So 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?
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.”
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.