How to develop a sense of self?
October 31, 2017 11:26 AM   Subscribe

I finished a partial hospital program for depression and anxiety last week Thursday. While I will be continuing with outpatient psychiatric care and therapy, there's going to be a delay before I can establish with them, as I need new providers.

Through the 18 days I attended the PHP, I came to the conclusion that all my issues stem from the fact that I've lost any sense of self. I know I had one at one point in my life, but it's gone. I no longer know what I like, what I need, what I want...I know what I value, but that's about the extent of it right now. I also have no internal boundary, so I'm basically the equivalent of a tofu human who takes on the thoughts/behaviors/emotions of everyone around me.

How can I start the process of re-developing that sense? I'd also appreciate recommendations for workbooks...depression/anxiety themed, either CBT or DBT.
posted by altopower to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Yoga has helped me so much with a similar problem. Reading the yoga philosophy, doing chair yoga if you have mobility issues, can also support your quest to be more self-possessed.
posted by crunchy potato at 12:09 PM on October 31, 2017

Best answer: Disclaimer: I'm a member of an oddball Pagan religion; my spirituality involves an awareness of self and exercises to address that awareness which may not be compatible with mainstream psychology approaches.

Start with what you hate. Figure out what you think is wrong; what behavior is sleazy or contemptible or both. Figure out what you are not; your sense of who and what you are will grow as you identify what you despise and who you do not wish to be.

Consider the Christian seven deadly sins: Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Pride: are some worse than others? Which do you find most reprehensible in the people you meet; which are you most ashamed of finding in yourself? Are there any you believe are not sins at all?

Move to another category - consider the Nine Noble Virtues: Courage, Truth, Honour, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Self Reliance, Industriousness, Perseverance: Do some of them inspire you more than others? Do you consider some irrelevant?

Then work on identity. Start with "I am someone who" statements - I am someone who wants X for dinner. I am someone who enjoys Y kind of movies. I am someone who lives in Z city. Perceive yourself as part of a group, even if that's currently a group of one. I am someone who dislikes A type of news articles. I am someone who prefers B to C music.

Later, shift to "I" statements. I believe X is bad. I believe Y is important to a community. I believe Z has some value but can be done to excess. You don't have to justify these - they are your thoughts, your beliefs. If you have an easy time with those, hit up the internet for news stories, and apply them: I believe That Guy is wrong because X is bad. I believe That Program is good because Y is important to a community. I believe That Website is problematic because it might be Z in excess.

If you get stuck - can't figure out what you believe or what you want - go back to what you dislike, what you despise. Find what you reject; when you're done getting rid of things you're not, you're what's left.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:41 PM on October 31, 2017 [28 favorites]

This book is about just that. The process is gentle and fun.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 1:45 PM on October 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oof, this is a super hard point to be at, and can be kind of scary, so be gentle with yourself. You're not alone, and it does get better! I found journaling to be helpful as an interim step (and later as a supplement to therapy), and I like the idea of working from set questions. Either the book and questions above, or other Simple questions can help. The questions help focus, and avoid trying to comprehensively define yourself (my usual stumbling block). Just start with a some simple likes and dislikes (Mine would start, "I like ice cream. What kinds of ice creams?..."). I remember starting with "the only thing I can Definitively say is that I'm confused..." and now I'd go on forever.

Another positive is that very little of my answer now would have surprised me then - those values you can identify inform a lot more than you might realize at the moment.

And if that seems like too much work, try doing some of those silly internet quizes about "what kind of animal are you?" or what have you. The answers don't matter, the questions tend to be silly, and the results are sometimes awful. But you're doing them just to get in the practice of asking yourself questions and listening to see if you get an answer, any answer. I remember doing one of those back in the human tofu stage (great description!) that identified my Enneagram Type as the Peacemaker, and while I don't think personality types are necessarily helpful (and that paradigm was at least a little woo), just finding answers that made sense to me and gave me a sense of recognition was helpful in realizing that I really Did have a self in there. Good luck!
posted by ldthomps at 2:19 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

Everybody here has good ideas. I'm going to address this part of your question:

a tofu human who takes on the thoughts/behaviors/emotions of everyone around me

The fact that you have recognized this says you have at least a degree of self-awareness. Even if it doesn't feel like much right now, there is clearly a core that's you. At this point, your “tofu”-ness might actually be a tool you can use. Give yourself permission to actively seek out people whose "thoughts, behaviors, and emotions" induce positive resonance in you. Let those resonances help build who you want to be. Feel free to investigate different personalities and qualities. Sit with them. How do they feel? Where might they lead, if they were yours?

If you are a journal-keeper, perhaps make a log of who you met that day and what your experience was. Writing can help you see the shapes of yourself and others more clearly.

I wish you the best as you move forward.
posted by Weftage at 8:51 PM on October 31, 2017 [2 favorites]

Finding Your Own North Star by Martha Beck is a book with a lot of little exercises that help you find what it is that you want.

I would add that it's really helpful to write down the answers to these sorts of exercises instead of just thinking about the answers. If you do the exercise and think "I like x for dinner," then the second time you do the exercise, you might think "I like y for dinner." If you've only thought it both times, you might not remember the previous answer or notice that you're answering differently. If you wrote it down, you'll notice that you're answering differently and you can think through whether you really do like both x and y, and what might have been influencing you to think of something different. Maybe you saw a food commercial or went through some old recipes and got reminded of something. The influence of that reminder is real, but also the memory it brings up in you is real, too.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 4:32 AM on November 1, 2017

I actually remember learning that emotions are the way we find out what is important to us.
So if you're not tuned in to your emotions, perhaps start there - this book has a useful and practical section on emotional/self-awareness.

After that, you ask yourself questions and try out different answers, and see how they feel!

- "what do you like reading? Why do you like reading it? What did it make you think of?" or "did I enjoy that movie? Why /why not?" will tell you basics about your taste in art and your sense of beauty
- emotionally intense memories help show us the moments that shaped who we have become e.g. "what's your happiest memory? Why?" or "when do you feel disappointed?"--> Those are starting points to tell you what you care about.
- "When have you felt angry" might tell you about your sense of fairness
- "when have you felt loved" might tell you about how you connect with others
- "who do I envy? What inspires me?" these will tell you about where you want to be and inform your goals. I agree most with the school of thought that argues that people change and evolve all the time - you are who you are now, but you can change whenever you are ready, too.

I also recommend this book - super peppy, may be a bit too much for someone going through a dark valley.

Check out School of Life on youtube! Choose some that interest you and ask "do I agree?"

Also I wanted to add thatit sucks that you are going through a tough time, you are not alone, and discovering/building the self is a lifelong process made up of many choices. To some extent, we all become what we choose to become!
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 6:17 AM on November 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody! Lots of good suggestions, and I definitely need to start journaling more consistently...I was doing it more during the PHP and I really felt like it helped.

And I know I'm not in touch with my emotions until they get to an unmanageable level, and that's something I need to work on as well. It's very difficult for me to sustain any sort of inward focus (thanks, ADHD) because I've more attuned to how others are possibly perceiving me (thanks, anxiety and caretaking behavior), so I really want a clear vision of a "self" building that internal boundary that will protect it.
posted by altopower at 10:58 AM on November 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

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