Getting to know ourselves - building our self-awareness

Counselling - also called psychotherapy - started with Sigmund Freud at the beginning of the last century. Shocking at the time, his basic idea was: ‘We are not who we think we are!' In other words, you don't know yourself as well as you'd like to think.

We all have a ‘story of self', which is a collection of ideas and beliefs we hold about ourselves, perhaps without realising we think this way. We tell ourselves things like, ‘I'm brilliant at everything' or ‘I'm a terrible person'. We each tell ourselves a different story. But how accurate is this story?

Sometimes, someone tries to tell us what we're like - perhaps we believe them, or perhaps we get angry because we don't recognise their description of us. ‘Don't you know me by now?!'

So, if we don't really know ourselves - and other people don't know us - who are we?

Freud introduced the concept of the unconscious. The unconscious is a part of the self where we store all the stuff we block out - the stuff we don't want to think about. This unknown stuff is a part of who we are - and we can get to know about it.

One of the aims of counselling is to unblock the unconscious - to bring unconscious material into consciousness. In other words, to help people get to know themselves better - to increase our self-awareness - to find out who we really are.

Some might wonder why it's an advantage to know ourselves. For some, ignorance is bliss! However, it was Freud's belief that we can be guided by the unconscious without knowing it. For example, we might find ourselves getting angry and we don't know why. Or we're watching a movie and start crying for no apparent reason - again, we're puzzled by our strong reaction. In both cases, something has touched us deep inside but don't understand why - we say ‘something triggered me'. Freud said we can start to understand ourselves.

Our psyche is like a pressure cooker: we're keeping a lid on it, which means denying or pushing down different feelings and beliefs. These feelings and beliefs are bubbling away, and they can be triggered and burst out. We end up saying things like: ‘That wasn't like me!' In fact, it was like you - but it wasn't like the ‘you' you like think you are!

This might sound scary. But Freud's view was: It's better out than in. Counselling can help release repressed feelings and uncover unconscious beliefs about ourselves - it can help let the steam out of the pressure cooker.

The counsellor is trained to accept that humans contain all sorts of thoughts and feelings - many of them socially unacceptable, things we don't like to admit to ourselves or others. But when these parts are uncovered - when they become conscious - we can start to accept them and make sense of them. We become more self-aware: we can accept we're only human, just like everyone else. And the more we learn about ourselves, the more we can become authentic and choose what to do with ourselves.

By Mike Brooks, psychotherapist