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‘I Don’t Know Who I Am’: Establishing Your Sense of Self

As we grow and develop from children to young adults, we listen and learn from the world and others around us. When others listen to and learn from us, we learn that our needs are valid and that we are valuable. We learn that we are individuals with our own identities and our own ideas and sets of behaviors. When our environment is healthy, we grow into adults with a healthy sense of self. We learn that our opinions and thoughts are important. We know who we are.

Those who do not grow up in a healthy environment—perhaps one scarred by emotional or physical abuse, neglect, or over-parenting—may not develop a sense of self in the same way. Their identities may have been minimally acknowledged, if at all. When feelings and thoughts are ignored in childhood, children may grow up not recognizing that they have their own ideas and sets of behaviors. If children are forced to yield to others’ thoughts, wants, and needs continually over time, the development of their identity may suffer. As they grow into adults, they may question, “Who am I?”

Adults who do not have a solid sense of self at times may rely on the opinions, feelings, and thoughts of others. They may yield to their friends’ sense of fashion, buy a car that is deemed “popular,” or participate in activities they do not truly enjoy. They may allow others to make decisions for them. As this pattern continues, it can leave a person feeling depressed or anxious about choices they make and what their lives have become. They may feel helpless or even hopeless at times. Unfortunately, as this pattern continues, their sense of self may further deteriorate, leaving them feeling less and less connected to themselves.

When we have our own sense of identity, we are better able to make decisions and navigate life with more ease. We are able to include friends and partners in our lives who are emotionally healthy and with whom we can share ourselves in a healthy way. Learning about ourselves and developing a solid sense of identity can help us feel more fulfilled and happy because we are better able to guide our lives to what we desire.

The following tips can help you develop a better sense of who you are and increase self-awareness:

1. Get to Know Yourself

Begin making a list of things about you. This may feel intimidating at first, so start small. For example, make a list of five to seven easy “favorites,” such as your favorite color, favorite ice cream flavor, favorite movie, favorite flower, and favorite food. Create a new list once or twice per week and aim to include five to seven items per list. Make a list of smells you enjoy, such as warm cookies or freshly cut grass. List books you enjoyed reading or would like to read in the future. Make a list of your favorite video games or board games as a child. List states and countries you’d like to visit. Over time, expand and grow your lists to thoughts about political views, hobbies, career choices, and any other items that pique your interest. If you feel stuck, ask friends and family for suggestions about new topics.

Over time, not only will you get to know yourself better and slowly recognize your individuality, but you may begin feeling more confident in your ability to do so.

2. Listen to Your Mind and Body

Your feelings and body can tell you a lot about your thoughts and interests. When you participate in activities such as drawing, sports, or social events, how do you feel? Do you laugh and feel happy? Are you tense or relaxed? During what types of movies do you laugh or cry?

If you pay attention to them, feelings and physical cues can help you develop awareness of your likes and dislikes.

3. Begin Making Decisions

Decision-making is a skill built over time. Like a muscle, this behavior needs to be flexed to develop and stay fit.

When making decisions with friends about the next dinner get-together, be sure to cast your vote about the location and meeting time. Discuss with your partner your opinions about the remodeling of the bathroom. When grocery shopping for the family, don’t forget to pick up food you personally enjoy. Buy that new sweater you want even if you’re not sure anyone else will like it. When your friend or partner asks if you’d like to see the 7:30 or 9:30 show, state a preference instead of deferring. Have a voice and let it be heard.

4. Take Charge

As you begin to develop a sense of your interests, begin planning activities once or twice a week that engage your senses. Call a friend and invite them to participate in an activity you enjoy, or make a date with yourself and plan a fun day. Take a walk in the park, go to the market, see a new movie, sign up for the company softball event, or all of the above.

Most importantly, get out there and have fun doing what you love.

Author: Denise Olesky, MA, NCC

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