Sense of Self: What It Is and How To Find It

By Jenni Jacobsen, LSW

Having a strong sense of self is important for psychological well-being, but not everyone is able to establish their own unique identity. Some people may be uncomfortable expressing themselves as unique individuals. Others may be so influenced by peers and family members that they conform to the expectations of others instead of establishing a sense of self. Because a sense of self is so important, it’s helpful to understand what it means and how to achieve it.

What Is a “Sense of Self?”

The term “sense of self” refers to a person’s individual identity. As human beings, we are connected to those around us, and we develop close and meaningful relationships with people who are important to us. While relationships are important, we must also maintain a distinct sense of self that keeps us separate from others and defines who we are.

Several related concepts are included within the definition of our sense of self. These include self-esteem and self-concept, which both determine the way we perceive our abilities, identities and unique characteristics. 

Signs of a Strong Sense of Self

Someone who has a strong sense of self is comfortable in their unique identity, and they do not feel the need to change themselves to please others. Some signs of a strong sense of self include:

  • You are able to set boundaries with other people.
  • Your sense of identity is relatively stable, meaning your definition of who you are doesn’t really change.
  • You have a high level of confidence and self-worth.
  • You do not feel uncomfortable about the things that make you unique.
  • You are willing to stand up for your own needs. 

Signs of a Poor Sense of Self

On the other hand, people with a poor sense of self may be unsure of who they are. This can be identified through certain signs, including:

  • Changing your personality or preferences so you fit in with those around you.
  • Allowing others to define who you are.
  • Having a difficult time saying no to others. 
  • Struggling to stand up for your own needs and preferences.
  • Having an unstable identity, meaning that your perception of who you are changes frequently.

Why Is Having a Strong Sense of Self Important?

Having a strong sense of self is important because it is linked to increased well-being and better relationships. In fact, research has shown that people with a distinct sense of self have better marriages and greater life satisfaction. In addition, people who have a clear sense of self tend to experience higher levels of self-esteem, which is also beneficial for well-being. 

On the contrary, having a weak sense of self is linked to mental health concerns, including depression. Studies have also found that a weak sense of self is associated with difficulty expressing emotions and attachment issues. This means that people who lack a sense of self can have difficulty forming healthy bonds with others.  

Sense of Self and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

A weak sense of self can lead to mental health concerns, and it is also a core feature of borderline personality disorder (BPD). Individuals who live with BPD are known to have identity disturbances due to an unstable sense of self. This can manifest in the form of self-criticism, rapid changes in values and goals and confusion over personal identity. Given the fact that borderline personality disorder is characterized by intense emotions and confusion over how a person sees themselves, it is not surprising that it is linked to problems with developing a sense of self. 

Ways To Develop Your Sense of Self 

If you are having difficulty establishing a unique identity or feeling comfortable with who you are, these strategies can help you to develop your sense of self. 

Spend Time Alone

Spending time alone allows you to explore your own interests and determine what is most important to you. Free from the opinions of others, you can decide what it is that you value and what makes you feel happiest. 

Discover Your Values and Beliefs

If you have a poor sense of self, it might be because you’ve simply accepted the values and beliefs that have been taught to you by your parents or other influential people in your life. Establishing a strong sense of self requires you to think about what is most important to you. Do you value having children and raising a family, or would you rather pursue a strong career? Do you believe in a specific religion, or are your views on spirituality more secular in nature? You get to decide these things for yourself.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Having boundaries doesn’t mean that relationships with others aren’t important to you; it simply means that you take care of your own needs and maintain your own identity, even when in close relationships. This can mean expressing your needs within your relationship, taking time for yourself and telling loved ones when they’ve made you uncomfortable.

Learn When To Say No

When you have a poor sense of self, you may feel as if you always have to say “yes” in order to avoid hurting feelings or upsetting people. However, you are allowed to say no. Taking on an additional commitment or doing a favor for someone may not always align with your goals or values, and that’s OK. 

Be Kind to Yourself

Having a weak sense of self can take its toll on your self-esteem, so it’s important to be kind to yourself if you’re trying to build a stronger sense of self. This means forgiving yourself for making mistakes, recognizing that you can’t please everyone and letting go of excessively high self-expectations.

Look Into Your Lineage

You don’t have to have the same values and goals as your family, but there may be pieces of your family history that play an important role in your identity. Maybe your family has a love for sports, or perhaps there are family traditions that resonate with you. Whatever it is, there are likely pieces of your lineage that are important to you and central to who you are. Identify them and incorporate them into your life. 

Practice Self-Care

Part of having a strong sense of self is being able to recognize and prioritize your own needs. One way to achieve this is to practice self-care. This means taking time for rest and relaxation, finding time to do things you enjoy and caring for yourself through regular physical activity and a nutritious diet. When you make an intentional effort to practice self-care, prioritizing your own needs eventually becomes a habit. 

When To Seek Help 

If you have a weak sense of self, it may contribute to mental health issues like low self-esteem and depression. If these problems begin to interfere with daily life and make it difficult for you to develop meaningful relationships, you would benefit from seeking help from a therapist. In therapy sessions, you can explore the underlying issues that have led to a poor sense of self and develop the skills required for setting boundaries, exploring your own values and asserting yourself.

If you’re looking for tools to help you develop a stronger sense of self, Nobu offers a free-to-download mental wellness app that features mindfulness training, lessons from mental health experts and a goal tracker so you can monitor your progress. A paid plan is also available with Nobu, which allows users to schedule online therapy sessions with licensed counselors. Download the app today on the App Store or Google Play Store to get started. 

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.
jenni jacobsen
Written by – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has seven years of experience working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health… Read more.
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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.