What is a sense of self?
Your sense of self refers to your perception of the collection of characteristics that define you - personality traits, abilities, likes and dislikes, your belief system, moral code and the things that motivate you. All these contribute to your unique identity as a person. People who can easily describe these aspects of their identity typically have a strong sense of who they are.
Why it is so important
Knowing who you are allows you to live with purpose and develop satisfying relationships, both of which can contribute to overall good emotional health.
Additionally, having a well-developed sense of self is beneficial in helping us make choices in life. Your self-image can fuel recognition of your own worth, and self-knowledge makes it easier to accept your entire self. Lacking a clearly defined sense of self often leads to discontent.
Check in with your sense of self
Where does your sense of self fall on the spectrum? Asking yourself these questions can offer some insight:
• Do I say yes to make others happy?
• What are my strengths?
• What brings me happiness?
• What are my values? Do I live my life accordingly?
• Do my choices reflect my own interests or someone else's?
Factors that influence your sense of self
• Individuation - developing a unique self begins in childhood. To individuate successfully, children need room to express themselves, while not being met with criticism
• Attachment - your relationship with your caregivers plays a significant role as you may tailor your behaviour to fit the expectations of others
• A desire to fit in - instead of holding on to your sense of self, you might have shifted your identity to fit in
Strategies to build a strong sense of self
• Define your values and personal beliefs - these are fundamental aspects of identity
• Make your own choices - your decisions should, for the most part, primarily benefit your wellbeing
• Spend time alone - getting to know yourself better will involve some quality time alone. It is healthy to take time apart from others
• Consider how to achieve your ideals - differences between your ideal and actual self can lead to dissatisfaction
When to get help
It might feel overwhelming to begin defining your sense of self, especially if you have never given your identity much thought. If you feel stuck, you can 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, depression, anxiety, or unhappiness that stems from a dissatisfaction with life.
The bottom line
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 is normal to have moments of confusion and self-doubt. When you consistently feel unfulfilled or struggle to name your needs, consider taking the time for a little self-discovery.