If you are a follower of any form of spirituality (or religion), you have likely come across the notion that the ego is “bad” and is the enemy of your growth.
You may have even come across writers, teachers, and speakers who propagate the idea of purging, killing, or desperately trying to transcend the ego in order to attain states of bliss and cosmic unity.
Yes, it’s true that having a sense of self can be tremendously limiting and destructive. BUT if we only see the ego as “bad” we aren’t seeing the whole picture.
Having a strong sense of self is not only vital in everyday life but is also essential for the spiritual path. I know that may sound absurd but hang in there. I’ll explain why we all need a clearly defined ego – especially on the spiritual path – below.
What is the Sense of Self?
Quite simply, your sense of self is the identity you carry around all day every day – it is your sense of “this is me” and “this is not me.” The sense of self, also known as the ego, is an image we carry around in our minds about who we are. When we have a strong sense of self, we are able to differentiate ourselves from other people. It is the biological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual destiny of all human beings to create a strong sense of self.
18 Signs of a Poorly Developed Sense of Self
As a person who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian cult, I know all too well how important developing a strong identity is.
Growing up, any time I tried to assert a differentiated sense of self, I was torn down by my parents and the fundamentalist religion they held dear. The only acceptable identity permitted in my childhood was identifying with a group mentality (i.e. the “righteous servants of God”) and religious ideal (being a “good and faithful Christian”). Not being given permission or space to grow a clear identity meant that I developed a weak sense of self that spiraled into serious mental health issues – some of which I’m still working through today.
But you don’t have to be raised in an intensely religious atmosphere to develop a weak sense of self. I believe that having a weak sense of self is an epidemic issue infecting humanity worldwide. I would go so far as saying that most of us have poorly developed identities.
Let’s take a few moments to consider a basic question:
To what degree were the qualities of self-understanding and self-knowledge honored in your environment growing up?
If you’re like most people, your response will be “not that much.”
Not only were these qualities non-existent (or never spoken about) but you were probably also taught who you “should” be according to your parents and society’s standards. In other words, you were never encouraged to develop a strong sense of self.
There are serious consequences involved with failing to develop your ego fully. Symptoms of a weak identity include:
- Losing your sense of self in romantic relationships
- Codependent tendencies (where your happiness is dependent on others being happy)
- Enmeshment with your parents (difficulty separating your thoughts and feelings from your parent’s thoughts and feelings)
- Inability to create strong boundaries (resulting in massive energy loss)
- Scattered priorities (e.g. not knowing how to manage your time and energy)
- Aimlessness and difficulty setting goals
- Not knowing what you want to do with your life
- Group mentality (i.e. tendency to create an identity based on an ideal held by a group of people)
- Increased susceptibility to peer pressure (i.e. being pressured by others to do things that make you feel uncomfortable or aren’t authentic to you)
- Empathy overload (empathizing too much with others that you lose yourself)
- Social anxiety (feeling overwhelmed by others because you don’t have a solid identity)
- Low self-esteem (weak identity + not knowing much about yourself = tendency to feel suspicious and doubtful of yourself)
- Chronic low-grade to intense anxiety (due to not feeling at ‘home’ within yourself because you have a weak sense of self)
- Feeling lost in life
- The tendency to be taken advantage of by others
- Living another person’s definition of “happy” or “success”
- Disconnection from your true needs, desires, and dreams
- Feelings of emptiness inside
Pause for a moment and notice how you feel. Tune into your body if that helps to ground you. How do you feel in response to the list above? If you feel a sense of physical discomfort or strong emotions arising, it’s likely that this list has triggered you. Being triggered here is a good thing because it is a clear sign that you need to develop a stronger sense of self. We’ll explore how to do that soon.
But first, let’s explore why developing a firm sense of self is not only your birthright but also your destiny.
9 Ways to Develop a Strong Sense of Self
It is your birthright to develop your ego and soul.
To paraphrase philosopher and integral theorist Ken Wilber, we need to wake up and grow up.
But what does this mean?
To grow up means to psychologically mature and create a clear identity or ego. Psychologist Carl Jung referred to the process of ego development and integration as individuation.
Without a clear and healthy ego we run the risk of living scattered, confused, and empty lives. When coupled with spirituality, a poorly developed ego leads to issues such as an absence of spiritual discernment which can lead to spiritual misuse and abuse.
What are spiritual misuse and abuse?
Spiritual abuse means being sucked in by corrupt spiritual teachers and movements that seek power, money, and fame. And yes, there are plenty out there. Spiritual abuse also manifests as the cult mentality where a person with a weak sense of self can easily be brainwashed to lose all sense of personal sovereignty.
Spiritual misuse, on the other hand, means letting the personal shadow taint spirituality through spiritual pride, spiritual codependence, spiritual narcissism, and spiritual bypassing. You can read more about these spiritual traps in our spiritual discernment article.
Life is about balance. We are both human and divine, so it makes sense to fully explore and develop both sides of our nature.
If you are seeking to develop a stronger sense of self, here are my suggestions:
1. Learn how to be alone
Solitude may sound like a scary word or idea, but it is actually a deeply nourishing practice. To make space to be alone with yourself is the best first step to developing a strong identity. How often are you genuinely alone (with no technological distractions) or people around you? The reason why making time each day to be alone is so beneficial is that it creates a space for you to listen to your inner self. Being alone means that all external distractions are set aside and you are left with yourself. If you haven’t done this much before, it may sound intimidating. Subconsciously many of us fear solitude because it brings up everything that we’ve been trying to avoid. But try to gently push through this discomfort and realize that alone time is absolutely essential for developing a strong sense of self.
To ease any fear you may have, set yourself a task to do that involves self-exploration. For example, try journalling, artistically expressing your feelings and thoughts, or simply sitting down and listening to some emotional music. Find ways to be with yourself and explore your inner world. If you don’t have much time to spare, squeeze in your solitude time in an activity you already do. For example, spend your lunch break, toilet break, shower time or moments before bed with your thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, the more time you dedicate to being alone and exploring your inner self the more you will get back.
2. Clearly define your likes, dislikes, and values
For this activity, you will need a piece of paper and a pen. Divide your page into three parts: one section for your likes, one section for your dislikes, and the last section for your values. For your likes and dislikes section, think back to moments in life where you felt either extremely happy or extremely unhappy. You can also think about what traits you like and dislike in other people. Write down your discoveries on your piece of paper. You might also like to reflect on the qualities of your role models and also enemies. What do you like and dislike about each? Record your reflections.
Values are what you honor/respect the most in yourself and others. Examples of values include being generous, being honest, being in touch with spirituality, going the extra mile, etc. Our values are unique to us and come from our hearts and souls. To discover your values, you will need to ask the question, “What qualities can’t I live without both in myself and others?” If this question doesn’t bring up any strong responses, think about times in your life when you felt the most proud of yourself and write them down. What qualities motivated your behavior? Write down your response.
3. Draw boundaries and say “no”
Learn to be assertive. By creating strong boundaries, you are strengthening your sense of self by defining what is and is not okay in social situations. You might also like to pay attention to any people in your life who are frequently overstepping your boundaries. Notice how you feel around every person in your life – do they support and uplift you or do they drag you down. If you constantly feel drained, depressed or unhappy with yourself after an encounter with a specific person, consider limiting your contact with them. You have every right to take a step back, create rules, and say “no.” Your time and energy is a limited resource, so ensure that those who drain you of it are put at arm’s length.
4. Stop the busyness and tune into your inner self
Working too much can be a form of socially acceptable escapism. Why? When we focus on achieving goals and being productive, we are simultaneously taking attention away from ourselves and directing it externally. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being an efficient member of society. But beware of using your work life to escape your inner life.
If you are constantly on your toes working, consider simplifying your life – even temporarily. Cut back on your commitments and do only what is necessary. Spend the rest of your free time exploring yourself and developing self-knowledge. One great way of developing a solid sense of self is by practicing mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness helps you to reconnect with the present moment and how your mind, heart, and body feels. Meditation, on the other hand, helps you to pay attention to your inner thoughts. Try experimenting with both. I recommend listening to guided meditation and mindfulness sessions at first as they take the pressure out of wondering what to do next. Tara Brach has many wonderful meditations on youtube that I personally listen to.
5. Redefine what success, happiness, and fulfillment mean to YOU
If you have a poorly developed sense of self, chances are that you are living out an idea of success, happiness, and fulfillment that others have handed to you. Don’t worry, this is absolutely normal. I have experienced the confusion and frustration of living out another person’s definition of who I “should” be as well. But now is your opportunity to change that. Now is your opportunity to see that you don’t need to be rich or mainstream to be successful – YOU define success. Now is your opportunity to see that you don’t need to have a fancy job or big family to be happy – YOU define happiness. Now is your opportunity to see that you don’t have to be spiritually elevated to experience fulfillment – YOU define what fulfillment means to you. Your life is in your hands and is of your making. Don’t let anyone try to tell you what you should be doing, feeling, thinking or striving for. It’s okay to say “no, that’s not me.”
6. Learn more about your personality
Your personality is unique and multifaceted – and there are so many ways of exploring it! Diving into the mechanics of your ego is fascinating and we have dedicated a large portion of this website to personality tests and articles that encourage self-reflection. Other than the numerous books, workshops, and coaching sessions out there, you can also experiment with taking personality tests (see our tests page) which is a fun way of getting to know yourself better.
7. Take responsibility for yourself only (not other people)
Having a weak sense of self means that you are prone to over-empathize with others to the point of taking responsibility for their feelings and actions. Stop that. Realize that the only person you are responsible for is yourself. Your parents, friends, colleagues, children, and partner are all ultimately responsible for their own happiness – it’s NOT your job to make them happy. They are responsible for making themselves happy. With the exception of small children who need constant guidance, those in your life who have grown and matured need to get a grip on their own lives. By trying to take responsibility for others, you are depriving them of the ability to learn an essential life lesson: that we must all be sovereign and take control of our perspectives, feelings, and actions. It is not your job to be friends with everyone, care-take everyone, save everyone, or please everyone. Keep affirming this to yourself and you will find it easier to strengthen your identity as you’ll no longer be giving all that energy away to others.
8. Explore your passions
What makes you excited? What makes you feel alive? What activities call to you? By exploring your passions, you are aiding the process of individuation or ego development that we must all go through. Pay attention to what hobbies or skills grab you and pull you in. Give yourself permission to follow these passions and see where they lead you.
9. Be a rebel: question everything
As Carl Jung – a great proponent of developing a healthy sense of self – once wrote:
I studiously avoided all so-called holy men. I did so because I had to make do with my own truth, not accept from others what I could not attain on my own … I must shape my life out of myself, out of what my inner being tells me or what nature brings to me.
This quote embodies the essence of what developing a strong sense of self means. To have a healthy ego means to trust in yourself and to listen to your own truth.
Developing a strong identity involves a certain level of willfulness or willpower. You must be willing to question every way others try to influence you and ask “Does this feel true to me?” and “Does this feel right?” It is inevitable that through life, you will be presented with numerous points of view, beliefs, values, and ideals from others that don’t feel authentic to you. In order to distinguish between what feels authentic and inauthentic, you must question and pay attention to your inner feelings. So next time you start feeling insecure, unworthy or like you’re not measuring up, ask yourself, “Am I believing something I haven’t questioned?” and “Am I using someone else’s yardstick to measure myself up to?”
What are your struggles and experiences with developing a sense of self? I’d love to hear your story in the comments!