Developing a sense of self can be a powerful tool for living intentionally. You can try self-exploration on your own or in therapy.
Who are you? What drives you? What do you value?
If you’re not sure of your answers, there’s no need to fret. The answers to questions like these take time to uncover and often require deep reflection.
Self-exploration is the practice of “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],” explains Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist, writer and professor in Pasadena, California.
It can be hard to find time for introspection and self-reflection in our busy schedules, but deepening our self-understanding can bring peace and meaning to our lives.
You can begin your self-exploration journey in therapy or on your own.
At its core, self-exploration is about better understanding who you are and what makes you you.
“[Self-exploration] helps people understand and accept who they are and why they do what they do, which improves self-esteem, communication, and relationships,” Howes explains.
Additionally, self-exploration can increase our self-awareness, which is the ability to self-evaluate and recognize how we take up space. Self-awareness can allow us to deepen our understanding of our emotional triggers, sensitivities, and best self-care practices. This can lead to stronger emotional regulation and greater empathy.
Once you understand why you feel the way you feel, you may also be better able to communicate your needs and feelings to others, which can strengthen relationships and help you preserve better boundaries.
“What did you notice about yourself this week?” is what Howes usually asks at the start of each session. Every thought, interaction, or experience can be an opportunity for self-examination. He also noted that an incredible amount of information is “revealing itself all the time.”
Therapy often involves examining your emotions and understanding where those emotions come from. According to Howes, therapists may explore with their clients:
- what they are feeling
- how it feels
- why they are feeling it
- when they have felt it before
Self-exploration features prominently in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a commonly practiced form of psychological treatment. CBT centers around the idea that many of our problems stem from flawed thinking patterns, and that we can learn to change those patterns.
CBT aims to change those patterns through learning to recognize them, better understanding where they came from, and evaluating them. Many CBT exercises are essentially exercises in self-exploration.
Self-exploration is also common in psychodynamic therapy, where you explore how your past has influenced your present. Whereas CBT focuses more on your present experiences, psychodynamic therapy emphasizes the past and where you have come from.
Both therapy options can be effective in getting to know yourself and developing greater self-awareness.
Howes says people typically encounter three main challenges to self-exploration:
- past trauma
It’s easy to get wrapped up in work, school, or the lives of others, which can lead to neglecting 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,” Howes explains.
Howes encourages people to “unplug, stop, and just be” every once in a while. You could even make self-exploration part of your self-care routine. Take ten minutes to sit with your thoughts, “not doing anything, not falling asleep, not watching TV, not whistling a tune.”
Self-exploration can be draining, “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,” Howes says. However, practice can help.
“Self-exploration is like working out; it gets easier when you’re consistent,” Howes says. He suggests readers check in with themselves once a day and ask, “what am I noticing about myself today?”
Finally, 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,” Howes explains. Healing from past trauma can be difficult, but you can work with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma.
You don’t have to sit in silent thought to practice self-exploration. There are many ways to expand your self-knowledge that are active. These activities include:
- pen your memoir
- compose a letter for a time capsule
- write your own obituary
- create a family tree
- reflect on your best and worst days
- start a dream journal
- start a personal journal
- enlist the help of others, like a friend, mentor, spiritual advisor, or therapist
How do you get to know yourself? It can be hard to know where to begin. One easy way to start is to try asking yourself “why?” more often. You can start with everyday choices and decisions, like “why toast?” or “why a shower instead of a bath?” Gradually broaden the scope of your questions.
If that doesn’t appeal to you, you can consider some of the following questions:
- What do you like best about yourself?
- What’s something that’s always been important to you and why?
- What makes you feel loved?
- What makes you cry?
- What’s your favorite thing to do?
- What childhood dreams do you still hold onto and what have you let go?
- How do you want others to see you?
- What kinds of self-care work best for you?
- Where’s your safe space?
Self-exploration is the practice of examining your own thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, identity, background, views, and emotions, with the purpose of better understanding yourself.
You might engage in self-exploration for self-improvement, as part of therapy, out of curiosity, or for its own sake. Self-exploration can help improve self-awareness, self-esteem, communication, empathy, emotional self-regulation, and more.
A great deal of therapy involves some degree of self-exploration. You can also engage in self-exploration on your own or with someone from your support network. Self-exploration can come with challenges, including distractions, exhaustion, and reliving past trauma.
An easy way to start practicing self-exploration is to ask yourself more questions.