No matter our age or where we are in life, our journeys of self-discovery are never over. It can take decades to understand who we really are, and our sense of identity may shift over time. Different jobs, relationships, phases, and experiences shape us into the people we are, but they don’t necessarily make it easy to know who that person is.

Many people realise later in life that their long-term goals have been driven by other people’s wants and needs. And some feel they don’t easily ‘fit’ into groups or communities, and spend years feeling like frauds or outsiders.

Without a sense of identity, you might feel detached, lost, or numb – or simply like you should be experiencing more meaning and purpose. This is especially true due to the importance placed on ‘finding yourself’, and needing to understand who you are to live an authentic life in modern society. But the benefits of having a strong sense of identity have been recognised for millennia. After all, the famous quote, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom” is attributed to Aristotle, who lived 2,400 years ago.

Although discovering your sense of self can feel like an impossible task, luckily, you don’t have to go backpacking around the world or spend months at a silent retreat to get to know yourself more deeply.

From defining your core values to reflecting on life’s challenges, here are seven tips to figure out who you really are.

1. Reflect on your past

Reflect on your past

While we aren’t defined by our pasts, who we were when we were younger can strongly influence our sense of sense today. Studies show that “childhood personality holds lasting influence on important life outcomes”, which means that the child we once were likely plays a key role in defining us as adults.

It’s worth taking some time to reflect on who you were when you were younger, and considering how you relate to those traits today.

For example, what hobbies or activities did you enjoy as a child, and how are they related to your favourite pastimes today? Which people and places were important to you, and do any of them play a role in your life now? What do you know about yourself from friends or family who’ve known you since you were very young – have you heard stories about what you were like as a child?

Answering these questions may reveal formative moments that have shaped your life as an adult, be it the career you pursued, your relationships, your goals, views, or values. By thinking about your past, you might identify the threads that have always run through your life and shaped the path you took.

2. Define your core values

Define your core values

Understanding your core values and beliefs is key to understanding who you are. It provides the groundwork for your personal philosophy, which influences how you live your life.

For example, if loyalty is important to you, it may impact your relationships (both personal and professional), the people you keep around you, and how you treat them. Or, if you’re an animal lover, or passionate about animal rights, it’s likely this has also impacted your choices: perhaps you volunteer at an animal sanctuary, are vegan or vegetarian, or are involved in activism.

Our values and beliefs help to shape our lives and identity, so consider what causes and issues you’re passionate about. Think about times in your life when you took a stand for something you believe in – or when you didn’t, and later wished you had. Consider the people you look up to – whether political figures, celebrities, or people you know in real life – and see if you can isolate the factors that make you admire them. What do they stand for?

You might also want to think about the events and experiences you’ve found particularly fulfilling, and what made them so rewarding. If you can already identify your core values, think about how they became important, what they mean to you, and who influenced them.

3. Identify your strengths and passions

Identify your strengths and passions

Identifying what you’re good at is another way to get to know yourself. Once you know your strengths, you can understand how to contribute to the world and help others.

Again, it might be useful to think about childhood – the specific skills and strengths you had, and whether they play a role in your life today. Perhaps you’ve always been naturally empathetic. Maybe you were always good at sports. Or did you always excel at the arts?

That said, your strengths today might differ from those you had as a child. If you’re struggling to identify your strengths, try thinking about the compliments you receive most frequently, and whether you can see a pattern. Perhaps people think you’re a good cook, talented writer, or unusually resilient person. Try asking people around you for their thoughts too. Sometimes our friends, family, or coworkers have a much clearer idea about the times we shine than we do ourselves!

Once you’ve identified your strengths, consider what you’re passionate about, too, as these aren’t always the same. You might not be the best painter, for example, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get enjoyment out of painting. You might have two left feet…but if you love to dance, it’s a passion – and one you should nurture!

Ultimately, if there’s a topic you can talk about for hours, that’s a passion. Or, if an activity makes you lose track of time, it’s probably also a passion.

4. Identify where you find purpose and meaning

Identify where you find purpose and meaning

Once you’ve identified your strengths and passions, it can be helpful to identify where you find meaning or purpose. Many of us lack purpose or direction at some point, and feel we’re drifting aimlessly through life. Even if we’re lucky enough to have a successful career and loving family and friends, something might be missing – making us feel lost, ungrateful, frustrated, and alone.

Where we find purpose and meaning in our lives will vary significantly depending on our personalities and passions. Some people find meaning by spending time with loved ones, while others get it from volunteering and helping others. Fighting for something you believe in might give you a sense of purpose, or perhaps continually learning, growing, and challenging yourself gives you direction.

Think about the activities that energise you and inspire you. When do you feel at your most alive – or most peaceful? Are there activities that help you feel connected to other people or the wider world? Finding purpose and meaning can give you ambition, intention, passion, and energy – making you feel that you’re part of something greater and helping you find security in who you are.

To find out more, you might want to read our article; 5 ways to find meaning and purpose in your life.

5. Embrace silence

Embrace silence

While the four points above may seem self-explanatory, some other things we can do to understand ourselves aren’t quite so obvious. Learning to embrace silence is one such example. Many people find it difficult to be still and silent, because it can feel uncomfortable to come face to face with yourself – both the good and the bad. But knowing yourself requires honesty, and that, in turn, requires quiet reflection.

Until you take the time to be still, discovering who you really are may always remain out of reach.

In the busyness of modern life, still or silent moments can be few and far between. However, these moments aren’t just important for helping you figure out who you are. They also provide opportunities to get in touch with your emotions and needs, so they’re an important part of self-care.

If you struggle to be quiet and still, perhaps the best thing you can do is practise mindfulness. This won’t only help you become comfortable with silence, but it’ll also help you stay in the moment. To learn more, you might want to read our introduction to mindfulness.

6. Reflect on your challenges

Reflect on your challenges

We all face challenges in life, and these struggles can teach us a lot about ourselves. Only when we experience genuine difficulties and hardship do we discover the strength and grit we possess.

Often, these experiences will shape the direction of our lives, and we may find a new sense of purpose and meaning. Just think about all the books and films about people who’ve survived life-or-death situations, and have gone on to be stronger, better people with a different view on life.

Take some time to reflect on life’s challenges and how they’ve affected you. Perhaps you spent time in hospital, were in a car crash, experienced bereavement or the breakdown of a relationship, have had significant financial problems, or struggle with mental illness or chronic health problems.

Think about how these struggles have impacted your life and changed you, and what growth you’ve experienced. Often, we don’t give ourselves the credit we deserve, so putting time aside to reflect on everything we’ve been through may make you feel proud of yourself, if nothing else.

7. Assess your relationships

Assess your relationships

Finally, looking at the people you surround yourself with can give you an idea of who you are. Your social identity plays a big part in how you see yourself (and how others see you), and feeling included within a specific group can strongly influence your overall identity.

If you’re passionate about climate change, for example, there’s a good chance you have friends with the same values. If you’re part of a group that enjoys hiking together and being among nature, then being ‘outdoorsy’ may form part of your identity.

Social identity affects romantic relationships too. You might seek a partner with the same religious or spiritual views as yourself, or who shares the same political beliefs.

Often, looking at your closest relationships is like holding a mirror up to yourself. Think about the qualities you share with loved ones, and your respective differences. What makes you feel connected to the people you choose to have around you? What makes you feel different?

Final thoughts…

If you feel you don’t have a very firm answer to the question ‘Who am I?’, you’re certainly not alone.

For most people, the answer to that question will change and evolve throughout our lives. The person we were in our 30s is rarely the same people we are in our 50s, for example – and even less likely to be the person we are in our 70s.

If you struggle with self-identity, we hope this article will help. Focusing on your strengths, acknowledging your challenges, reflecting on your relationships and your past, and identifying where you derive meaning can all be constructive on the journey to understanding yourself.

While figuring out who you truly are can take time and effort, it can also be deeply rewarding. After all, as Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “I’ve decided I can only be myself. Everyone else is taken.”

Are you on a journey to finding out who you are? We’d be interested to hear about your experiences in the comments below.