How to Develop a Strong Sense of Self

By Leo Babauta

Developing a strong sense of self is one of the most under-appreciated ways to be happy. To have healthy relationships, with others and with yourself.

It’s not often understood, and as a result, problems in this area cause problems in all areas of our lives.

Let me point out just some of the common symptoms of an under-developed sense of self:

People pleasing

Conflict avoidance

Not being honest about how you feel

Losing yourself in a relationship

Distancing yourself from your partner when you’re afraid

Hiding things, cheating on your partner

Not being able to take care of your needs or emotions

Being afraid of intimacy or relationships

Not setting boundaries, feeling overrun or overburdened by others, resenting it

As you can see, the issues come up especially in relationship with others (with your partner, family, friends, coworkers, etc.) … but because of that, it affects almost everything in your life, even when you’re alone.

If you can develop a strong sense of self, you will start to address these problems and more, resulting in a massive transformation of your life.

This is obviously a huge topic that I can’t cover fully in one article, but let’s discuss the essentials.

Your Sense of Self Develops in Your Family

Parents often see their kids as an extension of themselves — my kid reflects how good of a parent I am, my children validate me, my children are a part of me.

You can see this when a parent is always telling their kids what to do, controlling their lives, or wanting the kid to be responsible for the parent’s anger, anxiety, or sadness.

The result of this kind of relationship is that often the kid grows up without a strong sense of self. They don’t know how to set boundaries, because the parents didn’t let them. They don’t know how to take care of their emotional needs, because the parents didn’t allow it. They look to others to reflect their value, because that’s what the parents trained them to do.

None of this is meant to make the kid or the parents wrong for how this goes. It’s just to shine a light on what’s happening, and to try to understand how it works.

Sense of Self with Your Partner

As a result of all of that, we often come into romantic relationships without a strong sense of self. We think that we need to please the other person, and be validated by them.

We might feel we need to merge ourselves with them to feel love, and lose ourselves. Or perhaps we’re afraid of losing ourselves, because we don’t have a strong sense of self … so from that fear, we distance ourselves whenever we get too close to intimacy.

Most of our problems come from this: we either think we need to lose ourselves in the other person, or we distance ourselves because we’re afraid of losing ourselves.

This can be transformed if we develop a strong sense of self. Then we wouldn’t lose ourselves, nor need to distance ourselves. We can have closeness without losing the sense of who we are.

How to Start Developing a Stronger Sense of Self

The way to develop a strong sense of self is to start by knowing yourself better — not necessarily changing anything about yourself.

This means a willingness to have intimacy with yourself:

Know your feelings: Start to bring awareness and presence to your fears, anxieties, sadness, loneliness, boredom, anger, resentment, guilt, shame, love, compassion, joy, and more. When they are happening, can you notice them and let yourself feel them? This creates a sense of trust in yourself that you can be with your feelings.

Know your self-talk: Notice what you’re telling yourself when you avoid, criticize, complain, break promises to yourself, make mistakes. What kind of language do you use? What kind of tone? Understanding this is a way of understanding how you’ve learned to protect yourself.

Take care of your feelings: When you’re feeling afraid, sad, lonely, emotionally exhausted … can you find a way to take care of these feelings? Soothe them, bring love to them, reassure them? If you could have a loved one give you exactly what you need, what would that be? Could you do that for yourself?

Know your desires: We are often trained to not want anything. It might not feel OK to want things. But what if we could just own our desires, and start to notice what they are? And feel that it’s OK to have these desires? That doesn’t mean we always get to have whatever we want — that’s attachment. But just acknowledging your desires can be powerful.

Know your light: We sometimes only relate to the parts of ourselves we don’t really like. But a good practice is to start to see the parts of yourself that are beautiful — your compassion, generosity, curiosity, playfulness, commitment, power, courage, love, joy, and more. These aren’t always obvious, but they’re always there. Start to notice them and acknowledge them more often. This is the essence of developing your sense of self.

If you practice these on a regular basis, your sense of self will get stronger with each practice.

Practicing in Relationship with Others

It’s best to develop your sense of self when you’re alone — even if you’re in a relationship, or have lots of family or friends around you, spend some time alone each day to practice knowing yourself.

That said, we deepen this work whenever we’re in relationship with anyone else. This can be a romantic partnership, a friendship, a relationship with your kids or siblings or parents, relationships with team members, business partners, etc.

Some ways to practice:

Notice when you’re seeking validation from the other person. Practice validating yourself instead — acknowledge your light, celebrate your victories.

Notice when you’re holding yourself back. You might not want to share your feelings with the other person, or perhaps you’re afraid of being honest. This is a withholding of yourself out of fear. When you notice this, attend to your fear. Then see if you can share yourself, at least in little bits. Through this practice, you’ll develop trust to share all of yourself.

Set boundaries. Notice when you need alone time, and let them know. Notice when you’re saying Yes to things out of guilt, and practice saying No. Notice when you’re resentful about things, and look for a boundary that you can express that won’t make you resentful. Look for where your needs aren’t being honored, and speak up for them.

Continue to practice your individuality. Just because you’re in relationship with someone else doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice who you are. Can you speak up for your opinions and desires? Can you have your own activities that are yours alone?

Use conflicts to grow your sense of self. Every conflict with the other person can be a practice in opening your heart to them, without giving up who you are. And even if the conflict goes badly — let’s say they are shut down and mean to you — you can take some time alone and practice being with your feelings and taking care of your emotions. In this way, even difficult conflicts can be an opportunity to grow closer to yourself.

Be patient with yourself, because this isn’t easy stuff to practice, and you won’t “get it right” all the time. In fact, there isn’t a right way to do this, it’s an exploration, a journey of self-discovery.

Get support from a friend, a therapist, a coach, whenever you’re struggling with any of it. It’s OK to not be able to do it all on your own.

Above all, rejoice and delight in yourself, no matter how it’s going!

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