In the Jewish tradition, this month preceding the high holidays is a time of self-examination. For many people, this means sitting quietly and reflecting. That seems appropriate—what makes more sense than thinking about yourself?—except that we all have a bias in our own favor. For example, how often do we think: “I got angry because I was upset, but he got angry because he is an angry person?” Understanding ourselves requires some work in addition to quiet contemplation.
The Jewish mandate is not merely to figure ourselves out but to appreciate the effect we have upon the world. To know why you do what you do is important. To know how it affects the lives of others is a different and even more vital task.
How can we get a more objective view of ourselves as moral agents? Therapy is not always helpful because therapists, for all their virtues, take the side of the patient as part of the therapeutic process. And deepening your ethical understanding entails being told, every now and then, “you acted like a jerk.” So here are three useful tips for comprehending your character in a moral sense:
1. Examine what you did, not how you felt.
If you said something unkind, put aside the reason and remember the action. The way we move through the world is by deed since others cannot see our thoughts. If your words to your spouse are cruel, or you acted impatiently with your children, you can catalog reasons. Most of us do. But if you wish to know who you are, the answer is not in their behavior but in yours.
The key is to give ourselves as much responsibility for bad actions as for good ones. You cannot say you were mean to that person because he was difficult but kind to that one because you are grand. Own your actions, good and bad.
2. Ask people who love you.
Tell them you really wish to know your faults as well as your virtues. You are specifically looking to know where you could improve. If you create the conversation, there is more safety to express what they really feel. Our best friends and family should be our mirrors.
3. Experiment with apologies.
A reliable way to understand your effect on others is to return to them and apologize, especially when it is unexpected. You will get a sense of whether your words wounded or not, and whether your actions had consequences in the life of another. Apologizing also requires reviewing your own conduct in your mind so you can go back to people and make specific amends for what you have done.
No one expects us to be perfect. Hardly a day passes when we do not demonstrate insensitivity or pass up a chance to do some good. So we owe it to ourselves to periodically reckon with who we are. Review your deeds, ask your friends and family, and offer a genuine “I’m sorry” to those you have wronged. The gift of all that work will be a much deeper sense of the consequences of your actions and the quality of your character.