Building a Sense of Self

young adult sense of self - Yellowbrick - source: Shutterstock

When a person grows up in an invalidating environment, e.g., in a family where his or her feelings and needs are ignored or ridiculed, it may be hard for that person as an adult to know about the very things that make up a sense of self: What do I feel about this or that? What is my opinion? What is my priority or value? What do I need?

While it is helpful to understand something about how a sense of the self develops in childhood, it is also useful to know what one can do as an emerging adult, to build or to strengthen a core sense of self, of who you are. This unit is intended to provide some suggestions for ways to do just that.

A starting place for this project might be to practice asking yourself the above questions as you go through your day, as you read something, as you hear news, as you talk with someone, as you decide what to have for lunch or what to do in this moment or the next: What do I think? feel? value? need?  Also, it helps to stay aware of the fact that our behavioral choices flow directly out of the answers to these questions, whether we answer them in awareness or not!

On thing that complicates this process is the reality that, for instance, what we value may be in conflict with what we need, or what we think may be in conflict with what we feel. It also may be the case that we don’t think, or feel, or need just one thing in any given situation- we may, e.g., have two or three different feelings about what we want to do that are in direct conflict with each other.

How we resolve these conflicts or tensions is part of developing a self.

Here are some things that a person can do that will facilitate this process:

  • Develop a contemplative practice. This might be meditating or journaling, for instance.  Taking time to look in the mirror, to reflect on oneself, to practice looking inward and noticing what is there.
  • Create a personal narrative. Try to make sense of how you have come to be who you are by telling the story of your life, as you understand it.
  • Make your inner world public within some trusted relationships. Working at putting your private thoughts into words and sharing these with someone helps you to see yourself more clearly.
  • Recognize that we all have an unconscious. We all have motives, beliefs, wishes, ideas of which we are unaware, forces and factors within ourselves which we are not be able to see without help. It’s not true that what we don’t know can’t hurt us. Some ways you can become aware of your unconscious processes would include paying attention to your impact on others (which can hold up a mirror to your unintended motives) and to attend to your dreams which offer a window into the unconscious.
  • Pay attention to repeating patterns, especially those in your relational life. Do you find yourself in a similar role or spot in your relationships, e.g., usually ending up the caretaker?
  • Incorporate dissonant parts of yourself, rather than denying or excluding them. Develop a capacity for tolerating this internal dissonance, for the parts of yourself that may be in conflict with each other, or those parts of yourself you’d rather not acknowledge or know about. Without this tolerance you can’t have all of yourself present.

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