We all experience moments of self-doubt. Maybe we’re faced with a choice that leaves us confused about what we want; a conversation where we feel inauthentic and disconnected; or a mistake that makes us question who we are deep down.
The antidote to this internal conflict is a strong sense of self, what researchers call “self-concept clarity.” When we know who we are, we experience greater self-esteem and independence. That helps us cultivate better relationships and a sense of purpose in life.
But where does this inner confidence come from? In the past, that’s largely been a mystery to psychologists. But a recent study provides a clue: It may partly stem from the non-judgmental awareness that is mindfulness.
Researchers at the University of Utah recruited over 1,000 undergraduate students, ranging in age from 18 to 53, to complete questionnaires about three traits:
- Mindfulness: Their tendency to be aware of their thoughts and feelings and to respond to them in deliberate, non-reactive, non-judgmental ways.
- Self-concept clarity: How stable, clear, and unconflicted their views of themselves are.
- Well-being: How much they feel a sense of self-acceptance, autonomy, and control over their environment; the quality of their relationships; and their experience of personal growth and purpose in life.
The results showed that more mindful students reported higher well-being—and that a stronger sense of self partly accounted for that link.
Delving deeper into the data, the researchers found that some aspects of mindfulness were more crucial than others. Students who were more non-judgmental about their thoughts and feelings tended to report a particularly clear sense of self; on the other hand, those who were better at observing the present actually had slightly lower self-concept clarity.
“Being non-judgmental may increase the likelihood of accepting the self, which may increase the willingness of more mindful individuals to explore and examine the self—ultimately, being more familiar or friendly with themselves,” explains lead author Adam W. Hanley. In other words, if we don’t expect to beat ourselves up for our flaws, we may be more willing to take a clear look in the mirror.
(Participants skilled at observing didn’t have deeper self-knowledge, Hanley speculates, because the questions about observing focused on their ability to notice external states—everyday smells, the sun on their face—rather than internal ones.)
How might mindfulness and a strong sense of self work together to make us happier?
Besides reducing the uncertainty and conflict of self-doubt, they may also have positive benefits—by allowing us to confidently pursue the goals and relationships that are most authentically important to us. (In fact, mindfulness was recently linked to acting in line with your values.)
Also, if mindful people notice change and improvement in themselves, they can shed ingrained beliefs that are no longer true—like “I’m not successful enough” or “I’m too shy.”
This study is part of the latest wave of mindfulness research, where psychologists explore not just its benefits (i.e., greater well-being) but what exactly brings about those benefits. It doesn’t prove that mindfulness causes us to develop a stronger sense of self, but it does show a link between “trait mindfulness” (an individual’s baseline of mindfulness), well-being, and sense of self. If future research confirms these findings, that might encourage more mindfulness practices and meditations to specifically target self-doubt and internal conflict, designed for people who struggle with those issues.
“The self has been suggested to be a core mechanism of stability in a world of continuous change,” says Hanley. “A clearly conceived self can be used to guide behavior in consistent, personally meaningful, and fulfilling ways.”