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How To Develop a Strong Sense of Self

It’s no secret that here at GenTwenty we are passionate about self-development and self-growth. A large, and important part of growing as a person is developing a strong sense of self. To develop a strong sense of self means having a guiding self-awareness that allows you to be true to who you are while also growing into the person you were meant to be. 

What is a strong “sense of self”?

Your sense of self is ultimately how you perceive yourself. It informs how you act, how you set boundaries, your relationships, and more. It is directly related to how confident you are and your self-esteem levels. Which all in turn, matter significantly in how happy you are and if you reach your goals or not. Your ideal self and authentic self should be in alignment. If they are not, you can turn this into positive feedback to develop healthy self-esteem and move up the sense of self scale.

Developing a strong sense of self is something that takes time but is also something you can be actively working towards every single day. Here are the steps you need to take for a good start to develop a strong sense of self.

How To Develop a Strong Sense of Self

1. Keep a list of the values that matter to you the most.

A good place to start with defining your sense of self is to list out what values matter to you. Many of these might be shaped by your life experiences. Whether you’ve had a hard time or been through difficult situations, listing these out is a great way for young adults to develop a sense of self and overcome identity issues.

Some of these core values might include:

  • honesty
  • trustworthiness
  • empathy
  • creativity
  • patience 
  • ethics
  • patience
  • organization

These are just some examples of core values that can define your sense of self. There is no set limit to how many values you should have or should keep top of mind. I personally think having 3-5 core values to live by is a great number. 

Your unique list of values will help direct your relationships as well as how you interact with events in your life. They are defining in that you can come back to them every time, almost like a checklist to see if something in your life, whether a person or an opportunity, is a good fit for you. 

Over much time, these values will be ever present in your conscious mind. They will develop into personality traits and help you be your real self.

2. Set boundaries and stick to them.

Setting boundaries is arguably the “easy” part, it’s sticking to them that is much harder. But boundaries are an extremely important part of healthy relationships and they underpin a strong sense of self.

If you are not upholding you values and what you believe in, your sense of self will quickly crumble. Not having boundaries leads to you feeling like a doormat and undervalued – and no one wants that! 

Boundaries can take many shapes and forms but it is imperative that we have them. As Alisa has said previously, “I would put my own feelings and comfort level aside in order to cater to other people and their needs.” This is not a healthy thing to do!

Boundaries help us set a personal balance as well as help level what other people expect from us. They allow us to show up in our lives as our most authentic and most valuable selves. That means we can serve each other with our strengths instead of doing a disservice by leading with our weaknesses. It can be especially challenging to set boundaries with family members, but doing so is often the first step in setting healthy boundaries with other important people in our lives.

Boundaries may look like:

  • Not answering or checking email before 8am and after 5pm.
  • Staying home on Sundays so that we can set ourselves up for a productive week.
  • Going to bed by 10pm.
  • Saying no to opportunities we are not interested in (more on this in a moment).
  • Speaking up when your needs are not being met.

Having boundaries limits other people’s access to you, and most specifically, limits how you give away your time and power (also sometimes referred to as energy). Both of these things are valuable resources that need to be protected. You do not have unlimited amounts of them which means you should be mindful of how you are giving them away. 

Healthy boundaries lead you to respect yourself more because you are honoring your personal resources. And this in turn, will improve your self-esteem and self-confidence. Boundaries make you a priority in your life.

3. Practice saying no and do so on a regular basis.

Saying no is something we have been writing about for a very long time here at GenTwenty. It’s even influenced some of our earliest blog posts. Saying no is a healthy part of setting boundaries, developing a strong sense of self, and respecting yourself.

It is hard to say no to others. We can easily feel like we are letting other people down or not living up to their expectations. But the  truth about having a strong sense of self means that you can prioritize your own needs and desires knowing that doing what is best for you is often what is best for other people too. 

Does that sound a little confusing? Let me explain. 

Say someone asks you to help them with a project. It’s really a topic you have no interest in but you know they could use the help. You begrudgingly give them 10 hours of your time to help with the project. And while you might have enjoyed being with them, you got nothing from the project. You weren’t excited about it. It didn’t light you up. And it didn’t relate to anything you’re interested in all.

Let’s paint a different scenario.

Your friend asks you to help with a project. You know you’re not interested in it but know someone else who might be. You tell your friend it’s not the best fit for you but you are happy to connect them with someone who might be. Both of those people are thrilled with the work they are doing. They are excited to be there and the project turns out fantastically. They’ve both gained something from woring together and you are more satisfied having connected two passionate people versus showing up with a half-hearted effort.

See the difference? Saying no helps you serve not only your own needs but the needs of others too.

If you struggle with saying no, it might be helpful to work  with a therapist.  Finding t he  right therapist can, at the end oof t he day, help you develop a strong identity  and clarify your personal beliefs and overcome and unstable sense of self.

4. Reflect on your relationships. 

Relationships are two-way streets. They are a balance of give and take but should generally be equal in the level of give and take in between people in the relationship. When they are not, this can lead to one person becoming resentful or even angry over the relationship. No one likes to feel used.

If your relationships are not building you up, but rather are taking your valuable resources away from you, perhaps it is time to reexamine that relationship.

Toxic relationships can be mentally, emotionally, and even financially draining. They can be hard to recognize sometimes but one great litmus test for a toxic relationship is anyone in your life who you dread interacting with. These relationships are not healthy in anyway and can be damaging for both parties. They make you push and move your boundaries in ways that do not contribute to a healthy sense of self and often undermine your efforts to have one. 

Other people, especially if you’re in a toxic relationship, can influence you heavily if you do not have a strong sense of self. If you feel like you’re floating through life and easily grab onto other people, this is a sign you could work on developing a stronger self of self. 

Also, a relationship doesn’t have to be toxic to influence you, either. Sometimes neutral relationships can cause you dissonance between who are and who you want to be if the person is leading you from your desired path. This can cause you to have a weak sense of self and lead to comparison and jealousy. 

5. Have a self-care routine.

Self-care is so, so important. We go more in-depth in our podcast episode on self-care if you’d like to listen to that. Practicing self-care is how we take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, and mentally. Self-care is also an important part of coping with mental health issues.

A self-care routine is critical to developing a strong sense of self. First of all, it means that you are prioritizing yourself in your life – something that is not to be overlooked. 

We all need to have our physical needs met before we can start to have our emotional and mental needs taken care of. 

Your self-care routine will help ensure you are getting plenty of sleep, taking care of yourself nutritionally, and through exercise as well. Our bodies need to be nourished, get fresh air, proper rest, and movement to be taken care of. 

We have a guide on creating a self-care routine that aims to help you avoid burnout. If you are practicing self-care, you are also doing the hard work that is essential for setting boundaries and having an unwavering sense of self. 

6. Reinforce positive self-talk to develop a strong sense of self.

Self-talk is the voice inside our head that we hear day in and day out. Research shows that we can have up to 60,000 thoughts a day. 60,000!! It’s our responsibility to make sure that that majority of those, if not all of them, are positive thoughts. This negative self-talk and negative  thoughts can lead to low self-esteem over time, keeping you from developing into your true self.

Changing our self-talk to be positive is one of the most effective things we can do when it comes to developing a strong sense of self. We are allowing ourselves to reaffirm what is working for us and are easily able to course-correct the things that are not working for us. 

As Jessica has explained before, here is one step we need to take to start to eliminate negative self-talk from our minds:

Start to understand what your triggers are and what your negative self-talk sounds like.

So for me, my self-talk shows up around work and romantic relationships. I beat myself up about how I show up professionally (and feel like I have to be perfect), and I feel like I am bad at relationships which negatively impacts how I show up in relationships (quite the cycle).

After that, there are a variety of things you can do including changing the narrative and trying to rewrite the story.

This is the one thing I try to do. Instead of saying I am bad at relationships, I say that I have a history of being in relationships with men who are not a good fit for me.

Understanding those particular points where you begin to talk negatively about yourself can be a catalyst for change. 

7. Seek out challenges AKA opportunities for growth.

We are able to find our true strengths when faced with challenges. A challenge, no matter how big or how small, means we have to dig deep inside of ourself to figure out how to overcome what is in front of us. 

The more challenges we can learn our way through, the more opportunities we have for growth and self-expansion.

When we learn more about our strengths, we can sharpen the definition of ourselves through the lens of them. Knowing what we are good at and leaning fully into those things can give us more confidence and more self-esteem. Challenges also help us grow and connect with our inner self — which is more important than you might realize.

All this to say, don’t shy away from the challenges. Show up to them fully and give it all you’ve got. 

8. Avoid comparing yourself to others to develop a strong sense of self.

Comparison is a trap we all fall into every now and then. There can be some points in our life, particularly when we are feeling low-confidence or going through a big life transition, that it is extra difficult to avoid comparing ourselves to others. 

But comparison is not only a thief of joy, it’s a thief of yourself. We are each moving on our own timelines – no two look the same, and that’s okay! If we were meant to be other people, we would have been born as them. But we weren’t we were born into our own unique lives and paths, and that’s okay! 

If you feel yourself comparing yourself to someone else, take a mental step back. Ask yourself what exactly are you comparing? An opportunity? A skillset? Try saying out-loud, “I am happy  for them!” Turn those feelings of comparison into joy. Give yourself the opportunity to better understand what exactly you are envious of. How can you use what you’ve narrowed down to improve your own life?

Working to develop a strong sense of self takes time, intentionality, and practice. I don’t think anyone is born with it, it’s something you learn how to develop over time as you begin to understand who you are as a person. At the end of the day, a strong sense of identity, understanding our true values, our personal values help develop a strong sense of self-worth.

About the Author

Nicole Booz

Nicole Booz is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of GenTwenty, GenThirty, and The Capsule Collab. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and is the author of The Kidult Handbook (Simon & Schuster May 2018). She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s probably hiking, eating brunch, or planning her next great adventure.