How to Develop a Strong Sense of Self

By Leo Babauta

Developing a strong sense of self is one of the most under-appreciated ways to be happy. To have healthy relationships, with others and with yourself.

It’s not often understood, and as a result, problems in this area cause problems in all areas of our lives.

Let me point out just some of the common symptoms of an under-developed sense of self:

As you can see, the issues come up especially in relationship with others (with your partner, family, friends, coworkers, etc.) … but because of that, it affects almost everything in your life, even when you’re alone.

If you can develop a strong sense of self, you will start to address these problems and more, resulting in a massive transformation of your life.

This is obviously a huge topic that I can’t cover fully in one article, but let’s discuss the essentials.

Your Sense of Self Develops in Your Family

Parents often see their kids as an extension of themselves — my kid reflects how good of a parent I am, my children validate me, my children are a part of me.

You can see this when a parent is always telling their kids what to do, controlling their lives, or wanting the kid to be responsible for the parent’s anger, anxiety, or sadness.

The result of this kind of relationship is that often the kid grows up without a strong sense of self. They don’t know how to set boundaries, because the parents didn’t let them. They don’t know how to take care of their emotional needs, because the parents didn’t allow it. They look to others to reflect their value, because that’s what the parents trained them to do.

None of this is meant to make the kid or the parents wrong for how this goes. It’s just to shine a light on what’s happening, and to try to understand how it works.

Sense of Self with Your Partner

As a result of all of that, we often come into romantic relationships without a strong sense of self. We think that we need to please the other person, and be validated by them.

We might feel we need to merge ourselves with them to feel love, and lose ourselves. Or perhaps we’re afraid of losing ourselves, because we don’t have a strong sense of self … so from that fear, we distance ourselves whenever we get too close to intimacy.

Most of our problems come from this: we either think we need to lose ourselves in the other person, or we distance ourselves because we’re afraid of losing ourselves.

This can be transformed if we develop a strong sense of self. Then we wouldn’t lose ourselves, nor need to distance ourselves. We can have closeness without losing the sense of who we are.

How to Start Developing a Stronger Sense of Self

The way to develop a strong sense of self is to start by knowing yourself better — not necessarily changing anything about yourself.

This means a willingness to have intimacy with yourself:

If you practice these on a regular basis, your sense of self will get stronger with each practice.

Practicing in Relationship with Others

It’s best to develop your sense of self when you’re alone — even if you’re in a relationship, or have lots of family or friends around you, spend some time alone each day to practice knowing yourself.

That said, we deepen this work whenever we’re in relationship with anyone else. This can be a romantic partnership, a friendship, a relationship with your kids or siblings or parents, relationships with team members, business partners, etc.

Some ways to practice:

Be patient with yourself, because this isn’t easy stuff to practice, and you won’t “get it right” all the time. In fact, there isn’t a right way to do this, it’s an exploration, a journey of self-discovery.

Get support from a friend, a therapist, a coach, whenever you’re struggling with any of it. It’s OK to not be able to do it all on your own.

Above all, rejoice and delight in yourself, no matter how it’s going!