Summary: Developing a strong sense of self is the best thing you can do if you want to feel a strong sense of self-worth that lasts and have deep connection and intimacy in your relationships. Let’s talk about what it is, what it isn’t, and how to work on strengthening your sense of self.

When I was a kid, probably 8 or 9 or so, I remember climbing up to stand on the edge of my bathtub so that I could peer at myself in the bathroom mirror and get a full-body shot. I remember loving the “jams” I was wearing (basically Bermuda shorts with a wild, colorful pattern) or the jeans with big holes in the knees (what do you know, it’s the style again). 

Strong sense of selfI had so much confidence in myself at that point. So much acceptance of who I was. I felt great

Fast forward just a couple of years, and that confidence starts to slip, not just for me, but likely for all of us. The confidence of childhood, the full self-acceptance that often happens when we are young, starts to fade away as we enter those middle school years. 

What is it that changes? (Other than mean kids in the hallway and bodies that start to hit puberty? Because both of those things can be rough!) 

If you think back on it, it’s likely that around that time, you started to be hyper-aware of what other people think of you. 

In fact, I have distinct memories of sitting in my middle school math class with my hand positioned just so on my chin so that no one would catch a glimpse of the unsightly zit on my face. I was worried about what they would think about me if they got a peek at that bad boy. 

Where did the confident girl standing on the edge of her bathtub go and why was she feeling so uncomfortable now?

What This Means For You Today

Most of us probably still cringe when thinking back on those middle school days. It’s hard to be caught in the middle of worrying about what everyone else thinks of you. 

And you’ve probably moved away from that at least a little bit. 

BUT—have you moved away from it entirely? You may not feel quite as vulnerable to the stares of other humans, the judgment you think they’ve got for you. You’re probably not as fragile as you were in middle school. 

But the unfortunate truth is that most of us are still very much living in a place of worrying a lot about what other people think, even when we don’t realize that this is the case. 

If you think about it though, with the way the world is today, it makes sense that we still feel a little exposed and judged. Everything around us tells us who to be, what to look like, how to act. Comparison with others becomes almost second nature to us. And if you fall short of those things, there’s plenty of opportunity to be slammed by others.

Just like walking down the halls of middle school may have left you at least figuratively hanging your head a bit in defense against others’ judgments, just existing in this world may be doing that to you today. You might not feel the level of confidence in yourself that you wish you had. 

Today this might manifest as people-pleasing, perfectionism, or poor body image. It might look like trying to garner others’ approval or avoid their disapproval (sometimes in ways that you don’t even see happening). It might look like basing your self-worth around how much you get done in a day, how valued you feel by others, how well you live up to “shoulds” or expectations that others put on you. 

This all ties back to worrying about what other people think and then basing your sense of self around that. Want better for yourself? Read on!

Developing a Strong Sense of Self

How to Develop a Strong Sense of SelfThe very best thing that you can do for yourself, the thing that will leave you feeling stand-on-the-bathtub confident in who you are AND help you develop amazing relationships with people you love, is to develop a strong sense of self. Let’s talk about what that is and how to get it. 

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? And how do you get a stronger 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.

There are 3 key aspects of a strong sense of self: 

  • Having a clear idea of who you are (What do I like to do when I’ve got downtime? Where do I want to go to dinner?)
  • Feeling good about yourself. Valuing who you are. (OK, but if you’re reading this article, this might be hard to come by for you. Never fear, we’re going to talk about how to get to this point.) 
  • The clincher: being able to maintain a sense of who you are and confidence in yourself even when other people invalidate you

    That last part is the one that really matters and will allow you to develop the first two parts. You’ve GOT to free yourself from relying on other people to call the shots on how you feel about yourself. As long as you let others dictate your feelings about yourself, you’ll never develop the kind of lasting confidence and connection you crave. 

    But that’s not easy. If you fall prey to this, you are normal. But let’s see if we can do better. 

    The Opposite: A Reflected or Weak Sense of Self

    One of the easiest ways to understand having a strong sense of self, 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.

    What is a reflected sense of selfYou’ve been around people like that, right? (Maybe you’re even a little bit like that sometimes. Eek!) 

    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]

    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. She does what she does to earn praise from others or to avoid disapproval, not because it’s what feels right, interesting, or good to her.

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

    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 Develop a Strong Sense of Self

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

    But how do you get that? 

    So how do you strengthen your sense of self?

    Step 1:

    The very best thing that you can do to kick off this process of strengthening your sense of self is to catch yourself in the act of using a reflected sense of self.

    How to feel good about myselfCan you watch yourself today and notice times that you’re making choices not because they are what you want, but because you don’t want the invalidation of being disagreed with?

    Can you spot times when you are saying yes to things that you don’t actually want to do because you think it’s what you should do? 

    Can you find a few examples of ways that you are letting comparison with others make you feel good or bad about yourself? 

    When you start to spot these things in yourself, don’t beat yourself up. That’s what middle school you might do. Instead, pay attention to them and see if you can flip the script, just this once, to be more in line with your own internal feelings. To be more in line with who you are instead of who others want you to be. 

    Step 2:

    Actively choose something for yourself. Do something that matters to you. Say something that is important to you. Start to take more ownership of who you are. Taking active initiative in your life, doing things for yourself because they are what you want, might feel strange to you at this point. That’s OK. Baby step in that direction. 

    Step 3:

    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 where you are weak or letting others see your weaknesses (because you’re not worrying about how they might judge you). That can be hard. Be OK with that process and know that your own growth is worth it.

    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.

    But Don’t Skip This:

    Sometimes people learn about strengthening their sense of self and mistakenly believe it means kicking other people’s input to the curb entirely. They think they’ve got to start bulldozing their way through life with no regard for the people in their path. That is not what this is about.

    What having a strong sense of self 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. Someone with a strong sense of self is willing to self-confront a bit, to see areas of weakness and challenge them because they can tolerate that kind of invalidation. And that allows them to develop strong relationships because good relationships involve a lot of self-reflection and willingness to confront personal shortcomings. 

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

    References

     

    [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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