How To Develop A Strong Sense Of Self And Self-Esteem

Medically reviewed by Katrice Hollins, LCSW, LICSW
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

A robust sense of self, rooted in self-knowledge and self-worth, can help keep a person grounded even as life throws changes and challenges their way. It can allow them to weather any storms they may encounter using resilience and self-assurance. Understanding one’s unique identity and intrinsic value plays a significant role in maintaining well-being and navigating the daily dynamics of life with confidence.

Sense of self is a vital concept in many human development theories. But what exactly does it look like, and how can you strengthen yours?

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You deserve to know and love yourself

Importance of sense of self

A sense of self—sometimes referred to as "self-concept"—is your perception and awareness of who you truly are, including your sense of identity, your emotions, and your moral code. A person's sense of self is directly related to how they feel about themselves, their interests and beliefs, and their level of self-confidence. This perception of self-efficacy psychology is critical because it forms the foundation for many other aspects of our lives, from personal goal achievement to work, family, and other relationships.

A strong sense of self often breeds confidence and decisiveness, while a weak or unclear sense of self can cause self-doubt, self-criticism, and difficulty making decisions. Research suggests a link between a sense of one's own identity and a healthy sense of self-esteem. Since other studies have correlated low self-esteem with anxiety, depression, and other negative mental health outcomes, self-esteem—and therefore a sense of self—is generally considered to be an important element of good health.

Gain a stronger sense of self

Strengthening your sense of self is a process that you can work on over time. There are many different ways to approach it, all of which can contribute to a clearer, more stable sense of who you are. 

Get to know yourself

Make a conscious effort to get to know your authentic self like you would a new friend. It might be useful to try and distill key elements of who you are into physical lists. For example, you could list out:

  • Your best qualities
  • The personal beliefs you stand by 
  • Your goals for your life
  • Your dreams 
  • Your favorite things 
  • Your likes and dislikes 

Putting these aspects of yourself into words can be a helpful way to form a clearer self-image and enhance your self-awareness.

You can also build your self-image by putting yourself in new situations. For example, taking a trip alone to somewhere you’ve never been can show you new sides of your personality. You might surprise yourself by how resourceful and adaptable you are or by how much you enjoy new places or activities you stumble upon. You could also try taking a class on a subject that’s completely new to you, like rock climbing or drawing, or joining groups or clubs with new types of people you don’t normally spend time with. Experiences like these can help you solidify your sense of your key qualities and what and who you enjoy spending your time on while playing a significant role in defining your place in the world.

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Set boundaries

Boundaries can be a way to delineate where others’ needs and desires end and yours begin. Boundaries can prevent other people from having too much say in your life and how you live it, helping you defend your own sense of agency and clarity of self-concept. If you don’t have a history of a strong sense of self, knowing where to draw these lines can seem difficult at first. Plus, individuals with a weaker sense of self may struggle with boundary enforcement due to people-pleasing tendencies or because of a sense of hopelessness related to mental health concerns.

You can start practicing setting boundaries in small ways, though. When asked for your preference or faced with a choice, take a moment to tune into yourself and see what you really want, and then practice expressing it. You can start small, like with what table you’d prefer at a restaurant or whether you’d actually like to attend an event you were invited to. Listening to and then expressing what you want is a core method of improving your ability to set and hold boundaries. This ability will not only help you in defining your ideal self but also support your personal growth.

Practice self-compassion

Once you begin to formulate a stronger sense of who you are, showing yourself compassion can help you defend and preserve your sense of self. If your tough inner critic is constantly tearing you down, it can be hard to build any kind of self-confidence. When you show yourself kindness, grace, and compassion, however, you can create a safer environment in which your true self can grow and flourish.

Plus, research shows that self-compassion can have a whole host of additional benefits, from higher levels of happiness and motivation to lower levels of depression and anxiety. Expressing gratitude daily, refraining from comparing yourself to others whenever possible, cultivating a mindfulness practice, and saying positive affirmations out loud every day can all assist you in developing higher levels of self-compassion.

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You deserve to know and love yourself

Heal from past trauma

Past experiences can often impact how we feel about ourselves today, but they don’t have to define us. If you have wounds from unhealed trauma—such as a neglectful or absent parent, an abusive relationship, bullying, loss, or any other type of damaging experience—addressing these wounds and working toward healing can be a big step toward a stronger sense of self. Without this healing, we may identify more with our trauma than our actual selves. Past trauma may also contribute to trouble feeling or expressing emotions, accepting ourselves, or building healthy habits. Working through those experiences can bring a host of benefits, including strengthening one’s sense of self.

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

A therapist can be an invaluable resource in this process. They can help you uncover and express difficult or even buried emotions related to past trauma so that those feelings don’t hold you back anymore. They may also help you reestablish a sense of safety, identify triggers, develop coping mechanisms, and support you on your journey of establishing or re-establishing a strong sense of self. Some experts recommend the use of radical acceptance to heal trauma. This skill involves accepting circumstances that are out of our control to effectively cope with the situation.

There are many different ways to connect with a therapist. If you prefer to seek treatment from the comfort of your home, you can connect with a mental health professional virtually. Research suggests that online therapy is as effective as in-person sessions and may seem more personal. With a virtual therapy service like BetterHelp, you can connect with a licensed therapist via phone call, video call, and chat to work together on whatever challenges you may be facing. To learn more about BetterHelp therapists, you can read reviews from individuals who have sought their help or even request a personal interview with a therapist who has previously worked with clients like you.

Counselor reviews

"Marysue has been a great support to my path of self-discovery and healing. She is kind, patient, professional, and above all, a pleasant human being who cares. Thank you."

"I can not express how much Cindi has helped me in the past few weeks that I have had her as my counselor. She's helped me understand more about my condition, helped me settle some things from my past, and has given me brilliant coping techniques that I will use in the future. I've been to many psychiatrists, but no one has ever been as wise, caring, or considerate as Cindi. She's helped me realize things about myself that I have never known. Cindi, if you ever read this, thank you so much for everything you do. You're amazing."

Takeaway

A strong sense of self may contribute to positive life outcomes and improved mental health. Building a more complete sense of self is a journey, but over time, with the right strategies and resources, it is possible.

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