The benefits of knowing oneself and being oneself

Our term continues apace and it seems to be flying by! We recently held our Year 7 Entrance Assessment Day, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to acquaint prospective families with our school. During my informal conversations with them, I often set out our school mission statement, “we believe in our girls, and they believe in themselves” and how this remains the cornerstone of everything we do here. 

I also get asked about the defining features and attributes of a Northampton High education and how it is different from the competition. I take great pride in elucidating the four uncompromising principles that underpin all that we do: 

  • Girls will always come first: everything is built around the girls and their needs including our classroom, our curriculum, and our culture. For example, all of our pupils swim in our pool from the age of three and a half and our aim is to break the mould and give our girls the confidence to question everything.
  • We are fearless and nurture it in our girls: girls who, in turn, are unafraid to speak up, speak out and speak loud, and to think differently. This is achieved through our innovative High School Approach and by our Learn, Reach and COaCh programmes. 
  • We are forward-thinking: our school embraces change to prepare girls for an exciting future in dynamic learning environments for everyone. Our girls believe everything is possible and the intellectual characteristics – collaboration, curiosity, independence, perseverance and risk taking – are in the High School’s DNA. 
  • We are a family, which collaborates, supports, and shares all our learnings and experiences. We are also part of an extended family of GDST schools – with 25 schools and academies united in one purpose: to help every girl fulfil her potential and to lead the way in providing an unrivalled education. 

It is evident that our prospective families recognise many of the elements that I have highlighted above, and they were sensing the authenticity of my message. This got me thinking about the importance of personal authenticity. As human beings we have an instinct for those people who we feel are inauthentic and, when we sense that we are not seeing the ‘real’ person, it can make us feel uneasy and uncomfortable. By contrast, authenticity is perceived when a person’s actions are consistent with their beliefs and desires: what they say about themselves seems to match up with what they do. 

‘Know thyself’, was inscribed in the forecourt at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. This, according to Sorates, leads to true wisdom because it involves both being aware of what you do know but more importantly, knowing what you do not know. The ancient aphorism ‘know thyself’, which in modern times has been expanded to ‘know thyself be thyself’ to encapsulate the essence of authenticity, is well known but what does it take to be authentic and how authentic do you think you are? 

People who have personal authenticity tend to have realistic perceptions of reality and an understanding of themselves. Those who are self-aware and secure in their identity are able to encounter beliefs different from their own without any sense of threat. We also tend to trust people who we sense are authentic because they keep their word and there is a sense of consistency to how they act and behave, and what they do. Inauthentic people are often self-deceptive in ways that do not appear to correspond with who they are. You cannot be authentic without first possessing a strong sense of character.

To know ourselves we need to be self-reflective because if you don’t examine the values and principles you hold, the things you enjoy, the political views which best match your ideals, then it is difficult to know yourself. Knowing what matters to you can be very liberating – it frees you from worrying about what other people are thinking and doing because your knowledge of yourself determines your actions and decisions – but this self reflection should be continuous. It can be easy to think this sort of process is most important during teenage years when you are establishing your independence and forming personal views on the world, but over time, with maturity and life experiences, the things which are true reflections of ourselves evolve. 

To be authentic we need to accept ourselves. It’s all very well to ‘know ourselves’ but if we decide that we aren’t too keen on what we find, or are overly concerned about what other people might think, then we will present something false to the world and our sense of self-worth will be reliant on approval from others. This potential social barrier to achieving authenticity (or self-realisation) is experienced regularly by our girls and their personal authenticity is diminished by the need for the esteem of others in societies characterised by hierarchy, inequality and interdependence. At Northampton High, we encourage our girls to challenge themselves and their behaviours and to check that the person they are presenting to the world is a true reflection and the best version of themselves. If they believe they are open-minded, inclusive or kind, then it is worth checking that the way they are behaving (in both the real and digital world) aligns with who they think they are. 

In closing, authenticity takes some effort and may require us to act with courage and conviction on occasion but I have no doubt that the benefits of both knowing yourself and being yourself far outweigh this effort. When we know what we do not know without fear, we will be ready to hear the voices of others.

Dr Lee