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How to Build a Strong Sense of Self

Four ways to be a more authentic you.

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“One of the greatest tragedies in life is to lose your own sense of self and accept the version of you that is expected by everyone else.” – Unknown

Knowing yourself and becoming confident in who you are isn’t as easy as it may sound. Building a strong sense of yourself can seem like an impossible task at times. It’s a lifelong project figuring out who you are, what you value, and what is important to you. It is especially hard to know yourself when living in a culture that sends us constant messages about who we should be and what we should like. It makes it challenging for us to separate what we want from what other people want. It is hard to know ourselves and find our own voice in the midst of so many other dominant ideas and opinions.

So, let’s get started with how you can build a strong and authentic sense of self, even when others think differently. To truly know yourself and be known by others, you must distinguish yourself by figuring out what your values, beliefs, and truths are, apart from other people’s opinions about what they should be. Begin by making choices for your life, instead of looking to others to make decisions for you. If you’re tired of wishing you had the strength to say no, if you’re overwhelmed by living a life others expect you to, if you wish you didn't have to work so hard for approval, if you don’t have the courage to express your feelings or the ability to be happy with who you are, then you know you’re living a life that isn’t congruent with who you are. You know you aren’t living for yourself. Below are some tips on how to build a strong and authentic sense of self:

1. Differentiate yourself. Look within, distinguish yourself from your surroundings, allowing you to become more self-aware. Before you make any decisions—especially life-altering decisions—you have to figure out what you want and how you want to spend your time. People who know themselves make decisions for themselves automatically. But it takes time to get there. The process of defining a self, especially later in life, can be slow. Take your time and remember that knowing yourself happens through the daily decisions you make.

2. Connect with yourself. When developing a sense of self, it helps to stay in conversation with yourself, always exploring new ways to be who you want to be. You can do this by becoming the observer of your own life, which will help you be more attuned with your inner self. When a situation occurs, take a step back and watch your process, thoughts, and feelings, without trying to react immediately. For example, if someone asks you to do something for them, you don’t have to answer right away. Instead, you can say, “Let me get back to you.” This will give you some time to really consider your options, without having to make an instant decision. Your automatic responses can lead you in a direction that isn’t in line with yourself, and you may end up regretting it later if you don’t take your time to answer.

3. See challenges as a way to know yourself. When you’re faced with difficult situations in life, try to see them as opportunities for you to decide who you are and see what you’re capable of. As Neale Donald Walsch says, “each circumstance is a gift, and in each experience is a hidden treasure.” When you continue to act in ways that don’t align with your values, you rob yourself of the opportunity to experience who you want to be in different situations and circumstances. How you choose to behave, think, and feel are all expressions of who you want to be. When you observe your self without judgment or impulsivity, you’re making a decision about who you are; you’re getting to know you. Situations in life, even negative ones, can always serve as opportunities.

4. Apply these actions to your life. There are a few ways that you can practice knowing yourself in your daily life, allowing you to move through life as a more distinguished self: a. Make a real effort to have your feelings line up with your logical brain by looking at the facts every situation, b. Practice sitting with the discomfort that comes from your wants not being immediately satisfied, c. Think about your personal values instead of imposing them on other people, d. When people in your life upset you or you don’t agree with them, try to stay connected to them rather than pulling away, e. Have your own ideas, values, and thoughts even if others disagree with them, f. Look beyond your initial impulsive reactions so that you can see your real intentions, and act in ways that better fit with who you want to be versus what your impulses dictate.

Take obstacles, situations, and interactions with people as an opportunity to express who you are, who you want to become, and how you want to express your true self. The only way to really know who you are is to try on certain actions for size and see how they make you feel. Over time, you may notice that acting in ways that fit with who you are simply feel better than acting in ways that don’t naturally align with your true nature.

More from Ilene Strauss Cohen Ph.D.
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