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Self-Expression and how to foster it

Updated: Oct 19, 2020


Do you ever stop to think about how you share yourself with others?


We all have our own unique quirks and traits, and we all have our own preferences and style for sharing pieces of ourselves with those around us. You likely have a different level of sharing comfort with each person in your life—like a sort of security clearance in which those closest to you have a “Level 5” clearance while acquaintances have a “Level 1” clearance.


How we share and express ourselves to others forms the basis of our personality, as understood by everyone but us, and sets the tone for our entire lives. It’s a vital aspect of life to pay attention to, especially if you want to feel more understood and more in tune with the people you care about.


The way that we share ourselves is known as self-expression, and it turns out there are a lot of ways to do it. There are few “wrong” ways of expressing yourself, but there are some things you can do that give you a better chance of hearing and being heard than others.


Read on to learn how to more effectively express yourself to others, get in touch with your authentic self, and enhance your self-expression skills.


Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will not only help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself but will also give you the tools to help your clients, students or employees show more compassion to themselves.


You can download the free PDF here.


This article contains:

  • What is the Meaning of Self-Expression? A Definition

  • Self-Expression Theory in Psychology

  • The Importance of Self-Expression

  • Examples of Self-Expression

  • How to Improve Self-Expression Skills

  • Techniques for Developing Self-Expression

  • Activities to Increase Self-Expression for Adults

  • Project Ideas and Worksheets (PDF)

  • Self-Expression Through Photography, Art, Music, Dance, Fashion and Poetry

  • Does Social Media Promote Self-Expression?

  • 13 Songs About Self-Expression

  • Books on Self-Expression

  • 13 Self-Expression Quotes

  • A Take Home Message

  • References


What is the Meaning of Self-Expression?

I think we all have a pretty good handle on what self-expression is, but let’s see how the experts define it:

“We define self-expression as expressing one’s thoughts and feelings, and these expressions can be accomplished through words, choices or actions.” (Kim & Ko, 2007).

This is an intuitive definition—self-expression is, at its core, the action of expressing yourself, and it can take a wide variety of forms. You can use your words, your facial expressions, your body, your movements, clothing, actions, and possessions to express your authentic inner self.


Although the idea is simple, it seems that few fully grasp the importance of self-expression. We are all so bogged down with messages about how we should look, think, speak, and act; what we should eat and drink and study and do for fun; who we should associate with and who we should love or despise; and, indeed, who we should be deep down. These constant missives about what we ought to do and who we ought to be can make it difficult to let go of expectations and simply be ourselves.


The last paragraph may have resonated with you—as it resonates with me—but as we’ll see later, the value we have for self-expression is not a universally shared value.



Self-Expression Theory in Psychology

There is no one single theory of self-expression in psychology, but there are several explorations and hypotheses surrounding this subject in the literature.

For example, Kim and Ko (2007) note that self-expression is one of the most highly-regarded and venerated values in Western civilization due to the near-deification of “the individual” in our society. Not only is self-expression a vital practice of Western culture, but it is also baked into the very roots of psychology. After all, psychology is all about the study of the mind, including the self, others, and groups of people. The way we learn about the mind is through the expression of individuals—verbally or otherwise (Kim & Ko, 2007).


While those of us in the West have embraced individualistic norms and practices, including self-expression, other cultures have upheld collectivist values and—in some cases—placed little to no value on individualism. For instance, the Arab world is less prone to individualistic views and more likely to value tradition, religion, and authority (Inglehart et al., 2014).

Self-Expression Values

The differences across cultures and countries in the values they hold are fascinating; as noted above, countries in the Middle East are generally at the opposite end of the spectrum from Western countries on the two major axes of values:

  1. Traditional versus secular-rational values

  2. Survival values versus self-expression values (Inglehart et al., 2014)

Countries in North America and Western Europe generally fall on the secular-rational end (although the US and Ireland are two outliers when it comes to religion and tradition) and the self-expression end of the spectrums. This indicates that Western countries tend to place less importance on traditional family values, religion, and obedience and more importance on environmental protection, social justice, and tolerance of different viewpoints and was of life (Inglehart et al., 2014).

East Asian countries generally fall in the secular-rational/survival values section (as seen below), meaning they do not place as much importance on tradition and religion, but they place great value on economic and physical security.

In some places, self-expression values might be considered “indicative of egoism and weak social capital” instead of the key to happiness and actualization that many Western countries consider them to be (Welzel, 2010). Needless to say, the value placed on self-expression varies widely across cultures and countries.


Not only are the differences in self-expression values interesting, but they also raise a good point: can there be a comprehensive theory of self-expression that encompasses and explains self-expression across the globe? Any Western-centric theory of self-expression will likely propose that a good dose of self-expression is not only healthy but necessary for fulfilment; on the other hand, a theory from an Asian or Middle Eastern country will likely place little importance on individual self-expression and may even see it as a deviant behaviour!



The Importance of Self-Expression

Related to our discussion above, the importance of self-expression will vary depending on your location and the culture you are steeped in. As the World Values Survey showed, individualism is not highly valued in many countries. This fact makes the sentence below—a pretty tame idea by Western standards—anything from mildly strange to outright laughable in another context.

“The journey of self-discovery is the most important journey we can take” (De la Huerta, 2014).

In many cultures, a journey of self-discovery would be considered odd, unusual, selfish, a waste of time, or even selfish; the people might say something like, “Why spend your time and effort on getting to know yourself? Just ask your family—they’ll tell you exactly who you are!”


However, given the largely Western audience of positive psychology, we’ll focus on the importance of self-expression in this context.


De la Huerta’s (2014) article provides a good brief overview of why self-expression is so important in our society. She argues that self-expression is a vital piece of the puzzle that is fulfilment in life; it allows us to be our best selves, reach our full potential, and make valuable contributions to the world we live in. Authentic self-expression is how we embrace who we are, all the way from the positive traits and acts we keep on the surface to the darker and less valued pieces of ourselves that we bury deep down.

“Neuroscience is teaching us that ‘self-expression’ might be one – if not the most important ways for people to connect, navigate and grow with each other.” – Judith Glaser

Research Judith Glaser agrees on the importance of self-expression; she notes that authentic self-expression not only encourages us to be the best we can be, it allows us to work effectively with others. When we open up and express ourselves, we move from what she calls a state of protection (coddling our ego and manning our inner walls to protect ourselves) to a state of partnering (being open to sharing yourself with others and vice versa).


According to Glaser, this state is where we get our best and most innovative work done. Acting in alignment with our authentic selves activates our prefrontal cortex, giving us greater access to our higher-order abilities like creative and innovative thinking, problem-solving, and planning.


Two artists and educators, Jay M. Hanes and Eleanor Weisman agree that self-expression is not only important for our relationship with ourselves and our relationships with others, it’s also vital for our work. They propose that we learn about ourselves through expressing ourselves, reflecting on our core self and engaging in creative learning that will benefit us in all walks of life and all disciplines and industries (Hanes & Weisman, 2016).


Examples of Self-Expression

Everywhere you look you can see examples of self-expression. This may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not—people around you are expressing themselves every day in many ways, all you need to do is look for it.

Common ways that people in your life might express themselves include:

  • Sharing details about their day and how it made them feel.

  • Wearing an off-trend or outdated item of clothing, not to be cool and unique, but just because they like it.

  • Playing the guitar on the street without a hat, cup, or other container set up to take donations.

  • Yelling to express their frustration about traffic or other hindrances to getting from A to B.

  • Employing body language (either consciously or unconsciously) that tells you exactly how someone feels about him- or her-self, whether it’s tall and proud, slumped and defeated, or anywhere in between.

If you were so inclined, I’m sure you could come up with a list of 100 acts of expression that you saw in the last week alone. That’s probably not necessary—I’m sure you have a good grasp on what self-expression is—but it’s important to be reminded how often people share themselves with us and how often we have the opportunity to share ourselves with others in our daily lives.


How to Improve Self-Expression Skills

As with most skills, the best way to improve your self-expression skills is to practice them! Self-expression skills include—but are not limited to—the following:

  • Speaking

  • Writing

  • Body language

  • Artistic endeavours (creating music, dancing, etc.)

Author and student learning guru John Ramos agrees; in an answer to the question and answer forum Quora, he provides the following pieces of advice (2016):


  1. Write (almost) everyday… It forces you to find the right words and expressions to convey your message.

  2. Emulate your favourite authors’ styles. (Note: you could also emulate your favourite poets, dancers, orators, musicians, etc.).

  3. Never lose a chance to speak in public.

  4. Apply winning formulas (particularly for public speaking, as there are many tricks and “secret weapons” to help you succeed).

All of the exercises, techniques, activities, and strategies listed below will give you great opportunities to practice your own self-expression skills!



Techniques for Developing Self-Expression

If you’re looking for ways to boost children’s self-expression skills, there are a lot of engaging and seemingly indirect ways to familiarize themselves with expressing themselves and understanding others. Peggy Schmidt from Scholastic Parents proposes the following 7 strategies (and several techniques to implement these strategies) to encourage a child to build their self-expression skills:

  1. Teach your child to interpret spoken and body language. a. Look at photographs of people expressing different emotions and discuss them. b. Cut out a cardboard frame to act as a “mirror” and have your child(ren) mimic your expression and identify it. c. Use everyday situations in your home to reinforce these lessons. d. Make a game of identifying the emotions that go with a particular tone of voice.

  2. Reinforce the concept of “personal space” by encouraging your child to: a. Stay at arm’s length when he or she is talking to someone. b. Make sure there’s space between him or her and other children when sitting together. c. Avoid hugging someone he or she doesn’t know well. d. Refrain from intruding on another child’s space by touching, pinching, or physically annoying him or her.

  3. Explain the meaning of idiomatic expressions (explain jokes, idioms, puns, “turns of phrases,” etc.).

  4. Work on the art of conversation. a. Initiate conversations with your child, particularly when there are no salient distractions around. b. When you don’t understand something your child says, ask your child what he or she means. c. Encourage your child to ask you questions and respond attentively to them. d. Make good eye contact and ask your child to do the same. e. Encourage your child to stay in control of his or her body when he is talking—no fidgeting or squirming! f. Work at having successively longer conversations as he or she gets better at self-expression. g. Have conversations with your child about things beyond routine, everyday stuff.

  5. Model behaviour that teaches the smart way to ask for help or a favour. a. Explain what the favour is. b. Rehearse what you’re going to say when you ask for the favour. c. Have your child listen to your conversation.

  6. Demonstrate the power of “please” and “thank you” as more than just good manners, but excellent tools.

  7. Teach your child how to listen and follow directions. a. Get his or her attention through touch as well as your voice. b. Be specific about what you want him or her to do. c. Check for understanding when you ask your child to do something. d. Compliment your child on following the directions and successfully completing the task (Schmidt, 2001).

With pre-teens and teens, you may want to upgrade your techniques and make things more organic. Follow these 10 tips from the Scholastic Parents Staff to encourage self-expression in your pre-teens and teens:

  1. Encourage your child to dance to express him- or herself (a dance-focused video game might be helpful here).

  2. Help your child design a website or blog to share his or her thoughts and feelings with family and friends, or include your child in the process of writing a family newsletter.

  3. Do a creative and expressive craft with your child, like creating jewellery or painting something without any constraints.

  4. Celebrate your child’s style by allowing him or her to dress however they’d like (given that it’s age-appropriate).

  5. Support your child engaging in sports, whether solo sports, team sports, or both.

  6. Encourage your child to mentor younger children to practice their own skills and do a good deed.

  7. Give your child a camera and let him or her snap away!

  8. Get outdoors and do a nature-oriented activity together (e.g., take a walk, go for a hike, do some gardening).

  9. Ask your child to take you on a guided tour of his or her classroom, the library, or somewhere else he or she spends a lot of time.

  10. Help your child make a video documentary about him- or herself, including their current likes and dislikes, strengths, interests, and passions (Eulberg, n.d.).

If you’re looking for techniques to enhance your own self-expression skills, there are some helpful general tips that can give you some guidance. Give these six tips a try:

  • Speak your truth at the moment. Instead of looking back on a conversation and wishing you had been more honest and authentic, commit to being more honest and authentic at the moment. Promise yourself to speak your truth when the opportunity arises, but make sure to speak it with love and kindness.

  • Widely define yourself. As psychiatrist Thomas Szasz notes, “…the self is not something that one finds. It is something that one creates.” Make sure that your definitions aren’t overly narrow or limiting and keep yourself open to new experiences, talents, interests, passions, and opportunities.

  • Engage in creative techniques. Use techniques that harness your creativity to expand your potential and enhance your life. Try keeping a daily journal in which you write about whatever comes to mind, keeping an idea book that you carry with you all the time, creating mind maps to help you problem-solve, practising brainstorming, and creating vision boards to motivate you to follow your dreams.

  • Acquire self-knowledge – Know who you are. Don’t let yourself get too caught up in all of life’s little worries; take a break from your daily grind once in a while and assess your life and your feelings about it. Use introspection and reflection to make sure you never become a stranger to yourself.

  • Pursue wants and passions voraciously. If your passions and dreams have become victims to the day-to-day stressors, dedicate yourself to keeping them off the metaphorical “back burner.” Make time to pursue your dreams and feed your passions—you won’t regret it!

  • Develop a keen sense of reality. Your head may venture into the clouds, but your feet should stay firmly on the ground; keep in touch with reality and face your disappointments, setbacks, and unpleasant experiences head-on (“How to Live with Full Self-Expression”, n.d.).

These are somewhat general tips, but truly committing to them will help you become the master of your own self-expression. For some more specific, practical ideas on improving your self-expression, read on.


Activities to Increase Self-Expression for Adults

Aside from trying some of the suggestions and techniques listed above, you may want to try some exercises and activities designed to enhance your self-expressiveness. This section includes 15 activities that you may find useful (plus a link to 70 more!).


To work on improving your capacity for self-expression and encourage your practice of being authentically you, you may find this impressively long list of 75 group activities from the Expressive Therapist website helpful. It includes activities like:

  • Inner Child: Draw yourself as a child in your paper. Add images and words to give this child everything that it needs, including a supportive nurturing parent.

  • Inside – Outside Bags/Boxes: Decorate a bag or box with images and words on the outside to represent the qualities you show to the world. Decorate the inside of the bag or box with images and words that represent the inner qualities that are hidden to most people.

  • Inspired Poem: Think of a quote that is meaningful to you and write it at the top of a piece of paper. (A list can be found at http://www.goodreads.com/quotes) Add your own lines below it that expand on the quote in the way you understand it – continue for the rest of the page. Find someone in the group to read your poem for you as you use movement or gesture to express the meaning of your poem.

  • Four Elements of You: Discussion: Passion gives us the will to live and gives shape to our lives. Fold your paper into four sections. Label each section, The Earth of Me, The Air of Me, The Fire of Me, and The Water of Me. Use image and colour to express your passion in life as symbolized by the four elements.

  • Bardic Circle: Sitting in a circle, everyone takes a turn sharing something with the group, such as performing a song, a dance, a poem, a joke, or an interesting fact, or teaching a new skill. Everyone is encouraged to be supportive and attentive when others share.

If you’re working your way through addiction, rehabilitation, recovery, or perhaps even striving towards post-traumatic growth, these activities from Summit Behavioral Health might help:

  1. Listen to music to help you identify your feelings; if you are in a group, share out what you learned.

  2. Take a mindful walk (stay aware of yourself and your surroundings, make observations about your environment, and avoid judgment as much as possible).

  3. Write a new ending to a previous event, particularly an event that involved conflict, bad decisions, or mistakes on your part. This will help you learn how to make better choices and stay more optimistic.

  4. Build, create, or restore something to encourage yourself on your own journey toward a healthier, happier you.

  5. Create a visual journal using signs, symbols, drawings, or anything else to express your feelings aside from words (2015).

If you’re interested in enhancing your self-expression specifically in the workplace, Judith Glaser has some great suggestions (2016):


  1. Consider taking on a project like Glaser’s Children’s World, in which she and her team collected stories and pictures from schoolchildren, compiled them into a book, and actually published it (side note: it included material from over 500 students!).

  2. Kick off a meeting by asking people to share a recent personal story and a business story that they are enthusiastic or excited about.

  3. Complete the “What I Respect About You and What I Need From You” exercise to get to know your team better and identify strengths, needs, likes and dislikes, and how to avoid certain pitfalls with your colleagues.

  4. Collect your team’s success stories and publish them in a book, pamphlet, or brochure.

  5. Publish your organization’s success stories on your company intranet and solicit advice and suggestions from your organization’s members on how to achieve future success.



Project Ideas and Worksheets (PDF)

Those fond of making lists, checking boxes, drawing things out, and any other form of expression that involves using a pen and paper might find these projects and worksheets especially useful. There are also a few worksheets that you can use with your child to encourage their own capacity for self-expression. Read on to get some ideas!


Your Pet Worksheet

This worksheet encourages kids to think about how they express their thoughts and ideas. It can be used to encourage them to consider what details are important and which are superfluous, help them figure out how to best get the words into their head onto paper, and show them how to tie it all together into a clear, comprehensive narrative.


First, your child can fill in the “Main Idea” bubble in the centre, writing about their pet, noting what kind of pet they have and what is most important to know about that pet.


Next, they can work on filling in the supportive details. The prompts can help them figure out what they should be writing and help them comes up with more ideas; these prompts include:

  • How long have you had your pet?

  • What is your pet’s name?

  • Describe your pet’s personality—playful, loving, quiet, funny, loyal?

  • What does your pet look like? Describe your pet.

Click here to read more about this worksheet or download it for your child (please note that a free account with Education.com is required to download some of their free resources).


All About Me Worksheet

This is another worksheet for kids that is simple, easy to complete, but helpful for your child’s writing and self-expression skills. It can also be helpful for handwriting practice, engaging in creative thinking, and breaking the ice with a new classmate.

First, the worksheet asks for just the basics:

  • The child’s name

  • The child’s place of birth

Next, the worksheet moves on to the more individual aspects of preferences and interests:

  • Favourite colours

  • Favourite hobbies

  • Favourite foods to eat

  • Favourite place to visit

  • Favourite movie

Finally, the last three prompts are where your child can really get thoughtful, creative, and personal:

  • “I laugh and smile when…”

  • “I will make the world a better place by…”

  • “My dream is to…”

To download this worksheet for use with your own child, click here (this worksheet is hosted on Education.com, which requires a free membership for the use of some of their resources).


What Makes Us Alike & Different

A final worksheet for kids focuses on similarities and differences between the child and others. Completing this worksheet can help your child not only learn more about other people, other cultures, and other ways of life, but it can also help him get to know himself better.


First, the worksheet explains that there are tons of people in the world, but we’re all different. We might come from different cultures, countries, or backgrounds, but we all have at least a few things in common.


Next, the child is instructed to compare him- or herself to a friend or family member and consider these questions:

  1. What makes you alike?

  2. What makes you different?

In the space below these instructions is a table split into three columns, one with each of the following headings:

  • What makes you different?

  • How you are alike

  • What makes your friend different?

For each column, your child should think of some things that apply. How is she different from her friend? Where do the differences come from? Are they superficial, or pretty big differences?