Identity is the distinguishing sense of self, providing continuity of personality or character over time. It is an equation, the sum of values or beliefs of an individual, acquired through a lifetime of experiences.
The good behaviors, habits and skills add to this equation. Bad behaviors, habits and skills detract from it. What’s left over, is the essence of you.
Some of you may be asking, “isn’t it all kind of the same thing?”
Truthfully, they are all kind of similar. They are all guiding factors in our lives. They are all the mark of the individual. Yes, they all yield a guiding compass of sorts.
The difference between purpose/why and identity, is that identity is how you view yourself right now. Otherwise known as ‘self-image.’[x_alert heading=”Update 2015:” type=”warning”]Since writing this evidence has emerged directly tying together identity and success with a weight loss pursuit in a research setting. Basically it showed that people who viewed themselves as things like ‘vegetable eaters’ or ‘fruit eaters’ or ‘lean protein eaters’ had more long term success in keeping weight off. It’s called the ‘Self-As-Doer’ Construct and I look forward to reading more research on this as it becomes available. I added this because I now have more than just anecdotal evidence and logical reasoning to support what I’m saying here.[/x_alert]
It can be guided through purpose and why, or independent of, but identity is how you defend your actions, behaviors, skill-set, values, and beliefs when push comes to shove.
Why is that an important concept to understand?
How you view yourself right now, may actually be what’s — gasp! — holding you back from reaching your potential. Many of us, eventually, need to understand that in order to change ourselves, we must first understand ourselves. We then have to re-frame our present identity and view ourselves in a different light. If we don’t do this, we remain stuck in with whatever skills, habits, or behaviors we had before.
Belief Structures Can Be Roadblocks
Little known fact, the next time you find yourself in an argument with someone. People become more entrenched in whatever their beliefs may be, when challenged with facts. Meaning my telling a vegan that meat is good for them, is more likely to repulse them more from consuming meat anyway. So why bother? I don’t care if someone wants to be a Vegan either way, I only care about helping them do whatever diet they do a little bit better.
However, if a person’s diet is noticeably the result of a nutrient deficiency — I’ve seen this happen in any diet, I’m not longer talking about Vegans — then you have to overcome the belief structure before you can make progress.
Take for example a client who after a decade more of vegetarianism recently started eating red meat (well done) about twice a week with great success. They have suffered from anemia off and on, tried numerous types of iron supplements, seen naturopaths, homeopaths and regular old doctors.
We’ve gone over a plethora of ideas on how to help them out over the years, and finally we overcame a belief structure when the benefits were directly seen.
They still hate the idea of eating meat and refuse to eat pretty much anything else but beef they’ve sourced directly from ethical farms. They became vegetarian in the first place because they were uncomfortable with where their meat had been coming from. They also still hate the idea of ‘blood’ in the meat so they won’t eat anything not well done.
For the record, I never encouraged this. I have no dog in the fight between meat or no meat. They came to the idea themselves after doing some reading, tried it out, and have felt far better than they ever have in years with a relatively small change. It helped that sous vide cooking has become such a big deal as of late and the method yields decent tasting well done meat for once, but that’s another story.
In this case, a little red meat, a couple times a week had a HUGE influence on how this person felt from week to week. In hindsight the solution seems obvious, but they had to overcome their own belief structure just to make the attempt at this solution.
In a nutshell, your identity itself could be the very reason you don’t want to eat more vegetables, eat more lean protein, or even include some starchy carbs in your diet. I’ve made many nutritionally sound recommendations on this website over the years but none of them will make any difference in your life if you don’t first agree with them.
Truth is, that if you don’t identify as a vegetable eater or you’re convinced that you don’t like vegetables, you’ll actually staunchly resist the idea of eating more of them.
If you believe too much protein is bad for you — even if research has found no such correlation even at ridiculously high levels of intake — then you probably won’t follow my general advice to eat more lean protein.
If you’re part of the new trend that things wheat, and grains and all things carbs are bad for you, you likely won’t eat more of them, even if they will help you with your energy levels.
You have to first accept the ambiguous nature of nutrition, engage in your own critical thinking and attempt to reject strict dogmatic ideologies.
Challenge your own identity, or change may not be possible.
An Apple A Day
I’m going to take a little detour right now to talk about a little company called Apple. Who apparently, have more cash reserve that the U.S. Government right now, are well on their way to being the most valuable company in the world and consistently amaze us with innovation.
Now I wouldn’t make love to my 2 Apple computers, and handful of peripheral devices like iPods, even if I could, but I do rave about them often. I’m sure there are many of you out there that do too, you may even be happy to pay the premium price their products command, because let’s face it, they make great stuff and it’s totally worth it.
Note: I’m not an Apple fanboy, I swear. I have an Android phone and everything web I do is Google… It’s more that I’ve really come to dislike Microsoft more than anything else…
Why do they make great stuff?
Aside from having a deep understanding of why they do what they do, and actively seeking out the purpose of the company, they’ve also amassed an identity over the last 35+ years in business as a result. They were almost bankrupt in the mid-90’s, which shows you they have continually worked on their identity.
There is an allure to their products. They provide great customer service. They have always emphasized beautiful design. They are secretive. They have dominated in the innovation realm of their industry, especially in the last 10 years, first with the iPod, then with the iPhone, then the iPad. All of their stuff just oozes coolness.
More importantly, what they’ve done, is establish a positive consistent pattern of behavior, actions, skills, and beliefs over 35 years of business. It might make them complacent in the next 10 years, it might not. They’ve established their identity in that time frame, a very positive identity, and this fuels their future behaviors as a company.
Now, take your average 35 year old male or female and they’ve done exactly the same thing, it just hasn’t been as public and open to the ridicule of the media or consumers.
They may, or may not, have acted in a consistently positive fashion, over that time frame, so they are the sum of whatever good or bad behaviors, skills or habits they have also acquired.
Any time we act in a consistent fashion, our subconscious won’t want to deviate from that consistent behavior. Consistency is a desirable human trait.
This is why deliberate repetition is so important when going through the process of change and why bad behaviors or habits, need some kind of good behavior/habit substitute.
Addicts to smoking, drinking or drugs, identify themselves as addicts. Not only do they have a physical addiction, but this mental addiction, amplifies the difficulty of quitting. Convicts come to identify themselves as convicts, and the overweight or obese come to identify themselves as overweight or obese.
There is a social element to this too — a person who has been in jail is viewed by others as a convict too — but the biggest thing psychologists work to change in rehabilitating addicts and convicts is changing their perception of themselves. It’s a must.
On a lower level, its a must for those attempting to lose weight, or gain muscle, or get better at a sport too. You have to believe you fit that mold, you’re a fit person, you’re a thin person, etc…etc…
A More Personal Example
Over the last 35 years, Jane Doe, like anyone else, has developed her own identity through experiences, interactions with others, her level of education, her occupation, her social status, her financial situation, and many other behaviors, accomplishments, skill acquisitions, and habits.
Let’s say she had some great experiences in athletics from her youth in field hockey, had some good experiences with fitness classes in university, obtained a post-secondary education so she values learning, she has become relatively financially secure with an average income, and presently loves to hike with friends for hours at a time.
These experiences, behaviors or skills, make her much more likely to invest in a gym membership, to seek out help from a coach/mentor, to educate herself further on her body, to have discussions about health and fitness with her friends, to think critically of information given to her and she associates herself as being a hiker.
Consequently she has an easy time maintaining her body weight, exercising regularly, eating healthfully and it provides a foundation for enjoying the all the other important possibilities of her life.
This identity is what, in my experience, has been one of the most critical components to weight loss/maintenance success. Simply viewing yourself as an active person who eats right, can truly be a game changer.
By contrast, let’s say you’re not so lucky as to have had all the positive experiences I listed above. Let’s say you used to hate school, or you couldn’t stand Phys.Ed or sports, maybe you hate hiking, or you associate binge drinking with your identity, your friends are inactive, or you hate the idea of relying on a coach/mentor for guidance.
The good news is…
You can change all that!
Anything within your identity is not written in stone and we do have methods for creating a new identity.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’ve watched countless people change their identities many times over the years and sometimes it takes 3 months, other times it takes 3 years, but it is possible.
I’ve seen others go back to school at 50 years of age. I’ve witnessed 60 year men reverse entire downward spiral trends of obesity and disease. I’ve watched 35 year old women take up hiking, cycling, tennis, skiing or jogging having never done it before in their lives.
I’ve had more than one client who repeatedly told me how uncoordinated he or she was, only to discover that with a little help and encouragement they are actually very coordinated and capable of becoming incredibly fit. Over the years they may have become proficient in Olympic Lifting or squatting and deadlifting, to sprinting with great form. They have come to view themselves as ‘athletes’ in a non-traditional sense.
Through all that consistency of behavior, skills and habits they have been able to completely re-frame their identities to a level they once thought impossible. You can do this too, copy and paste the following questions into a word processer of some kind.
A Check-List for Re-framing Your Identity
1) How do I view myself presently?
- Who am I? And why am I, who I am.
- Break down your day or week. I strongly recommend you write it down, whether through self analysis or keep a journal for a short amount of time on the subject of you.
- Am I fit or overweight? Am I happy or depressed? Do I get along with others? Do I love spending time with others? Am I intelligent and capable of making good decisions? Am I good or bad with money? What are my strengths and weaknesses? Do I enjoy work, work too much or too little? Do I feel lazy or bored most of the time? Do I watch a lot of TV? Do I participate in certain activities? Do I eat a lot of junk? Do I eat well? What things do I do on a regular basis? What things do I really enjoy doing? What things do I wish I did more or less of? What do I believe in? Etc…etc…
2) What aspects of my current identity could be holding me back from reaching my objectives?
- Think of what you wrote down above. Then think physically and nutritionally if you have weight loss on the mind (or whatever your fitness pursuits may be). Then consider your occupation, your emotional fortitude, your social status, your education, your finances, your environment, your bad habits/behaviors, and your spiritual belief patterns. Then think again about what you might like to change from above.
*Again, write them down, that’s the important part.*
3) Based on that list, what things are most important for me to change?
- If you’ve developed a nice little list of behaviors, habits, limiting factors, or otherwise at this point, assign a number value to the list in order of importance to you.
- This gives you a little bit of clarity and helps you identify the things that you think are of prime importance to change or things that you believe will make the most impact to changing your identity.
- Cross out any ideas you know you cannot change right now or are unwilling to change at this moment. Get them off your mind so you can divert focus to what you can change.
4) To what level do I feel I can commit to changing the things on this list?
- On a scale of 1 to 10, assign a commitment value to each of these things you wish to change. A 1 out of 10 is something you don’t think you could commit to changing right now and a 10 out of 10 means you feel you could really get behind it right now.
- The combination of what you view is most important (ask a mentor or coach for help if you need it) with what you feel most confident in committing to change, is often the starting point you should seek to change first.
- Look for things with a 9 out of 10 commitment or higher. If you can’t commit, move onto something else you’d like to change and can commit to with that level of intensity.
- Commitment is situation based and emotion based. You may feel differently about certain things at certain times. This means you may be able to use a commitment to changing one thing, to increase your level of commitment for another in future.
5) Who can help me with this change?
- If your level of commitment is high, skip the information seeking process for now and find someone you relate to. This person should have expertise in the area you wish to change.
- This relationship will help educate you, through the acquisition of skills, behaviors and habits necessary to learn through repetition and change whatever you desire to change. A good relationship is worth 10-100x more than information alone.
6) Using this person, what process should I now undergo to facilitate the change and how do I execute it?
- What can I do this month to work towards this?
- What can I do this week to work towards this?
- What can I do today that will work towards this?
- With enough repetition in a step-by-step process, and an emphasis on little wins/changes — one thing at a time — you will gradually re-frame your identity.
*There are numerous, additional psyche principles that good coaches will hopefully be able to utilize in helping you re-frame your identity. These include things like re-framing exercises, visualization exercises, negative thought eliminating tools, why/purpose tools and many other questionnaires or motivational interviewing strategies.
I’ve alluded to a few of these things in the past year of blogging, and hope to write more in depth on them in the future as I continue to develop some of them myself.
Please use this as a starting point for now, and if you have questions, leave a comment or send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you have other questions about your identity that I may have missed, please leave them in the comments section, especially if a question really opened doors for your personal development.