Deciding to Be Someone New
The process and nuances of changing your personal identity, both internally and externally.
Over the years I've been a musician, a spiritual teacher, a personal trainer and athlete, a high paid marketing expert, a life and business coach, a foodie, a lover in a long-term relationship, a graphic designer, and more. Each one of these shifts required me to change my personal perception, daily routines, lifestyle, and "overall vibe". This article will aim to inspire new thoughts about the nature of your personal identity, as well as offer a path on how to create an entirely new version and experience of yourself.
"Who do you think you are?"
Depending on your background, that question should elicit different responses:
If you had demeaning parents/teachers/etc, then perhaps that triggered a feeling of inadequacy, conditioned to hold back from aspiring to greatness.
If you are inclined towards new age spirituality, you might assert the connection between thoughts, and personal identity - "my thoughts create my reality, so who I think I am becomes who I am".
If you're a seasoned meditator, you might not identify with your thoughts at all - "what I think is transient as the clouds in the sky, impermanent and ever-changing. My thoughts don't inform my true nature".
But, chances are you have many thoughts about yourself playing on repeat in your head that make up the matrix of self-perception. Typically the thoughts about ourselves we strongly identify with refer to our careers, memberships to groups, relationships to others, hobbies, likes/dislikes, political views, etc.
"I'm a father/mother"
"I'm a CEO in the tech industry"
"I'm a Republican"
"I'm a volunteer"
"I'm a musician"
"I'm a soccer player"
These are obvious; but who we think we are can also manifest as perception of habits and tendencies.
"I'm lazy and unmotivated"
"I'm masculine and strong"
"I'm a hard worker"
What's interesting about these thoughts is that they don't necessarily inform the objective truth of who you are. Other people can have totally different perceptions of you; just because you think it doesn't make it true. You can say that you're unloved and have no friends in a moment of despair, when in reality, there are plenty of people who care deeply about you. You can say that you're working hard, when in reality you do the bare minimum of what's expected of you.
Thoughts about ourselves can often be ego protective mechanisms, self delusions or retroactive justifications to prevent us from confronting the uncomfortable feelings of shame and self responsibility.
Thoughts about ourselves are only one aspect of the entirety of our "personality matrix". Beyond thoughts, there are also actions (habitual and intentional), relationships, subconscious beliefs, environment, and more subtle forces that are beyond the scope of this writing.
"Who we think we are" informs who we are and become, but doesn't make up the entirety of it. The new age spiritualist obsessed with positive thoughts and favourable self-perception trying to 'manifest' everything is short sighted in their lack of action. The hyper-motivated goalsetter pays too much attention to cause and effect of their actions without paying attention to their environment and energy.
So who are you, anyways?
The question is certainly difficult to answer with the nearly infinite variables that make up your changing personality. While our true natures might be impossible to pin down, our experience of ourselves can be changed intentionally, created through careful attention to how we think and behave.
This article focuses on the process of becoming and embodying a new version of self, in thoughts, words, and deeds.
People have an unfortunate tendency of saying they want to become someone new without backing it up with the seeds of new actions, and without weeding out their current personality's habits. I used to help people who were struggling with online coaching businesses - most of the time, their success came down to embodying the thing that they were trying to coach more.
If you're a health coach, do you live your life exercising, preparing healthy foods, reading about nutrition and athletic mindsets? Do you have meetup groups where you all hike, go to fitness conventions, podcast with other coaches, and network with other health-focused people?
If you're a relationship coach, do you spend your life marvelling at how wonderful a life shared with your partner is? Do you read and write poetry about love? Do you study the psychology of attachment and bonding? Are you friends with other couples?
If you want to be a millionaire, do you even look at your bank statements and track your spending? Do you focus on creating massive amounts of value for the world, solving million-dollar problems? Do you wake up in the morning with a fire in your belly, networking with as many great minds as you can, reading biographies of great businessmen and marketers throughout history?
Are your behaviours consciously curated to fit the new identity that you want to embody?
Or do you repeat the same routines, follow the same compulsions, scrolling social media for hours and letting your days slip away to the comforts of familiarity?
Becoming someone new is as much about letting go of what you currently do as it is about adopting new beliefs and behaviours. It's not as much "fake it until you make it", but rather, "live it until you become it".
So what do you work on first? Your self-talk, or your actions?
Thoughts and action can be a bit like a 'chicken or the egg' thing - does self identity inform my actions? Or do actions inform my self identity? They arise mutually, and so I focus on both when trying to change who I am. Instead of being overly methodical about it though, I like to take a more playful angle:
Who You Are as a Creative Project
When becoming a new version of self, it's easiest and most fun to view the process as a creative project. There are a few benefits to this mentality:
For one, you'll take yourself less seriously. Rather than viewing the failure of a new habit as something worthy of self-condemnation, you'll see it the same way as a painting needing a different shade of blue in the sky. You'll experiment more with your approach, you'll get more imaginative with your behavioural change attempts, and make the entire thing more playful.
Creative projects usually start with a vision, a definition of what it is that you want to create. Usually my visions begin fairly detailed, but leave a lot of room for my actual creative process to shape the final product as I get on with it. This lets me be very specific about the outcome that I want, without being neurotic about the exact process taken to get there. Sometimes surrendering to the creative flow makes the final outcome even better than I imagined at the outset.
My current "creative project of personal identity" is to become a writer. I have a few ideas of what a writer is and does (for one, a writer writes, duh), but I wanted a more clear vision of what it would mean for me to live my LIFE as a writer.
I hoped to gain insight from a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey, which outlines how famous painters, composers, writers, and other artists would arrange their routines to invite inspiration and focus into their work. I noticed that many a great artist relied on chaos and inebriation, which I used to believe were essential ingredients for fertile creative grounds. I made a conscious decision that I would NOT rely on alcohol, heartbreak, and neurosis to be a great artist, but rather forge my own path that was aligned with my other values of health, loving relationships, wonderment, optimism, and spirituality.
I wrote a lengthy prose detailing what my life as a writer looked like, the emotions that I felt as I grappled with inspiration to find the right words for my books (and how I handled it), the joy I felt when I saw my first articles published, the satisfaction I had sitting in cafés around the world with my laptop and a coffee, allowing words to flow out of my fingertips from some ethereal source of the muse.
I also detailed out some of the more mundane and routine things:
What were my daily habits?
What did I consume on a regular basis?
How did I interact with my partner day-to-day?
What environment did I put myself in?
Doing to Be : Habits and Routines
One of the lengthiest articles that I've written on Conscious Grounding was an in-depth look at what drives our unconscious behaviours, and what we're up against when it comes to trying to change our habits. In it, I outlined three main reasons why people fail to make lasting changes in their lives:
Lack of Awareness of Physiological Factors that Affect Behaviour/Habits
Not Addressing Identity-Level Beliefs
Fear of Loss of the Old Reality
When we're trying to change our behaviours and start aligning ourselves to our new vision, we also have to start relentlessly cutting out behaviours that AREN'T aligned.
In my case, when becoming a writer, I had to look at my habits that detracted from my focus and attention, sapped my energy, and ultimately made me feel less in integrity with my new identity. I couldn't spend hours playing video games or scrolling social media anymore, because I had to spend those hours writing, reading, or at least being involved in my life enough to be inspired to write about something.
Breaking the Habits:
My awareness of the physiological factors that affect my habits meant that I knew I was addicted to my phone. The fast and hard dopamine hits that I got from scrolling social media kept me coming back, mostly unconsciously, to be a passive observer of junk-food style instant gratification. Knowing that I would have to control my environment to more easily control my compulsions; I put my Nintendo in storage so if I REALLY wanted to play, I'd have to go all the way downstairs, unlock my storage locker, unbox the system, and reconnect it to the TV - MUCH harder than grabbing it and plopping on the couch.
I set up timers on my phone for my social media, and as much as possible, kept my phone on a leash - meaning that it STAYED connected to the charger in my room, instead of taking it with me all the time. Instead, I've kept my Kindle within arms length, so whenever I'm tempted to fill the gaps in my day with distraction, I'm at least picking up a book and looking at great writing.
I'll stack the odds in my favour by making it so that the 'bad stuff' is harder to access, and the 'good stuff' is much easier to access. I know that my environment affects who I am as a person (more on this later), and I will try to cultivate the space I'm in to foster that new version of self.
Identity Level Beliefs:
I also knew that I'd have to do away with some of my inner narratives. For the longest time, I've considered myself ADHD, or lacking focus. I've put a tremendous amount of work through meditation and practicing sustained attention to know that I AM capable of being focused and deliberate with my work, but with the identity of writing in particular, I needed to come to grips with the idea that I'd be sitting for hours focusing on a single piece of writing.
There were other ideas about myself - that I wouldn't be good enough for people to want to read, that I would never be able to write compelling fiction (because I didn't read enough of it), and more self narratives that would limit my capacity to embody my new identity.
Rather than succumb to them, I wrote three columns:
The current belief that was holding me back, the new belief that I wanted to replace it with, and the new action that I would use to reaffirm that my new belief was justified. In order for a new belief to take hold, it's not enough to just say it out loud or repeat it in your head - your subconscious still is looking for proof. Unless you're REALLY good at tricking yourself with self-hypnosis, you gotta back it up.
1- Current Belief
2- New Belief
3- New Action to Reaffirm
I can't write good fiction
I'm creative and compelling
Read a new fiction novel once per month, and write a short story for every nonfiction piece you write
I get lost in the flow of creative work, undistracted for hours
Eliminate distractions and spend a few hours daily on ONE task (writing or reading)
I can't be a writer, AND a successful businessperson, AND athletic. The time commitment is restrictive.
I create time in my schedule for everything that I want to do and be.
Wake up early to write for two hours in the morning, more on the weekends. Train x3/week in the gym, and work as normal.
My work isn't important enough to read
I create because I have to, not because I need the validation of others
Write and share articles and stories with the world, regardless of the inner voice of perfectionism
This article was a manifestation of that last belief that I'm trying to rework. I was embarrassed that the last good article I posted on my blog was over a year ago, I have alienated many of my friends and acquaintances on social media as I went through personal shifts, and I wasn't sure that anyone would have much of a care about what I have to say.
Not only is that not true objectively (I still get messages from people saying that my writing has helped them and my perspectives are useful), but in the new frame that I'm building, I'm not writing for other peoples' validation anyways... I'm writing because I have to, because that's what writers do.
So, the three step process in creating a new identity belief is to figure out which ones you currently have that are holding you back, determining what belief you would need to support you instead, then taking action over and over in a way that proves to yourself that your belief is justified.
Addressing the Fear of Loss of Your Current Self
I won't sugarcoat this - changing identities can be a scary process sometimes, coming with both conscious and unconscious fears of the consequences of the shift. You may have to take on new responsibilities, make yourself uncomfortable by giving up the familiar, adjust the relationships that you have in your life, and in general, turn the world as you know it on its head.
Many people can say they want to be rich, but believe that money is the root of all evil and don't want wealth to make them a bad person. They say that they want to be in a relationship, but they believe that they'll lose their freedom if they commit to someone. They will dream about being trim and fit, but believe that they must suffer immensely through painful exercise and extreme dietary restriction to enjoy a healthy body. These conflicting desires and beliefs can be a silver bullet to our attempts to shift into new realities, and need to be addressed.
To counter this, you can try the following exercise:
Write out your life exactly as it currently is - where you're living, what your daily routines are, who you talk to on a regular basis, how much you work, what you eat, etc. Put as much detail about what you do, and how you feel about it. Be objective, and make an effort to explain it EXACTLY as it is.
Then write out your life as you envision it being with your new reality, replacing all the details with how your new version of life would live.
When you're looking at the big picture of each version of your life, which one would you rather live?
Notice the things that you would likely have to give up from the first narrative, which things have the biggest emotional charge. Ask yourself if you would trade your new life to hold onto the things that you're afraid of losing. View it in a big picture sense.
In my case, I wasn't willing to trade being a published author, someone who is enthralled by getting lost in the flow of creative work, for playing Skyrim on my Nintendo for hours. I wasn't willing to trade the satisfaction of having my ideas positively impact others for the ease of scrolling social media. I wasn't willing to trade a life of honing excellence in my craft just to preserve relationships that obviously took more than they gave.
Sometimes looking at the big picture and really asking yourself what you want more is useful. You're going to have to give SOMETHING up - which one are you going to sacrifice?
This is an exercise of determining your willingness; after you have your vision, you have to be honest about how willing you are to make it come to fruition.
Where you are is WHO you are
I'd be remiss if I underemphasized the importance of environment in changing your personality structure. You can't be a successful businessman if you live on a farm (okay, maybe you can with the internet but... still, you're more likely to network with likeminded people and create new opportunities working in a busy, industrious city than if you were on a ranch tending cattle). You're more likely to fail to lose weight if you live in a donut shop. You won't study as well in a noisy bar as you would in a quiet library.
Where you are matters, and the environment that you put yourself in inspires or sabotages your efforts to change who you are. There are the environment design principles of habit change that I teach (make the good stuff easy, make the bad stuff hard to access), but there is also the subtle energy of a space that can influence how you FEEL.
As a writer, there's something about having a stack of books and my Kindle on my desk, with a cup of coffee nearby, Mozart quietly playing in the background that inspires an easier flow of words as I write. Have the walls painted a certain colour, with art from prolific artists surrounding me, maybe an invigorating incense like peppermint to stimulate my mind, these are all factors that create a different state of being.
There is something powerful about creating the right environment for your new version of self to flourish. You cook in the kitchen, you shower in the bathroom - where do you do the things that your newly envisioned version of self would do? How does that space look?
This is another reason why it's useful to view personality modification as a creative process - changing your environment to be where who YOU want to be is a process that requires a lot of vision.
Don't be afraid to move, to sell all your clothes and furniture, to ditch everything that DOESN'T resonate with who you are becoming in order to cultivate that new environment. It's all part of the process.
The Real Secret to Change...
The most important factor in identity creation in my experience has been tenacity and commitment. If you can't focus on who you want to become, if you become distracted, discouraged, or opportunistic, then you will NOT embody the new version of self.
In my poetic perception, the universe will test your resolve for cracks by offering you easier options that aren't aligned to your vision, will give you distractions dressed as opportunity, but will only derail you from what you REALLY wanted in the first place.
So, what do you really want?
And - who do you have to be to have it?
It's easy to give up. It's easy to get distracted and jump from one thing to the next, having 'shiny new toy syndrome' and grasp for any opportunistic promise of a better life. But there is a power in deciding who you're going to be and committing to that vision.
So what will it be?