Personal Identity Work: The Importance of Self-Identity and How to Develop It

Personal Identity Work: The Importance of Self-Identity and How to Develop It

“I am a failure”

“I am not good enough”

“I am unlovable”

“I am broken”

Have any of these thoughts ever crossed your mind? If so, engaging in personal identity work may be a helpful approach to lessen the powerful hold that these deep-rooted beliefs can have on your life.

An individual’s identity is highly complex and boasts many interwoven, ever-evolving parts. These parts are continuously shifting in nuanced ways, whether we are cognitively aware of it or not. We ingest exponential levels of information daily, both internally and externally. Externally, this may include conversations with friends, family, or peers, media consumption, peripheral observations on a walk to work or while ordering dinner. Internally, this information may include specific emotions, physical sensations, or memories that are activated in response to certain events, people, or places. We perceive and make meaning of this information as it molds us into who we are in the present moment.

Identity Definition

Each individual’s identity is a unique, wide-ranging amalgamation of memories, experiences, relationships, and values. The American Psychological Association defines identity as “an individual’s sense of self defined by (a) a set of physical, psychological, and interpersonal characteristics that is not wholly shared with any other person and (b) a range of affiliations (e.g., ethnicity) and social roles. Identity involves a sense of continuity… derived from one’s body sensations; one’s body image; and the feeling that one’s memories, goals, values, expectations, and beliefs belong to the self.”

So Why is Personal Identity Work Important?

Why is spending time reflecting and developing greater awareness of your identity so important? Our experiences shape us over time, sometimes in obvious, memorable ways, but often much more discreetly. Further, defining our identities externally is largely unavoidable. We form beliefs about ourselves based on messages we receive from family, friends, peers, romantic partners, and society more broadly. To make a not-so-bold claim – every person in existence has at some point internalized unhealthy, burdensome, false beliefs about themselves. These beliefs influence our self-expectations, how we interact with our environment, how we show up in meaningful relationships, and ultimately our ability to experience inner peace. We act on them in the ways that make sense to us.

For example:

  • Seeking out and prioritizing success at any cost to prove what we are capable of
  • Giving up on meaningful relationships because we believe they are bound to fail
  • Attempting to obtain our identity through relationships

Unfortunately, this often leads to feeling unfulfilled and isolated.

As you notice ways in which your own internalized beliefs show up in your life, take a moment to offer yourself some compassion. The intent behind identity work is not to invoke shame or guilt, though these feelings may naturally arise. Rather, it is to acknowledge and develop greater awareness of the web of complexities that exists within your own self. This establishes a foundation to gradually release burdens, increase self-trust, and ultimately engage in life in a way that effectively serves your needs.

Taking Action

So what now? There are many tangible ways to begin engaging in identity work. Below is a list of a few things you can try to begin developing a greater awareness of your own unique and multifaceted identity.

Talk to a Therapist

If you are feeling confused or overwhelmed, consider seeking out the partnership of a therapist. They can help demystify this process while providing a safe and empathetic space for growth. If you would like to set up an appointment with a therapist today, please visit our practice’s website at

Values List Clarification

Print out a values list like the one found here. Carefully review it and highlight those that feel right to you. Once you have gone through the list, pick one of the highlighted values and spend some time reflecting. Consider some of the questions below:

  • What emotions, physical sensations or memories does this value invoke for you?
  • How does this value show up in your life today?
  • How do others’ opinions about this value influence yours?
  • How has this value caused conflict for you?
  • In what situations have you compromised this value?
  • In what situations has this value allowed you to feel a greater sense of connection with others?

Repeat this for each value on the list that you highlighted. You do not have to complete this in one sitting. Stick with whatever timeframe feels right to you. Reflecting on these questions will clarify your core values and ultimately aid in your own discernment processes as you navigate through life.

Fill Out a Social Identity Wheel

Another option is to complete your own social identity wheel like the one found here. Each wheel provides a visual representation of the many components that make up one’s social identity. Consider the role that each has played in your life as well as how the intersection of these identities has impacted your life experiences. Consider the identities that are visible or invisible to others. Consider those with inherent privilege or lack thereof. Notice any emotions, memories, or physical sensations that are activated as you reflect. Awareness of your own human complexity and knowledge of the most salient aspects of your identity are vital in creating a workable foundation for internal processing and healing.

These are just a few examples of tools you might use to explore and further develop your personal identity. By gaining awareness of your own internalized beliefs, core values, social identity, etc. and working to process the impact of these pieces of your identity on your experiences, you are already creating intentional space for healing and taking tangible steps toward reclaiming your personal power.

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