Many of us go through life skimming the surface of our identities. That is, we don’t truly dig deeply into our thoughts, feelings, desires and dreams.

Part of the problem is that we’re always on the go. When to-do lists keep swelling, self-exploration takes a backseat. How can it not, when we barely find time for self-care?

Specifically, self-exploration involves “taking a look at your own thoughts, feelings, behaviors and motivations and asking why. It’s looking for the roots of who we are — answers to all the questions we have about [ourselves],” according to Ryan Howes, Ph.D, psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California.

Having a deeper understanding of ourselves has many benefits. It “helps people understand and accept who they are and why they do what they do, which improves self-esteem, communication and relationships,” he said.

Here, Howes discusses how he helps clients explore their own identities, the potential challenges that can hamper self-exploration and the strategies readers can try at home.

Self-Exploration in Therapy

“What did you notice about yourself this week?” That’s the question Howes typically poses at the start of a session. As he said, this inquiry illustrates the incredible amount of information that’s just waiting to be explored, which is “revealing itself all the time.”

He also focuses closely on emotions, which “are the most immediate and primal expression of the self,” he said. He helps “clients examine what they feel, how it physically feels in their body, why they feel it and when they’ve felt it in the past.”

But the work doesn’t stop there. Outside of therapy, Howes suggests clients “journal, exercise, meditate or pray and pursue creative interests,” such as “artwork, writing, dance [or] music.”

Challenges that Arise

Howes typically encounters three obstacles that stand in the way of self-discovery. First, as mentioned above, our busy lives can leave us out of touch with ourselves. “Our external environment is so busy, so full of stimulation, it’s a real challenge to pry ourselves away long enough to take a good look inside,” he said.

The answer? Unplug, stop and just be, he said. For instance, as homework, Howes asks some clients to sit for 10 minutes and just be with themselves, without “doing anything, not falling asleep, not watching TV, not whistling a tune.”

Secondly, self-exploration is exhausting. “It’s hard to go back and recall painful memories, confront the realities of our limitations or take the risk of making a difficult decision.”

But in this case, practice helps. “Self-exploration is like working out — it gets easier when you’re consistent.” Howes suggested readers check in with themselves every day (at the same time, if you prefer). You can ask yourself: “What am I noticing about myself today?”

Lastly, for some, past trauma can stall self-discovery. “Sometimes the psyche locks the door to traumatic memories and push as we might, we can’t get in.” While it’s difficult, you can heal. Finding a skilled therapist who specializes in trauma is a good place to start.

Self-Exploration Strategies To Try

According to Howes, these are some options for digging deeper and getting to know yourself better:

  • Pen your memoir.
  • Compose a letter for a time capsule.
  • Write your own obituary.
  • Create a family tree (or genogram, “a family tree with all the psychological details”).
  • Make a timeline of your life.
  • “Reflect on [your] best and worst day.”
  • Record your dreams.
  • Ask yourself, What would I do if I had three wishes?
  • Ask yourself, “Why?” whether it’s about your hobbies, likes, dislikes or your emotions and experiences. According to Howes, a few examples: “Why do I love baseball?” “Why do I dress this way?” or “Why don’t I cry very often?” “You might be surprised at your own answers,” he said.
  • Enlist help. “Sometimes the guidance of a friend, mentor, spiritual advisor or therapist” can help.

As Howes said, self-exploration “takes time, effort [and] focus…It can be some of the scariest and yet rewarding work we ever do.”