- A strong sense of self helps us get through life's inevitable twists and turns.
- Especially for those who have had to mask parts of themselves, finding communities where we feel accepted can be key.
- Paradoxically, letting go of the self may help us find a more simple, truer version of who we are at our core.
When Cynthia came to see me in her early 30s, she was well-liked by a close group of friends, financially successful, and completely lost. I asked her what brought her to therapy, and she said, "Thank you for not asking me to 'Tell you about myself,' because that's part of the problem. It's like my friends and family see this fully formed person, but when I look in the mirror, I don't know who I am, or how I ended up in this life."
Cynthia shared more about herself, revealing a past diagnosis of dyslexia and a significant trauma at age 16 that included the loss of a parent and financial upheaval for her family.
In addition to trauma healing, Cynthia had unfinished business from adolescence. Right in the midst of a core stage of identity development, she lost the ground beneath her feet—literally and figuratively— as the family needed to move homes. By that age, Cynthia had also already gotten very good at masking, a skill many neurodivergent individuals develop to fit into a world not designed for them.
The masking "worked" so well that 16 years later she found herself in my office, a woman who was delightful and strong for others and a complete disappointment to herself.
Identity Confusion: Not a Character Flaw But an Invitation
Not everyone will relate to Cynthia's story, but most of us can relate to that sense of "not quite feeling like ourself." While we go through many cycles of identity discovery and re-discovery in life, generally speaking, a strong sense of self helps us get through inevitable twists and turns. A sense of clarity of beliefs and values helps us stay in our integrity even when life doesn't go our way. It helps us set boundaries and not constantly abandon our own needs and wants to please others. After all, how can you be your own best friend if you don't know who you are?
And, of course, identity doesn't occur in a vacuum—we grow into who we are in the context of relationships. In addition to our individual identity, we may have strong family, ethnic, racial, social, or spiritual identities—all of which can protect us from the negative effects of stress, hardship, or discrimination.
But there are many situations that can disrupt a strong self of self, such as these:
- A big change—even if positive, like a big move or having a child—that leaves you feeling "I don't know who I am anymore"
- A long history of covering up, or masking, a piece of oneself in the face of stigma
- A manufactured self, even if successful, that gives others the sense of authenticity but leaves you at least a few inches from yourself
- A high-pressure adolescence that left little room for exploration
9 Practices to Get Closer to "You"
The good news is that getting closer to you doesn't have to put you on the hamster wheel of self-discovery. Here are some simple (not easy) ways to get started:
- Look what you knew without thinking as a child. Think back to what you loved doing as a child, before you knew to care what others thought.
- Recall the last time you felt most like yourself. Many can't recall a recent example of feeling exactly like yourself, but most can find a time when they felt a bit closer. Take a deep breath and let your mind wander. It could be as simple as hanging out with your pet.
- Take note of what you know for sure. Identities are multifaceted. Are there aspects that you know for sure? For example, you may know for sure that you love music or spicy food, or that you're a vegetarian. Even if everything else is in question, there are some anchors of knowing.
- Expand what you share with trusted others. Because identity is formed in the context of relationships, opening the channels of communication with trusted others just a little more can expand one's sense of self. When others validate what is hard to share, we feel seen and connected to ourselves and others.
- Find communities where you feel embraced for who you actually are. Especially for those who have had to mask parts of themselves, finding communities where you feel accepted can be key.
- Identify your values. Identify your core values. Values like kindness or family or integrity are all good, but what's the more narrow list of four or five values that feel most important? A good sign of a core value is that you really don't feel like yourself when you are out of alignment.
- Talk to yourself like a best friend. We tend to talk to ourselves in a way that we'd never accept even from a stranger on the street. As your own best friend, try to notice when you are disappointing yourself in service of pleasing others.
- Look for moments of meaning. Meaning doesn’t require big, Instagram-worthy actions, nor is it only accessible to those of us with a dream job that feels like a calling. Meaning can be felt in the simpler moments, which, when woven together, create a meaningful tapestry of a life worth living. Try taking five minutes to jot down any moments in the last week, month, or even year that felt most meaningful. In the pattern, you may see the shape of you and what you care about.
- Breathe. So often, we get stuck by thinking an identity must be big and highly unique. But this is also where we may get stuck veering toward a manufactured or invented identity. Sometimes self-discovery can be found, literally, right under our noses. Mindfulness, which renowned teacher and researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn defines as paying attention to the present moment on purpose, can help us let go of reality as we wish it to be and embrace reality as it is. Paradoxically, letting go of the self may help us find a more simple, truer version of who we are at our core.