Loss of Self Identity

  • Introduction
  • Self-Identity
  • Ambiguous loss
  • Making Adjustments
  • The New ‘Normal’
  • The Cosmic Egg
  • Further Reading


‘Loss of self’ is a generic term used to describe feelings of disassociation from the remembered self before the injury.

These feelings can stem from life events, such as the loss of a job, or having to leave further education, or can stem from the struggles many people have with the cognitive and psychological life changes a brain injury can bring.

It can be difficult for people to be able to identify and connect with where these feelings of loss are coming from, even though they are usually pretty good at describing them. They often ask, ‘Why do I feel like this?’

It is imperative to address any feelings of loss as early on as possible as confused reactions to change can quickly impact relationships. Feelings of ‘loss’ can also distract people from being able to focus on other vital areas, such as, cognitive rewiring and learning new coping strategies, which are designed to reduce confusion and stress with task management.

Distractive thoughts, such as, ‘Who am I now?’ can slow rehabilitation and recovery and exacerbate the distress people are experiencing.


We all have different ways of understanding ourselves, and we can find that we quite often have a wide variety of ideas about what makes us ‘who we are’ and what it is that enables us to feel a sense of personal familiarity.

Some people have a clear concept of purpose from a young age, for example, they may feel a strong pull towards working with animals, or may have an entrepreneurial flair for commerce, and they relate what they do as a means of self-identification, and set their goals and self-expectations against these personal interests and drives.

Others have a tougher time selecting their specialist subjects for higher education and may never use attained qualifications in their career; either way, there can still be identification attachments to what we do. We are all different, and it is these differences that can lead people to experience the aftermath of brain injury in unique ways.

Some people correlate their life goals and dreams and what they do with who they are. These become a part of the way they relate different ideas about themselves in their minds.

When life changes to the extent that people may be unable to return to a chosen career, for example, this can devastate their sense of self-identity, creating inner conflicts and chaos. Also, see our article  ‘Loss of Self Identity Following Brain Injury.’

Ambiguous loss

The life changes a brain injury can bring often create an ambiguous loss that leaves people in limbo.

Unanswered questions, such as, ‘when, and will I recover?’ mean there is no ‘finality’ to deal with, leaving people unable to make definitive decisions about their lives.

Without knowing if they will be able to reclaim their old life back, it can seem impossible to make decisions. This struggle may be overlooked or be beneath conscious awareness. Feelings of being lost and out-of-sorts often accompany ambiguous loss and may be felt as restlessness and frustration. Knowing what you are working towards can help people feel that they have direction and a purpose. Without a clear path, a void can open up because there is a failure to explore alternative ways of thinking.

Ambiguous loss can bring about feelings of sadness and even of mourning for the loss of life dreams and goals, including family who can also struggle with accepting the changes.

Making adjustments

When it is difficult to know what possibilities lie in the future, it can help to take a practical approach by listing thoughts in terms of the past, the now, and the future.

Using lists can help break down the stream of spiralling unanswered questions and helps to focus people on specific time frames.

For example, in the past, I was a nurse, now I am focused on my recovery, and in the future, I want to be an artist. It is essential to look at possibilities; for example, if a return to being a tree surgeon is impossible because of physical injury or weakness, perhaps managing an arboretum would be possible. It is important to remain open and flexible and to address the losses felt directly.

It is helpful to find something that drives you forward every day. This motivator may be a specific recovery plan which sets out your goals.

Remember that many of the stages people go through are transient and a necessary part of healing. It is possible to view things in a positive light, even the roller-coaster of emotions, and pervading unhelpful thoughts can bring insights that expand your understanding of the real you.

The New ‘Normal’

There are several recovery stages that people go through following a brain injury. 

These will very much depend on an array of possible variants, such as, what happened to the individual, what kind of natural outlook they have, and the severity of the injury. Everyone is different, and each person will feel more comfortable doing some things before trying others.

Understanding that change has happened, and acknowledging this, is vital to reach acceptance. There can be many unsolved emotions confusing things even more, such as blame, denial and anger; it is crucial to address these too.

The first thing to get to grips with is understanding that it is your brain that is injured – not ‘who you are.’ In other words, you are not the injury, and the damage is not you.

Understanding that families also face new and different challenges can help people work together to form solutions to meet life changes.

We all have something to offer. Everyone has unique gifts and talents to offer the world and sometimes a brain injury can be an opportunity for you to reinvent yourself and to focus more on who you are and who you are being rather than on what you did or can do.

Knowing that there are exciting new possibilities ahead can clear the way for getting motivated on recovery so that you can start doing all the things you want to achieve for your sense of self. Finding and focusing on the things that are meaningful to you and make you feel a sense of achievement and fulfilment can help you change your perspectives and find a new forward momentum.

Sometimes looking at things from a different perspective helps people to realise previous self-made restrictions and frees up space to include new ideas in your life; this may be working in a different industry or using your experiences in creative ways that bring a sense of satisfaction.

Always be patient with yourself and understand that with or without brain injury, everyone is on a journey of self-discovery, and as such, we are forever in a perpetual state of re-evaluating our strengths and capabilities. The important thing is to learn to think without limits and allow yourself to start dreaming again.

Focus on rebuilding your self-confidence and make this one of your goals so that you remain focused on it. Many people slowly fall into victim mentality thinking, and because this transpires so gradually, they don’t recognise that thinking patterns have been affected. Think in terms of being self-responsible so that you remember that each thought you have only occurred because you allowed it to do so.

Due to cognitive changes, lots of people struggle with making choices following a brain injury – try and notice if this is happening to you. Very often, just seeing that we are not making choices helps us to take back control over our thoughts. Sometimes people need to learn how to break their thinking down and how to form questions again, and focusing on this can help people to take back their power and to start making decisions.

Notice how you are choosing to look at things. If something is making you feel bad, this is usually an indicator that you need to change the way you are looking at things. If you can see the bigger picture, and see the changes you are going through in terms of something that has momentum you can start to believe anything – including that you can take back your life and can feel that ‘familiar’ self in your head once more.

The Cosmic Egg

In the book, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg, author, Joseph Chilton Pearce, notes that “There are experiences in which a crack forms in this egg, when non-ordinary things are possible, or non-ordinary solutions occur to the mind.”

With or without a brain injury we can, and probably all do get trapped in circular ideas that keep us from redefining our world when change happens.

The mind seems like a much more powerful thing than the brain, and few experiences can magnify this in more significant ways than a brain injury. The mind feels like a harmony – the brain feels like a compromise of egotistical responses that don’t take into account who we ‘really’ are.

Our relationship with the world goes two ways, and ordinarily, we can differentiate what is coming in, with what we already know – we can decipher what knowledge is or what is wisdom.

When we think of it this way, self-identity becomes a more significant and more complicated subject than what we do or did, or what we choose or remember. Self-identity incorporates much more because it must always include that which we experience and that which we believe. The depths of experience and belief can be unfathomable in a logical sense – even to those who have never sustained a brain injury.

The message here is to be kind to yourself; be the best friend to you than you ever had and bring compassion inward, listen with an open heart to everything you need to understand and take small steps while you do it.

The external world morphs and changes continuously. Nothing is static and regaining our sense of control and inner power is very much about understanding that the only thing we can change is the future.

In quantum physics, there are proven links between what we believe and what we create. Choice, remembering that we have a choice, this is what makes the difference when we feel as though our future has somehow been snatched away from us.

Make a new nest and give yourself the time and opportunity to go deeper than you have before. What is it that really makes you tick? Is it the thought of a semi with 2.4 children by the time you are 30 or is it about giving everything you have to everything purely and only because you are the best thing you have to give?

Further reading

Loss of Self Following a Brain Injury – GBIA Column

Loss of Self-Identity Following a Brain Injury – GBIA Column