Understanding yourself

Warning: self-knowledge can temporarily destabilise.  But in the long run, it can be the passport to a new world.  Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash

When you go to counselling, one of the things you may want to do is to understand yourself better.  Self-knowledge is a prize worth working for, but it does come at a cost.  I want to look into three of the costs of self-knowledge.


One disadvantage of understanding yourself, is that you can never quite use the same defence mechanisms with sincerity.  For example, you may discover, through self-analysis, that, when under stress, you blame others.  When you next get into a mood, you might not be able to blame others in the same way, because you know what you are doing.

Alternatively, you may find out, through self-analysis, that, under pressure, you act helpless, pushing yourself into a panic attack, and staying in panic mode until you receive help.  One you know this, you may find that you can’t panic with the same undiluted passion.

In this way, you may find that, through self-understanding, you are unable to use several defence mechanisms that were useful in the past.  There are many, but the list will include angry responses, blaming responses, rejecting responses, and running-away responses.  This may seem to be a good thing.  Of course it is, in the long term.  But, in the short term, you will be left without much of the behaviour that used to protect you under pressure.  You will have to find other ways of defending yourself in stressful times.


Another disadvantage of learning more about yourself, is that you can come to realise how you have inflicted suffering on others.  This can cause a significant amount of guilt or regret in the short to medium term.  For instance, suppose you reflect deeply about a previous relationship, and realise several things you could have done to make things better, but were blind to at the time.  This new understanding comes at a price: you now have to process how you feel about your new understanding.  You may be haunted, for a while, with visions of how your previous behaviour made family and friends suffer.

This in turn may cause extra burdens.  You may feel a duty to make things right in some way.  Or, if it is too late, you may feel paralysed with a sense of irretrievable loss.


A further disadvantage of self-knowledge is disorientation.  For example, imagine that you discover that your identity is not what you thought it was.  Identity includes issues of race, culture, gender, sexuality, religion, appearance, ability, disability… the list is endless.  Any deep revision of any of these, and you can find yourself having to renegotiate your whole life to suit a new understanding.

If you realise something about your sexuality, then you may have to renegotiate your current family set-up.  If you realise something about your work preferences, then you may have to renegotiate your job situation, with all the repercussions that follow.

Any new understanding, in a sense, takes you into a new world.  Things cannot be exactly the same again.  Reorganising your life to accommodate a new identity can be overwhelming.


The above three costs are real, and should be seriously considered before embarking on a process of self-understanding.  In a way, it should be the health warning written on every shiny packet of counselling sessions:

“Warning: counselling can cause loss of defence mechanisms, guilt or regret, and identity disorientation.”


However, in the long run, if you stick with the process, the above three costs can turn into huge benefits.

The loss of defence mechanisms, in the long run, makes you a more honest, transparent and accessible person.  Without the need to fool yourself or others with games, you can set about the process of more genuine relationships.

Guilt and regret can be great pointers to a new you.  If you can swallow the bitter pill of taking responsibility for the past, then you are well positioned to learn its lessons.  Those who never take responsibility for mistakes, will never see the need to change.

Disorientation, although inevitable in a new world, can lead, utimately, to the interest and excitement of exploration.  If you discover something new about your felt identity, then it can be immensely liberating to put it into practice.  Realising a new you in the world can bring out negotiation skills you never knew you had.



Counselling is, in part, a process of self-knowledge.

On the down side, this can cause destruction of your usual defence mechanisms; a temporary increase in painful feelings of guilt and regret; and some disorientation, if you discover something new about your felt identity.

On the up side, if you are less self-defensive, your relationships may become more open, transparent and trusting.  If you have been through the regret and the guilt, then your relationship with yourself and others may be more real and positive.  And if you have passed through the disorientation caused by new understandings, then you may be free to take on new worlds, in time, with confidence.