Most of us only know ourselves on a surface level. You can deepen your self-discovery with these creative exercises.
Many of us can name our favorite foods, books, and shows. But we might be less inclined to have a deeper self-awareness — the kind that connects the dots between our past and present or picks up on how our emotions may be guiding our behavior.
Sometimes, when life becomes particularly stressful or hectic — like it is right now — we may experience monumental transformation. Or, we might disconnect from ourselves and lose our deeper well of knowledge.
Either way, you can take this as an opportunity to explore who you are today with these wide-ranging exercises.
Before we dive into exercises to try, it’s helpful to understand why knowing ourselves better is as essential as knowing which meds we’re swallowing or where to put the gas versus the oil in our vehicles.
Here are some of the biggest reasons:
Responding more effectively to life
“Gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves helps us to be responsible — or response-able — meaning we can respond to life, rather than react,” says Joey Hulin, a meditation teacher based in Cornwall, United Kingdom, and author of the book “Your Spiritual Almanac: A Year of Living Mindfully.”
Deeper introspection prevents us from drowning in difficult situations and emotions, allowing us to make wiser, more thoughtful decisions.
“It is the difference between being completely consumed by stress, and having the ability to notice when we feel stressed and then course-correct to be more grounded and balanced,” Hulin says.
Not letting unresolved emotions unwittingly dictate our actions
Without even realizing it, many of us hold on to anger, grief, shame, and other emotions that come out in sometimes surprising and confusing ways, says Linn Martinsen, a psychotherapeutic counselor in London, United Kingdom, and author of the book “Therapy Toolkit: 60 Cards for Self-Exploration.”
We may lash out at loved ones, driving a wedge between us. We may cling to toxic habits (and people). We may avoid taking on exciting projects, fearing failure or humiliation.
Discovering and understanding buried emotions helps us get back into the driver’s seat and navigate our lives.
Creating the life we truly want
Knowing ourselves also helps us create a more meaningful, satisfying life. Because when you understand your true yearnings and core values and take the time to process your emotions, you can take actions that build an authentic life.
There are many different ways to immerse yourself in self-discovery — from exploring activities that resonate with you to excavating deep-seated emotions.
Examine your reactions
“Becoming aware of your physical self and how it responds to the world around you can give invaluable information about your deeper inner life,” says Martinsen.
Our bodies hold insights, too — often without our cognitive awareness, she says.
According to Martinsen, any time you have a strong physical sensation, instead of reacting right away, you could pause for a moment and perhaps ask yourself these questions:
- What exactly am I feeling in my body?
- When I shift my attention to my physical self, what feelings do I notice?
- What was said or what happened just before my reaction?
- What might feel familiar from my past?
- What do I need and how would I like to be heard?
Keep a dream journal
Our dreams are often mysteries, or just plain weird — but that’s actually the point. “Consciously allowing space and time to that which you may not fully understand can be a powerful way to gain deeper knowledge of yourself,” notes Martinsen.
During sleep, our minds may work through difficult situations. Our emotions may reveal themselves in the safe confines of our dreams.
To keep a dream journal:
- Put a notebook and pen on your nightstand.
- Jot down what you remember as soon as you wake up.
- Make a quick list of what happened, how you felt, what you thought, and any specific details — no matter how small or seemingly meaningless.
- Reflect on any connections between the dream and your current or past feelings or situations, or any patterns or themes that emerge over time.
Keep a regular journal, too
Journaling, in general, is “a process of sifting through the weeds of the mind, bringing what is below the surface of our awareness up into the light,” says Hulin.
Journaling also “helps us understand the narrative of the mind, and to safely and nonjudgmentally express and process thoughts, feelings, and emotions, even the most challenging ones,” adds Hulin.
There are many ways to journal, including using specific prompts, making lists, or writing down whatever comes to mind at the moment. What’s best is really up to you.
To get started, you might try these prompts:
- “Right now, I am feeling…”
- “Today, I can’t stop thinking about…”
- “I wish I didn’t have to…”
- “Today, I’m struggling with…”
- “When I close my eyes, this immediately comes to mind…”
Picture your perfect day
Take the time to think through what is meaningful to you — and why. Your ideal day might be something that happened in the past or something you wish were to happen, says Ginger Houghton, a psychotherapist and owner of Bright Spot Counseling in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
Picture your fulfilling day from morning to night, exploring these questions, Houghton says:
- How do you feel when you wake up?
- What rituals do you practice?
- Who do you see?
- What do you smell, taste, and hear?
- How do you spend your day?
- How do you feel throughout the day?
- Before bed, what do you feel as you reflect on your day?
- Why is this a fulfilling day for you?
Detect your drains and pick-me-ups
To further use your self-knowledge to build deeply satisfying days, Houghton also suggests creating two lists:
- one list with activities and people that recharge you and make you feel like the best version of yourself
- another with activities and people that drain or deplete you
Is overcommitment to activities and people-pleasing weighing you down? You might want to see these tips to reset.
“Wait a few days, bring the lists back out and talk with someone who knows you well to see what patterns emerge,” adds Houghton.
Another way to think of it? Simply sit with yourself. According to Hulin, “Meditation is about being with the truth of our experiences. It is the practice of being able to be with ourselves as exactly who, where, and how we are in that moment, without judgment.”
While it isn’t easy, meditating regularly (for even just a few minutes) can normalize the practice for you and help you reap the introspective rewards.
If you’re new to meditation, it might be helpful to try a guided practice:
- Meditation apps are a great place to start. They take you through the early steps of developing a practice and help you make it a habit.
- Self-compassion guided meditations offer a variety of affirming prompts to focus your meditation practice.
Draw it out
Whether you’re an artist or someone who can barely sketch a stick figure, take out some paint, markers, or crayons. Scan your body and notice what emotions arise. Then, choose colors and shapes based on those feelings, says Martinsen.
“When we focus on colors, shapes and feelings rather than words and immediate ‘meaning-making,’ we connect to parts of ourselves that may not have been given a language yet, but which still hold vital clues as to what is happening underneath,” Martinsen shares.
Focus on your frustrations
While it’s not exactly easy to explore negative situations or feelings, these very moments can provide a wealth of insight. When frustrating circumstances or painful feelings arise, jot down what happened and what thoughts came up, says Houghton, and ask yourself:
- What is this moment here to teach me?
- What old patterns might I be enacting?
- Am I letting fear or shame determine what I do?
Lastly, says Houghton, “End the journal entry with one thing you’re grateful for in the situation.”
Knowing yourself better helps you make healthier decisions and build a more fulfilling life. Deeply hidden emotions don’t run the show; you do.
Keep in mind that this exploration can sometimes spark painful feelings, memories, and reactions.
In those moments, be gentle with yourself. Try a self-compassionate phrase. Take a walk. Talk to a trusted loved one. Sit with your feelings without judging yourself.
Remember that being human means being complex and sometimes having contradictory, darker emotions and experiences. And yet, taking this journey may be your best adventure yet.
For deeper self-knowledge, you might consider seeing a therapist, online or in person.