Recently I completed reading two books (links below) that discuss identity and how the invisible hand of our past and people/society shape us. Knowing how we see ourselves is critical if we are to look at things differently or make lasting positive changes in life. In this article, I’d like to share two insights so you can use the information and increase your self awareness to be more productive and intentional towards the things that matter most to you, and live into your true self.
First, identity is defined as below “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”.
Identity is how we see ourselves. At first thought, perhaps we see ourselves as a man or woman (or other), as a father, a sister. We can identify based on our roles at work, a lawyer, a salesman etc. We can identify with where we are from or what we like to do. We can join a group and do things to ‘fit in’ at first. A retired police officer once told me that when he was new he made his experienced colleagues nervous because he didn’t drink coffee or swear. When he learned this, the need to fit in, and ultimately prove belonging was strong enough that this individual went out the get a “f---ing cup of coffee” immediately!
The example above and many others more subtle, the clothes we wear, the jargon we use, etc., slowly but surely contribute to building the person we are, for better or worse. If you are reading this, I hope you are doing well. I hope you love and appreciate yourself for who you are today. That being said, I hope too that you are looking for ways to improve your life for more joy and happiness. By taking time to reflect on who we are, we can begin to build our identity intentionally and be aware of the difficulties that can befall us as we look to make these most important changes.
Examining Identity Can Help you Break Bad Habits and Build Good Ones.
Unlike some parts of our being that we are proud of or at least indifferent towards, some things we believe about ourselves, can hold us back, and bringing that out for examination can support making changes. For example, someone who identifies as a smoker, if they do stop smoking may backslide to their old habit because not smoking does not fit with the way they see themselves. Contrast this with a person who manages to quit and has made a shift in how they perceive themselves (a shift in their identity). If they now look at themselves as a non smoker, a person that is fit and active, etc., then going back to smoking is the action that would be incongruent.
The concept of cognitive dissonance describes situations where your beliefs and identity are not in line with your actions. If you want to be a non-smoker, and can’t seem to quit the habit, continuing to smoke creates a dissonance. Generally people will try to reduce this level of dissonance by generating narratives that support what they are doing. In the smoking example, someone might say to themselves that “well the science is always changing and one day the researchers will find that smoking really isn’t all that bad for you”.
There are many examples of how people cope with cognitive dissonance, they can be instructive in helping us understand what stories we hold onto for ourselves. We can ask ourselves “how do we know this is true”, and while it might be difficult and we may need support (like a coach, or counselling), we could start to see that some of the narratives we believe are actually possible to change.
For many of my clients, being “too busy” is a common refrain. I’m swamped, I don’t have time… are often used to describe the feeling of being behind or overwhelmed by work or responsibilities. When we take the perspective that we are responsible for our life, that we are intentional in how we live it, we have to take responsibility for all the situations we find ourselves in. In short, we have, whether we like to admit it or not, chosen the overwhelm we suffer from each day.
Gasp! Yes, overwork and overwhelm is a choice. A failure to skill up, prioritize, plan or adapt is at the heart of most cases of stress related to overwhelm. Without support and deliberate reflection on our situation, we simply react with our current toolbox to the new challenge. I see this in people that are not able to manage new interpersonal situations or adapt to a new requirement of their work. They are coming to the new “jobsite” that requires a skill or tool that they don’t have, and worse, don’t know that they can acquire because they haven’t stopped to think.
“A failure to skill up, prioritize, plan or adapt is at the heart of most cases of stress related to overwhelm.”
Becoming more self aware of your stories like in the above can help you build new productive habits. Taking ownership of your circumstances can help you find new ways to move forward and avoid the victim narrative.
Examining Identity Can Help You Live True to Yourself with Love
Examining your identity can help you become a mentally healthier and happier you. Brene Brown has done a lot of research on the parts of identity that can sabotage us from living and loving into our true selves. Her work is vast, and I encourage you to pick up the books in the references for a more full explanation.
From my understanding, Brene has researched shame and scarcity and discovered the parts of a person’s identity, in this case, gender identity, that can influence our behaviour. The origins of the identity can be so deep seeded, that many of us perhaps don’t recognise it as something that can be changed. When we are living our life with the expectations of society paramount, without examination of whether those expectations truly fit us, we risk the cognitive dissonance and unhappiness that can follow.
First, Brene has researched the common expectations related to gender and found that for women, there is an expectation that they be a good mother, beautiful, thin, working on something outside the home and more social expectations that are almost impossible to live up to. Brene goes on to describe how incongruent and difficult it is for women to live up to these standards by using examples, and again I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book.
For men, Brene found one overarching source of shame and that was to “not be a pu--y” (pardon the language but this is what came from her research), that is, to not be perceived as weak. Brene’s research uncovered what many men already know (and don’t talk about). That is that men are encouraged to be open, vulnerable, but when that actually happens, if the man is brave enough to do that, he’s often met with revulsion, and a rejection from the women who’d encouraged the sharing in the first place.
There are forces are at work in our busy days that influence how we behave. We can miss the quiet signals we are holding ourselves back from who we really are or what we really want to do because it’s not in line with the social narratives we are (or think we are) expected to uphold. If we build awareness around the social pressure we are under to conform, we have a better chance of recognizing the influence and can then do something about it.
Having support to walk you through a proven process to uncover your narratives and limiting beliefs can be helpful with all sorts of change. Changes are always hard to make. By reading (I suggest the books below) and having expert help you can become more aware of the invisible forces that are at work that prevent you from progressing as planned. Whatever changes you are hoping to make, I wish you good luck but more than that I encourage you to increase your chance of success by reflecting on your identity and how you can consciously use it as a tool for growth instead of it existing unseen as an immovable object that chains you to your fate.
My Top 5 Book List:
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References from this article: