Recognizing Self-Erosion Is Key to Reversing It

Woman with umbrella in the rain“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss—an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc.—is sure to be noticed.” ―Søren Kierkegaard

So often, people come to therapy seeking to “find themselves,” typically after a tragedy has occurred or some major shift has taken place in life and they realize they have somehow “lost” themselves along the way. But there is another way of losing oneself that is more insidious, more subtle, and can be even more damaging. This is what I call self-erosion.

Self-erosion occurs over a period of time and happens so quietly that the person doesn’t even realize it’s happening. Self-erosion happens when we are so busy doing other things—such as working, going to school, raising kids, and being in incompatible relationships—that we slowly lose touch with who we are. Our lives become so much about what we do, how we contribute, and what we offer the world that we lose touch with who we are. The tragedy of the self-erosion experience is that when we finally come face to face with the reality that we have no idea who we are anymore, we have no idea where to start.

You might be experiencing self-erosion if you have noticed any of the following:

  • You don’t know what you like to do for fun.
  • You can’t remember the last time you had a really good laugh.
  • Your identity is tied to what you do (“I’m Jane’s mom,” “I’m a therapist,” “I’m a CEO,” and so on).
  • You rarely take time for yourself.

If you are experiencing any of these, it is likely that you have lost touch with yourself. You may be very content with your life in many ways, but in some ways you find yourself longing for more. Whatever that “more” consists of is very personal and different for everyone, but the important thing is that you get back in touch with it.

Start with allowing yourself to do something you’ve always liked but don’t do often, whether that is taking a long, luxurious bath or going for a walk. It may be hiding away in a coffee shop and reading a book you have wanted to read but haven’t made time for. Maybe it will be going to Baskin-Robbins and trying every flavor until you find just the right one for you. Spend some time reflecting on all the things you used to do and greatly enjoyed, even when you were a child. You may find some keys to things that bring back the spark to your eyes, the joy to your living, and the passion in your existence.

The path to finding yourself does not have to begin at the crossroads of crisis; you can decide to own your life anytime you choose. I hope you choose today—this moment—to begin.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lisa M. Vallejos, MA, LPC, NCC, Existential Psychotherapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • brent c

    April 3rd, 2013 at 4:05 PM

    My wife was the first to notice this in me- I was so blinded with the other responsibilities in my life that I no longer knew what it was like to enjoy life.

  • Rex

    April 4th, 2013 at 4:17 AM

    Life sure can have a way of bringing you down. Most of us don’t see it until we have already been so down on ourselves for years that it will take that long and maybe even longer to derive any self worth again. It is something that can be done, but just like with any other issue that you face, most of the time this is something that you are going to have to deal with on your own. No one can change the way that you feel about yourself except you. We all have a habit of wanting the quick fix, the easy answer, but when it comes to changing the very way that you think about yourself, this is something that you are going to have to do on your own. Life is too short to always be moaning about how you are not worth anything and there will never be any kind of enjoyment in that.

  • Marilyn

    April 4th, 2013 at 2:21 PM

    I am a serial self-erosion ing individual so to speak…First I lost myself in a relationship that only left me hurt and then I drowned myself in work to such an extent that I lost a sense of who I was outside of work…I don’t even know if this is ever going to change but try I will…hope it just works out and saves me from this madness I seem to bring onto myself.

  • Sydney

    April 5th, 2013 at 4:13 AM

    This is kind of like being depressed, though.

    You might know that there is something wrong and that you need help, but it is so hard to do that for yourself when you are in this kind of state of mind. I happen to think that there needs to be some kind of familial support system there to get you over this kind of negative behavior.

  • admin

    April 5th, 2013 at 6:33 AM

    thanks for this concept Lisa, I’ve been there. drowning in work, kids, and other responsibilities can sneak in and steal one’s life away without notice. I remember coming out of the trance of self-erosion and going to the grocery store. I was so used to shopping for my kids, for my ex, that I didn’t even know what I wanted to eat. hard to believe. the good news, it’s easy to come back from self-erosion if you make time for yourself, real time. Noah :)

  • RDA

    July 14th, 2013 at 9:16 PM

    Lisa, can you recommend a website for finding a suitable therapist in regards to this?

    Thank you

  • admin2

    July 15th, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    Hi RDA,
    You can always find a therapist using the advanced search on here:
    Best of luck and warm wishes,
    The Team

  • tam

    August 31st, 2014 at 10:54 AM

    This slapped me in the face recently when my last child moved out. Being a single mom for 20 years it left me dumbfounded. It was all about work and kids. Now im alone. I still have my work but making new friends at 50 is a little overwhelming. Knowing I can pretty much do anything i want…..but what that is????

  • alisa

    August 31st, 2014 at 11:14 AM

    Tam, I am going through that too. My significant other became my job and I moved far from my home town. I had only made one friend here but when my friend died she backed off and is aloof. So I am trying to make friends but I find it daunting.

  • alisa

    August 31st, 2014 at 11:10 AM

    I unfortunately have always found I had eroded during cross road moments or extreme losses or crisis. This time my man died and my children are grown and live far away and I had one friend. I am working with a therapist and hospice. I am also volunteering in areas of interest.

  • Carri

    August 31st, 2014 at 4:52 PM

    I too have beena single Mom for the last 12 years. My boys left for college last week and now I feel as though I have nothing and no one.

  • barry

    November 18th, 2015 at 12:48 PM

    I know your agony,Carri.I’d like to say that time heals (and to a degree it does) but then ‘they’come back for breaks/holidays and then they go and you’re right back (uugggghh)
    You will find a different way and I am sending you good thoughts.

  • kat

    July 7th, 2015 at 9:31 AM

    I too realized this is where I was when my children began moving out. When I began to find myself again, I was met with more negativity than I had ever encountered before. I kept on keeping on and I was really feeling like ME again for the first time in 20yrs. Then trauma stuck my family, a MAJOR shift in lifestyle. Even though my birthed children are now in their mid-20’s, married, and starting families of their own, we’ve now adopted a blessing of a 2yr old boy. This was NOT in our life plan, though it certainly is now.
    My issue is that I now find myself becoming lost again. In order for us to handle the stress of what we had to go through in order to get this little guy adopted, I dropped out of my fairly newly begun college education, my weight that I worked so hard at losing is creeping back on (+20lbs), my newly found passion for participating in 5k’s has been put on the backburner, etc…
    It’s sometimes the most difficult thing to find ones self again. I just hope I can figure out how to find ME again soon.
    Thank you for this article. It’s served me as a great reminder of why those things I was doing before were so important to me then and why I need to make them my focus, for my own self-worth, again soon.

  • Joanna

    July 7th, 2015 at 3:16 PM

    Interesting view. It is important to realise that we will adopt certain roles in live like being a mum, doing different jobs these are certain live’s responsibility we will need to fulfill to function in society nevertheless it is very important like you say not to loose yourself completely and get confused that this is who we are. I do think though that the roles we choose to play in live will represent some parts of our being.

  • Beth

    December 7th, 2017 at 8:12 PM

    Joanana I love your reply…. This is a balanced outlook… and responsibility-taking…. I like how you’ve mentioned that the roles we choose to play do represent parts of who we are. Surely what ice cream I like best is not a deeper level meaning indicator of who I am than my choice to have had children, or not. So I think it comes down to intentionality and reminding ourselves of the long term decisions that we make having been ones we hopefully made with intention and commitment, but to make sure we intertwine “who we are” into those roles. And is it possible that some people never really knew themselves anyway, or never found their intentionality, and so that is why when they suddenly are aware of a feeling of not knowing themselves, they don’t know where to start? so many things in life, we do by rote and not by choice…. “society” imposes behaviors and actions and choices, on us, like how many people are the religion they are, simply because they were born in a certain part of the world? How many people celebrate Christmas because they actually want to? Or any of the other holidays? Have you ever met someone who said, I don’t celebrate Christmas? Now there is someone living by choice and intentionality, who knows themself well enough to have decided to not go along with the crowd in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone. But a lack of intentionality also tells you about yourself, that is also part of who you are, if that’s what someone is like. At the end of the day we probably find it easier to fit in in life than have to think up our own individual approach to everything. If creativity and individuality was the norm rather than fitting in and going with the flow, it might be even more exhausting for some. We do need some aspects of life to be “auto-pilot”-able, I would think. I read somewhere something along those lines, that the brain has to work harder in new unfamiliar settings but as we learn the ropes and how to get around these things become auto-pilotable and it means we can allocate processing power to other things. So for example even the idea of trying all the ice creams to know which one is preferred, may actually been seen as a way to try to auto-pilot that decision forever into the future. Instead of having to navigate the decision anew, every time. It’s interesting in the movie Runaway bride, the fact she can’t commit to a marriage is linked with her undecidedness as to how she likes her eggs, so only when she finally figures out how she likes them, is she able to settle down in a relationship. I find it an oversimplification to see a sense of self or identity in something as transient or surfacey as what one likes to eat. To me it tells me more about the person that they want to only eat things a certain way, or would prefer a default choice, rather than to try news things or be surprised. THATs their true self if you know what I mean, so I agree with you Joanna. It’s not so much about whether a person feels they know themself or not, and what they are aware or not aware of themself to be, that makes them what they are. But the fact they are either that unaware or aware, THAT is an indicator of who they are. The roles they chose to occupy or the roles that were imposed on them, all are indicators of whether they are living intentionally or not and that is who they are. Lost to themselves is also who some people just ARE, and it’s when they become aware of that, that they actually can begin to “find” and establish themselves.

  • Gina

    July 8th, 2015 at 8:39 AM

    Great article. I was completely lost and self eroded until two years ago. I finally quit a job which I used to define me. That shift was huge for me and it made me search within to find who I was. I discovered I am the same person whether I’m working in healthcare or working on the docks with my husband. That change was invaluable and it caused me to grow inside. There is still growth to be had and more left to discover about myself!

  • Jane

    November 18th, 2015 at 11:11 AM

    It is so true that doing the things that we enjoy, the things that make us happy is the way to go. Getting sun and exercise is good for everyone. Hike a mountain, ride a bike, go for a walk, get a dog or take care of a friend’s dog, go to your favorite store and just brouse and only buy something if you really want it, go to dinner, a show, get a part time job at the theatre and see the show for free, go to a concert; there is so much out there to do. But what we can’t do is make excuses.To be there for others we have to first be there for ourselves.

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