You’ve probably heard the Ancient Greek adage “Know thyself.” It was a maxim carved into the stone in the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
What you probably didn’t know—and I didn’t either until a couple days ago—is that there was another inscription carved right next to it…
“Nothing to excess.”
This was a little mind-blowing for me because it symbolizes an idea I’ve been mulling over for a long time in my work as a therapist and writer interested in personal growth:
Self-awareness is frequently necessary but rarely sufficient for achieving our goals. We also need self-control.
A few quick examples:
- No matter how well you understand what it takes to complete a marathon, you still need to get out of bed early and run despite feeling like sleeping longer.
- No matter how much insight you have into the origins of your stress-eating habit, you still need a way to stick with your new diet despite feeling like attacking that pint of Haagen-Dazs ice-cream.
- No matter how aware of your negative self-talk you become, you still need to practice self-compassion despite feeling pulled toward self-criticism.
As those clever ancient Greeks surely understood, as important as it is to know ourselves, it’s equally important to rule ourselves—to intentionally cultivate the capacity to align our actions with our values despite the feelings and impulses of the moment.
We need training, and practice, and exercise in addition to understanding.
Of course, sometimes our feelings do line up well with our values—you wake up energized and excited to put on your running shoes and crank out that 3-mile training session.
But at least as often, our feelings conflict with our values—you tell yourself you should go for the run, but you feel like 20 more minutes in bed.
Too often I talk to people who have been struggling for years to make an important change in their life. And they’ve been convinced (usually by people in my profession) that what they lack is understanding:
- This new diet is sure to be the one…
- This new therapist will finally help me achieve a deep enough insight into my trauma…
- This self-help book will show me how my anxiety really works…
Insight is never enough.
To “know thyself” is obviously an admirable and useful thing to strive for. But it’s just the first step.
Without a commitment to ruling ourselves—to subordinating our feelings to our values when necessary—it’s unlikely we’ll achieve the aspirations we set for ourselves.
But how do I do this? How do I get better at self-control—at ruling myself?
Here’s a simple but I think instructive way to think about balancing self-awareness with self-control…
Self-awareness is often about the Whys—why do I act this way, why do I feel this way, why do I…
Self-control is often about the other four Ws:
- What do I need to be doing differently on a regular basis in order to achieve my desired goal?
- How can I best set myself up for success with that goal in my environment, mindset, habits, etc.?
- When is the optimal time to pursue my goals?
- Who can facilitate and help me in my journey and who are the people who hold me back?
By all means, keep striving to know thyself. Just don’t forget to work on ruling thyself as well—benevolently, of course 😉
Footnote: According to Wikipedia, there were actually three maxims inscribed side-by-side at Delphi. In addition to “Know thyself” and “Nothing to excess” there was a third commandment which read “Surety brings ruin.”
But that’s an idea for a future essay…