How to Strengthen Your Sense of Self
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How to Strengthen Your Sense of Self
“Know thyself” — so says the ancient maxim, carved into stone at the entrance to Apollo’s temple in Greece. Interpreted by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato as meaning “to know one’s soul,” this wise saying has a resonance that persists to this day. Countless great minds have sought to illuminate the idea of the self. Ancient Hindu philosophy points us to a unique soul (Atman) which exists within an omniscient Self (Brahman); while some forms of Buddhism deny any self exists at all. French philosopher Descartes likened the self to the existence of mind — “I think therefore I am”, while in the African philosophy of “ubuntu,” our sense of self is shaped by our relationships with other people —“I am because we are.”
The field of psychology has also grappled with the concept of self. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung offered a concept of self as “the totality of a person’s being and the path to greater unity of the conscious and unconscious in us.” While in the therapeutic approach known as IFS (Internal Family Systems), the concept of Self is central to the path of healing. Also known as “parts work,” a primary tenet of IFS is the recognition of the wisdom and sovereignty of The Self versus the more narrow sub-personalities or “parts,” which are fragmented and lead to disharmony.
And finally, we have the great British playwright Shakespeare, who implored us “To thine own self be true.” But what does it mean to know oneself, and how does one go about being true to oneself?
In this article, we’ll explore the concept of self, and how you can strengthen your sense of self to live a life in alignment with your truth. As we will explore, to do so requires connection to your deepest thoughts, feelings, values, and desires.
What is a “sense of self?”
As a therapist, life coach, and couples counselor who has helped many people find their own answers to life’s big questions, I know that identifying a “sense of oneself” can at times seem ambiguous and elusive.
My concept of the Self is informed by the preceding contemplations and related concepts of the soul, our inner knowing and truth. Beyond labels, it is the essence of who we are— the awareness, “I am,” “I exist.” On a practical level, I conceive of the self as our guiding principles and values; that by which we determine the meaning of life and a life well lived.
It is important that we give ourselves the space to discern our own truth and guiding principles from those we inherit through upbringing, experiences and cultural conditioning, and to be sure we are living life according to our core sense of ourself – our own unique and intuitive GPS.
What keeps us from building a strong sense of self?
We come into this world without any attributes beyond a general temperament and physical form. For practical purposes, we are assigned a name shortly after our birth, followed by other attributes,
From a young age, we receive messages about who we “should” be, which are ingrained into us by often well-meaning parents, educators, and peers. As we grow, we are taught the values of our families and our communities, what is acceptable and what is frowned upon. We are provided a measure for living a successful life, as well as values around career, family and education. We may also receive religious instruction, providing concepts of a higher power and rules of morality.
In many ways this indoctrination can be incredibly useful! Humans are bonding animals, and being part of a collective helps us to develop a sense of belonging. However, as we develop and grow, we may begin to question some of the values we inherited. In some cases these identities can begin to feel stifling, or may not align with what we truly want for our lives.
We can also develop a self-identity based on the roles we play and our culturally prescribed ideas associated with these roles, such as mother, wife, father, husband, son, daughter, dancer, doctor, artist, etc. Our identity may even extend to an allegiance to certain sports teams or a political party, so much so that we may actually act against our deeper values to keep associated with this identity.
This is not to suggest that beliefs or values we inherit from our families or communities are “bad,” and should be rejected. Rather, by becoming aware of their source, we can begin to differentiate and consciously develop a sense of self independent of their unconscious influence.
It can also be challenging to develop a sense of self if we have experienced relational or other forms of trauma. Often those impacted by trauma may learn to deny their own needs or sense of self in order to stay in good standing with those in power. “Fawning,” also known as people pleasing, is now considered to be a survival response. Even within so-called “normal” relationship dynamics, such as not feeling seen or appreciated, or feeling disconnected from others; we may work hard to be what they want us to be, in hopes they will see our value and meet our need for safe connection. Unfortunately, this leaves us focusing on others’ preferences rather than tapping into our internal GPS to guide us.
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How does a lack of self impact relationships?
In my work with both individuals and couples, I assist my clients in recognizing their unconscious beliefs about themselves, and invite them to create some psychological distance between their assumed identities in order to gain perspective. Through non- identification with the person they take themselves to be, the opportunity to mindfully and intentionally choose how they want to show up in their lives becomes available to them.
This type of self-reevaluation can at times present challenges in our significant relationships. For example, when couples have been together for a long time, or entered into a relationship at a young age, one or both partners may find themselves no longer resonating with the structure of the life they have built. All that they worked so hard to achieve may no longer feel satisfying and they are left feeling empty or like strangers to themselves and each other.
Often termed as a “mid-life crisis” or “growing apart,” I think this phase of life gets a bad rap. This process of reexamination presents a wonderful growth opportunity for each partner, as they seek to develop and grow as individuals and together. Naturally, this uncertainty can feel scary, but it also provides the possibility of breathing new life and energy into our relationships. Handled with care and discretion, this introspection infuses a vitality that can elicit more conscious engagement between the couple, as they rediscover themselves and each other. Conversations become more honest, more intimate, and more connected.
For individuals, a lack of connection with their sense of self can create anxiety about whether they are living up to the expectations they had for themselves, or others had for them. An “identity crisis” occurs when what we believed to be true about ourselves no longer fits. But rather than a crisis, it can be looked at as an invitation for personal evolution. By exploring their values without judgment or assumptions, I help my client gain perspective, so they can determine for themselves what defines them and what feels most aligned with their truth.
10 tips for developing a stronger sense of self
Here are my tips if you want to form a stronger connection with your deeper self:
1. The first step is always awareness. I once heard it said, “awareness is the workbench of the mind.” I would add that awareness is also the workbench of transformation and change.
2. Practice mindfulness. One of the best definitions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn — “Paying attention, on purpose, to what appears in your mind, without judgment.” This last piece is so important! If we judge what we observe we lose our ability to see clearly from an open state of equanimity.
3. All of this leads to the development of the “witnessing self,” also termed the “observing self” in many forms of meditative practices as well as in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, an evidence based form of therapy whose principles I often draw from.
4. Become curious about the nature of your thoughts. What is their content, what is their source? Investigate your values and belief systems. Ask yourself, “how did I come to believe what I believe about life and myself”?
5. What are your motivations; your personal operating principles? On what did you base your choice of career, your partner, your lifestyle? Do these still resonate with you?
6. Give yourself the freedom to experiment and try things that you may be curious about, like a new hobby or re-engaging in an old interest.
7. Unplug! Take a break from social media, television and the news. Journaling is also a great way to “know thyself.” Simply writing your thoughts gives you an opportunity to understand yourself more deeply.
8. Intentionally spend time alone, perhaps take a solo trip to become acquainted with your preferences, allowing yourself to follow your own lead and enjoy our own company.
9. Spend time in nature. Being in nature provides a stillness that allows us to ground into the simplicity of our being, without all of the associations of our busy, modern lives.
10. I also suggest paying close attention whenever you hear an inner voice of “should.” Investigate this. Are you doing something out of a sense of detached obligation or resentful compliance? If so, how can you create more alignment and accountability for your choices?
So much of our sense of self has to do with this last piece; consciously engaging and choosing to be where we are. Even if things aren’t exactly how we may have imagined, we benefit from taking ownership of our choices and self agency. Acknowledge that whatever your life circumstances, you made the best decisions based on what you knew at the time. Recognize the choice that exists in every moment, and commit to following your path intentionally.
Ultimately, our sense of self continues to evolve as we grow and move through different stages of our lives. This is the nature of life, it changes and evolves. Remaining present to our experience of the moment is what keeps life flowing through us. Then the question becomes, what in us doesn’t change? What in us is constant through all of our many iterations? That is the question of the sages and ages; a question that will bring us even closer to a sense of our Self.
Support for a stronger relationship with you
I hope you found these tips on strengthening your sense of self helpful. Getting to know yourself more deeply is a life-expanding experience and the start of so much personal growth. I’m happy that you’re here.
And if you would like my support as you explore your identity, values, and your sense of self, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.