“Know thyself” is a nugget of wisdom that has survived since it originated in Ancient Greece all the way through to the present day—clearly, struggling with uncertainty around how we see ourselves, our strengths and our place in the world is nothing new.
In this case, not knowing who you are doesn’t mean that you forgot your name or home address, but rather that we lose touch with the big-picture aspects of identity. “Firstly, we don’t have a stable sense of what we are worth,” says author and philosopher Alain de Botton. “And secondly, we don’t have a secure hold on our own values or judgments.”
When we don’t grasp our own worth, values, or judgments, others’ negative opinions often have more influence than they should (however inaccurate they are). We might experience low self-confidence, constantly seek out praise, or make choices based on what everyone else does, rather than what we want or believe in.
In this video, de Botton explains why you may lack a sense of self, and how you can acquire the strength that comes from getting to know yourself better.
Where Does Self-Knowledge Come From?
You weren’t born with your identity already determined—luckily! Your sense of self took form in the ways parents or guardians behaved and displayed their opinions of you.
“We learn to have an identity,” says de Botton, “because, if we are blessed, in our early years, someone else takes the trouble to study us with immense fairness, attention, and kindness and then plays us back to us in a way that makes sense and that we can later emulate.”
This starts to form our inner concept of who we are as a person, which continues to evolve over the years. We also use this self-concept to defend ourselves when others see us in a light we don’t agree with.
This early identity-building tends to unfold not in grand gestures, but in small yet significant moments. For example, if a child fell off their bicycle while still learning to stay upright, a parent might say, “That must have hurt a lot, and it’s okay to cry. But I know you can do it if you keep on trying.”
This early identity-building tends to unfold not in grand gestures, but in small yet significant moments.
When a parent reflects, or mirrors, their positive concept of the child in this manner, it enforces to the child that they’re worth caring about and believing in.
“This forms the basis upon which resilient self-esteem can then later emerge,”says de Botton.
On the other hand, some children do not consistently (or ever) receive this kind of attention and validation growing up.
As a result, says de Botton, a child can grow up lacking self-worth worth. In some cases, a child whose emotions and desires have been regularly overlooked may feel as though they don’t even quite exist, says de Bottom, adding, “A feeling of unreality is the direct consequence of emotional neglect.”
Three Ways to Foster Self-Worth
Fortunately, we can take steps to begin building a more stable sense of worth at any point in our lives.
- Surround yourself with supportive people. The most important step, says de Botton, is to “seek out the help of a wise and kindly other person.” This could be a close friend, a mentor, or therapist—someone who believes in you, and will provide you with moral support when you begin to doubt yourself.
- Tune in to your true emotions. When you’ve spent so long listening to other people, pushing down your own feelings may feel like second nature. By practicing mindfulness, you can begin to recognize how you truly feel about a given situation. In doing so, we can “more often take our own sides and feel increasingly solid inside, trusting ourselves more than the crowd, feeling that we might be able to say no,” de Botton says.
- Find what drives you. Once you’ve begun to listen to your emotions, you can start to concentrate on what you’re truly passionate about, regardless of what other people in your life may think. “Having come to know ourselves like this, we will be a little less hungry for praise, a little less worried by opposition – and much more original in our thinking,” de Botton says.