Who Am I? Developing A Strong Sense of Self
There is a common axiom that if you do not know where you are going, you can end up somewhere else. In the fields of psychotherapy and counselling there is a common goal to help others in their human journey. The process often starts with people gaining insight about themselves and developing a sense of self. Psychotherapy, which often aims to increase self-esteem and self-efficacy, necessitates an understanding of self. As we begin a new year, it seems rather timely to reflect upon where we are in this journey.
A sense of self is defined as the way a person thinks about and views his or her traits, beliefs, and purpose within the world. In a nutshell, a strong sense of self may be defined by knowing your own goals, values and ideals. Regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not, everyone has a sense of self or sense of personal identity. In this article I will give a framework for understanding more about this topic. When it comes to understanding what makes up your sense of self, there are three aspects to consider: self concept, self esteem, and ideal self.
In general terms, one’s self concept is how one thinks about, evaluates or perceives themselves. Our self concept includes the roles, attributes, behaviours, and associations that we consider most important about ourselves. Self concept answers the question “Who Am I?” The answer to this question may include examples of the following:
- Physical attributes (e.g. short/tall, blue /brown eyes,
- Social relationships (e.g. husband/wife, colleague, friend)
- Familiar relationships (e.g. brother/sister, son/daughter, mother/father)
- Occupations (e.g. teacher, plumber, engineer)
- Abilities/disabilities (e.g. smart, funny, shy)
- Spirituality (e.g. child of God, Catholic, Buddhist)
- Affiliations (e.g. Shriner, Calgary Flames fan, Polish Club)
- Salient attributes (e.g. hard working,/lazy, honest/dishonest, good looking)
- Avocations (e.g. athlete, musician, artist, volunteer)
Our self concept is not innate but develops over time from a variety of sources which include our genetics (temperament), and the feedback we receive from society, coaches, parents, family members, teachers, and our cultural heritage. Our self concept develops partly from our temperament, along with our life experiences and the interactions we have experienced throughout our life. Childhood is a particularly important time for the development of our self-concept, however, it is not static and changes throughout our life.
Self esteem may be defined as the extent to which we like, accept or approve of ourselves. Self concept is related to self-esteem in that people who have high self-esteem have a clearly differentiated self concept (Franken 1994). Murray Bowen, founder of family systems theory, suggests that differentiation refers to a person’s capacity to define his own life goals and values apart from the pressure of those around him. People with high differentiation have their own beliefs, convictions, directions, goals and values apart from those that surround them. They have a clear idea of who they are and who they are not. They know their strengths, as well as their limitations.
Consequently, one of the ways to increase self-esteem is to adhere to the cliché of “Know thyself”. One of the ways we can know ourselves is by becoming aware of what our values are. Our values are what are most important to us; they are what we identify most with, and/or what we admire and aspire to. They are the reason why we get up in the morning. They are also the fabric of who we are as individuals, because our values give us meaning and a sense of identity.
If we have clarity about what our top values are, we will be able to live them out more clearly. One of the easiest ways to do this is to look at our actions over our thoughts. For example, if you think your true value is money, however, you take lower paying jobs and prefer to spend your spare time volunteering rather than working. You might be fooling yourself. Your true value may be helping other people. Trouble comes if you think you know your values, but are actually using your conscious mind to cherry pick the values you think you should have, because your friends, family or colleagues have them. Choosing others’ values against your own will always result in working against yourself. Once we know our top values, we can decide if they are indeed values chosen freely (not others’ values), and then choose how we want to express them and live them out.
Our ideal self is the self we aspire to be. Our ideal self develops over time, based on what we have learned and experienced. It is made of our true values and components of what our parents and family have taught us, what we admire in others,and identify most with.
If the way we are (the real self) is aligned with the way the way we aspire to be (the ideal self), then we will feel a sense of mental well-being and peace of mind. If the real self is not aligned with our ideal self, incongruence will result which then causes mental distress or anxiety. The greater the level of incongruence between the ideal self and real self, the greater the level distress. When the distance between self-concept and ideal self is fairly close we are pretty happy and satisfied.
Erik Erikson (1968), the famous and well known expert on human development noted that an important life task for individuals is to achieve a stable, well defined identity, or sense of self that will help bring greater consistency and stability to their lives. Research supports that people who might find this a particularly difficult are those who currently have a weak and nebulous sense of self. People with a strong sense of self, know who they are, what they think, what their own opinions are, values are, and are generally more self aware of who they are. On the other side of the coin, people who have a weak sense of self, have a harder time figuring out their personality and/or tend to be whomever they are with. The good news is that we are always a work in progress, we never fully arrive. Throughout our life we continue to learn, grow and develop ourselves if we open to doing so.
Think back upon your life. Are you the same person you were when you were five, ten or fifteen years old? Perhaps in some ways you are, maybe you have some of the same interests and hobbies that have followed your life. However, you probably have changed considerably in many ways depending upon many factors. Below is a set of questions that can help you evaluate where you are at in your journey of sense of self or identity:
- How would you describe yourself?
- What values do you hold as most important?
- If you are clear on your values, how are you living them out? Are you satisfied with how you are expressing them in every day living?
- How have you changed in the last five years? Are you becoming closer to the person you want to become? If not, what might you do to close the gap? If you have, what things are you most proud of?
- If you could wave a magic wand, and become whoever you wanted to become, who would it be?
- Who are people you admire most in your life. What is it that you admire about them?
There are also several websites to help you know more about yourself:
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Debbie Will is an Associate Professional Counsellor and specializes in the area of personal growth, self acceptance and self esteem, as well as many others. For more information on Debbie and her work, click here to link to her full bio page.