Developing a Strong Sense of Self

The Following are the words of Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife taken from interviews that I have had with her and podcasts that she has done with others, all on the subject of Emotional Maturity or a strong Sense of Self.

Developing a strong sense of self is a central theme in many of Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife’s podcasts and courses. The more I think about the development of the self I can see how it influences so many aspects of our lives. Developing a strong sense of self is crucial to being able to create goodness in your life. A strong sense of self increases our capacity to act with virtue, moral courage, and integrity. A strong sense of self influences the quality of our relationships. A strong sense of self increases your ability to tolerate difficulties, set backs, and obstacles. It influences our day to day behavior. 

What is a Solid Sense of Self

A strong sense of self or a solid sense of self is primarily the deepening ability to self reference in evaluating what is good and what is right. A solid self is someone who is able to manage their life through internally referencing their values, views, opinions, and beliefs rather than managing their life by outward referencing what they think they should do and like and how they should act and what they should choose. A solid self is based on values, values that are based on basic honesty and decency.  The more solid your sense of self, the more able you are to reference what you really think is right and fair and that becomes a more important anchor point in your decisions than how others feel about it. It’s not that it doesn’t matter what other people feel, it’s just not as important in your decision-making process. 

A solid sense of self is also the deepened ability to be at peace with yourself. As you develop your sense of self you develop the ability to be at ease in your own psyche because you feel a sense of respect or comfort with who they are.

Developing a more solid sense of self is the process of becoming less dependent on other people’s approval and validation. The more you develop your sense of self, the more free you become from actions are that are driven by the need for approval. Having a solid self is the capacity to live up to your own values, especially under pressure. You become less dependent on other people to manage your sense of self and grow into more capacity to be autonomous in your functioning. You are more able to express your unique individuality in the world and more able to be a force for good in your own unique way in the world. A solid sense of self increases your ability to make moral judgments about what you think is good and right.

Managing one’s life from a solid sense of self and having an internal compass, or a sense of integrity, is not a defiant, self-indulgent, self-serving position. Having a strong sense of self doesn’t mean that you are unwilling to hear anybody else’s point of view or that you don’t care at all what anyone thinks. But it is about not to running your life by the approval of others. 

Anybody who is wise and wants to act with wisdom is going to be open to valuable or wise input from others. If you want to make good choices you’re going to be looking to others that have gone before you that have wisdom to offer.  But ultimately you don’t go along with whatever they say because you want to be a accepted or valued or seen good by them or others or the community. If you align your actions with what they said it is out of integrity and good judgment. Having a strong sense of self means that you’re willing to really consider their view, consider it against your own sense of right and wrong, and then discern and make a choice out of that clarity. Choosing to act upon their advice is about choosing and taking responsibility for your decision to act upon their advice. It is good to gather wisdom and good input to know if you’re making a good choice. 

You know it would be dumb to never borrow wisdom from people that have gone before us, but that’s very different than a dependent position which is I’ll do whatever you say just love me, just think I’m a good person, or just letting them do the thinking for you and essentially saying “I’m just going to not think for myself, I’ll just do whatever you think is right,” that’s a weak position. Considering their views is an act of strength if you’re not changing your view just for their approval. But if you’re changing your view because you want to have a positive impact, and you see wisdom in their view, then that is an act of strength. 

A Reflected Sense of Self

The antithesis of a strong sense of self is, to use David Schnarch’s language, is a reflected sense of self. We all start with a reflective sense of self, but someone who doesn’t grow out of it into a more solid sense of self will be deeply preoccupied with how other people see him or her, and preoccupied with how they stack up relative to others. A reflected sense of self is dependent on other people to tell you who you. You can’t feel good about yourself if you don’t think you look attractive for example and you need everyone to tell you that you look good or you need everyone to tell you that you’re good enough. That would be somebody who’s still in a pretty early state of self-development, they are dependent upon a reflected sense of self. 

We all have some sense of self. Part of being human is the capacity to forge a sense of self. When you’re a baby and a child you can’t help but borrow that sense from other people, looking to other adults in your life, parents, caretakers, siblings, to give you some sense of who you are and who you are not and how you are seen. We start by creating a self-concept through the messages that we’re given. For those of us who are very fortunate, those are very positive messages, their messages of possibility and goodness and that we are worthy. For those of us to grow up in more toxic environments, they’re self devaluing concepts. But for better or for ill we forge a concept of self that comes out of our relationships and our lived experience.  

How to develop a Sense of Self

“In your work you’ve talked a lot about how adults get stuck in that reflective sense of self, the place we begin as children in our development of self. What helps people to wake up and move out of that reflective sense of self to start developing a more solid sense of self?”

They get married.

You lock somebody in that’s going to be your truth teller forever after and you can either hate them or open yourself up to what they see. What helps you develop a more solid sense of self is when you start running into reality, whether in marriage or in work or in other parts of your life. It through those experiences where your impact on people is being shown to you.  Whether it’s the impact of your superiority and your arrogance or the impact of your inferiority and your self-doubt. You have an impact on people and if you want to genuinely mitigate that negative impact on others it will pressure you to develop aspects of yourself that you wouldn’t otherwise develop. 

In other relationships that are more casual and  less intimate, it’s easy to navigate with your shortcomings in a way that lessens the impact they might have on others. You can hide your deepest limitations. Your limitations don’t impact people further from you as much as they will those closer to you. Like somebody at church, for example,  if they never do their laundry and it’s all over their bedroom floor, it doesn’t impact me so I can like them just fine and I still think they’re great. How they spend their money doesn’t impact me so I don’t have to have a negative reaction to that because it’s less of an impact, as compared to when you move in with somebody and you’re trying to co-create a life and their limitations undermine your happiness and yours undermine their happiness. It’s much easier to get reactive to your spouse’s limitations. And your spouse’s view of you can be harder to tolerate because they are that one person who matters most and because you’ve invested so much with them and they know you so well. If someone at church doesn’t like you, you can handle that much more easily than if your spouse doesn’t like you. And so a marriage is a pressuring relationship in many respects. And some people just hate the other person and divorce them and never deal with what’s going on there, and other stay miserable married and don’t deal with what’s going on. But those that use the marriage and use what’s being exposed to them to grow up are the ones who develop a strong sense of self.

And it doesn’t just take marriage. I remember in college my younger sister was basically saying to me, “You act superior and you take privileges with me and I don’t like it.” And of course my first attempt was, “No, that’s just part of you being inferior that you think that. It’s a function of your limitations not mine.” I wasn’t saying it that blatantly, but that is basically what I was trying to tell myself and what I was feeling, and she wasn’t buying it. And it kept pressuring me to start looking at myself. It pressured me to ask myself, “What is my sister unhappy about? And why is she telling me I’m not as nice person as I think I am?” Nothing was going wrong, at the time it felt like something was going wrong, but nothing’s going wrong in the developmental sense because it’s waking me up to myself. Thankfully I was willing to start to be honest with myself even though it hurt, and I was willing to see what was true in what she was saying and develop something more solid in me and therefore create a better relationship with her. And you know, I’m thankful for that retrospectively. It was hard to be thankful in that moment, but looking backwards I’m certainly thankful.

In order to have a solid sense of self, among other factors, it requires the ability to have integrity. It requires that you stop running from some part of yourself all the time. Those of us that are self deceived or want to believe false things about ourselves are constantly trying to suppress information that undermines our favorite view of ourselves. Whether that information is coming through our own conscience or coming through the messages that others around us are trying to tell us. You can’t be at peace with yourself because you are suppressing the reality you don’t want to deal with. When you have to solid sense of self you’re willing to know your own mind, you’re willing to see the darker parts of yourself, you’re willing to see your immaturity or how you negatively impact others and to deal with it. And that is an respectable act of moral courage because you’re willing to sacrifice feeling good about yourself for doing true goodness. That your feelings about yourself are not as important as how you impact others. And for people who have a deeply entrenched reflective sense of self, how they feel about themselves is more important than how they actually impact people, and so they will prioritize feeling good about themselves or feeling necessary to others or seeing themselves in a certain light, over how they are actually impacting the people around them.

You’re able to tolerate your shortcomings or your flaws, and you’re able to tolerate them in a way that doesn’t become self destructive. When it turns to self-destruction, it’s still a kind of self preoccupation. It’s still about how you feel about it. It’s still more important than dealing with it. So it’s not just being open to the message, because some self hating people will be very open to any message or indication that they’re unworthy. It’s more that they’re willing to deal with it. They’re willing to change it. True remorse always moves you into action. True repentance means you shift and you change the actual behavior. It’s not about feeling bad, feeling bad is often a part of change but it’s not a requirement of change.

The more solid your sense of self the more willing you are to really see what’s true about yourself, you’re open to know what you don’t see about yourself, you tolerate other people showing you who you are including the ugly part, and you don’t get tyrannical when that shows up. 

Self-deception is very easy. We do it very easily and it’s what I sometimes say is Satan’s playground because we can create narratives that are very self-reinforcing and self-justifying but aren’t good. We tell ourselves “I’m so good because I do all these things and nobody ever appreciates it,” or “My kids just take advantage of me,” and we don’t see our own participation in that reality that we’ve created. 

What I always say to my clients and to workshop participants is, “You can’t change what you can’t see.” I want to help people see the self-deception in their narratives because it keeps them stuck. Also, once we wake up to it, then our integrity starts pushing us. You’ll start seeing, for example, that “I’m withholding from my spouse just to manage my sense of inequality,” or  “I am trying to control my child not because it’s really good for them but because it makes me feel less anxious.” You start recognizing that these things really aren’t fair or kind. That pushes you into: Who do I desire to be? What can I respect? What do I think is more fair to others and more fair to myself? 

Why do people coddle their anxieties even when they know it isn’t serving them well? Because change hurts and it’s uncomfortable. When I’m up against those moments in my life I see why people coddle their anxieties. It’s easy to want to do what you know how to do. You know you how to live at the level you’ve mastered already. It’s hard to break things down, it’s hard to step towards new things, it’s hard to exercise the muscles you don’t want to exercise. Love has moral values because it takes courage. Growth takes courage.  It’s human to be cowardly, and it’s human to regress against our fears. When we make loves the norm we cheapen it, laziness and hatred is the norm, it’s comes easier, you don’t have to work to hate but you have to work to love. 

I hesitate a little bit to say love is natural because I think human beings are very much capable of both love and hatred. We’re capable of courage and discourage. But I think that sometimes when we say all humans are well-intentioned, we kind of deflate and devalue how remarkable love is because we push against the sort of natural tendencies and ourselves to not try or to not have courage. The things that always touch me when I’m watching films or seeing documentaries of devastating times, is the courageous people. It’s so touching to me to see people who do morally courageous things in the face of so much pressure to not do it. I certainly can understand why people live in a cowardly way, although I have my highest respect for people who don’t do it. I think one reason we do it is we want to kind of delude ourselves that we’re justified in deluding ourselves that somebody else is more responsible for our choices than we are.  We want to feel justified that somehow it’s OK that I’m not really trying because I’m a victim of my circumstances. Or I would be a much nicer person in this marriage if I weren’t married to such a jerk. People are very good at finding ways to justify their own behavior and to retreat into their anxieties. What I try to help people do is to un-justify it.

I think that psychological adulthood is hard to grow into because our native state is to be dependent and it’s hard for many of us to grow out of that dependency on other people’s approval, on other people validating where we are in the world. And often that compromises our ability to express our gifts or develop our gifts in unique ways. 

What development always requires is a willingness to stretch yourself, and acknowledge what your highest desires are. What is it that you really want? What is it you want to develop, create, become? It’s about a willingness to tolerate the potential failure, potential invalidation. The discomfort that growing into areas that are not yet known requires. You have to be willing to say it may go badly and yet it matters enough to me to be willing to take that risk. If we won’t, as I’ve heard Dr. Schnarch say, there are two different types of discomfort out there. You can have the discomfort of not growing, of not challenging yourself and feel bad about yourself all the time so you get that discomfort or you can have the discomfort of growth. Either productive discomfort or unproductive discomfort. Which is do you choose.  So those of us who feel freer and freer and freer through time take the productive discomfort over the unproductive discomfort. That’s the process of creating more solidness and that’s where you have more ability to experience joy. I think that the principles of the gospel are really around this idea of reaching for what is true even when you don’t understand it, having enough investment in goodness and doing goodness that you’re willing to lose your own ego and your own fear to pursue what is decent and fair.  That creates solid people capable of joy and intimacy and not having to manage how they’re seen all the time.

August 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th

Today(and the other days): 3 hours

Total: 6 hrs