In a recent conversation between neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman and psychiatrist Dr. Paul Conti, the two experts dove deep into the question of how we can understand ourselves at a deeper level. They touched on many other aspects of mental health during their discussion, but the part we want to focus on here is the importance of looking beneath the surface to explore our own unique “structure” and “function” of self.
While we often focus on trying to modify our outward behaviors and thought patterns, Dr. Conti stressed that real change comes from increasing our self-awareness and bringing unconscious patterns to light. As he put it, “If we want to know something, look everywhere for it.” Self-inquiry is a process of peeling back the layers, looking in the various “cupboards” of our inner world.
So how do we go about this sort of inner exploration? Here are some key practices to try:
- 1 Pay Attention to Your Internal Dialogue
- 2 Notice Your Defenses in Action
- 3 Examine Your Behaviors & Choices
- 4 Cultivate Curiosity
- 5 Reflect on Past Influences
- 6 Notice Emotional Triggers
- 7 Experiment with Journaling
- 8 Consider Working with a Therapist
- 9 Integrating Your Discoveries: Putting the Pieces Together
Pay Attention to Your Internal Dialogue
Much of our self-talk happens automatically, outside of conscious awareness. Try keeping a log of your inner narration at different times of day.
- What themes keep recurring?
- Are they overly critical?
- Do they align with your values?
Just documenting this internal dialogue can bring greater awareness.
Notice Your Defenses in Action
We all have certain ingrained “defense mechanisms” rooted in childhood or past experiences. These unconscious patterns skew our perceptions to protect us, but often in unhelpful ways.
Do you tend to rationalize or avoid situations that make you uncomfortable?
Do you project your anger outward rather than owning it?
Observe yourself during stressful interactions to spot your go-to defenses emerging.
Examine Your Behaviors & Choices
Your outer behaviors clearly reflect inner beliefs and biases you may not even realize you hold. Consider a behavior pattern that you’d like to shift.
- Why do you think you engage in this pattern?
- What feelings precede it?
- What need might it be meeting?
Shed light on the shadows.
The spirit of self-inquiry is not about judgment, but rather curiosity. Maintain an open, inquiring attitude as you explore. Imagine you are an anthropologist studying your own unique culture from the inside.
What do you notice? What surprised you? What new insights are you gaining?
The more we actively illuminate our inner world—noticing patterns, naming tendencies, and asking why—the more agency and choice we gain. We move from unconscious reactivity to conscious response.
As Dr. Conti emphasized, looking beneath the surface is where answers are found and routes for change emerge. We must be willing to move beyond surface-level tweaks to do the deeper personal work, bringing awareness to those unexamined cupboards inside.
Reflect on Past Influences
Our unconscious programming often stems from childhood experiences, both positive and negative. Reflect on your upbringing—what messages did you absorb about yourself from parents, teachers, peers? What core beliefs took root? Are any unhealthy patterns tied to formative events or relationships?
Notice Emotional Triggers
When you feel suddenly irritated, sad, anxious, or “irrational,” pause and ask what got triggered. Deep emotions point to unfinished business waiting to be addressed. Maybe a colleague’s comment subconsciously reminded you of a sibling’s teasing. Tracing triggers back to their source provides insight.
Experiment with Journaling
Keep an open-ended journal where you explore questions like, “What am I feeling right now?” “What do I really want?” “What am I afraid of?” Don’t censor your thoughts. Let them flow uncensored to uncover inner truths. Spontaneous journaling bypasses mental blocks.
Consider Working with a Therapist
A skilled therapist provides guidance excavating your inner world. Through practices like dream analysis and talk therapy, they help you bring unconscious material to light. If past pain is holding you back, seek professional support addressing it.
As Dr. Conti made clear, lasting change doesn’t come from surface-level tweaks, but from courageously exploring our inner depths. Beneath behaviors are beliefs. Beneath beliefs are experiences. Beneath experiences dwell our deepest hurts, hopes, and truths. Great self-awareness, great freedom.
Integrating Your Discoveries: Putting the Pieces Together
We’ve explored various practices for uncovering your inner landscape, bringing unconscious patterns to light. But meaningful change requires one more step—integration. Once you’ve uncovered some hidden parts of yourself through self-inquiry, how do you make use of those discoveries?
Excavating your inner world provides clues about where to make changes to align more closely with your highest self. Here are some tips for integrating what you’ve learned:
Find the Gaps
Look for disconnects between your conscious values and unconscious beliefs. For example, you value self-care but hear an inner voice shaming you for “selfishness.” Use this awareness to consciously shift those contradictory patterns.
Rewrite Limiting Scripts
Replace disempowering inner narratives with more supportive self-talk. If your inner critic says “You’re such a failure,” talk back with compassion. Challenge distortions.
Look for emotional needs the troubling behavior or belief was trying to meet, however dysfunctionally. Acknowledge those unmet needs, then brainstorm healthier ways to fulfill them.
Based on triggers you’ve identified, notice when old defenses get activated. You can now choose more proportionate responses rather than get hijacked.
Make Peace with Your Past
Express compassion towards yourself for past pains you’ve uncovered. See how you did the best you could at the time. Forgive yourself and those who hurt you.
The goal of inner work is not excavation for its own sake, but rather wholeness. Making self-discoveries conscious, replacing outdated coping mechanisms with more constructive patterns, addressing unresolved wounds—this is how we integrate our fragmented parts into an empowered, awakened self. The work is ongoing, but each insight moves us forward.