Are You ‘Building Up Self’ or ‘Borrowing Self’?

How to rely less on others to boost your mood and functioning

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
3 min readSep 28, 2021

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Photo: Canva

Humans are social creatures. Pay attention to any relationship, and you will see a small emotional economy of borrowing, lending, and trading. If you lend me some of your calmness when I’m distressed, then I’ll take over a task when it feels too overwhelming for you. If I give you praise, then you’ll function like a more responsible human.

There is nothing inherently wrong about what is called “borrowing self” from others. But when engaging others becomes our automatic way of calming down, finding motivation, or solving a problem, we set ourselves up for trouble. We experience steep drops in mood and functioning on a day where no one is willing to lend us any approval, attention, or assistance.

Here are a few ways you might be “borrowing self”:

  • Relying on others to reassure you.
  • Needing praise to boost productivity.
  • Adopting popular beliefs to avoid upsetting others.
  • Asking for advice before doing your own thinking.
  • Borrowing societal definitions of success without thinking.
  • Using someone else as a buffer at social gatherings.
  • Using social media “likes” to boost your mood.
  • Never learning important skills because someone else has.

Before you scold yourself, remember that these behaviors aren’t bad. It is only human to rely on others to stay productive and calm down. But pay attention to your relationships, and you’ll find endless opportunities to become responsible for yourself and to practice self-regulating anxiety.

People who work on building a stronger sense of self (instead of borrowing it from others) find that life is less of a roller coaster ride. They can appreciate praise, but they don’t need it to determine how they’re doing. They can ask for help, but they can also navigate difficult tasks when they need to step up. They shift from a kind of pseudo-maturity to a more solid one.

Building self can look like:

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.