It seems this little bit of ancient advice is simple enough. Many philosophers have claimed that the way we come to know ourself is through introspection--by looking 'inward' and examining our thoughts, feelings, desires as we experience them. Perhaps self-examination does in some way help us to understand why we are the way we are. The problem is that it is all too easy to become obsessed with oneself by constant introspection!
Perhaps that is why coming know oneself, accepting and loving oneself without at the same time being self-obsessed, egotistical or narcissistic, is one of the most difficult challenges we face as human beings. In a crucial sense we come to know ourselves in an authentic and honest way when we are able, paradoxically, to step outside of ourselves and inhabit a role…as a parent, teacher, student, husband, wife, care-giver or friend.
Roles need not confine or imprison us unless we let them. Indeed, inhabiting a role in an active and dynamic way, being open to learning and to creating new norms within a role helps us to become better parents, teachers, students, caregivers, husbands, wives and friends.
We learn to love and accept ourselves when we refuse to be defined by what others think we should say, do or be. Refusing to be defined by others is not about being anti-social or rejecting sound advice. Rather, it is about taking responsibility for becoming a certain kind of person, and looking honestly and objectively at who we are through the lens of the many different roles we occupy in daily life.
In so doing we discover not just ‘who we are’ but also ‘who we want to be’—or to put the matter in somewhat more philosophical terms, in the recognition of our finitude we grasp that coming to know ‘who we are’ is never a completely settled issue, but always an ongoing project.