre contributed to the discussion of self-awareness in two interesting ways. First, he argued that the nature of reality (that our lives have no inherent meaning) is more than most people can bear, so they slide into self-deception and pretend that what they do in their everyday lives has meaning. Second, he argued that people have a moral obligation to face reality squarely—that is, Sartre argued we have a moral duty to become self-aware, to acknowledge the true meaning of what we do and why we do it. Thus, in contrast with Freud and Marx who see us as victims of our self-deception, Sartre argues that we are personally responsible for becoming self-aware.

Now we come to the point of this particular discussion. In the tradition defined by Freud, Marx, and Sartre, self-awareness concerns discovering the unconscious origins of our everyday behavior—i.e., learning why we behave as we do so that we can behave better. They also all agree that we carry out this process of self-discovery by self-reflection or introspection—we look inward and ruminate on our past actions and the possible reasons for them. The view that people achieve self-awareness through self-analysis and introspection is one of those received truths that everyone believes but that isn’t true.  

To be very clear, I am arguing that self-awareness cannot be attained by introspection, and I say this for three reasons. The first reason has to do with the nature of personality; the second reason has to do with the nature of introspection; and the third reason has to do with what Socrates knew and we have forgotten. Starting with the nature of personality, it is important to distinguish identity from reputation. Identity concerns our hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations; identity concerns the person that we think we are; identity is personality from the actor’s perspective. On the other hand, reputation concerns how others think about and evaluate us as actors; reputation is personality from the observer’s perspective. Identity concerns the person you think you are; reputation concerns the person we think you are. There is the you that you know and there is the you that we know; I would argue that the you that you know (your identity) is hardly worth knowing—because you made it up. More importantly, 100 years of research on identity has gone nowhere. There is no taxonomy, no measurement base, and no reliable generalizations to report. On the other hand, 20 years of research on reputation has been enormously productive: there is a universally accepted taxonomy (the Five-Factor Model), a measurement base, and a vast body of findings. Finally, peoples’ reports on their identity correlate weakly with observer reports: the you that you know is not the you that we know.

Now consider the act of introspection. Who does introspection? Neurotics, psychologists, and my ex-wife. The disposition to introspection is normally distributed. At one end of the distribution are neurotics and psychologists, at the other end of the distribution are people who are incapable of introspecting. The disposition to introspection is normally distributed and being prone to introspection confers no adaptive advantage.   What do the following people have in common: Voltaire, Ulysses S. Grant, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan? On the one hand, they are world historical figures; on the other hand, they were incapable of introspection. What can we conclude from that fact? That career success is independent of the capacity for introspection.

Finally, Socrates and the ancient Greeks famously advised “To know thyself”; they recommended self-knowledge as the key to a healthy life. But what did Socrates mean by self-knowledge? He did not mean self-awareness in the Freudian sense of discovering your inner secrets. The Greeks defined self-knowledge as being aware of your personal performance limits and understanding your strengths and shortcomings. And that kind of self-knowledge comes from experience, not introspection.

Does Self-Awareness Matter? Careers evolve during social interaction—everything consequential in careers comes out of or is based on social interactions. Life is one interaction after another, and after each interaction there is an accounting process in which people win or lose a little bit of status and win or lose a little bit of social support. Thus, status and social support are the key outcomes of social interaction. People who are able to accumulate status and social support have good careers; people who are unable to accumulate status and social support have poor careers. People with high status and no social support are at risk for betrayal or worse. People with social support and no status are usually well liked but have no power. Status itself is the result of ambition—i.e., hard work, aspirational values, persistence, and determination. In general I don’t think ambition can be trained. On the other hand, social skill crates social support; self-awareness is a crucial component of social skill; and social skill can, in principle, be trained. Thus self-awareness can be trained.

How to Increase Self-Awareness? The distinction between identity and reputation is crucial for properly understanding self-awareness. Socrates’ insight (and 100 years of research) suggests there is nothing to learn from introspection and self-analysis. But understanding how you are perceived by others (understanding your reputation) is crucial for career success. People hire you, fire you, promote you, trust you, confide in you, loan you money based on how they perceive you. This means that, in an important sense, self-knowledge is other knowledge. We need to know how others perceive us, what we are doing to create those perceptions, and what we should do to make sure our reputation is aligned with our career goals and aspirations. Observer feedback is the key to self-awareness.

Finally, any discussion of feedback should pay attention to the concept of “coachability”. Being receptive to feedback is part of personality and, by definition, there will be individual differences in receptiveness. Some people are willing to listen to feedback, internalize feedback, and try to act in accordance with feedback. Some people, because they are defensive, or arrogant, or unconcerned about improving their performance, totally resist feedback. And most people are somewhere in the middle. I am reminded of a comment by a very experienced executive coach who says the first thing he asks coaching client is to reflect on how much they bullshit themselves about how much they bullshit themselves.

A version of this article was originally published on the International Coach Federation blog.