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Building Identity


We all have certain beliefs about ourselves. We may believe that we are athletic, smart, good at English, or that we are terrible at math. We believe that we are good at making friends, shy, or outgoing. Most of the time our beliefs about ourselves work to help our lives flow more easily. We don’t have to re-decide who we are in every situation.

Sometimes though, the emotionally sensitive don’t consider or lose awareness of what their ideas, preferences and values are. By paying attention mainly to what other people seem to prefer and changing themselves to fit what those people want, they can lose awareness of their beliefs.

Changing to fit what others believe and think can be a way to avoid conflict and rejection but can create anxiety and depression, not to mention feelings of alienation and emptiness. By changing to fit what others seem to want them to be, the emotionally sensitive lose the opportunity for true intimacy.

The priority is often acceptance because the fear of rejection is so high and so painful.  Not voicing their own thoughts can seem like a small price to pay to gain a sense of belonging or at least avoid rejection or negative judgments. The problem is that a true sense of belonging cannot come if acceptance is based on a facade. And the price also includes feeling empty and not feeling loved for who they truly are.

By hiding who they are or not allowing themselves to know who they are, the emotionally sensative cheat themselves of the acceptance that they seek. If they wear a mask and present a facade, then only the facade is accepted, not the real person. That can be a very lonely situation. Relationships feel empty and false in those circumstances. In this way they continue to experience the pain they had hoped to avoid.

Being the opposite of what people value can be a way to avoid rejection as well. Some emotionally sensitive people use anger as a shield. It’s the “I’ll reject you or provoke you to reject me before you have a chance to do it yourself and then it won’t hurt so badly” strategy.

Sometimes the emotionally sensitive hide who they are because they have negative beliefs about themselves. They see themselves as inadequate or not good enough.When we have certain beliefs about ourselves, we tend to confirm those beliefs whether they are accurate or not. That’s true of everyone.

As David McRaney says in his book You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, we tend to believe that our opinions are the result of careful consideration and analysis of our experiences. The truth is that our opinions are “…the result of years of paying attention to information that confirmed what you believed, while ignoring information that challenged your preconceived notions.”

So when you believe that you always forget people’s names, you will notice every situation in which you forget a name. If you believe that you make people angry when you stand up for yourself, you will look for and remember every situation that fits this belief and ignore the situations that don’t support this belief. If you believe that you are unlovable, you will pay attention to and remember every situation in which you believed that to be true and forget or ignore the experiences that don’t support your belief.  That’s just the way the mind works.

People are more comfortable with information that fits what they believe, even when their belief is negative and about themselves. This is called confirmation bias. It means that to see yourself more accurately requires being more open to checking the facts about your experience and being more aware of experiences that don’t fit with what you already believe.

Mark Snyder and Nancy Cantor conducted a research study at the University of Minnesota. They had people read about a week in the life of a woman named Jane. Throughout the text Jane showed characteristics of both extroversion and introversion. Then the researchers divided the people into groups.

One group was asked if Jane would be a good librarian and the other group was if she would be a good real estate agent. In the group who were asked if she would be a good librarian, the participants remember her as an introvert. In the group asked if she would be a good real estate agent, the group remembered her as an extrovert. Next, the people in the librarian group were asked if Jane would be a good real real estate agent and the people in the real estate agent group were asked if Jane would be a good librarian.

The participants stuck by their original decision and stated she wouldn’t be good at the alternative profession.

So if you think you are inadequate when it comes to coping with problems, maybe it’s true, and maybe it isn’t. Looking for the evidence in a more objective manner is the way to know.

For a week or two, mark down every time there is a problem, regardless of its severity. Then mark whether you handled it or made it worse. Having a few situations in which you make the situation worse for whatever reason doesn’t cancel out the times that you coped effectively. If you find that you aren’t coping effectively, then analyze the reasons. Problem solving can be learned.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Part of developing your identity is accurately assessing what those strengths and weaknesses are. Being human means having characteristics that we wish were different.  Many times being vulnerable enough to let those truths show is what strengthens our relationships, builds intimacy, and helps erase the feelings of aloneness.


Creative Commons License photo credit: kitch

Building Identity

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Building Identity. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 23, 2019, from


Last updated: 28 Apr 2012
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