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How to Strengthen your Sense of Self
What is a sense of self?
Our sense of self is our perception of ourselves. It organizes the way we think about ourselves and our experiences of the world we live in. It consists of the feelings, thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, perceptions, and attitudes we have about ourselves and the world around us. Our sense of self answers the question “Who Am I?” For example, beliefs such as "I am a good friend" or "I am a kind person" are part of an overall sense of self. A strong sense of self allows us to feel serene and secure in the world, regardless of what is happening around us.
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Some of the attributes of the sense of self can include:
Physical attributes (e.g. short/tall, blue /brown eyes
Social relationships (e.g. husband/wife, colleague, friend)
Familial relationships (e.g. brother/sister, son/daughter, mother/father)
Occupations (e.g. teacher, plumber, engineer)
Abilities/disabilities (e.g. smart, funny, shy)
Spirituality (e.g. child of God, Catholic, Buddhist)
Affiliations (e.g. sports fan, memberships, groups you belong to)
Characterological attributes (e.g. hard working,/lazy, honest/dishonest, good
Family roles (e.g. the caretaker, the hero child, the scapegoat, the mediator)
Hobbies (e.g. athlete, musician, artist, volunteer)
Preferences (favorite music/food/art/style of clothing, things you dislike, things that delight you, things that annoy you)
Values (honest, hard working, loving)
Cultural (family first, rugged individualist)
Where does our sense of self come from?
When we are young our sense of self grows through our interactions with our parents. Ideally, we receive love, empathy, compassion, and nurturing from our parents. We internalize this love and caring from our parents and provide it for ourselves. We internalize that sense of caring, security and safety into our mind, body, and emotions and become our own source of security. We develop a secure base inside ourselves which helps us maintain an even keel even when there are external stressors.
Ideally, healthy parents will also encourage us to “individuate”. Individuate is a psychological term which refers to the process of separating from our parents and their identities and forming our own identity. This process usually occurs in our teens and early twenties. A lot of times you will see people in these age groups experimenting with their clothing and hair, practicing with different religious and political beliefs, and trying on different roles or ways of being. This is a normal and healthy process which helps them discover who they are separate from their parents, their culture, and their society.
Why is a strong sense of self important?
When our sense of self is undeveloped we feel uncertain within ourselves. We doubt our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions, our ideas and ideals. We question our sanity and second guess our own decisions. We seek approval and validation from others. We give too much weight to what other people think. We feel completely devastated by criticism or disapproval. We have poor boundaries. When other people praise us we may be on cloud nine or distrust them and wonder what they want. We vacillate wildly between these extremes with no internal compass to guide us. Our sense of worth and value don’t come from within, but from external forces and therefore require external validation. We may even develop dependency on others, putting all our energy into sensing what they want and need, dedicating our time and energy to meeting their needs, often at the expense of our own. We may be very reactive to the opinions and behaviors of others and find our emotions vacillating wildly as a result. We may absorb the emotions of others and take responsibility for making them feel better. We may absorb the emotions of others and experience them as our own. As a result, we end up blowing in the wind, with our moods wildly and unpredictably fluctuating, without ever understanding why and feeling completely helpless, hopeless, and out of control.
By contrast, when we have a strong inner sense of who we are we feel confident that we are okay, regardless of what is happening externally. We believe we will be accepted by others. We depend upon our own validation of ourselves and can maintain our sense of competency and calm even when others aren’t around to reassure us. This inner resilience calms us when we are stressed and allows us to bounce back from the hurts we all experience without feeling like we are coming completely undone. It provides a compass to guide us and an anchor to steady us.
In a narcissistic family everything circulates around the narcissistic parent. Everyone in the family functions for their benefit and only their emotions, opinions, and actions matter. Other members of the family are often regarded as inanimate objects with no needs of their own who exist only to meet the narcissist’s needs. In this environment, the sense of self may not have room to fully form or develop. Imagine a butterfly in a cocoon. If it is never freed from the cocoon, it never has the space to unfold its wings and fly. It never has the chance to be the butterfly it was meant to be.
This can also occur in a heavily traumatized family. A family dealing with a huge stressor or trauma may not have the emotional resources to foster the development of a child’s sense of self. Everything may be devoted to the survival of the family and individuals may sacrifice themselves for the family. This can be seen in families where there is substance abuse, a parent with mental illness, the death of a family member, extreme poverty, a disabled parent, etc.
Likewise, abuse and neglect distorts our experiences of ourselves and the world around us. In order to make sense of abuse or neglect we may create meanings to explain them. Children tend to assume that anything going wrong in the family is their fault, so they often blame themselves for harm that comes to them, telling themselves, “I’m a bad kid” or “I deserved it”. Meaning may also be assigned to us by others, but it too may be distorted. Abusive parents may have blamed you for their dysfunction, telling you it was your fault, or labeling you as the problem. You may have internalized these messages and incorporated them into your sense of self. As adults, we may perpetuate those beliefs through our choices and our relationship patterns reinforcing that story over and over. If we believe we are “bad” or “not good enough” we may choose partners who mistreat us or friends who take advantage of us. We may tolerate work environments which are harmful. We may endure unhealthy situations because we are convinced we don’t deserve anything better.
The process of changing your life involves challenging those distortions and editing your story so you can build the strong, healthy sense of self you were meant to have. The process of reclaiming and rebuilding a strong, healthy sense of self requires first and foremost looking critically at your life. What is your life reflecting back to you and where are you focusing your attention?
Claiming Your Power
If we grew up in an environment where power was abused, we often have a belief that power is violent and ugly, something which is forced on you. But power can be quiet, calm, and assertive. True power is not about dominating others, it is knowledge, wisdom and understanding about ourselves and the conviction that we know who we are.
No one gives you power, you have to take it.
Rewriting the Story of Who You Are
What are your Core Beliefs?
Core Beliefs are unconditional beliefs that serve as a basis for interpreting and explaining our experiences. For example, “There’s something wrong with me”, “Others can’t be trusted”, “It doesn’t matter what I do”, “I never have any luck”. These often function without our awareness in our Self Talk.
What do I believe to be true about myself?
Where did it come from?
What messages have I claimed for myself?
What messages have I accepted to belong or survive?
What messages have I accepted from others?
What assumptions am I operating from as a result of these beliefs?
How do these beliefs affect my thoughts, feelings and behaviors?
How do I know what is really me?
How do I know what is not me?
What is the story you tell yourself when things go right?
When things go wrong?
As you move through each day, stop, look at what is happening in this moment, and ask yourself these questions:
Do I like it?
Do I want it?
Is it good for me?
What do I need right now?
How do I feel?
As you make space to listen to yourself you strengthen your self knowledge. You won’t get it right every time, especially at first. That’s okay. Progress, not perfection. As you learn to trust yourself it will become more automatic and you will gravitate toward the answers you know are true for you. It’s not selfish to make space for yourself, it’s necessary for you to thrive.
It is our responsibility to create the environment in which we can thrive.
Our lives are determined by the choices we make for ourselves. Do you feel empowered? Are you actively making choices about your life, or allowing external forces to influence and drive you? To reclaim your power and control in your own life you have to know how to make choices to nurture and care for yourself, how to make choices to meet your needs, how to move in directions that allow you to reach your full potential. That is thriving. Start simply and pay attention to each choice.
Every day try to reflect on these three questions:
What choices did I make today that feel good?
What choices did I make today that are leading me where I want to go?
What am I most grateful for today?
As you strengthen your knowledge about who you are and what you want you will drop the need to justify and explain or apologize when your needs and wants do not appease others. As you turn your attention to who you are, what you want and need, and what is working you will find it easier and easier to make that choice. That is where you find happiness and where you will thrive.
Find your values.
Values are the deep-rooted beliefs you have that guide your every choice in life, whether you are aware of them or not. Not knowing your own values can make it easier for you to fall into the trap of living someone else’s. Living someone’s values instead of your own can leave you unfilled and unhappy in your life. It may even compromise your mental, emotional, or physical well being. Using another person’s values leaves you constantly working against yourself.
It pays to look at your actions over your thoughts to find your true values. If you think one of your true values is being financially stable, but you tend to take jobs where you are underpaid or you are constantly bailing out other people so that you come up short, you might be living someone else’s values. If you value honesty but constantly find yourself telling little white lies to avoid conflict or perhaps even abuse, you are not living according to your values.
When we live according to our values we feel good about ourselves. It improves our self-esteem and our confidence. Our friends know what to expect from us and we are consistent, reliable, and true in our relationships with others. When we live according to other people’s values we are constantly having to morph into whoever they want us to be, like a chameleon constantly having to change its colors. We can never relax, we can never stand firm, we can never just breathe and be ourselves because we are constantly on guard, watching to see what everyone wants us to be now.
Practice saying no.
Every time you say yes to something you don’t really want you weaken your self esteem or self confidence. It’s like constantly lying to yourself until in the end you don’t even know what the truth is. Granted, we often have to agree to things we don’t want in settings such as work, in family situations, or in social settings. But if you are consistently saying yes when you mean no, especially in your personal relationships, you are compromising your sense of self and your self worth. If you consistently say yes to things you don’t want you can become so far removed from knowing what makes you happy you have no sense of self. You may even develop depression from the constant denial of who you are.
So how do you say no? Keep it simple, calm, and pleasant. You often don’t need to give a reason for your decision. Overexplaining can suggest that the decision is negotiable or that you aren’t sure. Keep your refusal firm and upbeat. You don’t have to be impolite or aggressive. A simple, “no thanks, that’s not for me” will often be sufficient.
Become very aware of your need to please.
It is very hard to have a strong sense of self if we form our identity based on the opinions of others, and choose our actions based on their responses to us. The thing to keep in mind is that it is simply not possible to please everyone. We have to pick and choose who we make happy, and the person who deserves to be at the top of the list is you.
A lot of people, especially survivors of narcissistic parents, believe that taking care of themselves is selfish. Think of it this way. You can’t pour from a pitcher which is empty. If you are constantly turning yourself inside out to keep everyone else happy, and never taking care of yourself, how will you have anything to give away?
This doesn’t mean you aren’t considerate, thoughtful, kind, or helpful to other people. Of course you will be. It does mean that you don’t sacrifice your own well being to take care of everyone else. There is a difference in being there for the people in your life - which is good - and constantly subjugating and denying your own needs to meet everyone else. It’s about balance. You should make sure your pitcher is full so you have something to share with others. If you don’t, you go through life exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed.
Of course if you are a pleaser, it can be very difficult to break the pattern. Start by asking yourself, with every decision you make, am I doing this for myself, or for the other person? And take time to sit down and write about this question- “what would my life look like if I didn’t have to please anyone?”
Work towards accepting yourself.
If you are in a constant state of self criticism it’s like trying to see yourself clearly through a rain of fired arrows> You can’t feel strong and confident when you are constantly berating yourself. And what purpose is that serving? Does it make you smarter? Stronger? Or does it just beat you down?
Make a list of all the things that are going alright in your life, and all the things you like about yourself no matter how small, and read through it at least once a day. Spend more time doing things you are naturally good at. Get honest with yourself, too, about social situations you are choosing that make you feel less than good enough. If you have critical friends or family members is it time to find a new social circle?
Write down your negative thoughts. Notice what you are saying to yourself. Would you ever say these things to a friend or loved one? Probably not. Challenge them. Are they reality based? Or have you internalized someone else’s negative messages to you? Where did these messages come from? Are they fair and accurate? Or just mean and hateful? Replace them with more realistic thoughts.
Therapists call this being authentic. What we mean by this is being who you truly are. A lot of times we put on a face that we are expected to wear. If we are talking to our boss, we may smile and be polite when we’d really like to scream. And we will always have those situations in our lives. You have to be polite to the boss and your colleagues because your job depends on it and you need your job to pay the rent. We wear our best face in social situations and business interactions. But your personal relationships should not be built on putting on this face. With the people you love, the people who are closest to you, you should be able to express who you really are. Being authentic means expressing who you really are, being safe enough to say, “I’m really upset right now”, being able to disagree with other people, and being able to hold opinions that differ from other people’s.
Learn how to be alone.
The way you respond and react to others is a great way to learn about yourself. But if you never spend much time by yourself, how can you truly know who your real self is? Many of us fear being alone. Sometimes things we are avoiding dealing with tend to surface when we have time to think. When we are alone our emotions come to the surface, our worries make an appearance, and boredom becomes a problem. Sometimes we are too worried about what people think if we do something alone. Sometimes we just haven’t learned how to be alone and need to practice.
Spending time alone doesn’t mean you need to book a week to go to a meditation retreat or do anything radical (although a week alone is a truly enlightening experience if you are the sort who is always surrounded by others). Being alone can mean carving out one evening a week to do something for yourself, by yourself. It can mean doing something that you really love, whether that is a long walk or going to see a foreign film, or spending time at home writing in your journal.
It is true that learning to be alone can at first feel a bit miserable. Emotions you have hidden from yourself might surface, and you might, for the first time in a long time, actually feel a little lonely. But wait it out. Once you adjust to spending time alone you’ll also start to hear yourself clearly. It can be quite exciting to suddenly have a clearer voice in your head telling you what you do and don’t like.
When you are strong on your own and can handle your emotions and worries by yourself you are much less tempted to latch onto the first person who comes along. Too many people get with partners who are at best unhealthy and at worst toxic because it’s better than being alone. Being able to live and thrive alone means you can choose who you want to be with - and wait for the right person.
Find yourself with therapy.
Sometimes the best thing of all when we are trying to build a stronger sense of self is impartial help from someone who first, has no demands of us, and second, is on our side. And that’s what a therapist is for. All kinds of therapy can do wonders for clarifying our sense of self and building up our esteem. Talk therapies like psychodynamic psychotherapy and people centered counseling are good options. CBT is another choice, focusing on catching our cycles of negative thoughts and working to change or eliminate them.
Create a healthy, support network.
Surround yourself with people who honor, love, support and respect your authentic self and avoid people who require you to be a chameleon, contorting yourself into the person they need or want you to be. Weed out people who expect you to turn yourself inside out for them, who constantly make demands on you and do not reciprocate, who don’t respect your boundaries.
Encourage exploration and curiosity.
Find your passions and pursue them. Try new things. Sign up for a class. Go to new events. Be brave. Watch and listen to what other people enjoy doing. Don’t be afraid you won’t be good at it, or you won’t like it. No one is good at something when they first begin. And knowing what you don’t like is just as important as knowing what you do like.
Be aware of reciprocity.
Reciprocity is defined as, “the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit”. It means there is give and take on both sides of a relationship. Tune into the relationships in your life. Do the people closest to you give as much as they take? Are you surrounded by people who take and take while giving nothing to you? Supporting, nurturing, and caring should be mutual. If it’s not you might want to examine just how much the people around you really care about you. Do they really care about you, or just what you can do for them? It’s impossible to assert yourself and ask that your needs be met when you are with people who are only taking from you.
Raised by Wolves is a reader-supported
publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.