20th century psychologist Erik Erikson defined identity as a “fundamental organizing principal which develops constantly throughout the lifespan.” Identity involves the experiences, relationships, beliefs, values, and memories that make up a person’s subjective sense of self. Our sense of self or identity often comes in the form of a narrative we construct around our thoughts, feelings, and roles-things like I am a wife, I am a student, I am anxious, I am a dog person, etc. Stories vary in the level of impact they have on our life, some are positive, some are negative, and some may be neutral. If we become too fused with problematic or negative narratives, we run the risk of becoming overly attached to them, and unable to separate ourselves from stories that may be holding us back in life. If you are curious about ways in which you may be able to strengthen your sense of identity, below are a few practical strategies that individuals of any age can utilize:
Identify your values. Values are the qualities of being and doing that represent the person you most deeply desire to be. They are what we choose to do (or not do) and how we choose to do it. When we consistently choose to act in accordance with our values, life expands to include greater meaning, vibrancy, and fulfillment (Stoddard, 2019). Living your values means saying to yourself: “I stand for this”, or “I care about this”. Values are deeply personal and consciously chosen, by us and only us, not our parents, peers, society, culture, or religion. For something to be a value, it must be something we can actively choose and command. Values cannot be about other people’s behaviour, or feelings such as “being calm”. Instead, we can value things like interacting or communicating respectfully, whether we feel calm or not. Other examples include acting boldly, perseverance, courage, creativity, curiosity, adventure, inclusion, compassion towards others, and life-long learning.
Spend time alone to get to know yourself better. Setting aside time for moments of self-reflection and alone time can be incredibly fulfilling. Whether through a journaling practice, meditation, painting, or going for a walk, spending time on your own and allowing yourself to engage in practices which make you feel alive is one of the greatest ways to strengthen your sense of self.
Practice self-compassion. Self compassion is a way of relating to ourselves in any given moment, whether we like or dislike ourselves or our circumstances-that promotes self awareness, and self-kindness, without the need to disparage others (Neff, 2013). It involves observing our internal experiences and accepting them as a normal part of being human and relating to those experiences from a place of genuine kindness. Research shows that self-compassion is associated with greater resilience, feelings of social connectedness, and a greater sense of overall well being and life satisfaction. If you aren’t sure how to act with kindness to yourself, it can be helpful to begin by imagining what you would say to a close friend or loved one who was struggling with self-doubt. What kind words would you say to your friend? What kind actions might you do to comfort or reassure them? Ask yourself if you are willing to treat yourself as you would your friend.
Become skilled at things you enjoy. Taking time to build on your strengths, identify the areas in your life in which you feel a sense of enjoyment and reward, and choose to develop and build on those strengths. Take the time to become part of something that interests you. What you water, grows.
There will inevitably be times in life where everyone, to varying degrees, will experience emotional pain, failure, mistakes, setbacks, and disappointments. Having a sense of identity and knowing what you value in life can provide guidance in decision-making when you are faced with challenges, uncertainties, and doubts.
Stoddard, J. (2019) Be mighty: a woman’s guide to liberation from anxiety, worry and stress using mindfulness and acceptance. New Harbinger Publications Inc.
Written by Kerri Hill, Registered Psychologist (Provisional), with Wildflowers Therapy