Self-knowledge: a joke?

I think a good paper in fundamental physics shares some characteristics with a good joke: it has an unexpected take on a familiar idea, and yet in retrospect it has a certain screwball inevitability. (Benjamin Schumacher, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio)

As I read this quote, it struck me that self-knowledge also shares some of these characteristics. That’s been my experience, anyway.

One way our mischievous minds make themselves known to us is through the good old Freudian slip. My favourite is when you accidentally substitute one person’s name for another. Afterwards, I’ll think: what was it that induced that switch? I learnt this technique from a therapist some years ago, when I substituted the name of one professional for another. My therapist asked me to describe the person whose name I’d spoken and I used words like “tall”, “ineffectual” and “misguided”. The first was a physical characteristic which obviously linked the two, but as it turned out I realized my opinion of the person I’d originally been talking about was also quite low, although it was difficult for me to allow myself to think this at the time, because he was so highly respected in his field.

Another way is through the words which seem to pop out of our mouths during conversation. “I could’ve killed her,” we laugh – but then I think: OK, you’re laughing, but do you actually feel quite angry towards her? “I just want to eat you all up!” we chortle into a toddler’s belly – but are we perhaps objectifying the little child, seeing her as an object for our enjoyment? Or are our feelings of pleasure deeply entwined with our enjoyment of food? Sometimes the answer will be “No! You’re overanalyzing things” – but at other times, the analysis can yield interesting results.

Like Schumacher’s take on a good theoretical physics paper, both examples take an everyday twist of language and use it to reveal something unexpected about ourselves. It’s as though our language is like a piece of glass, turning in the air, and casting a rainbow on the far wall.

My therapy sessions are often punctuated with laughter as we notice what word I’ve used, what allusion I’ve drawn. “Did you notice that I couldn’t think of his name for a moment there?” I smile, as we’re talking about someone who’s hurt me in the past. Or my therapist will raise an eyebrow: “Dying for it?”

This week, I’ve really enjoyed hearing about Canada’s “Let’s Talk” day from earlier this week. It’s been wonderful to read so many people’s accounts of stigma and the language we use to describe and talk about mental illness. What I am saying in this post is that we can take the language we use to talk about ourselves and use it to gain self-knowledge … and sometimes laugh at ourselves in the process.


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3 responses to “Self-knowledge: a joke?

  1. Yes…I’ve had that same sense of simultaneous bizarreness and inevitability of self-understanding. Because I dissociate, I suspect the things I discover about myself are often obvious to other people long before I understand them.

    I remember one particular therapy session several years ago where I spent a good 15 or 20 minutes ranting about some frustration I had with the treatment program I was in while my therapist just sat and listened. The ranting wasn’t making me feel better, just more frustrated, and I finally said, to my therapist, “You know what? Just…fuck you.”

    She chuckled and said, “Yeah, I was getting that,” which was pretty much THE perfect response. Until she said that, I hadn’t realized that I was really angry at her, and my issue with the program was just a way of avoiding feeling anger toward a particular person. After she said it, it was completely obvious. Funny how that works.


    • Yes! It is funny 🙂 and while your dissociation may contribute to the phenomenon, I’m absolutely sure you’re not alone in things being obvious to others before yourself.
      I love that your therapist was skilled enough to give the perfect response – that’s such a precious gift.


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