“Who am I”? It’s a question that can send the best of us down a rabbit hole. Do we have to have a self identity, even? And what if your sense of self is weak, or even non-existent?
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What is self identity, anyway?
Self identity, or ‘self concept’ in psychology, refers to the ways you perceive, describe and evaluate yourself in relation to others.
What do you see as your qualities, your defining characteristics and your responsibilities in the world?
It sounds very individual. And yet our sense of self is heavily influenced by others around us (our ‘social identity’) and also the environments we exist in and grew up in.
For more, please read our article, “What is Self Concept, and How Can It Help You?“.
Can my sense of self change?
It’s true that most of our self-identity is formed as children and teens. As children we imitate those around us, and then as teenagers we challenge all that we have been imitating until we find what identity works for us. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson called this adolescent stage ‘identity vs role confusion’.
But then life challenges arrive, and we learn new things about ourselves and the world that change us. So yes, our self-identity can fluctuate.
It’s okay to not always be sure who you are, or to question yourself. As long as you are coping with daily life and are resilient enough to handle challenges and navigate relationships, your sense of self is probably fine.
If our sense of self is very low, and we aren’t coping, we might experience an ‘identity crisis’. Read about this in our article, “7 Signs You Suffer From an Identity Crisis“.
A poor sense of self and relationships
Getting by at work, keeping it together in general, but still not sure if you have enough of a sense of self? Look to your relationships.
A poor sense of self can mean that in relationships others struggle to understand us. This can leave us very lonely and even depressed.
Or we can make the mistake of trying to find an identity though our relationships, meaning we mistake codependency for love. We might even choose one unhealthy relationship after another.
Why do I have a poor sense of self and identity?
Having a poor sense of self is often a product of a difficult childhood, where you experienced emotional neglect or childhood trauma.
Emotional neglect means that we didn’t receive proper ‘attachment’ as a child. This means you didn’t have a caregiver you could rely on to love and accept you no matter what. You learned to adapt yourself in order to receive love, hiding your true thoughts and feelings.
The result is we grow up into adults who are so used to being what others want, we no longer know who we really are.
Trauma, on the other hand, damages our sense of self because it destroys our capacity to trust not just others, but our very selves.
Self identity and mental illness
Having a changing sense of self can mean we aren’t always able to function in society, or are even seen as “mentally ill”. Mental health diagnoses that involve a lack of self identity include:
Borderline personality disorder (BPD) can also affect your sense of self. The impulsivity and overreacting that BPD leads to can mean you feel out of control of your self ,or even like you are a different person with each other person you know.
How can we improve our sense of self?
Our sense of self and our self-esteem are interconnected. In fact Carl Rogers, the father of person-centred psychotherapy, felt that self-esteem was one of the main ingredients of self-identity, alongside our self image and our ideal self.
Routes to finding self-worth can be identifying your personal values, then starting to make choices that match your values instead of go against them.
Working on your wellbeing and upping your self-care are other routes to self-esteem. Make a list of all the activities that make you feel good and start scheduling them into your diary like you would a work meeting. Isn’t feeling good that important?
Then work on your self-compassion, a shortcut to better self worth. How could you treat yourself more like you treat your valued friends?
The fastest way to a sense of self?
If we experienced neglect or trauma as a child our sense of self can be so damaged we need support to find our way back to ourselves.
Working with a counsellor or psychotherapist is then highly recommended. They can create a safe, non-judgmental space for you to process any difficult experiences and repressed emotions that are blocking you or leaving your overwhelmed. And they can be a mirror that reflects back a version of yourself you have overlooked, with resources and strengths you’ve secretly had all along.
Ready to find yourself and be yourself? We connect you with London’s best counsellors and psychotherapists. Not in London or the UK? Try our booking platform for UK-wide counselling and global Skype therapy.
Still have a question about your sense of self? Ask below in the public comment box.