The Scottish poet Robert Burns alluded to it in one of his verses but is it true that someone can know you better than you know yourself?
Like so many other tricky questions in life, the answer is . . . yes and no.
There may be no more disagreeable comment you can make than to tell someone: “I know you better than you know yourself.” Why? Simply because such a statement is almost always taken as criticism. And frankly, it’s typically meant to be. So regardless of whether your interpretation of their behavior is correct, they’re likely to be offended. Or they may feel embarrassed or humiliated by how you’re so authoritatively “dissecting” them. The fact is that hardly anyone enjoys being psychoanalysed—that is, unless they’re seeing a professional therapist and they’ve already committed themselves to a process of self-examination.
Still, the undeniable truth about us humans is that we’re all afflicted with blind spots. And assuming that another person doesn’t share our particular shortcomings, or short-sightedness, they may well be able to discern something in us that we’re unable to recognize. The problem is that if powerful, self-protective defenses prevent us from owning up to something weak or dishonorable about ourselves—and the negative feedback we’re getting is bluntly delivered—these defenses will automatically get triggered. Unless we have a strong ego and are more enlightened than most, having our deficiencies directly pointed out to us isn’t something we’ll welcome with open arms. So despite its possible merits, the information we receive may be totally lost on us.
It’s fascinating that David Dunning, who in his “The Paradox of Knowing” (link is external) (The Psychologist, June 2013, 26, 414-417) reviews the substantial research done on how well we understand ourselves (vs. understanding someone else) concludes that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that in many contexts, especially as they relate to predicting our future behaviors and achievements, we’re definitely more proficient at understanding others than we are ourselves. Put simply, we’re better social psychologists than self-psychologists (!).
Routinely, we show a tendency to downplay others’ “agency, intentions, and free will,” able to realize that their actions are shaped more by “situational and internal constraints.” Yet—and falsely—we readily attribute these three volitional qualities to ourselves: what Dunning calls “misguided exceptionalism.” We see ourselves as somehow “special” and therefore exempt from the human nature we accurately appreciate in others. At least in part, the studies that this author discusses illustrate how, when it comes to self-analysis, we all share certain blind spots.
I’d add that, in addition, if we’re saddled with a personality disorder (e.g., narcissistic, borderline, sociopathic, dependent, paranoid, passive-aggressive, etc.), our self-insight will be all the more limited. We’ll be at even greater risk for under- or over-estimating our capabilities, and at times reveal little or no insight into what’s driving our behavior.
Nonetheless, it’s rather presumptuous, or even arrogant, for another person to make a blanket statement that they “get” us better than we do ourselves. For unless our personality has virtually been “overrun” by a pervasive, rigid, and all-consuming defense system (and, in a sense, we’re one enormous blind spot!), it’s highly unlikely that anyone can really know what’s going on inside us as well as we can. Ultimately, only we are privy to our innermost reality—our deepest longings, hopes, fantasies, doubts, sorrows, fears and anxieties.
And while we may not be entirely honest, or aware, of what our various thoughts and feelings actually signify, it’s almost impossible for another to surmise what we may diligently have kept concealed within ourselves. Additionally, there may be experiences that we felt compelled to repress because when they occurred we lacked the emotional resources to deal with them. So though, however deviously, we may “act them out” in the present, these behaviors rarely betray to others the underlying trauma that precipitated them. For instance, a distrusting, raging child might be so because of very early molestation that’s been completely repressed. But to outsiders, such seemingly unwarranted rebelliousness isn’t perceivable as expressing such a terrible violation as much as it is a manifestation of some unfortunate genetic defect.
On the other hand, we may accidentally “give ourselves away” in what we say and how we say it, so that if the other person is reasonably perceptive they’ll detect where we’rereally coming from—regardless of whether we ourselves are aware of it. For instance, we may have no idea that the tone of our utterance might divulge manipulative intentions, yet this motive is clearly comprehensible to the other person, who patently feels we’re trying to take advantage of them. They can sense this acutely, even though (perhaps in our need to view ourselves positively) we may be oblivious to such a “hidden” aim.
Or, as another example, a male who’s basically shy, sensitive, and easily hurt might concoct a tough macho image to conceal that, deep within, he’s really quivering jelly. But even though he himself has managed to embrace this false persona as reflecting his true self—denying through this carefully cultivated bravado nagging feelings of vulnerability—another individual might easily see through this façade.
There are countless other examples that could be employed to illustrate the many different situations in which another person can identify the motives behind our behavior better than we can. But to offer the most concise answer to the question around which this post revolves:No, realistically speaking, another person—unless they’re truly psychic or a highly intuitive and well-seasoned mental healthprofessional—can’t know ourselves better than we’re able to. But Yes, in particular areas it’s unquestionable that others can tell what’s going on with us—or what we’re “up to”—better than we can.
To end this piece where it began, although we all have blind spots, our particular myopia may be nowhere as opaque to others as it is to ourselves. In fact, there are times when we betray our true thoughts and feelings in ways that are absolutely transparent to others, despite being clueless as to having divulged far more than we intended. Like chuckling and making light of something, even while the other person can detect a tear unintentionally moistening our eyes. Or a flash of grief emerging on our face when—consciously—we’d already decided to keep our mourning emotional state to ourselves. For verbal cues and non-verbal cues can transmit messages that we’re nowhere close to being cognizant of.
So, if there’s a practical lesson to be learned from all this, it’s: Stay open to the possible insights of others about your words or deeds. They may help you become aware of things about yourself that potentially may be invaluable to you—and for whatever relationship you’re in. Even if at first your impulse is to react defensively, it’s always worthwhile to consider what your words may be communicating to others.
Becoming more aware of how you’re coming across to others (i.e., how you may be prompting them to negatively interpret you) can hardly help but serve your best interests. So dismissing such information out-of-hand is your loss, not theirs. Much to the contrary, using their feedback to effect positive change in yourself can ultimately lead you to become a better—and happier—person.
But, as a final caveat, consider also that you need to assess with caution what the other person is sharing with you. For their own motives might be suspect. They might simply want to assert superiority over you. Or make you feel bad because (however inadvertently) you said or did something that made them feel bad. Or, most important of all, they might be projecting onto you some failing of theirs that they can’t, or won’t, recognize in themselves. You certainly don’t want to be taking on “stuff” that doesn’t belong to you. For, if you’re like most of us, you’ve got quite enough to deal with as it is.
In short, make an honest effort to figure out just who might be in denial. Does the “blind spot” in question belong to you… or, just maybe, to them?
Note 1: If this post in any way “spoke” to you, and you think it might to others as well, please consider forwarding them its link.
© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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[Leon F. Sletzer]