While some people have a strong sense of who they are, others may be left feeling that they don’t really understand their true selves. Feeling unsure of yourself can sometimes lead to a shifting sense of identity.
You might always be trying out new ideas or personas to see if they fit. Or you might find yourself changing in response to other people. If you ever find yourself thinking “I don’t know who I am,” you might wonder why you might feel this way and what you can do to change that.
How Identity Forms
Identity is shaped by the experiences people have during their lives, particularly during childhood and adolescence. Kids who are raised in a supportive environment receive the care, support, and encouragement that they need in order to develop a healthy sense of self.
Children raised in less supportive environments where they encounter neglect, abuse, or over-parenting, on the other hand, may struggle to forge their own strong identities.
As children grow, interactions with caretakers, other adults, and peers contribute to how a person’s sense of self develops.
The theorist Erik Erikson believed that the period of adolescence played a particularly important role in the formation of a person’s identity. He described this stage of life as one of “identity vs. role confusion” and believed that people who are able to commit to a strong identity emerge with a solid sense of self, while those who struggle may be left wondering who they are as they enter young adulthood.
Later, psychologist James Marcia described two primary identity statuses—exploration and commitment. Exploration involves the process of experimenting with different ideas while commitment involves making decisions based on those identity-related ideas.
Factors That Affect Identity
The process of forming a sense of self begins in childhood and is influenced by a wide variety of factors. Some of these include:
*Individuation: This is the process that people go through to develop their own unique sense of self. Children need room to express themselves freely without the fear of shame, guilt, criticism, and judgment in order for this process to be successful.
*Society: Societal influences and expectations can play an important part in identity. Culture, media, religions, gender roles, and other factors that are part of a society can affect how you feel about who you are. You might also feel challenges when aspects of your identity don’t align with the expectations of the society in which you live.
*Your family: It is your caregivers and family members who play some of the earliest roles in the formation of your identity. Throughout life, the various roles you play in your family can affect how you see yourself. And the nature of your relationships with your loved ones can also have an effect on whether you feel a strong or weak sense of self.
Research suggests that people who have a consistent sense of identity also have higher self-esteem, engage in fewer risky behaviors, and are less likely to experience internalizing symptoms. Internalizing symptoms are common in people with depression and can include changes in eating habits, fear, loneliness, sadness, and trouble concentrating.
How to Cope
If you are struggling with issues related to identity and feel that you don’t really know who you are, there are things that you can do to cope. Finding ways to get to know yourself better and engaging in activities that strengthen your sense of self can foster and strengthen your individuality.
Learn More About Yourself
If you feel like you don’t know who you are, it can be helpful to spend some time getting to know yourself better. One way you can do this is to start thinking about the things that you like and that are important to you.
Journaling, engaging in expressive writing, or creating lists of things that matter to you can be helpful. Consider writing about things you enjoy, experiences you have had, or things that you’d like to know more about.
What are your favorite books? What type of music do you like? When did you feel the happiest? As you work on your journal, you may start to see certain themes or preferences beginning to emerge. Reflecting back on these lists and notes can help you better see and appreciate your individuality.
Figure Out What You Value
Knowing your central values can play a big part in helping you figure out who you are. What beliefs and values are the most important to you? These are the key traits that you feel are the most important in both yourself and in others.
Things such as being honest, trustworthy, and kind are examples of core values. Once you figure out what you value, you can work on living your life according to those central beliefs.
Spend Time Alone
While solitude is sometimes mistaken for loneliness, spending time on your own can have important mental health benefits. Social pressure can sometimes make it difficult to get a sense of what is important to you, particularly if you are surrounded by people with strong personalities.
Taking some time to yourself can give you a chance to reflect, explore, and experiment with new ideas and feelings.
Trying new things can be another helpful self-exploration tool. Sometimes figuring out who you are involves testing out new aspects of your identity. Think about how teens often experiment with different styles as they forge their sense of self. While people often think such journeys of self-discovery are confined to adolescence, such exploration is something that can be helpful throughout life.
Trust Your Intuition
Learning how to trust yourself and your instincts is another part of figuring out who you are. If you have a weak sense of self, you might struggle to make decisions whether they are large or small. In order to better understand who you are, it is essential to begin making choices that reflect you and not the people around you.
One way to learn how to trust your decisions is to simply start making them more often. You can start small by doing things like picking what to make for dinner, telling your friends where you’d like to eat, or choosing between various items while shopping. Over time, you’ll start to get a better feel for the types of things you prefer and learn how to better assert yourself in different situations.
Feeling like you don’t know who you are can make it difficult to make the choices that are right for your life, whether it’s setting goals or forming new relationships. Fortunately, there are things that you can do to get to know yourself better and begin forming a stronger sense of self.
By Kendra Cherry and Medically reviewed by Carly Snyder, MD