How To Find Yourself In 14 Small, Meaningful Steps
Finding yourself is a journey, and it's one most people will embark on at some point in their lives. The thought of finding yourself may sound intimidating, but it really doesn't have to be. It's simply an exploration of yourself—your desires, the values you hold, and your belief systems. The journey isn't always easy, but it's worth it. On the other side, you'll find clarity, purpose, and a deep sense of fulfillment.
What it means to find yourself
Finding yourself can mean different things for different people. But according to clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., in the most general sense, the process of finding yourself can be described as getting to know and accept one's genuine, innermost self.
"When you find yourself, there's often a sense of 'coming home' to a place of self that feels authentic and familiar. This sense of homecoming is common for those who never knew themselves and those who lost themselves along the way," she tells mbg, adding, "As a Jungian-based psychologist, the process of individuation—which entails coming to terms with the conscious and unconscious parts of the psyche—describes the ultimate goal of finding yourself."
For some, this might involve learning core values and living a life that is in alignment with those values. It may also look like making better choices, which can positively impact self-esteem and help reclaim internal narratives.
"We live in a society where we are constantly being told who we are and how we should act," adds licensed therapist Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW. "Finding yourself can also mean filtering through this noise and [finding] an inner dialogue that is kind, compassionate, and in resonance with how you would like to be, and not what you think others want you to be."
It's important to note that finding yourself isn't a one-and-done situation. As you change and grow, you'll likely always be discovering new things about yourself and becoming more aware of not just who you are but who you want to be.
Why finding yourself is so important
Self-discovery—the art of finding oneself—is a critical element of both psychological and spiritual growth.
"Finding yourself improves your life's satisfaction," Mancao adds. "It helps you get in touch with your wants, needs, desires, and joys. Doing this helps us live in alignment with what is true for us."
She notes that people sometimes live their lives based on a version of themselves they think others will like the most. "This can lead to increases in stress and anxiety because we are having to overcompensate and put on an 'act.' Also, others' opinions and needs of us are constantly shifting, which would mean that we would have to shape-shift our energy and personality based on each person; this is exhausting."
Instead, when you know who you are, you can be grounded in your own sense of self and live from that place, which Mancao notes can feel very stabilizing and freeing.
Challenges of finding yourself
You may end up losing people
Manly says one of the most common challenges on the journey of finding yourself is friction with family members or friends who become uncomfortable with the changes that often occur during the process.
For example, people-pleasing behaviors often diminish during the self-discovery process, and these shifts can be upsetting for those who are accustomed to the familiar doormat-style dynamics. "Over time, you might realize that some people in your life only exist because they benefited from your people-pleasing, and you start to see that these relationships might be more one-sided," says licensed mental health counselor Tracy Vadakumchery, LMHC.
Some people won't like the new you, she adds, and that's OK. "Part of finding yourself means getting comfortable with not being palatable for everyone. It also means seeing who does not have your best interests at heart," she says. "Ultimately, as we change, the people around us may change too."
Things might get dark
Another common challenge on the journey of finding yourself is often termed "the dark night of the soul," Manly says. During this often-dark period of self-discovery, it's common for people to feel lost, confused, and dismal. However, most people experience a lasting sense of self-awareness and personal triumph after passing through this difficult period.
According to psychotherapist Beth Gulotta, LMHC, we are constantly sizing ourselves up to other people. It can cause confusion or lack of clarity on what we actually want and desire for ourselves. "We see someone else doing it—new job, cool vacation, marriage and kids—and we can be pulled into this idea that we need to do it too, even if we may not want any of those things. We get stuck in the 'should' or 'have to' narrative and get pulled away from an 'I want to' narrative."
Gulotta says she often comes across clients who get stuck after being asked what they want because of all the "outside messaging telling us what we should want and who we should be, and it can be hard to drown out that noise."
There's a lot of uncertainty when it comes to embarking on new adventures or starting new chapters in our lives. As life coach Sherry Samuels tells mbg, "Most of us are willing to remain in our comfort zone, even when it is deeply uncomfortable, because that is a space that we know and/or are familiar with. As we embrace our individuality and authenticity, we are faced with things that are unfamiliar and scary. We do not know what is on the other side of the pain, discontent, lack of fulfillment and often don't believe it's possible to have something more, different, and better, so we get in our own way, slowing down the progress we both need and desire."
15 ways to start finding yourself:
Explore your values.
When it comes to finding yourself, a great place to start is figuring out what your values are. "Your values are the things that are most important to you in life, such as honesty, compassion, or creativity," licensed clinical social worker and sex therapist DuEwa "Kaya" Spicer, LCSW, CCATP, CST, explains to mbg. "Take some time to reflect on your values and identify the ones that resonate with you the most."
When you know what your values are, she says, you can then start to think about how you can live in better alignment with those values and make choices that reflect what's most important to you.
Look to the past.
It's often said we should let go of the past in order to step into our future, but the past can actually be a useful guide to finding yourself. Licensed therapist Ibinye Osibodu-Onyali, LMFT, suggests "thinking back to a time when life felt fun and simple. What activities did you do? Who did you surround yourself with? What triggered those easy feelings? Try to recreate a version of that time of your life. Note that it doesn't have to be a copy-and-paste version, but these questions are just a guideline."
She also recommends reflecting on how you lost your connection in the first place. Where did it all go wrong? And how can you reverse the parts that went wrong?
Begin a journaling practice, suggests Osibodu-Onyali. Each day, spend a few minutes checking in with yourself. Write down the things that make you happy, what makes you unhappy, and what new things you're feeling, thinking, and experiencing each day.
Taking it a step further, try implementing a full mindfulness practice into your routine to help support your self-discovery process.
"Mindfulness is being present and aware of your thoughts, feelings, and surroundings without judgment," New York–based neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D., tells mbg. "It can help you develop self-awareness and gain insight into your thoughts and emotions."
We've got a guide to starting a mindfulness meditation practice, or Hafeez says you can try a meditation app to guide your practice.
Focus on establishing trust within.
Finding yourself is all about building inner trust, says Samuels. Unfortunately, if you have lived life based on the expectations of others, you likely have found no room to build trust within. But when we do trust ourselves, we are able to take chances and to step outside of our comfort zone with a greater sense of ease.
We are experts at diminishing who we are by looking in the past at mistakes, she adds, but one beautiful way to build trust within is to take time to list our wins. Where have we been successful? How have we shown up for ourselves?
Look for role models.
Licensed mental health counselor Jessa White, M.A., LMHCA, suggests trying to find other people that inspire you to help you figure out who you want to be.
"The truth is, many of us turn out like our parents," she tells mbg. "We subconsciously and consciously follow the path they lay. But finding yourself means figuring out what you align with, not what you were born into."
Notice who inspires and excites you, she recommends, and observe which actions of theirs resonate with you. These could be real people in your life, but they can also be TV characters, media figures, or creators online.
Embrace your innate curiosity.
If you think about it, we are all born curious. That curiosity encourages us to go from crawling to walking, so we can explore the world around us. "Unfortunately, because we are given so many messages to 'be careful' as we move through life, we can slowly lose that connection to our innate curiosity as we opt to go the safe route(s)," says Samuels. "But when we reconnect to that innate curiosity, we are creating space to honor the things that excite us about life, and that then allows us to connect deeply to the truth of who we are."
Embracing your curiosity can look like asking questions and making choices "from a place of true interest and gentleness," she adds. "It means being open to the possibilities and being OK with the possibility that mistakes can and will happen along the way, but that doesn't define who we are and what we are able to do or be."
Try new things.
Trying new things can help you discover what you enjoy, what you're good at, and what brings you meaning and purpose, says Hafeez. "It can also help you step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. To begin trying new things, you can list activities or hobbies you've always been curious about and pick one to try. It doesn't have to be something big or expensive; it could be something as simple as trying a new recipe or taking a different route to work."
Spicer calls it radical self-indulgence. It's important to prioritize pleasure and believe you deserve it, she says. "Taking care of yourself, both physically and emotionally, is an important part of self-discovery. Make time for activities that you enjoy, such as exercise, reading, or spending time with loved ones. Date yourself."
Do the opposite of what your people-pleasing anxiety is telling you.
Unlearning your people-pleasing instincts is a big part of finding yourself because when you're always focused on making sure everyone else is OK, you're not focusing on yourself.
"Take your people-pleasing anxiety on a case-by-case basis," Vadakumchery recommends. "When you know your brain is just making up scenarios, do the opposite of what it's telling you to do. If it's saying, 'Do the most for this person' without any reasons as to why, try doing less and see what happens. You might find that this person didn't notice any changes to your relationship and still appreciates you."
(Here's our full guide on how to focus on yourself.)
Use positive affirmations.
While finding yourself, there will be high moments and low ones. It's important to be gentle with yourself and speak to yourself with kindness. Gulotta recommends using positive affirmations to help manage any negative self-talk that comes up during the self-discovery process and that may be getting in the way of seeing yourself clearly. ("It is extremely hard to find yourself from this place," she notes.)
Discover your creative flow.
Psychologist Robyn McKay, Ph.D., describes "flow" as the consciousness state that's associated with creativity. It's when you lose track of time and become engaged and absorbed in an activity that's challenging and fulfills your soul.
"Writers find flow when they're writing; musicians, when they're composing or playing music; therapists, when they're helping another person heal," says McKay. "Knowing your flow is one of the best ways to find yourself because your flow provides clues to your purpose in life, what you're meant to be contributing to make the world a better place."
Go to therapy.
Last but not least, working with a therapist can be immensely helpful in the process of finding yourself. "A therapist can help you identify your values and make decisions that are more aligned with them," Vadakumchery says.
Take your time.
It does take time to get comfortable with the self-discovery process. Instead of focusing on the outcome, Mancao suggests shifting your focus.
"Shift your attention to the journey and nuggets of wisdom that you are finding along the way. This is all part of the process," she says. "Resisting it or shaming yourself for not having things a certain way can prolong it, so give yourself grace through it all. We are all doing this thing called life for the first time."
What does it really mean to find yourself?
Finding yourself is an act of self-love. It's an inward journey that involves a lot of introspection and discipline, but the reward is great. The process of finding yourself can be described as getting to know and accept one's genuine, innermost self. As you lean into it, you'll learn about the things you value the most, your dreams, and your deepest desires. As you explore who you are, you'll begin to develop a better relationship with yourself.
How do I discover who I really am and what I want in life?
It can help to open up a blank page in a journal or notes app and begin writing down your answers to questions like: What are my values? What makes me happy in life? What helps me slide into a creative flow state? Who do I want to be more like in my life? How can I feel more like myself?
The journey of finding yourself is something that most people will tackle at some point in their lives. It's not something you check off your to-do list and move on with your day. Finding yourself is often a lifelong process, and as we grow and change, there will be new things to learn and discover about ourselves.
"Keep trying new things, challenging unhelpful and hurtful narratives, and keep going," says Mancao. "Cultivate a sense of curiosity that if something doesn't work, then maybe the next thing might, and keep going with this train of thought. It is all a process of learning and relearning, so instead of focusing on a timeline—focus on what's working and not working, and just keep building on that knowledge."
Stephanie Barnes is a freelance writer from Kingston, Jamaica. She studied Information Technology from the University of the Commonwealth Caribbean and spent several years as a front-end/iOS engineer. Her work has been featured at The Huffington Post, Healthline, The Lily, HelloGiggles, Business Insider, and more. She's passionate about all things mental health, technology, and binge-worthy television.