Do We Know Ourselves

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The concept of self-knowledge continues to be a subject of debate and reflection in many areas of psychology and philosophy. From the time of the ancient Greeks, the significance of the dictum, ‘Know Thyself’, has penetrated religious and secular philosophies. Yet, frequently, situations arise where we are surprised or puzzled by our own behaviour, confused by our emotional state or unsure of the accuracy of our memory regarding a specific experience. In his essay on the unconscious, Sigmund Freud addressed this phenomenon: ‘In our most personal daily experiences we encounter ideas of unknown origin and the result of thought processes whose working remain hidden from us’. Exclamations, silent or voiced, ensue: ‘I have no idea why I did that!’ ‘I don’t know why I said that!’ ‘I don’t remember!’ ‘I’m not sure how I feel!’ The question emerges: Do we really know ourselves or is our self-knowledge vulnerable to varying degrees of distortion, delusion and deception? Freud was an Austrian psychiatrist who revolutionized traditional approaches to mental illness and its treatment. His development of psychoanalysis, ‘the talking cure’, was based on the radical idea that mental distress could be understood and alleviated through the development of a therapeutic relationship between the patient and the skilled psychoanalyst. In this relational setting, problems in the present could be understood through an awareness and an understanding of the past, and the patient’s self-knowledge could be enhanced through an honest analysis and timely interpretations on the part of the analyst. Since Freud’s time, many of his theories have fallen out of favour, in particular his insistence on the centrality of sexuality in human motivation and behaviour, not only in adult life, but inherent from the earliest childhood experiences. This reference to childhood sexuality continues to be met with outrage and incredulity; we prefer to imagine the period of childhood as a...
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