A strong sense of self is crucial for long-term health and happiness, especially in today’s climate of unrealistic standards and self-expectations. Every day we’re inundated with obvious and not-so-obvious messages on television and social media that make us question our happiness and our identity.
We see people having fun on holidays, getting big promotions at work, or moving to a new city to start a new life, and we might wonder if we’re living the life we really want to live.
With a clearly defined sense of self, you are secure and assured of yourself. You have faith that you can do exactly what you set out to do, that you’re a good person, and that others can come to you for support. You are confident in your abilities and trust that your life is your own. You don’t believe that your life is perfect, but you accept all of its imperfections.
Without a strong sense of self, you might feel riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem. You might lack confidence in yourself and your relationships and feel like you have to rely on others all the time. You might strive for perfection because the only way you can feel a positive sense of self is through external achievement.
What is a sense of self?
One’s sense of self is how a person perceives themselves. It is the concept under which they understand who they are, their ambitions, and their failures and successes in life. It includes how one perceives their own:
- Personality traits
- World beliefs
- Skills and abilities
- Roles across different parts of their life
- Relationship roles
- Personal values
- Moral code
- Purpose in the world
A strong, positive sense of self helps people cultivate confidence and ambition in life. It is the ground on which healthy, growth-oriented decisions are made.
A strong sense of self involves deep self-awareness, which helps us understand our true motivations, values, and beliefs and helps us be honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses.
This article will explore what creates a sense of self and the importance of developing a strong one. We’ll also offer some expert tips and advice on creating a strong and healthy sense of self if that’s something you feel you’re lacking in your life right now.
First, read the signs of a well-developed and poorly developed sense of self below to help you recognize your own experience.
Signs of a well-developed sense of self
- High self-esteem, confidence
- Strong sense of identity
- Strong self-concept
- Positive self-image
- Awareness of feelings and emotions
- A healthy, constructive inner voice
- Prioritization of one’s physical, behavioral, and mental health
Signs that you have a poorly developed sense of self
- Low self-esteem, lack of confidence, low self-worth
- Confusion and doubt surrounding one’s identity
- Rejection of the self
- Poor self-image
- Negative self talk
- Suppression of feelings and emotions
- Harsh inner critic
- Neglect of one’s physical and mental health
What creates a sense of self?
Our sense of self begins to develop in our early childhood years. These years are highly formative. They are when we learn to separate ourselves from our caregivers and establish the sense that we are an individual.
Our early years’ experiences significantly influence our sense of self as we continue to grow. Below we have outlined some common factors that have a significant influence on one’s sense of self.
Individuation and the sense of self
Psychologist Margaret Mahler developed her theory of separation-individuation, one of her most significant contributions to the field of psychology. Her theory suggests that babies feel at one with their mother prior to five or six months and are generally unaware of their surroundings. After five or six months, they begin to become aware of themselves as separate entities.
After the individuation stage has begun, the nature and quality of the mother-child relationship significantly influence how secure and connected to themselves that child feels throughout their adult life.
Attachment and the sense of self
The quality of the caregiver-child relationship influences how healthy and well-developed a child’s sense of self will be. Through this relationship, a child first begins to build a sense of their own identity and learns how to effectively relate to others and the world around them to get their needs met.
Children who grew up with a caregiver who was attuned to their needs and consistent with the care they delivered likely developed a secure attachment – the foundation for trust and self-confidence throughout their lifespan. A child who could rely on their caregiver to meet their needs feels safe to explore the world because they feel safe and secure within themselves.
Conversely, a child whose caregiver failed to provide them with consistent and attuned care may develop an insecure attachment style. Insecure attachment styles include resistant (or avoidant) attachment and anxious attachment.
Both insecure attachment styles are characterized by deep-seated feelings of self-doubt and, as the name suggests, insecurity. Adults who developed an insecure attachment style as children may struggle with their own sense of identity and self.
Wanting to fit in and be accepted
Though our early childhood years significantly influence our sense of self, all of our life experiences can shape how we perceive ourselves. For example, the adolescent years are a time of marked vulnerability.
They are a time of identity formation and exploration, peer pressure, and self-discovery. As such, the experiences we have during adolescence can shape our self-view and how we learn to relate to ourselves and others in the years that follow.
For example, if you found it hard to fit in with and be accepted by others in your early adolescent years, you may have shaped your likes, dislikes, and behavior to be more accepted or included.
Similarly, if you learned in your adolescence not to succumb to peer pressure to keep aligned with your authentic feelings and passions, such an outlook may stay with you in adulthood.
Why is it important to have a strong sense of self?
A strong sense of self is paramount to making healthy, growth-oriented decisions in life. Our sense of self includes all aspects of our lives, from what food and music we like to our political and religious views to our deepest personal values.
Further, with a strong sense of self, it’s easier to discern what you really feel and believe and the feelings and beliefs of others.
With a healthy sense of self, you have a positive self-image, which involves recognizing your inherent worth and value as a person. As such, you feel confident and secure, both on your own and in all of your relationships, whether familial, professional, social, or romantic.
Understanding your sense of self
Now that you have a better understanding of what a sense of self is and why it’s so important, it’s time to reflect on your own experience. How is your sense of self? Is it strong? Or does it need some work? Ask yourself the following questions to see if your sense of self is as strong as it could be.
Who am I?
This answer to this question is what is known as self-concept. Self-concept is how one thinks about and perceives themselves. It is the most important behaviors and aspects of ourselves, including physical attributes. It is closely related to self-esteem and is expressed in a person who has clear goals, beliefs, and direction.
Someone who has a sense of self-concept has formed a sense of who they are, such as ‘I am a good friend’, ‘I look young for my age’, ‘I don’t do well on tests’, etc. Essentially self-concept encompasses your personal identity, including self-esteem, self-image, and ideal self. It also allows for self-discovery, as often times it takes a journey to discover who we are.
Am I a people-pleaser?
People-pleasing (‘fawning’) is a maladaptive means of feeling happy and content in life. People who go to great lengths to please others, even when that means neglecting one’s own wants or needs, tend to do so because their sense of self is poor, and they seek validation and assurance from prioritizing other people’s wants and needs.
What makes me happy?
What are your sources of joy, love, and inspiration? What motivates you to take action? What hobbies, interests, and activities make life meaningful?
All of us have at least one or two things that bring us joy and evoke our passion. Identifying what these are and your relationship to them is a great way to find out how aligned you are with your sense of self.
Do I do things for myself?
What goes through your mind when faced with a decision? Do you take into account other people’s expectations and wants and prioritize them above your own? Of course, it’s a great quality to consider other people, but it’s important to include your own wants and needs in the choices you make.
Tips to help you develop a strong sense of self
1. Learn how to be alone
Being alone is not the same as being lonely. Many people view the two as similar and become reluctant or resistant to being alone because they don’t want to feel lonely or isolated. Being alone, however, can be a profoundly enjoyable and growth-oriented experience.
Making space in your own life to be alone with yourself is deeply nourishing and is a key ingredient in developing a strong sense of self.
What is being alone?
In the traditional sense, being alone means not having anyone else around. However, today we’re rarely alone, even when there’s nobody around us. We have entire communities living in our pockets, which we can access at any time of the day at the swipe of a finger. To be alone is to be free from these distractions.
It can seem scary or daunting to disconnect from our phones and computers while also spending time without other people, but there is no better way to gain insight into yourself than to unplug, disconnect, and simply be with yourself.
How to be alone
You don’t have to completely isolate yourself from others, abandon your current life, and go live in a cave in the Himalayas to reap the benefits of being alone. You can practice being by yourself from wherever you are. Of course, it might be hard to find some quality alone time if you live in a busy household. Still, it’s probably not impossible.
Learning how to be alone is a key to healthy self-development. To practice and get better at being alone, set aside some time for yourself each day or at least once a week. Find something you love to do, and do it without distractions.
Unplug, and, if necessary, let others know that you’ll be taking some alone time. This prevents any worry or concern about what you’re doing or your whereabouts and decreases the likelihood that your phone will ring incessantly with calls and messages.
Developing a sense of personal identity requires that you temporarily exclude other people’s opinions, judgments, and expectations of you. So, to get better at being alone, find something you love to do, get rid of distractions, and immerse yourself in it.
Take some time to figure out what matters to you and how you can align your actions and behavior with things that are important to you. Whatever you choose will come down to your individual preferences, but the following are just some examples for inspiration:
- Listen to music, or play an instrument
- Go for a long walk in nature or through the city
- Create art
- Take up a new hobby
Note that being alone doesn’t mean being the only person in the room. You can be alone even in a crowd. It’s more about being with yourself as an individual rather than doing things with other people in mind or company. Being alone might look like sitting in your favorite coffee shop with a book and simply enjoying your own company.
2. Learn how to set boundaries
Boundaries are a way of upholding your personal space and preserving your physical and mental energy for things that align with your values and true self. Your time and energy are precious, so it’s important to spend them on people and activities that are oriented toward your growth as a person.
“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end, and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” – Dr. Henry Cloud.
If we fail to set healthy boundaries, we risk losing our sense of self. Knowing which boundaries to set and setting them helps us establish and maintain our truest sense of ourselves, making us more authentic and genuine. As a result of setting healthy boundaries, our relationship with ourselves and with others has a chance to flourish.
3. Identify and align with your values
Your personal beliefs and values are core aspects of your personal identity. When you are aware of your deeply held beliefs, it’s easier to recognize and pursue what matters most to you.
Having a healthy sense of self involves understanding your values and aligning your life to meet them. It makes it easier to set healthy boundaries and let others know what you will and will not tolerate.
For example, if respect is one of your core values, then you would let someone know that you can’t have a relationship with them if they are disrespectful.
4. Accept Yourself
If you want to develop a strong and healthy sense of self, one of the most effective means of accepting yourself fully is to accept yourself. When we reject ourselves because we feel unworthy or not good enough, we can do a lot of damage to our mental and emotional health.
With self-acceptance comes greater self-esteem, which feeds our ability and motivation to continue working on ourselves and growing into the person we want to be.
If your sense of self is already poor, then it can be challenging to accept yourself, but the rewards of doing the necessary inner work to achieve self-acceptance are more than worth it.
5. Practice yoga
Yoga’s literal translation means ‘union.’ It is often seen as means of leaving the ‘self’ behind or transcending the ego, yoga can strengthen our sense of self.
The physical engagement and mental space, and clarity that come from committing to a yoga practice can boost our self-esteem and self-confidence, improving our sense of self.
Similar to yoga, mediation is often touted as a great way to transcend the self and detach from the ego. Still, it can also help you cultivate a stronger sense of self.
Meditation and mindful awareness practices help us see through the illusions and expectations we’ve been living under. It can help us realize that we have a lot more power and agency in our lives than we may have previously believed.
7. Speak to a therapist
If you’re struggling with identity issues, you may benefit from speaking to a licensed therapist. Identity issues often have their roots in childhood. In therapy with an attuned and compassionate therapist, you can take the space to explore the roots of your issues and work collaboratively with your therapist to overcome them.
You can also learn new skills and techniques to increase your emotional resilience, increase your self-awareness, and effectively cope with the stress and anxiety often associated with identity issues and a poorly developed sense of self.
The Bottom Line
The concept of ‘self’ is loose and ever-changing. Each new experience shapes us throughout our lives, and we may feel different from one week to the next or over the course of years. Still, those with a strong sense of self feel secure and anchored in their life and can healthily embrace change.
If you’re struggling with your sense of self today, know that it can be cultivated. Try to consider the tips outlined above to help you establish a stronger sense of personal identity.
Hopefully, you will realize that your life is your own and does not need to be lived according to the standards and expectations of other people.