A strong self-identity is essential when it comes to intimacy, asserting yourself and exercising good boundaries with your family, friends, and partner. It can also guard against feeling manipulated or resentful in personal relationships.

But what is self-identity and where does it come from?

Our self-Identity is formed during childhood and adolescence. Ideally, this was a time when you explored your interests, balanced responsibilities, received encouragement, and were given feedback from others that confirmed your self-worth.

Sadly, you may have had a difficult childhood or adolescence and missed out on these experiences. For instance, home or school may not have been a place of warmth but a place where you sometimes experienced neglect, criticism or even abuse. Understandably, you might have become more concerned with avoiding rejection or unwanted attention than in the important task of discovering who you are. For example, you may have cared for an emotionally needy parent at a young age, been mistreated by a family member, or disappeared into the background so that your hopes for recognition weren’t once again dashed. What all these situations have in common, is that self-identity was guided more by what others needed you to be and not by what you chose to become. These experiences can lead to self-identity issues.

Unsurprisingly, people with a history of abuse or neglect have a difficult time with both their sense of identity and interpersonal boundaries.

How do you know if you have a strong self-identity?

Recent research led by Erin Kaufman of the University of Utah suggests three components are important for self-identity. These are ownership of values, commitment to values, and self-worth. They found people who struggle with self-identity show the following characteristics:

  1. Opinions and behavior change depending on who they are around
  2. Knowledge of values is lacking and opinions are not held for long
  3. There is a sense of feeling broken, empty or not known by anyone

3 Questions to determine whether you have Self-identity Issues

  • Do I rely on others to feel real?

Do you feel better when you’re copying someone else’s opinions or ideas? Are you a different person when you’re with different people? This is sometimes referred to as being a “social chameleon”. However, there is a difference between skillfully adapting to different social situations, and feeling like a different person in each situation. Healthy identity involves bringing forth the same version of yourself and feeling confident in who you are. Unhealthy identity is about changing who you are to fit the situation or group you are with.

  • Do my opinions and interests change often?

Do you always know what is important to you? If someone were to describe you, would you know if they were right or wrong? While it is healthy to change and grow in response to life experiences, there are usually a set of values, interests or preferences to which people always feel connected. You need to know what you like, what you enjoy and think of a topic or situation. This will help guide your decisions and pursuit of things that bring meaning to your life.

  • Do I feel empty or broken?

Do you feel like an empty shell? Do you feel lost or not know who you are? An absence of knowing yourself can be a sign of mental health problems and difficulty managing emotions.

5 Tasks That Help Build Self-Identity

Every person in the world has an identity – something unique that distinguishes them from everybody else. Fortunately, you can still discover and cultivate a healthy self-identity.

You can begin to strengthen your identity and your interpersonal boundaries by exploring the following (journaling your responses is even better!):

  • Intellectual – you are entitled to your ideas, opinions, beliefs, preferences and philosophy on life, as are others. What are these?
  • Emotional – you are entitled to your feelings and reactions, as are others. How do you feel about things that are happening in your life?
  • Physical – you are entitled to your space, as are others. How do you feel about your surroundings, privacy, belongings and the people who impact these?
  • Social – you are entitled to your friends and to pursuing your interests, as are others. Who and what things look interesting to you?
  • Story – your life is an unfolding story. What are some of your favorite memories and accomplishments? What are your hopes for the future?

Benefit from Self-Identity

The research team from Utah found that a strong self-identity helped people navigate major life tasks, achieve intimacy with others, be autonomous, and find a place in society.

If you are feeling confused over who you are, or, find your behavior and opinions changing frequently, guidance from a professional therapist may help. Contact me to discuss where to go from here.


Kaufman, E. A., Cundiff, J. M., & Crowell, S. E. (2015). The Development, Factor Structure, and Validation of the Self-concept and Identity Measure (SCIM): A Self-Report Assessment of Clinical Identity Disturbance. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 37(1), 122–133. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10862-014-9441-2