How to define who you are: Self-worth and Identity

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Who am I? This is a question many people ask, and they try to answer it at multiple levels. The most common are their name, profession, and role in society.

Example: I am Aditya Shukla, a psychologist and an entrepreneur who wants to create helpful content for people to empower themselves with psychological knowledge and techniques.

Most typical answers follow this format, with some adding relationships to the mix, “I am a single mom of 2.” But if it were this simple, no one would have self-worth problems or lose their purpose in life.

how to know yourself

Then there is a philosophical angle to answering “who am I?”.

  1. A nutritionist would say you are what you eat.
  2. A philosophy enthusiast may say you think; therefore, you are.
  3. A determinist would say you are what you were born to be.
  4. A non-determinist would say you are who you choose to be.

From all the information there is, we highlight a specific aspect related to our identity and choose to use that as our primary descriptor. For example, I am in the middle of a major career development, so I focus on my professional identity. Someone who just became a parent would then focus on being a parent more than being a child to someone else.

The core of your identity

Once you look at all perspectives people take, they fall neatly into 3 buckets, or dimensions, which psychologists call the “self-construals.” Self-construals are how you construe (meaning understand) the self.

Your identity – the answer to – “who am I?”, comes down to 3 self-construal dimensions.

  1. The relational independent self-construal: This is you, your gender, body, job, achievements, possessions, values/beliefs, personality, personal characteristics, work, hobbies, likes/dislikes. This focuses on individuality.
  2. The relational interdependent self-construal: This is your relationship with others as a friend, partner, mentor, caretaker, parent, and well-wisher. This focuses on partnerships and your role in your immediate circle of influence.
  3. The meta-personal self-construal: This is your vision, purpose, sense of spirituality, mission on earth, philosophy, one-ness with something in the universe, etc. They guide your long-term vision, who you want to be, and how you impact the universe. This focuses on community and purpose and your overall “plot” in the story of life.

Every answer to who you are emerges from the 3 dimensions.

And those 3 dimensions are only visible if you meet 3 other conditions.

You must have these first.

  1. Reflexive consciousness: Definition in how you think about yourself. Do you have thoughts about yourself?
  2. Interpersonal relationships: How you are related to others in society. Are you connected to any person in society?
  3. Executive functions of the self: The decision-maker who guides your behavior and perception. It’s often you, but for many, it’s someone else. Do you feel in control and have autonomy in life?

Healthy self-worth emerges from these.

Levels of identity and source of self-worth

The image describes a chart of 3 levels Independent self-construal, interdependent self-construal, and metapersonal self-construal which determine your identity.

Then it shows 3 properties of the mind called reflexive consciousness, executive functions of the self, and interpersonal relationships which can be the source of stable self-worth.

And finally, all of this makes sense when you have a memory of it. All of this is fed to your awareness via memory. So what you remember, learn, and experience becomes a filter for your identity. How you remember yourself, how you wish to remember yourself, and how others remember you filter all other details and present you with a sense of self. This is why reminding yourself of your values, why you do a specific job, and why you are in a specific role is important – it activates the memory for your identity.

Changing how you interpret your life and remember specific details affects your identity, it comes down to highlighted memory interpretation.

How your identity becomes blurry

You can start losing yourself when the 3 conditions aren’t met. For example, if you don’t have time to think about yourself (reflexive consciousness), or you don’t have time to relate to others (interpersonal relationships), or you have no control over your own decisions (you lose autonomy), you may start questioning who you are.

Now, we must look at how being high or low on any of the self-construals affects your identity.

Suppose you are very high on one. You may then neglect the other dimensions. In some cases, it leads to a loss of identity. For example, if you focus a lot on your profession, you may start neglecting a connection with nature and society in general. Or if you are too high on relationships, you may neglect your individuality and base your identity on your role in a family or corporation.

There are also cases where people overcompensate when one or more dimension is lacking. For example, leaning into politics and spending a lot of time when one is dissatisfied with work identity and relationship identity can lead to something called “collective narcissism.” It occurs when one starts identifying too strongly with their group, loses the sense of self, thinks the group is superior, and then borrows that superiority from the group to feel better about themselves.

How being busy affects identity and sense of self

When one is in mid-career, has a relationship, and has a sense of meaning and purpose in life, it is possible to feel too crowded and lose track of it simply because you are too busy. When you get busy and withdraw attention from your identity, you may question who you are. That’s the point when you should affirm each dimension of your identity. Remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing.

  • Affirm your relational independent self-construal – what unique things shape you
  • Affirm your relational interdependent self-construal – what unique relationships you’ve had and lost
  • Affirm your meta-personal self-construal – what meaning and purpose you find in life, what your core motivations are, how you philosophically interpret life

Being busy can force you to ignore these, so you might have to frequently re-affirm these. That might help you get mentally lean and compartmentalize many parts of your life. Stronger the affirmation, the stronger it holds against losing your sense of identity.

The part of your identity you highlight affects your behavior.

Research shows that focusing on your meta-personal self-construal based on environmental concerns can nudge you to make more environmentally friendly choices. However, even if you have this identity but aren’t focusing on it, you may occasionally make environmentally damaging choices if you don’t remember your environmental identity.

A study also shows if you focus on your relational independent self-construal, you may be less inclined to help others than someone who focuses on their relational interdependent self-construal.

Fixating on one single feature of your identity, like your disease, disability, disorder, or your professional role, body image, etc., can severely undermine other important features of your identity and make you feel less in control of your sense of self.

Highlighting one feature of your identity acts as a value affirmation that primes your brain to make decisions that align with that aspect of your identity. This can be both good and bad depending on what the value is. For example, if you place all value on how bad you look, you may fixate on changing just your looks. If you place all value on being a professional, you may forget your family. If you focus just on being disciplined and productive, you may lose the ability to have fun and relax.

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And on the contrary, I could tell someone stuck with a problem and feeling helpless that they are an engineer for a positive value affirmation. This would prime their brain to change the mindset to an engineering mindset which is about finding solutions to problems with a specific approach. Their frustration could blind them to that aspect of their identity, but reactivating it could nudge their behavior to overcome their own difficulties.

2 Methods to answer “who am I?”

All of this might feel overwhelming, so it’s best to start easily when you are questioning who you are and your values.

1. The self-construal method (how much information is there in your identity?)

This technique works as an identity development technique. Make a chart like the one below on a spreadsheet or paper. The first 2 columns are pre-defined. The 3rd column (currently highlighted information) is what you can easily add as information to the dimension in column 1. Column 4 is what you need to think hard about while discovering your identity. You can always revise the information in it, but it has to be factually correct. Column 5 is what you can develop further to feel secure in your identity.

Self-construal dimensionMeaningCurrently highlighted information (examples)Additional informationWhat else do you want to add to this?
Independent self-construalYour individual characteristicsTall, artistGood at management, loves to play the piano, reads often, got good vocabulary, gives honest effortBetter body image
Interdependent self-construalYour relationships, role in immediate social circleIn a relationshipFriend, well-wisher to a few, a social plan-makerMentor someone and learn from the new generation
Meta-personal self-constualYour connection with the world, purpose, ambitionNo connectionI want to make the world greenerI want to feel connected to everyone and relate

2. The self-worth method (who owns your self-worth?)

What determines your self-worth? If you remove all physical features like looks, education, likes and dislikes, profession, possessions, hobbies, etc., what’s left? (essentially, what happens if you ignore your independent self-construal?)

Self-worth is how you value yourself, and where you gain that value from.

3 parts of your identity determine self-worth. If it’s not based on these, but comes from any of the self-construals, your self-worth becomes unstable, because the self-construals themselves are unstable.

  • Reflexive consciousness: How you think about yourself. If your thoughts are someone else’s, you are living someone else’s identity.
  •  Interpersonal relationships: How you are related to others in society. If your behavior is solely based on others, they control your identity.
  •  Executive functions of the self: The decision-maker who guides your behavior and perception. If someone else makes decisions for you, they own your self-worth. This is when you lose control of yourself.

When you start losing your identity, you lose self-worth.

When brands, parents, partners, children, friends, professionals, and employers control your:

  • Self-perception
  • Decisions
  • Habits
  • Conversations
  • Inner dialog

They control your core identity. So you have nothing of your own to determine your self-worth. You can’t completely own your identity, but you can own your self-worth by focusing on the following.

  1. What you think is influenced by others’ inputs, but you get to reform those thoughts. Your thoughts become self-worth.
  2. Relationship-based identity is necessary for survival, but you don’t have to prioritize a relationship over yourself. Your personal priority becomes self-worth.
  3. You can’t always make decisions for yourself, but you can try to make choices, change them, and ask for advice whenever you want to so you feel in control. Your decisions become self-worth.

Is your identity the same as your personality?

Not necessarily. Your personality is a set of stable behaviors and tendencies that are fairly resistant to change. Your personality is a part of 1 dimension of your identity – the relational independent self-construal. People use many words to describe their personality, but they are a small portion of their identity:

  1. Extrovert/Introvert
  2. Optimistic/pessimist
  3. People-pleaser/stubborn
  4. Highly sensitive person
  5. Sensation-seeker
  6. Anxious/depressed

Can you choose your identity?

To some extent, apart from genetics, yes. But it depends on the people around you and your environment because they actively contribute to your role in society, what job you get, which people you are inspired by, and who you want to avoid interacting with. There is a complex mechanism of influence where all of these factors guide your identity development.

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