- It is essential to have a stable, clear sense of self.
- Sometimes, our identities go through profound changes, and we need to be able to rebuild a sense of who we are.
- Losing self may be a normal pattern, and rediscovering a sense of self is a crucial skill to develop.
Watch the news on any given day, and you’ll see folks losing their homes – running from the bombs of war, fleeing wildfires, earthquakes, floods, or leaving their country searching for a better life. They walk away from all they’ve known and face the profoundly complex task of starting over, rebuilding, and finding a new anchor in life.
As therapists, we encounter clients who’ve lost homes internally – losing their sense of self or facing events that rupture a deeply grounded sense of knowing who they are in the world. Perhaps they faced a traumatic loss or behaved in ways that violated their values or idea of themselves; maybe life threw them a “curve ball” that knocked them sideways from their abiding self-identity. It can be quite challenging to help them be at home in a new self.
“I just don’t feel like myself anymore,” said Jackson, a client whose wife of 32 years died six months ago. He stated this as complete communication, so I simply “received” it and invited him to tell me about the experience he was having.
“I’ve lost track of who I thought I was. When Delilah was alive, my life made sense, you know? Now, nothing feels right. I’m lost. I don’t even understand what to do with myself or how to get through my days.”
It’s not time for rebuilding yet. I sense he needs to stand in the rubble of the “earthquake” of her death for a little while before he can start to reassemble his sense of purpose and self.
Recently, Cassie got a terminal diagnosis – an illness that will play out over the next several years as her abilities decline. She’s feeling such shock she’s barely able to talk about how she’s feeling. “I didn’t see this coming. It’s not the future I imagined for myself,” is all she can muster. She, too, has lost a sense of herself as the person she imagined, moving into her future. Who is she now?
SGT. Davidson had only been home from Iraq for a few months when he said,
I signed up because I wanted to help people. But when my unit went on a weapons search in a village, we held folks at gunpoint and upended their homes. I put myself in their place: how would I feel if strangers burst into my house, terrorized my family, and tore through all my belongings? I didn’t respect myself after that. Who am I if I did that to other human beings?
Losing self can also happen in a childhood of neglect and chaos; it’s so very hard for a child to establish that inner home-of-self without any steady reflection and engagement from others to help build it. Sandra grew up with four brothers and a dad who worked two or three jobs to support the family, then mostly drank when he was at home. Her mom (later diagnosed with bipolar disorder) ran the household with an enormous degree of chaos and reactivity.
Sandra never knew if she would be severely criticized, dragged into helping, or showered with some kind of false caring that evaporated the moment tension went up. She had cobbled together a fragile sense of self and was always on the brink of negation or collapse, with no real “home” inside.
Working with folks who’ve lost their internal self-home, I took note of ways they reached for a new anchor of self:
Allow for Shock and Grief
Slowing down is crucial, ensuring the loss gets attended to. Anyone would want to get back to a reliable sense of self as soon as possible, but standing in ruins for a while is crucial, too. Jackson, the client whose wife had died, needed time to re-orient to gain his footing in the new life he was facing. I lead writing groups for combat veterans; some have carried that loss of self for over fifty years; when they tell their story, they emerge whole, settled, and at peace—belonging again. Home again.
Ask for Help
Sandra knew her childhood had been brutally disorienting and destabilizing. At first, she didn’t trust herself, so she asked close friends, her therapist, and a few mentors to help her build a strong sense of herself. It was so hard to let people know she needed mirroring, validation, and eager support – but the more she took the risk of speaking up, the steadier she felt. Over time, she built internal stability for the first time.
Jung said our Home (our inner “home,” our sense of self) gets taken apart repeatedly throughout our lifetime. He suggested that rather than trying to hold onto a sense of self, we should focus on developing superb skills for the rebuilding/refinding process. Maybe that’s key. Rather than imagining we can figure out how to be the same self all along, it’s so very useful to learn how to let go of everything to face the curious work of rediscovering ourselves. Again.