I got an email recently from a woman who was struggling to make a big decision. She had been dating a guy for several months and he was ready to to take the next step of commitment with her. But she wasn’t sure. She felt torn, she said, and that made her a bit anxious.
Maybe you can relate to the position she was in—having a big, life-altering type decision to make, but not sure which way to go.
I know I can.
The guy was great, she told me.
Her friends loved him and he treated her well. On top of all of that, usually her mother didn’t like her boyfriends, but in this case she would make comments about how this was the “best guy she had ever dated” and how disappointed she would be if it didn’t work out.
And so as her boyfriend waited for her to make up her mind and her friends doted over her with compliments about him and her mother made jokes like, “don’t screw this up!” she felt beside herself with anxiety.
Am I supposed to feel like this? She wondered.
Why “Finding Yourself” Matters So Much.
You hear people talk about “finding yourself” all the time and yet most of us don’t really know what it means or why it matters. In fact, I think the term gets sort of watered down. We think of “finding yourself” as this cursory thing we do, on the side, if we have time, after we get the more important work of life done.
We forget what an incredible danger it is to live life without knowing who you are.
We forget there is very little progress we will be able to make in this life if we don’t have a firm grip on who we are and why we matter.
The language psychologists use for a person who hasn’t “found themselves” is: lacking of a sense of self or a lack of personal identity and psychologists recognize that when a person lacks a sense of personal identity, their problems extend into every aspect of their life: relationships, career, even mental and emotional health.
A person without a strong sense of identity tends to suffer from:
- Manipulative relationships
- Feelings of emptiness or meaninglessness
- Feelings of helplessness
- Lack of self confidence
- Stunted dreams
- Financial difficulties
Not to mention, it can be really difficult to make a decision—even a small one. When we don’t know who we are, we end up spending more time wondering about what other people want from us than about what we want and need for ourselves. Which, of course, can be incredibly anxiety-producing.
How can you possibly measure your success or progress or integrity in life if you’re measuring by other people’s standards? The measuring stick is constantly shifting, depending on your circumstances, your situation, your surroundings, or who is doing the asking. You feel pulled between your boss, your mom, your friends, your spouse, and maybe, just maybe, some very quiet, inner-voice.
And at some point, you will let one or more of them down. You cannot possibly meet so many expectations.
It’s exhausting. It’s awful. I’ve been there. And in many ways we are all there at some point in our lives—including the young woman who sent me that email—because finding yourself is not a one-time event. It’s a journey we’re on together (tweet that).
Lack of Personal Identity and Depression.
There is a psychologist and author named Albert Bandura who has done a considerable amount of research around something he calls self-efficacy, which could be translated: a strong sense of self. He makes a specific connection between a weak sense of personal significance and depression.
I know depression is a complicated issue with lots of complicated answers. Not to mention, I have gone around and around with depression in my life. I’ve spent years on medication and in therapy and it hasn’t been until the past five or ten years that I’ve discovered some freedom from it.
Just the thought depression is something that sort of haunts me to this day.
But it hasn’t been until I’ve begun to develop a stronger sense of self that I’ve been able to find a bit of freedom from my depression. That is not a prescription, but it is a suggestion to consider that if depression is as much a part of your life as it has been of mine, it’s worth considering it might help to work on finding yourself.
Bandura says, “A weak sense of personal-efficacy operates on the cognitive source of depression in several ways.” He lists three ways specifically, and since his prose gets a little thick from there, I figured I would translate them so they’re easier to understand. You can see his full text here.
Here’s how a weak sense of self could contribute to a person’s depression:
- First, it impacts how we interpret positive and negative experiences. When someone with a strong sense of self experiences something negative in their life—anywhere from a bad grade on a test to a death in the family or a personal illness—here is how that person interprets that experience: “what a bummer that happened to me. I wonder how I can turn this around.” On the other hand, when someone with a weak sense of personal-efficacy experiences the same thing, they say to themselves, “this always happens to me! Why is my life such a disaster? There must be something wrong with me!”
- Second, it impacts the degree of control we believe we have moving forward. When the events of life are less-than-ideal, a person with a strong sense of self puts the locus of control inside himself for moving forward. So, for example, if he scores poorly on a test, he thinks to himself, “I’ll have to study more next time.” Or if he suffers an illness he thinks, “I need to take better care of myself in the future,” or “I will approach this with a good attitude.” On the other hand, a person without the same sense of self-efficacy puts the locus of control for moving forward outside herself. When the events of life are less-than-ideal, she says, “I wonder when my time will come,” or “I can’t catch a break. Everybody is out to get me!”
- Third, it influences the story we tell ourselves about personal accomplishments and failures. Bandura’s research actually showed that people with a strong sense-efficacy felt slightly better about themselves socially and emotionally than their peers. The story they told themselves about their successes was, “that’s because I’m smart and capable,” and the story they told themselves about their failures was, “well… I couldn’t have been expected to do well because I didn’t get much sleep [or that person was distracting me… or whatever.]” This isn’t to suggest we should have inflated egos (which can cause depressed states of their own) but rather that the story we tell ourselves about our successes and failures influences how we feel about ourselves.
- How do you process successes and failures as they happen to you?
- What does this tell you about how much control you have moving forward?
- What is the story you tell yourself about your personal accomplishments or failures?
When it comes to finding yourself, depression and making big decisions, it shouldn’t surprise us that the mind and body are profoundly and miraculously connected.
How Do I Know If I’ve Found Myself?
A lack of a strong self often flares up during times of change or transition in our lives, since often times we mistake our sense of self for things like: the city we live in, the person we are married to, our job, career, money, family, status, etc.
Our true self does not come from our outer-life.
It comes from our inner-life.
So when we move to a new place, leave a job, have a baby, see our grown kids leave the house, get married, or start in a new position, we often find ourselves thinking, “who am I?” This is normal and also an invitation into a deeper journey of finding yourself.
Here is my own personal definition for finding yourself:
Finding yourself is the process of discovering who you are and why you matter apart from outside achievements, relationships, and even in the face of great challenges or in life’s shifting environments. A person who is finding herself is learning to trust the the sound of her own voice, listen to her intuition, take action based on her convictions, face conflict and criticism with grace and power, and to visit that place of peace inside herself, despite what is happening around her.
When you have a strong sense of self, you are able to adapt well to changes, to soothe yourself in times of sadness or discomfort, stay true to your convictions (even when there is outside pressure), avoid codependent or manipulative relationships, set boundaries with pushy people in your life, leave behind a constant need for approval, drop the guilt, receive criticism, act authentically, lead gracefully, and take responsibility for your life—no matter how it turns out.
Yes, it is a huge task to “find ourselves” and one that is never fully finished. In fact, once we feel like we’ve “mastered it” life usually hands us more challenging and interesting situations to help us continue our path of growth.
How Do I Find Myself?
One hard truth about developing a strong sense of self is that so much of this important development takes place in childhood. If you have faced some kind of trauma in your childhood, or if your parents didn’t help you establish a strong sense of self—or if you came from a religious background where developing a strong sense of “self” was considered selfish—you might still have a lot of work to do when it comes to finding yourself.
The good news is that it is never too late to begin your work. In fact, if you are feeling profoundly lost as you read this, you are in a beautiful place.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau
Below I’m going to include a list of things that have been vital to my own journey of finding myself as I’ve been guided by great therapists, friends, advisors, mentors and my own intuition. Your journey will look different than mine, no doubt, but still, I hope this list helps.
Know and own your story.
Like anyone, there are parts of my story I haven’t wanted to own. Do you ever get that feeling when you think about how certain events have unfolded in your life? you think… truly. Honestly. Please God anything but this story.
And yet, our stories are our stories.
When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending —Brene Brown
I am in process of writing my own brave new ending to my story. It is not easy. In fact, sometimes it feels downright awful. It means re-routing old beliefs, re-wiring brain patterns, letting go of ways of coping, learning to face the conflict and the joy and the pain of life unguarded, and it means I end up failing and losing my temper and crying in public more often than I would like to admit.
But it is worth it every single step because what has happened to me in the past does not define me (tweet that)
See a therapist.
I avoided seeing a therapist for years because I thought to myself, “oh, it’s not that bad. I’ve got this. Look at me. I have so many opportunities. I have a great family. What am I complaining about?” All the while, deep down I knew I needed some help to sift through the more complicated parts of my story.
Do not try to walk this path alone. It’s too treacherous. If you aren’t comfortable finding a therapist, ask a few trusted friends or family members to walk with you.
When you begin to re-write your story, parts of yourself you never knew existed (hint: less-than-pretty parts of yourself) will inevitably come up. When this happens, practice gratitude for the support around you and for the opportunity you have to heal and grow.
Learn about yourself and how you are wired.
I read all the time. I’m always trying to figure out more about myself, how I operate and why it matters. This has been a lifeline for me as I walk this journey of finding myself. Figuring out the driving motivations behind why you act the way you do not only helps you own your story, it also helps you interact and communicate in a positive way with others.
Below, I am including a list of resources I have used that have really helped me to discover how I’m wired. This list is certainly not exhaustive but I hope it helps.
We often “find ourselves” in the situations we most want to avoid. We find ourselves in unrest, conflict, discomfort, fear, illness, distress, loss, transition, change, disappointment, failure, even in bad relationships. So if we spend our lives trying to avoid these things, we may miss the very messages and lessons life has to offer us.
These days I tell myself, over and over again, “everything that happens to me in life is an opportunity to learn” because I have learned the hard way—it is.
What seems like the worst thing that could possibly happen to you might turn out to be the very best thing. Because sometime it takes losing ourselves to find ourselves. And when we resist these lessons, we resist the very beauty and joy life is trying to offer us.
Learn to look “in here” rather than “out there”
Think back for a moment to the young woman I mentioned in the beginning of this post who is trying to make a decision about whether she wants to marry her current boyfriend. Notice how much time she spent explaining what other people wanted from her, thought about her (and her boyfriend), or what they were expecting her to do. And trust me, I’ve been there.
Here’s my advice for her: you already know your answer. It’s inside of you.
That isn’t to say we don’t need the support and help of those around us. But it is to say we must be careful who we ask, because what we really need from those sources of support is not advice or direction. What we really need is someone to help us discover the answer we have always known all along.
What we really need is to find ourselves.
For additional reading, check out my list of recommended resources here.