The quest for identity: Where does the sense of self come from and how can it be developed?

Everyone has a unique sense of self that is shaped by our thoughts, feelings, memories and relationships. This self creates our individuality and sets us apart from everyone else. It is also the foundation upon which self-esteem is built. But what if our Self seems vague, elusive?

For some people (such as those with borderline personality disorder), finding a stable Self can be particularly challenging. But understanding how our brains work, and using specific strategies, can help us on this journey.

What is the Self? 

Here’s the boring scientific answer: the sum of all the physical and psychological (thinking, emotional, motivational, social) characteristics that make a person unique. 

To turn this phrase around, Self is about ….

  • How do I see my body and what does it say about me? 
  • How do I interpret the facts of my biography? What does my story say about the kind of person I am?
  • How do I routinely react to external events? 
  • What kinds of thoughts are typical of me? 
  • What triggers my emotions and which ones?
  • What drives me? What is important to me? What do I aspire to?
  • How do I relate to others? 

And on and on.

If you have rushed to answer the above questions in the hope of finally understanding yourself, I have bad news for you. Having separate, scattered answers is not the same as having a firm inner certainty about who I am.

For random facts to be transformed into a coherent and beautiful self-image, they need to be sprinkled with “magic dust” (as in Peter Pan!). And the magic dust in this case is the process of self-awareness.

What does self-awareness consist of?

Self-awareness is a complex cognitive process in which we turn our attention inward, analyse, integrate and store information about ourselves, and identify with this ‘Self. 

If we try to break self-awareness down into the individual Lego pieces that make it up, we get:

  • Consciousness. Simply put, awareness of what is going on inside and outside of us. Always present to some degree while we are awake, it usually comes with the package. 
  • Metacognitive thinking.  This is the process of observing what you are thinking.The ability to notice and critically examine one’s own thoughts is no longer innate, but is specifically developed. 
  • Autobiographical memory. This involves not only remembering past experiences, but also building relationships between different memories and how we manifested ourselves in them. Remembering your past experiences, as you might guess, is essential to having a stable view of your identity. 
  • Self-reflection and mindfulness. This includes the ability to notice your emotions, physical sensations, behavioural responses, thought processes and how they all relate to each other.

A dash of neuroscience

The brain is conceptually divided into three parts: the reptilian (or lizard) brain, the limbic brain and the neocortex (i.e. the cerebral cortex). The reptilian brain is responsible for instinctive behaviour. The limbic system controls emotions. The neocortex is responsible for reasoning, introspection and awareness.

If we match the building blocks of our self-awareness to these parts, it’s clear that it’s the cortex – and its robust connections with other departments – that we need to understand ourselves.

The neocortex lags developmentally behind other parts of the brain, becoming a fully functional tool only between the ages of twenty and thirty. What does that mean? Well, it’s a relief if you’re under twenty: some of your difficulties in understanding yourself can easily (and rightly) be attributed to age and the rate of cortical development.

Let’s focus for a moment on autobiographical memory, which is seen as a proxy for identity integration. The posterior cingulate cortex and the left medial prefrontal cortex play a crucial role in its operation. Indeed, there are numerous articles on how these are the areas that may be underdeveloped or have developmental abnormalities in borderline personality disorder (BPD). The hippocampus and its surrounding areas are also important – and there are problems here too: in BPD, the connection between the cortex and the hippocampus are also affected. All in all, this means that people with borderline personality disorder have biologically based reasons for struggling to find themselves. 

But it’s not just people with BPD who can have problems. And it is possible to help yourself find your identity in any condition, including BPD.

Ideas: How to build your own Self

  • Practice mindfulness. 

Meditation and informal mindfulness practices (being in the moment, being open and paying attention to sensations, thoughts and emotions) can help you develop an observant attitude and become more aware of what’s going on inside you. And the better and more often you notice what’s going on inside you, the more material you have for identity construction. 

  • Develop metacognitive thinking. 

Noticing your own thoughts is taught in cognitive behavioural therapy, but you can do it to yourself. Analysing your own thought processes through observation and self-reflection can help you better understand how you arrive at decisions and reactions and, if you generalise, what drives you in general. 

  • Improve autobiographical memory. 

Recording and reflecting on significant life events can strengthen your connection with these memories. This gives you the material to generalise and gradually integrate the many individual episodes into the self.

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