“Are you becoming the type of person you want to become?”*
Too often we approach self-improvement with the intention of achieving some outward goal. (I want to lose weight; I want to make more money; I want to stop drinking; etc)
This method of reaching for something ‘out there,’ a goal outside of ourselves, creates a situation where we must use willpower to change our habits or daily actions in order to reach the goal. For example, we will ourselves to order the salad, go to the gym, work more hours, sign up for a class, refuse the 5pm cocktail.
But willpower takes A LOT of energy. And this kind of energy is finite… it will eventually run out!
Which is why we eventually find ourselves eating late night cookies, skipping the class we already paid for, having another glass of wine, etc. It is so much easier to revert back to the habits that have been engrained in our neural pathways (see Thoughts on Thoughts) than it is to exert the willpower to make new ones.
But in Atomic Habits, author James Clear suggests that we have been approaching habit change all wrong. Instead of working towards an external goal, we ought to be examining our identity of self.
Who do we believe we are? Our habits and daily actions reflect the beliefs we hold about ourselves.
Before January 7, 2018, I believed myself to be a “Drinker.” In fact, I considered myself the life of the party. My sense of self was built around my identity of Party-Girl. It was a running joke with everyone I knew, and had been for years —Skye was the biggest partier and the craziest drunk. But I was ok with it, because that is where I believed my value existed — I was the one who brought everyone together for wine-tastings and dress-up parties; I was the one who kept us going with rounds of shots (and relentless peer pressure).
When I decided I needed to quit drinking (for my health, my kids, and my survival), I felt like I would be erasing myself. Sure, I identified in other ways as well — mom, teacher, reader of books, and killer of house plants — but, in my mind, “Skye The Drinker” superseded all those other pieces. I could trace that particular identity back to my teenage years; back to when I was trying to shift away from “Skye The Nerd.”
I could have approached my sobriety with pure willpower, pushing through each alcohol-free day with the fortitude of an exhausted martyr. And I suppose I did a bit at first, as I overcame the physical addiction. But as my drinker-identity fell away, other aspects of myself started being revealed — not unlike when my 5-year-old opens up the tiny packages that come with LOL dolls:
What’s this? A notebook! Maybe I am a writer!? A bicycle?! A yoga mat? A drum? Multiple clothing articles with unicorns on them? hm… maybe I am all these things!
Maybe instead of a “drinker who is trying not to drink” (or, worse yet, “an alcoholic who is staying sober”), I am a unicorn-dress-wearing poet who enjoys kombucha in a fancy glass on Friday nights. Maybe I’m a bike-riding mom who meditates and writes a blog. Maybe I’m a hugger of trees and an amateur grade-school basketball coach.
(That’s why This Naked Mind was so impactful to me when I first decided to quit drinking. Through science and self-awareness, the TNM methodology helped to shift my subconscious beliefs around my relationship with alcohol and release that drinker-identity.)
When our actions are reflective of our identity, it no longer takes willpower to complete them. When a health-conscious person goes to a restaurant, they are happy to choose a side salad instead of fries. When a nondrinker goes to a backyard barbecue where everyone is guzzling beer, it is not a struggle to stay sober. No thanks, I brought my own NA IPA (or La Croix if you’re weird like that).
We make declarations about ourselves, to ourselves. These may not be things you would include in your Linked In bio, but they are the phrases that run in the background of your mind — subconscious beliefs born out of an assessment you made about yourself somewhere along the way.
Listen to your inner monologue. Do you hear any of these unflattering identity declarations popping up on a regular basis?
- I don’t like to workout/read/journal/cook.
- I’m not a morning person.
- I need a drink/treat to relax/unwind/release anxiety.
- I never follow through with diets/exercise/sobriety.
- I always pick the wrong guys/girls.
- I am disorganized/messy.
- I am more fun/sexy when I drink.
- I’m shy/quiet/introverted/awkward.
- I don’t eat healthy foods.
- I never finish what I start.
- I’m always broke/falling behind.
- I’m not as good/smart/pretty as other people.
- I’m unattractive/fat/sloppy/unhealthy.
I know I still struggle with many of these statements. As I try to own my new identities of “empowerment coach” and “entrepreneur,” there are definitely some self-negating beliefs I am still working to overcome.
Our behavior tends to match our identity. When we want to change something about ourselves, we need to start by shifting the declarations we make about who we are.
- I am a writer/runner/yogi/meditator.
- I am healthy/fit/calm/strong.
- I am a life-long learner.
- I am worthy of love/money/happiness.
- I am confident/organized/interesting/helpful.
- I have important things to offer the world.
- I work hard.
- I take care of my body.
In Atomic Habits, Clear says its as simple as this:
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small actions, over and over again.
Changing the language you use in your mind to frame your description of self is the first step in changing your habits or behavior. The more we identify as the person we want to become, the more our behavior will reflect that identity.
For me right now, my identity is shifting as I work towards adopting some new beliefs about myself: My time has value. I am creative. I am a competent business owner. I am a curator of safe space.
Who do you want to become?
©Skye Nicholson 2021
*From: Atomic Habits by James Clear. I highly recommend this book. I’m only 2 chapters in, but man, it’s dropping Ah-Ha’s on me like crazy!
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