Your sense of self refers to your perception of the collection of characteristics that define you.
People who can easily describe these aspects of their identity typically have a fairly strong sense of who they are. Struggling to name more than a few of these characteristics might point to a less defined sense of self.
You may not spend much time consciously thinking about your identity, but it still affects your life. Knowing who you are allows you to live with purpose and develop satisfying relationships, both of which can contribute to overall good emotional health.
Interested in exploring the benefits of a well-defined sense of self? Searching for tips on developing your identity? You’ve come to the right place.
Some people can make it pretty far in life without giving their identity too much though. So, you might wonder, does a strong sense of self really make a difference?
It absolutely does.
Erika Myers, a licensed professional counselor in Bend, Oregon, explains:
“Having a well-developed sense of self is hugely beneficial in helping us make choices in life. From something as small as favorite foods to larger concerns like personal values, knowing what comes from our own self versus what comes from others allows us to live authentically.”
Your self-image can also fuel recognition of your own worth. You aren’t perfect (who is?), but you still have great value.
Self-knowledge makes it easier to accept your entire self, both the traits you’re proud of and those you’d like to improve. If you do feel dissatisfied with certain aspects of yourself, you’ll have an easier time addressing those areas when you have a strong sense of your nature and abilities.
Lacking a clearly defined sense of self, on the other hand, often makes it tough to know exactly what you want. If you feel uncertain or indecisive when it comes time to make important choices, you may end up struggling to make any choice at all.
As a result, you might simply drift through life, carried by other people and circumstances rather than your own momentum. This often leads to discontent, even when nothing specific seems wrong and you can’t identify the source of your unhappiness.
So, where does your sense of self fall on the spectrum?
Perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern of making choices based on what you think other people want from you. Or maybe you don’t have many ambitions or deep-seated passions and simply feel content to go with the flow.
Asking yourself the questions below can offer some insight.
Do I say yes to make others happy?
It’s totally fine to accommodate others sometimes, but if you always agree to what others want, you likely aren’t living for yourself. Defining yourself mostly by relationships with others or your ability to please your loved ones can suggest a less-developed sense of self.
What are my strengths?
Sense of self depends on not only recognizing your strengths but also believing in your capabilities to use them to achieve your goals.
Having a good handle on your talents and maximizing them in your day-to-day life often means you have a healthy sense of self.
What brings me happiness?
What helps you relax and enjoy yourself? What hobbies or activities make life meaningful?
Everyone has a few things and people in life they don’t want to change or lose, and identifying these important people and pursuits can tell you a lot about yourself.
What are my values? Do I live my life accordingly?
Awareness of personal values can go a long way toward outlining your sense of self. Values describe the traits you prioritize in yourself or others—empathy, honesty, trustworthiness, kindness, and so on.
Do my choices reflect my own interests or someone else’s?
If you aren’t sure how to answer this question, look at it from another angle: Would you make the same choices if you were alone? Decisions mostly grounded in your desires and goals for yourself typically reflect a strong sense of self.
Say you had some trouble answering the questions above.
“Who am I, really?” you might be wondering, perhaps with some distress.
It might reassure you to learn it’s not terribly uncommon to have a somewhat blurred sense of self. This doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong or that you’re destined to live out your life without a clear identity.
A better understanding of the factors that play a part in the formation of self-image can help you begin sharpening it.
Individuation, or the process through which you develop a unique self, begins in childhood. To individuate successfully, children need room to explore, learn, and express needs and desires.
“When we are encouraged to display our personalities without shame or guilt, we can develop a strong sense of ourselves,” Myers explains.
If your attempts at self-expression earn only criticism or punishment from parents, friends, or anyone else, you might respond by ignoring your internal sense of self. It may seem safer and more beneficial to reshape yourself into someone more easily accepted.
Your relationship with your parents or primary caregivers plays a significant role in your understanding of other relationships later in life. An insecure attachment can affect not only the development of your identity but your behavior in adult romantic relationships.
Attachment issues can be somewhat complex, but here’s a quick rundown on how they relate to sense of self.
When you don’t feel certain of your caregivers’ unconditional love and acceptance, you might tailor your behavior to earn their approval. The resulting praise and affection reinforce the belief that modeling yourself to fit the expectations of others is the best (perhaps only) way to succeed in relationships.
This pattern usually continues to play out in your future relationships as you stifle your own needs in order to fulfill the needs of your partners, seeing this as the only way to hold on to their affection.
A desire to fit in
If you struggled to fit in with your peers in adolescence, you may have found it easier to take on the role of a social chameleon. Instead of holding on to your sense of self, you began shifting your identity to better fit in with multiple groups.
Acceptance can be a powerful motivator. If this changeable sense of self served you well during your teen years, this lesson can remain with you well into adulthood.
You might take on a certain persona at work, another when with your family, and still another when you spend time with friends. Switching between these different “selves” can make it even more difficult to unearth your true nature and create stress for yourself.
An unstable sense of self can make you feel flat and unfulfilled, but it’s always possible to develop a clearer self-image.
Try these strategies to begin establishing a more concrete, independent identity.
Define your values
Values and personal beliefs are fundamental aspects of identity.
Your belief system can help you recognize what matters most to you and determine where you stand on important issues. For example, a desire to protect animal rights may lead you to choose cruelty-free products and make more informed choices about the foods you eat.
You don’t have to identify all your values at once, but try to think about some potential ones as you go about your day and interact with the world.
Make your own choices
Your decisions should, for the most part, primarily benefit your health and well-being. If you have a partner or children, you’ll also want to take their needs into account, though that shouldn’t involve neglecting yourself.
Remember: When your needs go unmet, you have less to offer others.
Maybe you’ve let others make important decisions for you in the past — your choice of college, career, or place of residence. If so, it might feel uncomfortable, even scary, to start making decisions for yourself.
It’s OK to start small, though. Practice doing things because you want to do them, without asking for input from others.
Keep in mind that seeking guidance from others doesn’t mean you lack a sense of self. It’s entirely healthy — even wise — to talk over difficult decisions with trusted loved ones. At the end of the day, it’s important to make the choice that’s best for you, regardless of their opinions.
Spend time alone
When you want to get to know someone, you spend time with them, right? It follows, then, that getting to know yourself better will involve some quality time alone.
It might feel strange at first, but it’s healthy to take some time apart from others, even your family or partner.
Use this time however you like. If you’d really like to maximize self-exploration, try:
Consider how to achieve your ideals
In other words, knowing who you are may not be enough, though it’s a very good start. Failing to honor this sense of self could have a negative impact on your emotional health.
Once you have a more firmly defined sense of self, consider what you can do to align your life with your identity. You might, for example, ask yourself what changes you can make in your professional life or interactions with others.
It might feel pretty overwhelming to begin defining your sense of self, especially if you’ve never given your identity much thought.
If you feel stuck, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for guidance. A therapist can offer support with emotional distress that relates to your sense of self, such as:
- low self-esteem
- persistent unhappiness that stems from dissatisfaction with life
- workplace or relationship concerns
Even if you don’t have any mental health symptoms, therapy is still a great place to begin the self-exploration process.
In therapy, you can:
- identify values
- uncover attachment issues or problematic relationship patterns
- learn and practice decision making skills
- explore and address unmet needs
- work through any relationship concerns related to self-image
The connection between mental health and an unstable sense of self goes both ways. Issues related to personal identity, such as an unclear, frequently changing, or distorted self-image, can sometimes happen as a symptom of:
- borderline personality disorder
- histrionic personality disorder
- dissociative identity and other dissociative disorders
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
These conditions can be serious, but they are treatable. A trained mental health professional can help you explore other symptoms and offer guidance on treatment options.
The concept of “self” isn’t always easy to grasp, in part because your identity naturally shifts and develops over life as you learn and grow.
It’s normal to have some moments of confusion or self-doubt. When you consistently feel unfulfilled or struggle to name your needs and desires, consider taking the time for a little self-discovery.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.