What makes us who we are? With help from a psychotherapist, we explore what happens when we lose our identity, and look at the ways we can get back in touch with the person we truly are
We all fit into different ‘boxes’, capturing our relationships, our roles in the world, and our interests – and from these boxes, we start to build an idea of our characters. But when it comes to developing a healthy and strong sense of identity, box-ticking and labels can only take us so far, occasionally limiting our understanding of the mosaic, multifaceted people we are. And because our sense of identity is right at the core of everything we do – helping us stay away from things that cause us harm or inner-conflict, and connecting us with those who share our values – taking time to tune in couldn’t be more important.
“Having a sense of identity means knowing what makes us tick,” integrative psychotherapist Anne-Marie Alger explains, “what we like or don’t like, having an idea of where we fit in and belong in our lives, being able to connect with people, and being able to initiate and sustain healthy relationships. It means that we can make the right choices for ourselves in meeting our needs, in choosing how we spend our time, and who we spend this with.”
A good understanding of our core qualities helps us navigate the world around us, and yet many of us will experience periods in our lives when our sense of identity slips – perhaps through patches of poor mental health, when our feeling of who we are is shaken as we’re less sure of our needs. As a result, we might experience an increase in social anxiety, low-confidence, and emotional numbness, or perhaps struggle to settle on an external image – drastically changing up our interests or our appearances.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with shopping around and trying new things. And we should neither beat ourselves up about being unsure about what we like or dislike, nor judge others who go through phases themselves. But for many, losing a sense of self can cause problems when it begins to undermine the boundaries we set with other people.
“People with a low sense of identity have a tendency towards people-pleasing, at their own expense,” Anne-Marie explains. “They may seek constant approval from others, and worry excessively about what other people think of them.”
Anne-Marie goes on to explain how this may lead to emotional dependency. For example, we might only feel OK when someone close to us is feeling happy. This can quickly become a problem as, when we get to the crux of it, our overall wellbeing is dependent on how we feel about ourselves, and we need to get these cues from within rather than from others, who may not always be available and who may become drained over time.
Beyond this, Anne-Marie suggests that those struggling with identity may find maintaining relationships difficult, either because they’re wrapped up in a fear of rejection and so hold people at arm’s length, or – on the other end of the spectrum – may over-invest in relationships, merging into their partners, neglecting their values, and losing sight of who they are.
The most important relationship we can ever have is the one we have with ourselves, but we don’t always protect the time we need to invest in it
Cultivating a strong sense of ourselves is vital, so if we’re lacking, how can we get back on track?
“Spend some time getting to know yourself,” Anne-Marie suggests. “The most important relationship we can ever have is the one we have with ourselves, but we don’t always protect the time we need to invest in it. True investment in yourself is not about retail therapy or money, it’s about reflection, self-awareness, and personal growth. Creating a space to explore who you really are is essential.”
To do this, Anne-Marie recommends activities to increase our self-awareness and, by default, our sense of identity.
“Simple questioning and journaling can be a starting point to the ‘who am I?’ journey,” she advises. “Think about all the labels that you have attached to yourself over time. Are they ‘your’ labels or have you taken them on from other people – parents, family, friends, work colleagues? How do these labels fit? How do you ‘wear’ them? How true and valid are they? How stuck are they?
“Explore your values. What matters to you most, and why? Where have these values come from? How have they been shaped? How do they align with the life that you’re currently living?”
But for when we feel especially lost – and problems about our sense of who we are is starting to interfere with our daily lives, causing real, long-term damage to our relationships – counselling can offer support and guidance.
As Anne-Marie sees it, counselling creates a space to explore what makes you ‘you’. Taking a closer look at your qualities and attributes without relying on validation from others, counselling can help you to break free from the labels that hold you back, or which don’t apply to the person you are today.
“A healthy sense of identity provides the opportunity to live a life that brings us purpose, gratitude, and joy,” adds Anne-Marie. “A strong sense of identity allows us to uphold healthy boundaries in our relationships, and share emotional and physical intimacy in our close relationships. It means knowing and accepting ourselves deeply, and taking care to look after who we are, so that we can continually grow.”
Ultimately, when we take the time to really connect with the person that we are inside, with our passions and desires, our likes and dislikes, our motivations and the things that excite and thrill us, we’re giving ourselves permission to exist confidently in the world around us. And that’s something each and every one of us deserves.