How to get to know oneself

Piotr Chmielinski

It is hard to speak about a deep spiritual life without getting to know oneself

Masters of spiritual life stressed that getting to know oneself was the basis of spiritual life and is the priority to reach God. Since getting to know oneself is the key to humility and humility is the foundation of spiritual life. Getting to know oneself has several features. Firstly, I must get to know the way I am, who I really am and not who I would like to be nor who other people think I am. Therefore, you must know the story of your life, the experience of hurt, harm; you must discern the world of your emotions, desires, motivation, relationships with others and with God. Daily examination of conscience (more about this in the article ‘Kwadrans szczerosci’ [A quarter of sincerity] on pp. 14-15), a conversation with a psychologist or a therapist (see the interview with Agata Rusak) can be very helpful. So can be a talk with a friend or a person whom you trust. Since another person can look at our live from some distance and see things we cannot notice. Secondly, getting to know yourself should have positive and negative features. Since no one has only positive or only negative features. They are mixed, and besides good features there are unfortunately bad ones. The history of spirituality shows examples of focusing only on the negative aspects of human personality. Some preachers eagerly and frequently spoke about sin, man’s depravation; they threatened us with the torments of hell. Unfortunately, one can see such an attitude even today. On the other hand, focusing only on the positive features and ignoring the damage of the original sin is a big mistake.

Between light and darkness

The human psyche is a rich, dynamic world, which is characterised by some inner dilemma. Two contradictory forces: desires and needs are present in man. Everyone feels two aspirations: towards infinity (endlessness) and towards finiteness. The Constitution ‘Gaudium et spes’ speaks about that, ‘The truth is that the imbalances under which the modern world labours are linked with that more basic imbalance which is rooted in the heart of man. For in man himself many elements wrestle with one another. Thus, on the one hand, as a creature he experiences his limitations in a multitude of ways; on the other he feels himself to be boundless in his desires and summoned to a higher life. Pulled by manifold attractions he is constantly forced to choose among them and renounce some. Indeed, as a weak and sinful being, he often does what he would not, and fails to do what he would.’ Therefore, one can say that there is a world of desires and a world of limitations in man. The world of desires, which embraces imagination, seeking, questions, is limitless. The world of limitations embraces contradictory aspects of existence that cannot be changed but must be accepted the way they are: family, story of one’s life, constant features of the character. Man, being between these two poles, is constantly drawn by good and evil, called by God and at the same time, aroused by nature. He is capable of great altruistic deeds and interested only in himself.

Real-self and ideal-self

Psychology has also described this tension. It says that one can differentiate two spheres in the structure of human personality: ideal-self and real-self. Real-self shows who I am here and now whereas ideal-self indicates the person I wish I could be. Tension exists between ideal-self and real-self and this tension accompanies us through our whole lives. On the one hand, we want to be wonderful and on the other hand, we aim at fulfilling our desires and all material things. Consequently, a conflict or tension appears and is with us all the time. Some people cannot cope with this tension. They use various tricks and defence mechanisms to run away from this tension.


The easiest way to solve the conflict is to eliminate one of the conflicting parties. Some eliminate the world of ideas (ideal-self). They say that it is not worthy to aim at ideals since nobody has ever succeeded. They eagerly show human sinfulness; they condemn, criticise and judge. And they even brutally attack institutions (e.g. the Church) that speak a lot about ideals. Others choose the contrary solution: they eliminate the world of concrete reality (real-self). They choose the world of ideals, unreal expectations, which they cannot realise. And still some people go from one extreme to another. For instance, a newly wed husband can idealise his wife. He regards her as wonderful in all respects, almost sinless, without any weaknesses and vices. His marriage seems to be an idyll, something simple, giving constant happiness. With time such a husband is deprived of his illusions. He discovers that his wife has many vices and his marriage resembles hard work instead of an idyll. Then he goes to another extreme – on the level of real-self. He thinks that one cannot realise marriage ideals and it is impossible to find common language with his ‘bad’ wife. He becomes bitter and cynical. And as a result, he leaves his wife since he cannot cope with the tension, which has appeared in his marriage in a natural way. What was missing was his real look at himself, getting to know himself.

Life is not white-black

That can be the reason for many departures and betrayals. That concerns leaving priesthood or even the Church. The tension between ideals and reality can be a chance and even a necessary condition to spiritual growth and development. Since we are corporal beings and we carry some calling to approach God on the way of this inner tension. Giving up this way means desiring to follow your own ways, which are apparently easier. The experience of the tension does not let us be in some spiritual lethargy and reminds us of our destination. A new reality awaits us since we have been created for infinity. However, sometimes we prefer to see the work in a simplified perspective: white-black, good-evil. At the beginning of its life a child discerns the world in this way: I am completely good when my mother smiles at me and I am completely evil when she shouts at me. Getting mature, man begins to see that he has some goodness and some evil, and he begins to integrate these two dimensions.

Who am I?

One cannot hear God and another man if one does not hear oneself. Since not only God and other people speak to us but also we ourselves, our spirit, psyche and body, speak. These three spheres of personality send messages all the time. If I fall while skiing and feel some pain in my leg it means that something bad has happened. Neglecting this pain and continuing the ride could cause serious troubles and even death. So pain is a piece of information that my physical sphere sends to me. The similar thing happens when I experience prolonged fear or sadness. Here in turn, my psyche informs me that something is wrong with it and it needs help. This alarm is very important. Thanks to it I know what is going on with me. The situation is more complicated in the spiritual sphere. For example, feeling badly during prayer does not have to mean that I pray badly or that I depart from God. However, I must discern, i.e. to hear, what my relationship with God looks like. Since my relationship with God is not only under the influence of ‘good spirit’ but also under the influence of ‘evil spirit’, which acts very treacherously, leading me astray and tempting me. You cannot hear yourself well without getting to know your personality and without answering the fundamental question: who I am. A human being – many people would reply at once. But what does it mean concretely? A human being, i.e. who? The answer is not simple at all. Especially today when there is so much confusion concerning perceiving people. The social roles get blurred and one can see a crisis of the male and female identity. Many people do not know where they come from and where they go. ‘Man was created in the image and likeness of God’, the Book of Genesis says. And all things God created, including man, were very good. The first man lived in paradise, in friendship with God. He did not suffer, did not get sick and was never to die. Unfortunately, the original sin destroyed that ideal reality. God said to Adam, ‘Accursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life. It shall yield you brambles and thistles and you shall eat wild plants (Genesis 3: 17b-18). These words depict in a vivid way that the reality after the original sin was not ideal but full of conflicts and contradictions. Instead of natural food, which was the fruits, the soil yielded brambles and thistles. And one must toil to get such food.

Holiness does not mean perfection

However, the most serious consequence of the original sin is breaking the harmony with God who became hidden before man and stopped being the highest, obvious good. Man prefers to put himself in the place of God, deciding about life and death. One can see that well on the example of the argumentation of the promoters of the in vitro fertilisation, which has been widely discussed recently. After the original sin the relationship between man and woman was disturbed. Suddenly, they saw that they were naked, which they had not noticed before. Some fissure and conflict have appeared between them. We know this from our daily lives. To reach some agreement you must make big efforts. The harm caused by sin brought about pitiful consequences. Man became prone to evil, which we must always remember. Forgetting about the harmed nature of man, prone to evil, causes big mistakes in the fields of upbringing, politics, social activities and morality, which the Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms. Therefore, one cannot expect man’s ideal, perfect behaviour and raise too high standards. History gives us too many examples of forcing some ideal, utopian reality, which ended tragically. Holiness, which we all must desire, does not mean perfection but aiming at it. Even a saint has certain imperfections but these are integrated in him. Even a saint could not say that he or she is without any sins and will never commit any sins.

"Niedziela" 8/2008

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: