Learn more about what it means to lose yourself, what causes it, and how to respond.
It’s normal and healthy for identities to evolve with age, circumstance, and changing interests. Sometimes, however, our identities change without our control or awareness. The concept we formerly held of ourselves based on our interests, relationships, values, and behaviors becomes incoherent and incompatible with our observations of ourselves. The object of the declarative “I am” becomes vague and ill-defined (“Am I?”). In other words, we lose ourselves.
When you lose yourself you might feel disconnected from your behaviors, confused by your reflections on reality, or like you don’t understand your motivations. Losing yourself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, sometimes people seek to lose themselves on purpose, and losing yourself can be a profoundly meaningful experience, but only when you find yourself again. If you want to grow in response to losing yourself, it is critical that you don’t stay lost. Reconnecting with ourselves is easier when we understand how and why we’ve lost our sense of self. Let’s talk about what it means to lose ourselves and some common examples of losing ourselves so we can find ourselves more readily in the future.
Before we can get into what it means to lose yourself, we need to clarify what we mean by ‘yourself’. The self is a cryptic term that we use to refer to multiple facets of our existence as a human. Taking a high-level approach to understanding the term, ‘self’ can be used to refer to two experiential themes : (1) Our bodily self that is the center of our first-hand experience of the world, and (2) our narrative self that weaves together our history, experiences, interests, social roles, relationships, values, and aspirations into a fluid but coherent identity (Milliere, 2017).
Each of these elements around which our identities are organized provides a set of behavioral standards and expectations, a sort of framework that helps shape our actions and perceptions (Eifert et al., 2015). When we lose one of our pillars of self, we’re left with a void in our identity and buckling of the structure that mediated our interactions with the world. This leaves us feeling distant or disconnected from ourselves—like we’re losing ourselves.
Why Might You Lose Yourself
The sense that you are losing yourself is caused by anything that erodes, severs, or extinguishes any pillars of your identity. For example, someone might feel lost following retirement from a meaningful career (e.g., you identify as a scientist and you stop doing science, who are you?). Changes in relationships can also induce a loss of self. For example, if part of someone's identity is being a spouse and they get divorced, it might feel like they don’t know who they are or how they are supposed to move through the world.
Am I Losing Myself?
It can be hard to tell the difference between healthy changes to your identity that occur as a function of age and losing who you are. Sometimes losing yourself happens suddenly and dramatically, other times it is a gradual, more subtle process. If you feel like you might be losing yourself but aren’t sure, here are a few signs to look out for:
Not giving yourself enough alone time
Not taking care of yourself
Seeking approval from others
Losing interest in things you used to care about
Not knowing what your preferences and needs are
How to Not Lose Yourself
Though sometimes we need to allow our identities to evolve with our ever-changing circumstances, we can try to avoid losing connection to them. Here are a few ways you can try to avoid losing yourself:
Communicate assertively and ask for what you need from others
Make time for the things that interest you
Take some time to yourself
Losing yourself can be a formative experience, but it can also be frightening and insidious. Throughout our lives, we will encounter limitless opportunities to lose touch with ourselves, so it is important that we understand when our sense of self might be vulnerable, like when we’re in a relationship, after becoming a parent or caregiver, during illness, and after loss. Being aware of the vulnerabilities in our identity can help us protect ourselves from losing it and can help us regain it in times when we can’t maintain it. Losing yourself can take a lot of different forms and can be caused by many different factors and life events, but there is always a way to find yourself again.
Eifert, E., Adams, R., Dudley, W., & Perko, M. (2015) Family Caregiver Identity: A Literature Review, American Journal of Health Education, 46:6, 357-367, DOI: 10.1080/19325037.2015.1099482
Millière R (2017) Looking for the Self: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology and Philosophical Significance of Drug-induced Ego Dissolution. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 11:245. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00245