Self-Care Tips

13 Steps to Finding Yourself—It’s Not Your Average Game of Hide-and-Seek

Photo: Stocksy / Ivan Gener
At a certain point in life, you may feel as though it's time to have a solid grasp on who you are and what makes you, well, you. But that’s quite the process (and one that's easier said than done) because finding yourself requires time and patience.

What does it mean to find yourself?

While it’s understandable that you’d want to figure out what really makes you tick, there's no need to panic if you feel like you don’t know, with 100 percent certainty, who you are, regardless of your age. “All of us have a sense that there is a true, authentic self that I want to find, and it’s a quest that’s pretty much a lifelong journey toward authenticity,” says psychologist Karin Anderson Abrell, PhD.

In life do you find yourself or create yourself?

“There are things about ourselves that are in our DNA (generational trauma, for example) and other things that we create and define as we grow and learn,” says sex, relationships, and mental health therapist Rachel Wright, MA, LMFT. “We age, we grow, we experience hardships and happiness, and in that, we both find ourselves and create ourselves. This isn’t an or, it’s an and.”

Which is all to say, if you don’t feel like you know yourself—or like you’re being your most authentic self—there’s still all the time in the world to learn how to find yourself. Or, if you once knew yourself but got lost in depression, a draining relationship, or other hardship, rest assured, there are plenty of ways to learn how to find yourself again (more on that in a bit).

Is it easy to find yourself?

Jennifer Carter, PhD, psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, agrees that finding yourself isn’t some simple, one-and-done thing. “It’s tough to measure when the process is done,” she says. “Also, humans are complex. We constantly learn more about ourselves as we age and deal with life’s ups and downs.”

Suffice to say, it may not always be easy to find yourself, but it will always be worth it.

Why is knowing yourself important?

To that point, there is no cut-and-dry definition for what it means to find yourself, and that's precisely why being able to do it (and identify that you've done it) can be so hard.

“I see it as cultivating a deep understanding of yourself—what's important to you, what motivates you, why you respond and react as you do, and your values,” says psychologist Erika Martinez, PsyD. In addition to figuring out where you stand on things, finding yourself also means feeling at peace with the person you’ve become, she says.

Wright adds to this, noting that a big part of finding yourself involves accepting yourself wholly. To do so, she says it will take time, patience, love, releasing shame, getting to know yourself, and seeking (and welcoming) support throughout it all.

There are other elements at play here, too, Dr. Carter says: Finding yourself means being more aware of the person who you are, and accepting of your feelings, thoughts, personality, goals, and dreams. While no single right way to go about this exists, the experts say there are generally a few things you can take to push things in the right direction. You’ll want to do a lot of introspection and get out there in the real world to have a clearer sense of who you really are—and the following 13 steps can help.

Curious about how to find yourself? The following 13 steps will lead you in the right direction.

How To Find Yourself in 13 Steps

1. Think back to a time when you really felt comfortable in your own skin

This can really be any time in your life; maybe you were out for a run and you just felt so sure about your strength and where you were going, or maybe it was deciding to take on a new and challenging job, and knowing deep down that you were up for the task. “It can be the briefest of moments as long as you can recall what it felt like and then explore what it was about that time that made you feel as at peace with yourself,” Dr. Martinez says.

Once you’re able to pinpoint this moment and figure out what was so great about it, you can work on finding new opportunities to help you feel the same way, she says.

2. Mull over your family dynamic

“Often, people don’t feel like they’re resonating with themselves because, emotionally, they haven’t learned to interact in an adult fashion with their family,” Dr. Abrell says. If you’re still getting caught up in sibling drama, allowing yourself to be treated like a child by your parents, or getting really, really angry when your mom gives her opinion, it could be a sign of this, she says.

To be fair, Dr. Abrell says it’s easy to fall into this trap, and establishing your adult status within a preexisting family dynamic is a process. It may help if you prepare yourself emotionally before you interact with family. Try coaching yourself not to respond with knee-jerk reactions to things that bother (which you’ve been doing your whole life). That may even mean practicing saying things like, “Mom, I respect your opinions, but I’m allowed to have my own opinions as well. It doesn’t mean I’ve betrayed you. It just means that I’m a grown-up, and you’ve taught me ways to behave independently.”

“When you start to see yourself as a grown-up and behave as such with family, a lot of your identity starts to fall into place,” Dr. Abrell says. It may take time for both you and your family to shift into more “adult” patterns of interacting, but it ultimately will happen.

3. Get out and try new things

You know what you know so far in life, but pushing yourself to experience new things can help you tap into a part of yourself with which you’re not yet well-acquainted. It can be as simple as taking a new class at the gym or consciously exploring restaurants and neighborhoods outside of your go-tos. “Those experiences lead to opportunities to learn more about yourself,” Dr. Martinez says. And, bonus, this can also help time slow down from its rapid-fire pace.

4. Start going places by yourself

You experience things differently when you do them on your own, and that can help you tap deeper into who you are as a person, Dr. Abrell says. Furthermore, doing this means you'll contend with fewer external distractions, like conversations with friends, so it’s really just you and your thoughts.

To be clear, if you tend to surround yourself with people, you might feel a little uncomfortable at first if you take yourself out to dinner or venture on a solo trip. But doing so gets easier each time you do it—and it can ultimately help you on your journey toward self-discovery. “Alone time can enhance self-awareness,” Dr. Carter says. When you do this, challenge yourself to keep your phone away (a common distracting tool) and just  enjoy being with your own thoughts.

5. Try to figure out what’s important to you

You may not realize where you truly stand on certain issues until you challenge yourself to spend real time thinking on them. Dr. Martinez recommends doing this by noticing your gut reaction to controversial topics. Then mull over these things: What do you get really fired up about? What deeply tugs at your heartstrings? “Then ask yourself why about five times, each time narrowing your answer as much as possible," she says. “What you're likely to come up with is a core value for you.”

And, of course, once you know what your core values are, you can make sure that you act in a way that reflects and honors them.

6. Ditch bad habits

Everybody has these, and kicking yours once and for all can help you align your life more closely with your values, Dr. Abrell says. “It also provides people with the opportunity to develop grit,” she says. Once you’re able to beat a bad habit, you’ll feel more powerful and will boost your self-esteem—and that can go a long way when it comes to feeling confident in who you are.

This can include bad relationships, too. Wright emphasizes that it’s important to prioritize yourself in relationships—with people, places, and things—and to let go of the things that don’t serve you. “We can be worried that people won’t want to be in a relationship with us if we put ourselves first (those people aren’t the healthiest people!),” she says. “You gotta do what’s best for you.” And if that means breaking up to find yourself, so be it.

7. Learn how to practice mindfulness—and actually do it

“This is another way to drown out external noise and messages,” Dr. Matinez says—and Dr. Carter agrees, calling it “one of the best methods” for finding yourself. “Mindfulness may seem intimidating, but simply paying attention to your breath for a minute or two is mindfulness,” she says. If that doesn’t seem to do it for you, or if you’re easily distracted, a mindfulness app that guides you through a meditation (like Calm) can be helpful, Dr. Carter says.

Alternatively, journaling and practicing gratitude daily can lead to some pretty significant breakthroughs, too. Looking to give it a try? The Papier Gratitude Journal ($35) will make adopting the process very approachable, not to mention aesthetically pleasing. That said, if the idea of long journal entries feels off putting, you can always take the WHOOP route. The fitness wearable has an impressive Journal feature that lets users track their habits and thoughts each and every day, which it then compares to overall body stats to help determine how much performing said habits improves overall recovery. Very high tech and very insightful when it comes to helping to find what works best for y-o-u.

8. Tell your inner critic to get lost

This is ultimately about taking charge of your thoughts, given that beating yourself up internally does absolutely nothing for you or your path to learning more about who you are. “If you’re allowing your inner critic to raise its voice, and you listen to it, you’re going to be in a mode of self-sabotage,” Dr. Abrell says.

Your inner critic is often the culmination of input from authority figures that you’ve internalized over time, Dr. Martinez says—and listening to that isn’t helping you in your quest to be more you. If you’re reaching for a goal and you fall short, try gassing yourself up with affirmations like “you’ve still got this” or “everybody fails sometimes. You’ll get it next time.” Doing this sets up you to get back on the horse and actually accomplish your goal.

9. Learn to be okay with not being liked by everyone

It’s impossible to please everyone, and putting a lot of stock in how other people feel about you only devalues your own identity. “As long as you’re still wanting to be liked by everyone, you’re going to have a hard time finding your true self,” Dr. Abrell says. “You’re giving them power over you and stepping away from your authentic self.”

Wanting to be liked is a natural human emotion, but Dr. Martinez recommends using the following exercise to help you break the habit: Ask yourself if you end up genuinely liking every person you meet. “Some people you'll love, others you'll dislike, and some you'll be indifferent toward," she says. "If that's true for how you experience others, then why can't it be true for how people experience you? Whether people like you isn't your business—it’s theirs.”

10. Volunteer

Volunteering allows you to try something new, but you’re also learning to step outside of yourself, Dr. Abrell says. Simultaneously, you’re building gratitude for the things you have in your life. It can also help you identify your values and highlight new things that really matter to you. And, of course, it just feels really great to help others.

11. Unplug more

Learning not to use your phone as a distraction leaves you with more time to explore your own thoughts and feelings. “For most people, any time they feel uncomfortable, they pull out their phone,” Dr. Abrell says. “But that’s operating at a level that’s very shallow.” When you give yourself time to reflect instead, whether it’s while waiting in line for coffee or hanging out at home alone, you allow yourself an opportunity to grow.

12. Identify what makes you different from everyone else

There’s only one you, but sometimes it can be hard to see what makes you unique when you’re caught up in the whirlwind of daily life. Dr. Abrell recommends reflecting on things you see around you to help you figure this one out. Take note of a person’s action and think about what you would do in the same situation. For instance, if you think something like, “she did that and it’s interesting, but that wouldn’t work for me,” then challenge yourself to choose a different path.

You can also ask friends for their honest feedback about what makes you unique—and then ask them to explain why. If they say you’re “kind,” for example, ask them to elaborate on what they’ve seen you do or say that makes you that way.

13. Consider therapy

Finding yourself is not always easy. Sometimes, it can be helpful to bring in an outside professional to help steer you along the way. Therapy can put you in a situation where you end up talking about yourself to an empathetic listener who can help push you to think more about how you feel about yourself and your inner wisdom. Sounds productive, right? That's because it often is.

“Therapists ask, ‘How do you feel?’ and awareness and effective expression of feelings is key for finding yourself,” Dr. Carter says. That said, there are many forms of therapy out there that can help in different ways. “Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of your experience. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can teach you how to talk to yourself more effectively. Interpersonal therapy can help you learn how your family influenced you and how to choose effective relational patterns as an adult.” Figuring out where you’re getting tripped up, and choosing a type of therapy based on that can be key for helping you to find yourself.

A Common Misconception

One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to be single to find yourself. While it’s easy to get caught up in a relationship and struggle with your own identity, Wright assures us that it’s perfectly acceptable to have a partner and work on yourself at the same time. “The key here is to take time to prioritize getting to know yourself and ‘finding’ you — giving yourself the space to get to know you the way you would a new friend or partner,” she says.

That doesn’t just go for romantic relationships, though. Wright is quick to point out that we’re always involved in relationships, whether it’s a family member, friend, colleague, or someone else. No matter the relationship, she says that it’s important to be mindful of how you feel within it. In doing so, you’ll be able to adjust your thoughts and behaviors to better align with who you want to be.

Remember…

Again, figuring out who you are is quite the evolving process, and it’s okay if you don’t have all the answers now or even in the immediate future. But taking steps to tap more into your most authentic core will help ensure that you’re on the right path—which is working toward being the best version of yourself that you can be.

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