Picture this situation. You go to a large family reunion; the largest one ever put together in your life. There are a number of people you know, of course, but plenty of distant relatives you have not actually met. Perhaps you get a card from them during the holidays, but you don’t really know them and they don’t really know you. So you meet a distant relative named Steve – you and Steve get to chatting and getting to know one another (thankfully everyone has name tags to make things less awkward).
“Hi Steve, it’s great to finally meet you!”
“Hey there Joe, great to meet you too! It’s been fun to get your cards in the mail each year and seeing your family grow. Your son is getting so big! What’s his name again?
“His name’s Sam – yeah they grow quick don’t they? Haha.”
“Absolutely. So I’m curious, Joe, what do you do?”
“I am a Real Estate agent (conversation follows . . . )”
Does this conversation sound familiar? In all kinds of situations, small talk and getting to know people often starts (or includes) the question, “What do you do?” and we answer by saying, “I am a _______.” Seems normal, right? What we may not realize is that we all, inadvertently, create identities for ourselves based on our actions. In this scenario above, Joe’s identity is in being a real estate agent.
Now I think we can give Joe the benefit of a doubt and assume that, if we directly asked him, “Joe, what do you find your identity in?” He might not straight up say, “It’s solely in my work as a real estate agent.” But perhaps he might say things like, “I’m a Dad – I love my kids, being a good husband to my wife, making a positive impact in my community. . .”
Even in that kind of response, Joe’s stating roles he plays in life and the actions/work those roles involve as his identity – who he says he is.
I think many (if not all?) of us can think of a time in life when we have spoken about ourselves to others in that way.
You might be asking, “What’s your point? Isn’t that a perfectly normal and reasonable way to think, and thing to say?” I would argue that yes it’s normal, but I would also argue it’s deceptively toxic and destructive.
Actions fueling who we are VS. Beliefs fueling our actions:
When we live our lives operating in the pattern of putting who we are in the hands of what we do (our performance/actions), what happens when we can no longer perform? What happens when we lose that job that defined so much of our day-to-day life? What happens when we realize we simply don’t do a good enough job at that role we identify ourselves in? What if a person puts her identity in being a mom, and then she doesn’t see her kids grow up the way she hoped?
Some people adapt, others enter into an identity crisis. Some people struggle through, and others shut down into depression. Some folks just limp on by with a low view of themselves, and therefore act that way, too. However we react – the takeaway is – it deeply affects us to our core.
Ultimately, we act in accordance with what we believe (about ourselves, about others, about the world, about spirituality). However, we usually fuel what we believe based on what we do.
But what if we lived our life “backwards”? What if we focused on shaping our identity based on our beliefs instead of our actions?
You see, we often get discouraged when we don’t stick with our new habits and goals. That is often because what we are doing (actions) do not really line up with our identity (belief – who we really think we are).
Check out the title picture below as an example:
You can see that it’s a cycle – everything feeds each other directly or indirectly. On the one hand, it does make sense to why we often put our identity/belief in the hands of our actions/results – after all, what we accomplish fuels our confidence, and can shape how we view ourselves and what we believe about ourselves.
Where we can get in our own way with growing in our lives, pushing through challenges, making habit changes, and reaching goals, is when we treat the starting point of this cycle with our results. Instead, the origin point that starts and primarily fuels this cycle is belief. Here’s the secret, we can actually, in part, choose what we believe. We do not always get to choose/control our results.
Here’s an example of why this distinction is so important:
Scenario #1 – Using results to fuel habit change:
“I have tried to make diet changes (action) and lose weight (result) and feel healthier (result), but I go back to my old ways every time (result). I am (these are the two key works that scream belief/identity) someone who just doesn’t have control and willpower.”
Scenario #2 – Using belief/identity to fuel habit change:
“I am someone who believes it’s possible to feel better, and that I am persistent in trying new things to get there (identity/belief). I simply haven’t found the right solution for me yet but I know what approaches don’t work for me, and that matters (thought).”
I’ll let you fill in the blank with how you think this person’s (scenario #2) feelings are positively impacted, and how that affects their actions and results. I imagine, too, that even if the results don’t pan out the way s/he hopes, it won’t deter him/her because of the belief centered in knowing it’s possible to get results by trying until those results are realized.
This concept, which is really profound when you think about it, runs deep. In my personal development reading, I’ve noticed numerous authors all explain the same concept, just in their own words. Some examples, besides the above illustration, are James Clear (book “Atomic Habits”) and Sara Best (book “Turning Off The Tap”). I highly recommend both these books to anyone. Even other articles you find out there show this theme. Even certain religious beliefs teach this too. When multiple circles/people from different backgrounds are trying to say the same thing – that’s a clue that, maybe, they’re really on to something.
First, get a good understanding of what you truly believe deep down. What do you believe is true about yourself? What kind of person are you? What do you believe is true about the world? What do you believe spiritually? Do all those areas make sense with each other?
Of course, the question is, “How do I even figure out what I believe?” The suggestion from many of these authors is to work backwards. Start with your feelings (actual emotion words like “bitter, sad, happy, unsettled, etc”) and then think about what thoughts drive those feelings. Then, think about what is fueling those thoughts. That will get you back to your beliefs.
Then, what do you think about those beliefs? Now that they are more clear and identified, do you think those beliefs are true and appropriate? Does it have to be true, or could you change those beliefs?
Just remember that whatever you try to change in your beliefs – keep it to the realm of possibility. Choosing to believe you can fly like superman simply doesn’t correlate with reality, and your subconscious self knows it and will reject it. Choosing to believe something that is a few degrees different from what you currently believe may be a better approach. (Think back to the two scenarios above – same person, but different belief that still could be maintained despite the results).
However, to do any of this, you need to have some time in your day/week to be able to think and reflect. Without any time for reflection, your brain won’t have the space and opportunity to process these questions and get anywhere. Life will simply spin on auto-pilot, and you’ll keep on believing what you believe, thinking the way you think, feeling the way you feel, and doing what doesn’t work. But, even with 5 – 10 minutes a day, you can, to paraphrase Sara Best, “reprogram your brain and beliefs to fuel lasting habit changes!” How cool is that?
Again – for more reading on this concept, I highly recommend the books “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, and “Turning Off The Tap” by Sara Best.
To you health and wellbeing,
Lead Health Coach, Dan Tribley
EPIC Functional Medicine