Having a strong sense of self means that you are able to maintain your identity without expecting others to validate you or to make you feel good about yourself. It also means that you have a clear idea of what makes you you and that you feel comfortable and confident with that person.

People with a strong sense of self are more authentic, have better relationships, and are happier overall.

But what IS a strong sense of self? Let’s take a look at what it means to develop a strong sense of self and how it can make a difference in your life.

Sense of Self Definition

Let’s start from a broad perspective on this. Here are some characteristics that define what it means to have a strong sense of self.[1]

  1. First, it means having a clear idea of who you are, and what makes YOU. It means you know your own desires (where do you want to go to dinner?), you know your interests (got downtime? What are you going to do with it), that sort of thing
  2. But more than that, you not only know who you are, but you love yourself and think you’re worthwhile. Because you’re clear and comfortable with who you are, you are willing to let others really see and know that person. You’re willing to show yourself to others and let them truly know you—even the hard stuff that you might not be so proud of.
  3. And finally, it means that you can maintain a sense of who you are even when other people invalidate you. You don’t rely on others to tell you who you are or to make you feel good about yourself. (And you don’t need to be seen as perfect.)

This can be challenging (there’s a lot of pressure to live up to other people’s expectations these days), but as you work to strengthen your sense of self, you’ll find more connection and happiness in relationships, more confidence in yourself, and a capacity to stretch yourself and become even better…because you’re not afraid of failing or looking dumb.

A Deeper Look at Sense of Self

That’s a brief overview of what sense of self means, but let’s take a deeper look and compare it to some concepts you might already be familiar with.

In some ways, having a strong sense of self is a lot like having high self-esteem (defined as confidence in one’s own worth or abilities). It involves feeling good about yourself.

But having a strong sense of self is a much richer measure of self-worth.

Here’s why.

Building a strong sense of self

An arrogant or narcissistic person might have exceptionally high self-esteem…he feels great about himself! But that doesn’t mean that he is able to enjoy deep human connections or is someone you would want to be in a relationship with. In fact, it’s likely the opposite. Arrogance doesn’t make for great relationships.[2]

But that doesn’t mean that feeling good about yourself is a bad thing. More often than not, it’s great.

What’s important though is how you establish those feelings about yourself.

This is where having a strong sense of self comes in.

In some ways, having a strong sense of self is a lot like having high self-esteem. It involves feeling good about yourself.

But self-esteem is usually boosted by other people. We feel good about ourselves when we think others value us or see the good in us.

In contrast, having a strong sense of self is less about gaining those positive feelings about yourself from what you believe others think about you and more about feeling good about yourself without relying on others’ opinions.

So basically, having a strong sense of self means knowing who you are and feeling good about it, without relying on others to maintain those positive feelings or that self-knowledge.

The Opposite: A Reflected or Weak Sense of Self

I think one of the easiest ways to understand what having a strong sense of self is, is to consider what the opposite looks like.

You can probably think of someone in your life who is easily swayed or readily agrees with anything and everything that the people around her say or do. A person like this loves country music when she’s with country music fans but rap music when she’s with rap fans, chooses her dinner at a restaurant based on what others are having, or goes along with whatever political opinion is popular at the moment.

You’ve been around people like that, right?

This is a prime example of not having a strong sense of self. Instead, we might call this having a weak[3] or a reflected sense of self.[4]

Developing Authenticity

Somebody with a weak or reflected sense of self looks to others for validation of their choices. This person does things because it’s what others want. He does what he does to earn praise from others or to avoid disapproval, not because it’s what feels right, interesting, or good to him.

Essentially, this person is saying “I am who I am through your eyes.[5] He’s trying to see himself the way other people see him rather than just being himself.

People with a reflected sense of self rely on others to determine their self-worth and their self-image.

Here are some characteristics of someone with a weak sense of self:
  • Always looking to others for approval and validation that you’re a good person or that you’re doing ok
  • Waffling back and forth about your own likes and dislikes, your own needs, wants, and desires
  • Giving so much of yourself that you lose track of who you are
  • An inability to maintain your desires, your opinions, and your sense of who you are when others don’t validate you. Or when others blatantly disagree with or criticize you
  • An inability to stand up for what you believe in. Can you do what is right, even when others aren’t?
  • No clear idea of who you are.
  • Few positive feelings about yourself

Chances are, you see some weakness in yourself in some of those examples. We all do. And some of those things you might be doing without even realizing you are doing them.

3 Things to Do to Improve Your Sense of Self

Hopefully, the difference between having a strong sense of self and a weak or reflected sense of self is more clear now.

Having a strong sense of self means not allowing others to define you, means being comfortable and confident in who you are, means being willing to challenge yourself and grow because you aren’t threatened by others’ disapproval, and means that you are willing to let others truly see you at an intimate level.

So how do you strengthen your sense of self?

Step 1: Resolve today that it’s time to decide for yourself who you want to be. It takes a conscious choice to own who you are and to be confident and proud of that person. (And it takes time. Be patient in the process.)

Step 2: Be ok with discomfort. Part of this process is going to be taking a close look at yourself and challenging the things that need to change. It’s going to be seeing places that you are weak or letting others see your weaknesses. That can be hard. Be ok with that process.

It’s fine to feel anxious about it or challenged by it. I love what Dr. David Schnarch taught—sometimes we need to tolerate discomfort in order to grow.[6]

Do you think it was easy when you learned to walk? Nope. I bet you fell down a lot. But you kept trying. Do the same now to reach your goals. Acknowledge that it might be hard to change your mindset and your way of living…then do it anyway.

Who Am I?

Are there things that you’ve wanted to do but you’ve been afraid to try? Now’s the time!

Step 3: Quit hiding. Let other people see you. There are probably parts of yourself that you don’t let many others, if anyone, see. But when we truly let others see us, weaknesses, flaws, vulnerabilities, and all, our relationships really improve[8] and we feel more true to ourselves.

Share something with someone that makes you feel uncomfortable (not in a weird way). Be yourself around others and let them see who you really are. As you do this, they are likely to respond in kind.

And just remember, being yourself or not allowing others to define who you are does NOT mean disregarding everyone else’s opinions. What it does mean is deciding for yourself who you want to be…but sometimes that means taking input from trusted others about things that need improvement. And not feeling threatened by that.

Strengthening your sense of self is such a crucial step to really thriving in your relationships! If you’ll work at this you’ll be amazed by the changes.

Want to start working on this? Sign up for free emails that will help you develop a strong sense of self AND have better relationships! (Plus, you’ll get a free guide to improving your relationships!)

Developing a Strong Sense of Self

[1] Flury, J. M., & Ickes, W. (2007). Having a weak versus strong sense of self: The Sense of Self Scale (SOSS). Self and Identity, 6(4), 281-303. doi:10.1080/15298860601033208

[2] Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest4(1), 1-44.

[3] Flury, J. M., & Ickes, W. (2007). Having a weak versus strong sense of self: The Sense of Self Scale (SOSS). Self and Identity, 6(4), 281-303. doi:10.1080/15298860601033208

[4] Schnarch, D. M. (2009). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship (p. 448). New York, NY: Beaufort Books.

[5] https://lornahecht.com/reflected-sense-of-self-versus-solid-sense-of-self/

[6] Schnarch, D. M. (2009). Intimacy & desire: Awaken the passion in your relationship (p. 448). New York, NY: Beaufort Books.

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