Who am I? How therapy can help you find a sense of self
Not knowing who you are can be deeply painful. You may feel disconnected from your opinions, wants and needs. Sometimes, if we feel like this, we become adept at giving people the answer we think they want, or that helps us fit in.
Perhaps you compare yourself unfavourably to people who seem to know what they want, or who appear to make choices and take action with greater ease.
Not knowing ourselves can result in anxiety and loneliness. We may worry that, since we don’t know ourselves, no one else can know us either. You may fear that underneath the face you present to the world you’re empty. Perhaps it feels as though something very precious got lost somewhere along the way.
This article offers an understanding of why you may feel this way and outlines one way in which psychotherapy may be able to support you in finding a sense of who you are. This article does not cover working with psychiatric conditions which have as a symptom a loss of sense of self.
Why do I feel like this?
You may already have a sense of why you feel like you don’t know yourself. Perhaps there’s been a change in your life circumstances, such as a bereavement, retirement or becoming a parent. All of these circumstances, and many more besides, can call into question our sense of self in a way we may not have experienced before.
Or perhaps you don’t know. Perhaps something hasn’t changed. Perhaps you feel you’ve never had a sense of who you are. Or that, if you ever did, it got lost at some young age. If it did get lost or perhaps only buried, then where did it go?
The environments in which we grow up – our family, friends, schools, communities, society, cultures, religions, etc. – will allow some parts of who we are to develop, and perhaps even flourish.
In the West, for example, we often encourage and reward intelligence, logic and analysis. But other parts of who we are may be discouraged, or simply not permitted. In Western cultures, for example, boys often learn to hold back their tears. They may never have been told explicitly not to cry. Perhaps an adult simply withheld their sympathy. Perhaps the boy was teased.
But children are sponge-like. They respond and adapt to their environments to fit in. Humans are social animals and, biologically, fitting in is essential for survival. Like other biological processes, this process of adapting to fit in happens without our conscious awareness. The very young boy may not have thought consciously that he needed to hide his tears. More likely it happens without his awareness.
The parts of us that are not tolerated, or are simply under-used, then become buried. And we may again, unconsciously build up strategies to protect these buried parts of ourselves.
A child who is not allowed to be creative, for example, may defend their creative part by denying – and, importantly, denying to themselves – that they are creative at all. It seems counter-intuitive, but a strategy like this which buries creativity might be a very effective way of preserving it.
But, at some point later in life, we may find that we identify a lot more strongly with the strategies (I am not creative; he is) than the thing they were developed to protect (I am creative). If this is the case, we can feel disconnected from who we truly are, resulting in a sense of not knowing ourselves.
How can therapy help?
A therapist won’t tell you who you are because, ultimately, they can’t. However, disconnected from yourself you currently feel, you are still the only expert in yourself.
So how can a therapist help? Whether you feel this way because your life circumstances have changed, or you have always felt this way, a therapist can act as a mirror, allowing you to better see yourself.
In practice, this means that your therapist will be curious about you: your thoughts, feelings, actions and other ways of experiencing yourself and the world.
Having a regular space over a period of time to reflect upon yourself may allow the hidden parts to come into awareness.
You may, for example, remember that you used to love to play football as a child. Reflecting on this, you may be able to get in touch with parts of yourself that feel buried: for example, the part that played football just for the joy of it. You may begin to reflect on what got in the way of that. Perhaps being competitive was not allowed when you were growing up.
You may be able to go some way to doing this part of the work on your own: journaling and self-reflection, for example, can create a space for you to reflect upon, and get to know yourself.
But it may be that these practices can only take you so far. If the strategies you developed for protecting the buried parts of yourself are strong, it may be difficult to access them alone. If they are very unconscious, you may not even sense they exist.
A psychotherapist is trained to work with both the conscious and unconscious parts of a person. They will listen to what you say, but also to what you don’t say, and to what might be trying to express itself without words. And, when it’s appropriate to do so, they may ask you more about what’s not said, allowing you to become aware of something that was not previously conscious. In this way, a psychotherapist can reflect you back to yourself.
They also work to be as clear a mirror as possible. In other words, they will put their judgments and pre-conceptions aside in order to better see you and to allow you to better see yourself. Unlike friends and family, your therapist has no personal agenda in your life. Their job is to put you first: the real you.
This is a complex and individual subject and no one article will fully address how you feel and the reasons for it. But if any of this resonates with you, then psychotherapy may be able to help you in finding a sense of yourself.
It would be remiss not to mention that the process of finding a sense of yourself, even with a psychotherapist’s help, may not be a quick one. How long it takes in practice will be different for every individual. But, although it may not feel this way now, there is something to find.
If you’d like to talk about any of this or are interested in psychotherapy, you are very welcome to get in touch with me.