Few of us will forget our adolescent years. The emotional meltdowns, the deep friendships, the risks we took, the first love, that first kiss….
Adolescence is a vivid time when your budding sense of self begins to emerge. You learn to express your own ideas and discover your unique identity as your brain laboriously integrates its many parts into a coherent whole.
This process doesn’t happen overnight—nor does it end with the much glorified coming of age at 18. Right until your twilight years, you continue to traverse stages of adult development that allow you to grow in consciousness and change the way you relate to yourself and the world.
The socialized mind
But adolescence is a crucial time in development, when you navigate the critical stage of the socialized mind. That means leaving the nest of your nuclear family to become much more outwardly focused. The interpersonal relationships of your teenage years are critical. Friendships, mentors and crushes reign supreme and help you determine who you are. But since this socialized mind is heavily influenced by people and places, you must rely on your internal voice to help you maneuver through the noise of external expectations.
For some, this does not come easily—an adolescent inner voice may not be that well developed, or it may have been negatively influenced already by outside input. And if that weren’t difficult enough, once your brain has painstakingly bridged together a cohesive identity, you rarely escape the destructive barbs of your own critical gaze and negative internal chatter.
The formation of your 'self'
Your relationship with yourself begins before you even realize it—in the verbal and non-verbal language of your primary caregivers. What you believe to be self-expression is often the expectations and inhibitions developed as a child when you made sense of your internal world through the messages you received. And when these messages are inconsistent, critical or unresponsive—as they often are—you can fail to connect to your emotional cues and to what makes you truly who you are.
Instead, you reject parts of yourself you don’t like in order to find acceptance in the sticky tentacles of other people’s expectations. Instead of relying on your own judgment, and going after your deeply desired dreams, you become an eternal prisoner of the socialized mind.
Your relationships with others
A hollow relationship with yourself reflects in the relationships you form with others. Without a grounding belief in your own worth, you become dependent on approval and acceptance to prove your worth. Even narcissistic behaviors are often a kind of self-defense that masks a fragile sense of self-worth.
Since healthy relationships are the marker of countless benefits—from physical health to finding meaning in life—you need to get back in touch with yourself. Here are three important ways to do so:
1. Listen to your body
You are hardwired through millennia of evolutionary processes to avoid painful and uncomfortable feelings and emotions. But in doing so, you can become victim to those same emotions and impulses. The ability to face your fears and then rise above them comes not only from cognitive processes but also from deep within your body. The powerful vagus nerve meanders through your gut and heart and back to your brain, allowing you to have gut feeling and intuition. Body scan meditations are excellent ways to reconnect to parts of yourself you’ve dismissed—letting their wisdom find voice again. Create a regular practice that gets you back in touch with your breath and clears your mind and body.
2. Be aware of your mind
The human brain is a storyteller. It is constantly looking for patterns and connecting the dots to make sense of the unpredictability and uncertainty of life. And here’s the strange part—the brain doesn’t really care if the story it crafts is painful or incorrect. All it looks for is a pattern, even if this pattern is the result of biased observations and interpretations. Which is why you need to listen to its story with non-judgment, and stay aware of where your mind may be fooling you. In this way, you can listen to the negative chatter in your mind and choose to dismiss it. You can watch your brain seek to connect dots and be aware of what it is doing but not become trapped in its game.
3. Find your North Star
Your behaviors are the result of your thoughts, beliefs and emotions. When you do not step back to objectively listen to your internal chatter, you allow it to run your life. To have an alternate route in place, spend some time reflecting on how you want to show up in the world in line with your values and aspirations. Values are a guiding light during those difficult moments when you doubt yourself, feel ambivalent about decisions or worry about being unsupported and rejected and thus leave your dreams aside for one more day.
Write down your most deeply held values and ask yourself if you are living according to them. If not, what can you change in your life? How might you do things differently? How can you live your life in accordance with your authentic self?
Your relationship with yourself is undoubtedly the most important relationship in your life. To show up fully and shine your brightness in this world, disconnect from the constraints of approval of others and reconnect to the gifts of your inner core. For an authentic life is far above and beyond the limited life of a threatened ego.
Homaira Kabir is a positive psychology coach and a cognitive behavioral therapist. She offers online courses and coaching programs to help women develop authentic beliefs in themselves, so they're able to lead in relationships, at work and in life. Take her free quiz to find out your own level of self-worth.