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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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March 13, 2014

Harnessing the Power of Self-Identity

By Mark Sisson
49 Comments

MIrrorSo often we talk about how to get beyond the limiting, even destructive identities we create for ourselves or have been imposed on us in our lives. The fact is, no one should feel beholden to a definition that hampers their self-actualization or undercuts their physical or emotional well-being. That said, what if we examined the flip side of this equation? We often assume a fixed identity is something that works against our greater good, but what if – under the right circumstances – it can be a positive, grounding influence that helps circumscribe our daily decisions in a healthy way? Consider reader Steve’s thought-provoking comment on a post from this past summer regarding “The Uses and Abuses of Guilt”:

As for guilt/shame, I feel them whenever I act (eat) in a way that is not consistent with my identity as a person. Goals may come and go, so I don’t use goals as a motivator, but identity is a constant. Along this line, I know we all have the freedom of choice, but for me, I choose to live as though I have ‘no choices,’ meaning my identity determines actions, and decisions almost make themselves.

While he later suggests this approach isn’t for everyone, I think he’s onto something here. Can we harness the powerful psychological sway of self-identity to train our own behavior toward healthy living?

The Power of Identity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the psychology of living well. Why does it seem to come fairly easily to some, while others continually struggle? While I believe we’re creatures of free will (at least in the colloquial sense), the consciousness that gets us there isn’t usually automatic. We have whole evolutionary schema to consider as well as decades of personal scripts that subtly steer our actions and reactions. This said, the more conscious we are of their influences, the more critically aware we can be of their role in our thinking – for better or for worse. Likewise, we make room to consider other information and cultivate the ability to more evenly weigh various perspectives. In other words, we consciously choose what we want to direct our decisions in any given situation.

Self-identity is perhaps the most formidable or at least confounding of these influences. Our basic animal natures might be the most inherently entrenched, but they’re relatively simple. When we have the humility to acknowledge them, we understand that they’re fairly straightforward. Self-identity, however, is richly layered, often unconsciously complex. And it’s much more powerful than we tend to give it credit for. How we identify ourselves (including those characteristics others perceive or impose that we accept into our self-definition consciously or unconsciously) can influence our assumptions about everything from our intelligence to our mental stability, our athletic ability to our general health and well-being. If we don’t identify ourselves as athletic, how likely is it that we’ll pursue athletic abilities on any level? If we accept that we’re sickly, how likely is it that we’ll ever believe we can truly thrive? If we believe that we don’t have much self-discipline, in how many areas of our lives will this “truth” play out?

Harnessing Self-Identity

Yet, as Steve suggests, we can take advantage of our own assumptions when the self-identity we’re working with supports good choices. If our self-identity was defined in such a way that we gravitated toward the things we wanted anyway, wouldn’t it free up an immense amount of mental energy and emotional bandwidth? We could, as he suggests, let our identity home in on what felt right or “true” to ourselves.

The power to harness here is our natural affinity toward congruence. We want our experience to match our assumptions – about the world and ourselves. In fact, we’ll often go to great lengths to unconsciously manipulate behavior or deny certain data in order to attain that secure sense of congruence. We crave certainty after all – confirmation that what we believe is true. We see it in the context of large groups, but it operates much the same in the space of our individual minds.

Some of us may be totally dumbfounded at the thought of someone losing 100 pounds but putting it back on because – perhaps at least in part – the new image in the mirror was too foreign to mentally assimilate. We may scratch our heads (or bang them against a wall) wondering why a smart person who knows better continually chooses the wrong relationships or unhealthy lifestyle options. Somewhere in their minds, there’s a pattern to fit, and come hell or high water something in their brain is going to make the pieces fit.

The yearning for congruence can be a neurotic, self-sabotaging undercurrent in our lives or a healthily gratifying, simplifying well-spring. If our self-concept, for example, includes a “sensitivity” to sugar, caffeine and artificial ingredients, we’re more likely to steer away from them. If we conceive of ourselves as an avid meat eater, guess what we’ll make sure we seek out at the buffet? If we believe we can’t live without movement or the outdoors, we’ll make time for them. If we’re convinced we’ve always loved sleep and need nine luxurious hours of it every night, you can imagine we’ll prioritize it.

There’s an enormous difference between reading that the human body functions optimally on an average of 8-9 hours of sleep and personally believing to the core of your identity that you need and love it. You might learn in middle school health class that 2-3 servings of meat the size of a deck of playing cards will give you adequate protein, but that can’t match the influence of your own individual identification with craving meat at each meal. Likewise, if your parents referred to you as the family’s veggie lover who always finished off whatever was on your plate and the serving bowl, this will likely stick with you as you grow older. In short, it’s the colossal distinction between “I should” and “I am.”

Revising Self-Identity

All of this raises the natural question, “What if my self-identity isn’t something that serves my good?” In other words, what if our self-identities are more likely to dictate eating too much sugar or working out when it’s convenient? Obviously, we can’t trade it in, but can we retool it? The answer appears to be yes. In the words of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “The self is a fragile construction of the mind.” A recent Atlantic article, “Personal Identity Is (Mostly) Performance” quoted Csikszentmihalyi to support the idea that our outer environments must continually support existing identity constructs. Without them, the old assumptions and associations can lose their potency.

This is good news for those of us who could use a revamping. The more we rid our lives of the details and reminders that bolster what we want to let go of, the better able we are to make space for something new and healthier. That can mean clearing out our cupboards, switching out our cookbooks, changing our daily routines and shopping sources, socializing differently, overhauling our wardrobes, and revising our calendars. In other words, transform as many relevant externals as possible (giving special attention to the ones that have the most impact) and let the effects seep inward over time. Fake it ’til you make it.

Simultaneously, however, we can rewrite the internal summaries that define us. I truly mean that literally. Take the time to rewrite your identity with pen and paper (or keyboard). Do something visual in addition. This is who you are. Put up reminders all over the place – your car visor, your bathroom mirror, you sock drawer, your cubicle wall, your refrigerator, etc. The object isn’t to become someone else entirely. It’s to reframe those touchstones of self-identification and broaden the scope of your life to include possibilities you’ve never allowed yourself to consider even if there’s ample evidence that they fit the life you want.

If you struggle to re-envision a different identity other than a self-destructive one you’ve struggled against in the past, let me throw in a modest proposal here. Over the years and the course of several books, I’ve been intrigued by the resilience of the Primal/Grok model. When I first proposed it, I’ll admit I envisioned it as a convenient visual, a narrative centerpiece for the blog and a bit of entertainment. That said, regarding the primal side of my human heritage has entered my consciousness and identity in a unique way. There’s something to believing in an inherently health-seeking, richly intuitive dimension of yourself that’s in touch with the most basic rhythms of life. Anyone who knows me understands I live a very modern existence, but the Primal metaphor genuinely expanded my understanding of what I need to do to thrive in life. It’s also helped upend some lingering ambivalence at unexpected turns my life took from the original vision I had for it a few decades ago. I see myself and my life in a very different light as a result.

In a sense, the Primal narrative – understanding our evolutionary legacy as it lives within our genes – is an additional dimension to embrace in our identities that reaffirms physical needs and psychic layers the modern culture often tells us are expendable (e.g. time in nature, a deep more than broad social network, continual movement throughout the day, etc.) and offers physiological reasons why we may have struggled against physical ailments – a realization which may supplant old emotional messages that have distorted our self-identities. Whether or not the Primal message informs our identities, we gain from opening to the possibility of larger, deeper and older influences in our potential. In their light, we may have a different view of our own personal stories.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on the role of self-identity and behavior.

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49 Comments on "Harnessing the Power of Self-Identity"

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bryan
bryan
2 years 8 months ago

Thank you Mark – this was the perfect read at the perfect moment. Really appreciate this posting.

Groktimus Primal
2 years 8 months ago

This is the true source of “Vegan Powers” you know! Once your identity is firmly carved out of fairy tales and set in concrete you acquire them. 🙂

Vince G
Vince G
2 years 8 months ago

Ahahahaaaa

Gary
Gary
2 years 8 months ago

Thanks for this today Mark. Exactly what I need right at the moment…I went through a re-envisaging of my identity on a bank holiday Monday last week, held fast for 5days but have been struggling with self-sabotage since the weekend.
The reminders of my simple steps, 1 for each major role in my life, are going to go up everywhere to constantly remind me to fake it until I make it…

Kristie
Kristie
2 years 8 months ago

This topic brings to mind something that I heard or read very recently (don’t remember exactly where, but it resonated with me): “Vegetarians don’t take ‘cheat’ days and eat meat once a week because CW tells them a ‘cheat’ day is OK once in a while because being a vegetarian and not eating meat is part of their identity.”
….Something along those lines, but I think you get the meaning behind it. How we act, especially when no one is looking, the idea of integrity, reinforces our identity.

Vince
2 years 8 months ago

This was on a podcast recently and its bugging me that I can’t remember which one (its either Joe Rogan, Bulletproof Exec, or Abel James Fat Burning Man). But it is true, it’s their identity and not even a question whether they’re going to abide by it. Its fascinating to think about identity determining your actions. I don’t think its a short or easy road to get there but something I hope I can one day I can live out.

Kristie
Kristie
2 years 8 months ago
Right, probably Abel James! I started listening to his podcast a couple weeks ago! I thought it was either his or Vic Magary. Anyway, I agree with you: “Its fascinating to think about identity determining your actions.” I’m surprised every day at how much I read or listen to in the Paleo community now and all the ah-ha moments I keep having, but when I really think about it so many of these ideas I’ve heard before or known for such a long time. I’m just finally acting on them rather than wishing I was in the “right place” of… Read more »
Smileyprimaljulie
Smileyprimaljulie
2 years 8 months ago

A wonderfully timely post, Mark…thanks! Having just returned from an amazing time at Primal Con Tulum, I have been able to self-identify as a “primal being” more than ever before. This has naturally and effortlessly led to me eschewing non-primal foods, avoiding chronic cardio, and choosing my close friends over Facebook. I feel an inner peace and ability to live in the present like never before. All because of how I now perceive myself!
Grok on, everyone!

granny gibson
granny gibson
2 years 8 months ago
You put into words what I have learned over the years. I am one of those people who lost 100 pounds, felt very uncomfortable (alien) in my body and let it creep back on. I blamed it on “stress”. That was 30 years ago. Now I am diabetic and have a clearer view of who I am. I WANT to eat clean and exercise. I KNOW why I live this way, and I don’t feel bad when I don’t take part in things that will eventually do me harm. Too bad it took 20 years to get here, but I… Read more »
Gwen
2 years 8 months ago

Great post, great timing! I was just posting myself today about how snacking for me is emotional/stress/boredom eating, not true hunger, and how I need to re-train my mindset re that. Whether it’s daily affirmations of the you one wants to be (fake it until you make it), re-reading our own Health Mantra’s on a regular, daily basis to incorporate them into our souls…whatever it takes. Life is about tweaking ourselves to be the very best that we can be.

Thanks again!

2Rae
2Rae
2 years 8 months ago
Interesting post, this is what we are teaching our son. We will ask about certain choices that he makes that will interfere with his peace or happiness. What are you going to do about that? Do you have a plan for change? You don’t seem to me to like the result so it’s a choice you can make, what are you going to choose next time? He still needs direction so we point him in the direction of change and make sure he has the tools to do it. As an infant he had a “disconnected” mom who did ok… Read more »
HB
HB
2 years 8 months ago

But very profound 2rae! Its true that we are taught things at an early age that can take a while to unlearn.

Vince G
Vince G
2 years 8 months ago

mind=blown…

But seriously, very poignant and meaningful. This article really helped. Thank you.

Gydle
2 years 8 months ago
This is very interesting. Actually most of our self-identity comes from patterns of behavior and ideas we internalized as a means to feel safe in our early environment. Our conscious will can control only a tiny fraction of our behavior, and this is why it is so hard to exert willpower. Unconscious cues and patterns of thought/behavior always win out. You breathe without thinking about it, right? Some of those destructive (or constructive) behaviors come from a similar place. Mindfulness training is a very powerful tool for getting in touch with the unconscious and unraveling patterns that are not helping… Read more »
Kelda
2 years 8 months ago
Yes, this is exactly what I’ve found. Mindfulness is the best way of influencing the oldest part of our brains that we can’t access directly. The Sleep Book – Dr Guy Meadows gives some great simply exercises to work with that you can apply to all aspects of life,not just for insomnia. I worked with him on retreat 15 months ago and can say it certainly works. Creating the space between yourself and the ‘chatter’ in the head is the art, once you can observe and notice without judgement or reaction it makes so many aspects of life easier to… Read more »
Joe
Joe
2 years 8 months ago

If we ignore the troublesome passengers typically they get smaller and more manageable. Thoughts grow with attention.

Mindfulness is a proven approach which is very ancient — probably primal, in fact.

It requires developing a patience with your mind, a non-striving observational and curious attitude. Just sit and be with whatever happens.

Pheebie
Pheebie
2 years 8 months ago

Excellent post, Mark. Thank you.

Pastor dave Deppisch
2 years 8 months ago
Leave it to a pastor to disagree with you Mark– on self-actualization! But then I guess you’d expect that. However, when it comes to thought patterns and training the mind to think with logic, reason, and desired effect– there are some great pints in this post. Maslow’s Hierarch of needs: Physiological Safety Belonging Esteem Cognitive Aesthetic Self-actualization However, I believe the real goal is experiencing the transcendant: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Until one can fend off the spiritual… Read more »
Animanarchy
Animanarchy
2 years 8 months ago

There are some great pints in my past. I think I should probably make it a point not to pound so many with impunity.
Self-restriction is step one of my latest go at self-actualization.

Lyn
Lyn
2 years 8 months ago

This cracked me up. Yeah, restriction of pints can be a positive step to take.

Pastor dave Deppisch
2 years 8 months ago

I have got to check my spelling! I guess I had too many pints and missed making the point.

I’ll be more careful in the future– maybe stick to shots.

Joe
Joe
2 years 8 months ago
Experiencing the transcendent is the pinnacle of human experience, I would agree. And the Maslow’s hierarchy is a helpful model. If any of the foundational aspects of that hierarchy go awry then there is the risk that the person will be so bound-up in that problem that they are “distracted” from the possibility of experiencing the transcendent. It could be ill health, a messed up family life, misplaced priorities (“keeping up with the Jones”) etc. If we take care of the body and life that has been given us then we enable ourselves to experience everything more fully, including the… Read more »
Dr. Anthony Gustin
2 years 8 months ago

Great post. I feel like this is something everyone should be continually progressing with.

Kim
Kim
2 years 8 months ago
Enlightening. Mind-blowing. But also intuitive, like I always knew it, but never consciously thought it. For example, months ago I realized that my current self (and therefore, the way I go about my day) doesn’t match up with my “core” self. Before having kids, I used to run, bike, swim and my social life matched it, with group runs, master swim team, etc. I saw myself as active and healthy, but not an “athlete.” After kids, it was tough to do those things, so my peer group became moms. Many moms revolve their lives around their kids. Their kids all… Read more »
Stacie
2 years 8 months ago
I love posts like this. Our psychology has a huge impact on how we relate to our external world, especially health and fitness (at least, that’s how it works for me!). I truly ascribe to fixing the inside, mentally and physically, before we start to see results on the outside (like weight loss or body comp). Both positive and negative self-identities play an integral role in our lives, and can either give us the boost we need to reach a goal or really become that person, or can keep us stagnant and incapable of breaking bad habits. I had this… Read more »
FoCo Jo
FoCo Jo
2 years 8 months ago
It all makes perfect sense! When I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition at 16 I was lucky to have a doctor and parents that helped me take a proactive (non-medicated) approach. 17 years later and I have never said I “suffer from….”. Sure, having Fibromyalgia it is a huge part of the reason I make healthy choices (it’s not much of a choice in my mind – eat healthy and exercise or be in pain) but so many people use it as an excuse. One woman who seemed particularly defined by her condition told me her doctor told her… Read more »
Madhaxus
Madhaxus
2 years 8 months ago

Your excellent post brought to mind a favorite Aristotelian quote, “to be a hero, one must simply behave like a hero.”

By changing behavior, we can change our self-identity and consequently, alter our physiology, personality and even character for the better.

barb
barb
2 years 8 months ago

Mark – another amazing post. I love the Aristotle quote too. Thanks so much.

Smileyprimaljulie
Smileyprimaljulie
2 years 8 months ago

Perfect quote!

Peter Whiting
2 years 8 months ago
I marvel every day at the power of our subconscious minds. We might be very passionate about something and really want it and think it would be great for us, but if the subconscious mind doesn’t want it, we won’t get it and we’ll be wondering why. My mind is full of limiting beliefs that I’m fighting every day. Beliefs that probably got programmed in while I was very young. The only way for me to make real progress is to reprogram these beliefs and replace them with positive ones and deep positive intentions. Your suggestions under the topic “Revising… Read more »
Pure Hapa
Pure Hapa
2 years 8 months ago
Primal psychoanalysis – woot! I had a near-death experience in my early 20s. Before that, I didn’t know myself and didn’t think about it. Afterwards, it was, “Self? Hello, nice to meet you.” The experience slowly opened my eyes to every facet of myself and how I could control many things I previously had set on auto-pilot. I changed many aspects of my life. What I’ve found though, is most folks I have ever known are on auto-pilot their whole lives. I think humans are built this way. Why fix something that ain’t broke? Why need to think about self… Read more »
christa
christa
2 years 8 months ago

Personal identity isn’t always something that one is sure of. You have to create your own image and live it, fully everyday. Some people are told lies about themselves, usually by people who are closeset to them too. They may also be stereotyped or have been told they aren’t capable of much. I think a lot of this factors into determining your identity and how that affects all aspects of living. Sometimes you just need to put down the “book of untruths” that you’ve been reading, and wrote a new story. Nothing worth doing is easy.

Nack
Nack
2 years 8 months ago

We invent self as a child’s fantasy. It has no substance; it is never fulfilled.
In lieu of ego, try approaching reality as a part of the whole, and watch what happens to your “free will” then.

Dan
Dan
2 years 8 months ago

“try approaching reality as a part of the whole”

Would you mind expanding on this idea? What exactly is the “shift of focus”, if you will.

Nack
Nack
2 years 8 months ago
Self, identity, and ego are three words for the same tool. The self is what We use to perceive reality. The five senses are tools of sensation, while self is a tool for perception. With the self We interpret all of the sensations of feeling, hearing, seeing, smelling, and tasting as they relate to a narrowly specific ego. The self is developed by the environment, shaped by experience. Every decision any human being has ever made goes thus: ‘Which of my options produces the maximum amount of happiness, taking into account the price i must pay?’ Now, that isn’t to… Read more »
Dan
Dan
2 years 8 months ago

Thank you for the informative point of view. I am curious to learn more, but I do not want to hijack the thread. Do you have any books, etc., which I can investigate for more info on this topic? I have trouble comprehending how to “enact the shift, one can only cancel thoughts of self, of ‘my will’ and act in accordance with nature” within the current “modern world” landscape.

Inez
Inez
2 years 8 months ago

I agree with Nack that the self is fantasy. My quest is to leave fantasy behind and just be.

Mark C.
2 years 8 months ago
Thank you, Mark. I think I unintentionally skirted on this when I was beginning my primal journey. I had not had a lot of luck watching what I ate or cutting out certain foods in the past and I knew that. So to get myself going on primal, I told everyone around me about it – I had many long talks with my parents who still are devout believers in SAD, I reached out to my coworkers to help motivate me and join me in the journey, and I told my family that this was something that had to change… Read more »
Chase
Chase
2 years 8 months ago
For me, my self-identity has revolved around a question I asked myself early on…what is the purpose of life, if not to be as happy as possible? If you try to be as happy as possible in life and force yourself to approach that question from an OBJECTIVE viewpoint, the more things become clear over time. It wasn’t until I stumbled on this blog that I fully realized how important food is to health. From there I began to understand how food affects EVERY single aspect of our lives when we care where it comes from and when we learn… Read more »
Sam
2 years 8 months ago

Can anyone do a TL;DR on this article for me. I got a bad case of brain frog right now, and I’m interested in what this article is saying.

dotsyjmaher
dotsyjmaher
2 years 8 months ago

Excellent……it kicked what has been swirling in the back of my mind for years to the front mind which keeps struggling with serious past trauma dragging down my real identity….which on the surface operates pretty well…..but which I have never allowed to soak all the way in….to be able to feel the enjoyment of operating well in spite of past troublemakers …..Thanks!

Kelda
2 years 8 months ago

Lovely post, thanks, it’s a privilege to share in your unfolding journey.

As a therapist said to me in the last few years ‘it’s not out there’.

Bethany
Bethany
2 years 8 months ago

I don’t recall where I found this quote, but it seems to apply here …” If you believe it will work out, you’ll see the opportunities. If you believe it won’t, you’ll see the obstacles.”

Elenor
Elenor
2 years 8 months ago
Making the switch from an unconscious self-image to a defined and chosen self-image can give — must give — an anchor to how you go about in the world, how you interact, what choices you make and actions you take. Let me recommend you consider doing so before you’re forced to by events! I had always seen myself as orbiting my beloved husband Michael; my married life revolved around him; I described my life as ‘‘tuning my sails to his winds.’’ In fact, we were only apart (for longer than it took me to go shopping) for a total of… Read more »
Rikki
Rikki
2 years 8 months ago

I really liked this post. I am a counselor and have been working with my groups and clients this week about core beliefs and how they impact the way we interact with the world. This is a perfect complement to that, it’s also a reminder to me to walk the walk as well. In my job it’s easy to be the objective observer to other people’s lives and struggles but in my own life I forget to utilize the same tools I’m handing out to others, so thank you for the very appropriate reminder. 🙂

Debbie
2 years 8 months ago

David Brooks’s column in the New York Times today actually is about this topic. Worth a read.

maidel
2 years 8 months ago
One of your very best posts! Here’s an ethnic idea that may work for some. I have a great deal of respect for some of my ancestors. I’m aware that I would not be who I am, without what they were and did, without what they gave me. I carry a photo with me of my dad to remind me of that gift and to keep me on the straight and narrow. I don’t want to veer off course. I want to be able to tell him some day that I tried my level best to honor him, and his… Read more »
Todd Gilligan
Todd Gilligan
2 years 8 months ago

Aristotle said ‘what you do repeatedly, Is who you are. Therefore ‘Fake it till you make it’. Just don’t over fake it otherwise you’ll look like a wanker.

nicole
nicole
2 years 8 months ago

I have always believed ideas find us when we need them. I have been struggling with this a lot the past few weeks including an epiphany while walking & talking about this very subject with a friend. Even seeing my problem with fresh(er?) eyes, I was unsure how to move past the obstacle to make the good choices over and over. And voila! – here is your article. I have a feeling I will be reading it several times over the next few days as I work on my self-identity. Thank you.

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