If you don't know who you are, it can be hard to live a life that feels meaningful and authentic.
Not knowing yourself can make you feel lost, confused, stuck, and unsettled. You're more likely to seek validation from others, doubt yourself, second guess yourself, be self-critical, and operate on autopilot.
One of the things you can do to help yourself is to know yourself better, but this isn't always straightforward.
For much of my adult life, I thought I knew who I was and had a pretty good gauge of the trajectory of my life.
By the time I finished college and got my license to practice dental hygiene, I bought into the belief that my life had to play out a certain way.
A life that mimicked my parents' life and the American dream. Go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, and stay in my chosen career until I retire. It was a great plan, until it wasn't.
There wasn't anything wrong with this plan, but there was something deep inside that didn't feel right.
I kept ignoring and denying there was anything wrong with me and over time, I went through a sort of existential crisis because I didn't know who I was anymore.
To make matters worse, I felt guilty for feeling this way because I had many privileges and opportunities that so many others did not, yet I felt unhappy.
I didn't know where to turn to or who to even ask for help, so I kept my feelings inside not knowing it was normal to feel dissatisfied with your life even if everything turned out the way you planned.
Fortunately, you don't have to spend years looking for a place to start or denying that there's anything wrong as I did.
I want you to know that it's okay to think, "I don't know myself", even if you spent most of your life identifying a certain way.
You may find yourself right away, or it can take months, years, or even an entire lifetime to discover yourself and reinvent who you are.
The most important thing to remember is to trust yourself. You know yourself more than you think. Trust those feelings inside that come up when something feels wrong or something feels so right.
Be aware of who you are in the present moment and of any feelings that come up, pleasant or unpleasant, so you can become more familiar with yourself.
In this article, I'm going to share with you how you can know yourself better so that you can eventually go down the path of self-actualization and lead a life that feels more authentic, meaningful, and joyful.
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Your identity and how it's formed.
Your identity is a very important aspect of who you are.
It's how you define yourself and how you see yourself in relation to others and the world around you. Identity forms as early as childhood and continues to develop into adulthood.
So much of your identity is shaped by other people that it can be hard to understand who we really are without them.
One of the ways your identity can be formed is by your family or those closest to you. These can be people in your immediate inner circle such as your mom, dad, spouse, sibling, child, etc.
Another way your identity forms is by your social circle as your friends, classmates, coworkers, teammates, club members, and church members.
Then you have different cultures & societal roles such as religious beliefs, gender, age, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, ethnic groupings (such as Asian American), gender roles, and expectations of what is masculine, feminine, etc.
You also have your environment, which can also influence who you are, such as your immediate surroundings (e.g. your neighborhood), how you organize your space (e.g., desk at work), what city you live in (e.g., near the beach, desert, or mountains) the school you attend (e.g., private or public), and where you work (from home or an office).
Your identity may even change over time based on external influences and experiences. All of these factors can contribute to your identity and the person that you are right now.
The science behind how your identity is formed.
Here are some science-based facts to help you better understand how your identity is formed and how they impact your life.
What you believe about yourself (your self-concept).
The first part — your self-concept — is formed by the messages that people have given you throughout your life. These messages can come from many sources: family, friends, teachers, and coworkers. Your beliefs are also influenced by your culture and society as a whole. These messages may be positive or negative depending on the situation, but they all shape who you think you are at any given time in life.
How others see you (your reputation).
The second part — how others see you — is what others perceive about your character from their own experiences with you. This perception will change over time as people gain more information about who you really are through interactions with one another.
Erik Erikson was a psychologist who studied identity formation in children and adults.
He developed an 8-stage model that helps us understand how identity forms:
1) Infancy: Trust vs Mistrust: You need to trust others in order to develop a sense of self. If there’s something wrong with your caregiver or if they aren’t trustworthy, this can create problems later in life when it comes to forming relationships with others. A good example of this would be if your parents had issues with anger management or substance abuse during this stage – this could affect how well you trust others as an adult.
2) Early Childhood: Autonomy vs Shame: This stage is about exploration and increasing independence while maintaining a sense of security and safety from their caregivers.
3) Play Age: Initiative vs Guilt: Kids this age likely have peers that they interact with and begin to assert their will on others & their caregivers; test boundaries on others; have others impose their will on them thus creating guilt & shame
4) School Age: Industry vs Inferiority: This is the age when kids model their behavior based on their peers, authority figures, and societal norms. If the child is successful in her endeavors, she becomes more industrious. If the child fails, he feels a sense of inferiority. There is a balance between the two to maintain confidence and humility.
5) Adolescence Period: Identity vs Identity Confusion: This adolescent period is a transition from child to adult. The adolescent becomes more independent as he learns about the roles of adulthood. Failure to establish a sense of identity can lead to identity confusion and not knowing oneself.
6) Young Adulthood: Intimacy vs Isolation: This stage is a time to become more intimate and form close bonds with people other than family members. Failure to do so can lead to feelings of isolation and even depression.
7) Adulthood Period: Generativity vs Stagnation/Self-Absorption: This period is considered middle age, from 40-65 years old and people feel the need to create or nurture something to give back to the world. Failure to do so can lead to feelings of disconnection and stagnation. Success within this period can feel like you are a part of something lasting and bigger than yourself.
8) Old Age Period: Integrity vs Despair: This stage of development is from retirement age until death. People will either feel a sense of closure, acceptance, wisdom, and integrity. Or they can develop feelings of despair if they felt like they didn't accomplish what they wanted to do.
This theory of development can help explain why many people feel lost at different times in their lives — because they might be facing a different kind of struggle or conflict than they did at each developmental stage of their life.
Why you don't know yourself.
There can be a multitude of reasons why you don't know yourself.
You may not know who you are because you may not be fully aware of your values, beliefs, behaviors, and thoughts. You're not paying attention to how you feel, what you are thinking, what you're saying, or how you're acting.
Or you're stuck in a routine, not fully knowing that you are, but sensing that there is more to life than what you're currently experiencing.
You could be too busy taking care of and worrying about other people or concerned with what everyone else is doing that it's hard to see past this way of life.
Maybe no one ever told you how important it is to know who you are because no one ever encouraged you to learn more about yourself or discover what makes your heart sing.
Or maybe you're afraid to look inside, and face what's there. You're afraid to acknowledge your faults and weaknesses; ask questions because you might look like a fool, or make mistakes so instead, you keep your head buried in the proverbial sand.
Another reason could be your past experiences. You've may have been conditioned to behave a certain way. Or you may have been taught to think a certain way about certain things, but those lessons may be out of date now.
If you cling to old habits and ways without questioning them or trying something new, you could remain stuck in your ways, not knowing what you're capable of, and having a narrow view of yourself and the world.
What it feels like when you don't know yourself.
The following is a list of what it can feel like when you don't know yourself. Observe if any of them apply to you:
- You plan everything around other people's schedules and interests.
- You feel like you're in a box.
- You don't spend the time to reflect on yourself.
- You haven't explored your interests.
- You feel caught up in other people's expectations.
- You're not honest with yourself.
- You don’t have a clear sense of who you are as a person.
- You often feel lost when it comes to your life, habits, and goals.
- Your behavior reflects every single person around you.
- You are never sure how you really feel about something.
- You only understand yourself through the eyes of others.
- You can’t imagine what your life would be like without the people around you.
"The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others." -Erik Erikson
The benefits of knowing who you are.
We all have many different aspects of ourselves — some that we're aware of and others that may be hidden from view. But it's important to know who we truly are because it can help guide decisions throughout our lives, whether it's about education, career choices or even relationships with family members or friends.
Knowing who you are is important because you are unique, you have a personality, interests, and goals that set you apart from everyone else.
Knowing yourself gives you confidence and allows you to be more authentic in your daily life.
When you know yourself, it can help you understand why you do what you do. This can help you better understand other people as well as yourself because it provides insight into why they do what they do as well.
The key lies behind the science of how identity is formed, which starts in the brain. There is a phenomenon called neuroplasticity: our brain's ability to change over time and adapt to experiences we have over our lifetime.
This concept has been recognized for centuries as a fundamental part of human nature by some of history's most influential thinkers, such as Aristotle, Plato, and the Buddha.
Neuroplasticity is the brain's ability to change over time by forming new neural pathways and eliminating old ones. This occurs through learning and experience, both of which can strengthen or weaken existing connections between neurons.
Neuroplasticity enables us to develop new skills and learn new behaviors, but it also makes us who we are. It's how we form our identity, which is constantly changing as new information comes in and old information goes out.
Ways to get to know yourself better.
To help clarify who you are and what you want, try the following strategies:
Become more self-aware.
You need to increase your awareness of how you feel about yourself, other people and the world around you if you want to know yourself better. You can do this by being more mindful of your experiences, thoughts and feelings.
The more aware you are of your thoughts, feelings and behaviors, the more you know yourself and this will help you become more confident in yourself so you can take charge of your own life.
Journaling can be a powerful tool for self-discovery. It helps you see patterns in your life and identify changes that need to be made. Consider writing a daily journal entry where you explore what matters most to you and how this affects your life choices.
The Artist’s Way is an excellent book that guides readers through exercises aimed at increasing creativity and self-awareness through journaling and other artistic activities.
Morning pages, which are discussed in detail in the book, are another helpful tool for clarifying thoughts and feelings by writing them down first thing in the morning before getting out of bed (or before starting work).
Be honest with yourself.
One of the best ways to get to the root of who you are is to simply be honest with yourself. Don't deny your thoughts or feelings when they are intense or bothering you.
Look at your emotions and ideas with bravery and honesty so you can truly know who you are. Don't try to be something you're not.
Identify your core beliefs and values. Then, spend time alone exploring what you want for yourself and for others, and how you will make that happen.
Find your purpose in life.
You're more likely to follow through if you want to change your life for the better and people who have a purpose have better health outcomes.
Get out of your comfort zone.
Getting out of your comfort zone can help you explore new ideas, concepts, and ways of doing things if you don't know yourself well and you have no idea where to start.
Although we like our comfort, sometimes a bit of unpredictability and disorder can be good for us. If there's something that has always intrigued you, go and try it out. If this thought seems scary, start with something small, like smiling or saying hi to a stranger.
Find social support.
Sometimes other people know you better than you know yourself, so it doesn't hurt to ask. You can ask someone who knows you well what your strengths and weaknesses are, what they like or dislike about you, and what your characteristics and traits are.
Follow your bliss.
"If you follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has ben there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living." - Joseph Campbell
One of the best ways to know yourself is to follow the things that make you feel joyful and happy. These are the things that make your life more meaningful and satisfying.
If you need help following your bliss, I have a free guide you can download below to help you discover your true bliss and more!
I hope you found these tips on reasons why you don't know yourself and how you can know yourself better useful.
It's normal to not know yourself from time to time. Just remember to be aware of the thoughts, feelings, and actions that are happening in the present moment.
Once you can identify these things, you can make the choice to follow your curiosity and see where it takes you.
When we get clear on our identity and behavior, we can stop worrying about who we think other people want us to be and start being more of who we truly are.