What is self-expression and why is it so important?
Does expressing who you are come naturally to you? Are you confident in connecting and communicating with others, or do you feel a bit awkward, tongue-tied, and perhaps worried about what others might be thinking of you?
We know that self-expression is far more than how we communicate what we think and feel, but not being able to express ourselves fully can have a negative impact on our mental health and well-being. Research suggests that the correlation between loneliness and well-being depends heavily on the extent to which we can express ourselves authentically (Borawski 2019). So, when we have the freedom and confidence to say what we truly believe and feel, and when our actions align with our own beliefs and values, we are more likely to experience good mental health, connection, and well-being.
This article takes a deeper look at what self-expression is, why it is so important, and why it can feel so difficult to achieve at times. I will also share some useful tips for adopting authentic self-expression.
What is self-expression and why is it so important to our mental health?
What we say or don't say, how we dress, how we style our hair, how we behave, what we choose to do with our time, who we choose to hang out with and how we communicate our thoughts, emotions, and attitudes, are all part of our unique self-expression. How we choose to express ourselves tells others information about our interests and our character. At the same time, other people’s self-expression provides vital information to us about them. But why is the need for self-expression so important?
In evolution, humans have an inherent need to belong. A sense of belonging stems from a need to survive (Over 2016) and survival relies heavily on the ability to access food, shelter, and protection, which is achieved through group membership and the ability to co-operate with each other (Tomosello et al 2012).
Take the family unit, for example. If a baby is lucky, they are born into an environment that offers protection and shelter and they are able to communicate their needs through different cries in the hope that the caregiver will co-operate and learn how to meet those needs. The infant is completely dependent on the caregiver for survival. As the infant grows, they learn to identify socially and culturally with the family group. With little autonomy, they will be expected to abide by social norms and participate in rituals such as positive behaviours, respect for authority and cultural festivals and celebrations, to strengthen the family group identity. Self-expression for young children is likely to be influenced, firstly by how the family identifies its social and cultural position and, secondly, by their psychological and physical need to belong to the family group or whoever is caring for them.
So if, for example, abiding by the family social rules means that a child is expected to be seen and not heard, then the child's ability to express their thoughts and feelings through verbal communication is likely to be compromised. In a family system full of rules, authority and high relenting standards, a child may give up their own identity in a desperate attempt to fit in. This may lead to the child not even forming their own opinions and being heavily agreeable to others. This kind of adaption or conditioning may result in the child disconnecting from their true or authentic self-expression. Instead, self-expression may involve being quiet, indecisive, a lack of confidence and being unsure of themselves or the world around them.
Conditioned self-expression may also show up as controlling, aggressive, rebellious, or even being the "class clown" to make people laugh, as a way of fitting in and coping with the psychological tension of being denied their authentic self-expression. I’m not saying that children do not need guidance, boundaries or emotional self-regulation, but validating their self-expression so that they feel heard and understood, and offering explanations as to how behaviour may be a cost to themselves and others, provides vital information to help them make better-informed choices moving forward.
Group membership and the need to belong also extends outside of the family unit. We can see this within child development where children as young as two are innately primed for social categorisation. By two years old, they can recognise similarities in preference between themselves and others. Between four-six years old, friend selection is based on criteria such as similar play interests like dinosaurs, constructive play, books and games (Rekalidou and Petrogiannis, 2012).
We are programmed from birth to express ourselves in order to meet our survival and social needs. Self-expression offers a way of deciding who we want to connect and belong with. But, here is the rub...We can often lose sight of and become disconnected from our own authentic beliefs attitudes, and values, especially if we have not been encouraged particularly in western society to express our own uniqueness whilst growing up.
When we are unable to express ourselves authentically, we may feel quite lost, fearful or even frustrated with the way we do or don’t express ourselves. It is quite common to wrestle with thoughts such as: how we 'should' behave, what stereotypes we 'should' conform to, who we 'should' spend our time with, what gender we 'should' be, and the type of person we 'should' be attracted to, to name a few examples. Turning our back on the family's social and cultural identity, for many, can mean being ostracised and living in isolation outside of the family unit. Therefore, claiming back our authentic self-expression can feel impossible and contribute to feelings of depression, anxiety and suicide ideation.
Self-expression and well-being
Authentic self-expression, rather than adapted and conditioned self-expression, is vitally important to our psychological well-being. When individuals are confident with authentic expression, this can lead to healthy connections, communication and respectful boundary setting within relationships. Without it, we tend to say "yes" when we mean "no", we fear speaking our mind, we enter into people-pleasing behaviours, withdraw when things get difficult and find making decisions hard. Or, on the other hand, our self-expression can become so independently focused as a rejection to childhood conditioning, that independence also becomes a strategy for disconnection (Cooper and Knox).
In counselling personality theory, we understand that when a client is disconnected from their own self, they deny their awareness of their own experience, which makes it extremely difficult to make sense of the world and others (Rogers 1957). This disconnection can therefore be a large contributor to poor mental health and well-being.
Why can authentic self-expression be difficult?
As we have seen, a sense of belonging involves a need for acceptance and validation. Developing authentic self-expression as a child may be particularly difficult if we have experienced any of the following within the family:
- Emotional neglect
- High levels of authority and control
- Domestic violence
- Mental health issues
- High levels of anxiety
We know that in order for our self-expression to grow, to be able to build positive connections and relationships, we need an environment where our true authentic self and self-expression can be validated.
How do we validate self-expression?
- Encourage making decisions and positively channel self-expression in our children, even when it doesn't fit with the story.
- Replace judgement, criticism or shaming about the way someone chooses to express themselves with openness in listening and understanding where they are coming from, what they need, and how they want to identify themselves.
- Encourage self-expression as a form of communicating where all is not okay in the young person’s world, rather than them being harshly judged as 'lazy', 'selfish', 'insolent', 'ungrateful', 'useless', 'problematic' or worse.
This can all go a long way in building the resilience a young person needs to navigate life's challenges and connections and being able to choose healthy peer groups and relationships through each life stage position.
When we identify with someone who is non-judgemental and non-authoritative, it is likely that, with this validation, our authentic expression can grow. By offering this kind of environment in therapy, clients can begin to understand how they are relating to themselves and others, what dynamics are going on that prevent them from expressing themselves fully and explore ways for authentic self-expression moving forward.
How to build authentic self-expression
This is a great opportunity to go back to the drawing board and re-discover your beliefs, moral values and what you stand for. This helps to gain a clearer vision and perspective of who you are, instead of others people’s ideas of who you are.
1. Make a list:
- What are your likes and dislikes?
- What are your world views, your political views and concerns?
- What does a healthy relationship look like to you?
- What does respect mean to you and where do you draw the line with what's not OK with you when in relationships with others?
- What are your non-negotiables in a friendship or partnership and where might you be able to compromise?
Often, it can be useful to think about the 'miracle question'. So, if you were to wave a magic wand and all your problems were solved, what would you and your life look like, what would be different and what might stay the same? This again helps to separate your beliefs and values from others. Once you can separate them, you can begin to focus on how your behaviour can begin to align with them.
2. Listen to your own language
Every time you tell yourself that you "should", "ought to" or "must" do something, it is likely that this has come from an inherent belief or attitude from someone else. For example, "I must never get upset" or "I should just go and apologise" may come from a family system that demanded that it was weak to cry or that you would be given something to cry about if you didn’t stop. You may have had to apologise as a child, even if you felt you didn't do anything wrong, or you learnt it was just easier not to rock the boat. This way of thinking becomes a cognitive distortion when you put unreasonable pressures and demands on yourself and it can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety and non-authentic self-expression.
Instead, take a pause and think about the need to apologise. For example, what you are apologising for and is it something that you 'want' to do because it aligns with your values, rather than past conditioning or the demands of the family identity?
3. Tune into your senses
Start to tune into your felt sense when you are talking and hanging out with others. Notice if you feel any tension or uncomfortableness that results in you questioning yourself and how you are expressing yourself. Is this based on a desire to fit in? Why is it so important to fit in with this person? Are you worried about what they may be thinking of you and why? Are you fearful of their responses to you? It may be really helpful to journal about this and explore why you feel that you need to adjust and compromise your authentic self to fit in. Remember that authentic self-expression is likely to lead to positive well-being whilst non-authentic self-expression can lead to feelings of loneliness.
Understanding your self-identity and authentic self-expression can be a great journey towards a sense of freedom and connection. Understanding your own beliefs and values, saying no and setting boundaries that align with your beliefs, values and needs are key to authentic living and self-expression. Perhaps this is worth thinking about if you are looking for positive healthier relationships with yourself and with others.
Counselling for self-expression
If you are struggling to express yourself more authentically, counselling can be a really helpful tool. A counsellor or therapist will listen to your thoughts and feelings, and help you understand your true self in a safe and non-judgmental space. If you would like to connect with a counsellor, you can contact me via my profile below.