Is your identity getting in the way of your progress?

I’m going to make a confession. When I first started health and fitness coaching I envisioned myself walking into a well-appointed studio, giving my client a fantastic workout, handing them a meal plan and -BAM!- they would get the results they were after! Though I was excited to help people and well-intentioned, I was naive. If there is one thing I’ve learned in my years as a health coach it’s that helping people change their health and physical appearance has little to do with food and exercise and more to do with their identity.

Let me explain what I mean…

Your identity is how you perceive yourself. Every one of your actions is driven by this perception and the fundamental belief that the behaviour is possible. Statements like, “I’m the kind of person who is always late,” or “I’m the type of person who never misses workout,” reflect identity. It’s true that the individual is not the sole-contributor to their personal identity – outsiders also influence our self-perception. If you were told by a teacher that you were “weak in math” you may take on that belief and feel defeated which impacts your behaviour (giving up quickly on problems, neglecting studying and having a negative attitude).

Regardless of how we arrive at our identity, these beliefs are self-fulfilling prophecies as we act in accordance with them and then are faced with the consequences. If we identify as the type of person who never misses a workout, we are much more likely to behave in a way to supports that belief, thereby verifying our identity. If we identify as the type of person who can’t pass up cookies, we are much more likely to behave in a way that supports that belief, thereby verifying our identity. As you can see, identity is multi-faceted and it can work for you by encouraging your good habits or against you by encouraging the habits that you’d like to change.

So, are we stuck with our current identities and the habits that accompany them?

Absolutely not!

Before we get into the how can we take a moment to appreciate that we can change our identities, our habits and therefore virtually anything about ourselves?! This is almost a superpower!

So, let’s talk about how we change our identities. James Clear, author of Transform Your Habits, breaks the process down into two very concise parts.

DECIDE ON THE TYPE OF PERSON YOU WANT TO BE.

PROVE IT TO YOURSELF WITH SMALL WINS.

I really like Clear’s simple process because it discourages people from making two of the most detrimental and common mistakes there are when it comes to changing our habits.

The first one, as discussed, is trying to change our behaviours without paying attention to our identity. Many people try to adopt an onslaught of new habits with no consideration for their current identity or their desired identity (who they want to be). Doing this is almost like trying to beat our current identity into submission or deny it’s existance which can only work for so long until our brains fight back (our brains dislike when our beliefs and our actions don’t match up).

The second mistake people make is trying to take on too much at once. You must start with very, very small steps that support the new identity you have chosen. The smaller the better, in fact. Make it impossible to fail. Each time that you complete a small win stop, recognize it and pat yourself on the back for developing your new chosen identity. Reward yourself. Tell yourself, ‘Great job!’ or think ‘I’m proud of myself.’ The accumulation of small wins over time and constantly reinforcing your new identity is how you will go from who you are right now to the person that you want to be.

“Make it so easy that you can’t say no.”

Leo Babauta

Let’s go over a couple examples.

EXAMPLE #1

Current Identity: I’m the type of person that never eats vegetables.

Desired Identity: I want to become the type of person who eats vegetables at every meal.

Small Wins: Eat one bite of vegetables at one of your meals. Over time, increase that to two bites, then three, then five bites at two meals per day…

Tell Yourself: I’m doing a great job! I’m becoming the type of person who eats vegetables!

EXAMPLE #2

Current Identity: I’m the type of person that binges on junk food.

Desired Identity: I want to become the type of person who is in control around junk food.

Small Wins: Every day that you don’t binge on junk food is a win. Even if you have some junk food but you don’t binge, that’s a win.

Tell Yourself: I really can learn to control myself around junk food. I am becoming the type of person who can have one cookie without devouring the whole box!

“The key to building lasting habits is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviours are simply a reflection of your current identity. What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously).”

James Clear, Transform Your Habits

Remember that when going through this process, proving your new identity to yourself is going to be more important than getting a certain result (such as weight loss). By working on proving your identity to yourself you are encouraging the behaviours that are required to get those results and making those behaviours engrained habits. This is what is important for long term success–focusing on the process, not the outcomes. Attaining a particular goal often becomes useless if we haven’t developed habits along the way that allow us to sustain the result. Sustain > attain.

What is one current identity that you hold that you would like to change? What are the small wins that will get you there?

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