You have a dream, a goal you are striving to achieve. There is something that you want to achieve, a person you want to be, or a life you want to live. But it’s not happening.
The habits you have and live life you are living now are not bringing you any closer to what you want. And you don’t see how you could possibly change what you are doing.
The problem that you are facing comes from a good place. And it isn’t really a problem. Rather the problem comes from a rigid way of thinking. A belief that you are who you are and you can’t change that.1
Belonging & Identity
Less obvious is how this need to belong drives our habits. And especially how it can keep us trapped in habits that aren’t serving us.
When we belong to a group, it forms a base for our identity to be built upon. Your family, religion, the area you grew up, the traditions that you keep, these are all key pieces to your identity and groups in which you belong.
We refer to communities that we belong in by saying, “I am a __.” I am a dietitian. I am a writer. I am an introvert. We proclaim that we belong with those little sentences.
By itself, this is healthy and normal. We can reassure ourselves of our place in the world. It is how our brains work.
There is a dark side to this impulse though. Unconsciously, we use them to box ourselves in and restrict the possibilities in front of us. We get stuck in old identities that no longer fit or serve us.
I can’t get up early because I’m a night owl.
I can’t keep my office organized because I’m not a neat freak.
I can’t run because I’m not fit.
I can’t write a book because I’m a procrastinator.
These kinds of identity-based limiting beliefs are so hard to spot and even once you do they can be hard to deal with. You have a belief about yourself, and you don’t think to question it because its, “just the way you are.”
This is a little hard to talk about in an abstract way, so let’s use a specific example.
Learning to get up early
I recently started getting up at 6am during the week. I had been thinking about it for at least a year, but my initial reaction was always the same.
How could I possibly get up earlier when I’m so tired in the morning as it is? I would lay in bed for 20 or 30 minutes before reluctantly getting up. I figured I “wasn’t a morning person.”
At the same time, I know my brain works so much better for writing and other creative things in the morning. And I wanted to write more.
This state of confusion is called “cognitive dissonance”. It happens when you value, believe, or want one thing, but you are acting in the opposite way. It’s not comfortable.
Usually, when we are faced with cognitive dissonance, we distract ourselves. We pull out our phone, scroll social media or play games, and numb the discomfort. But when we confront those thoughts, it can lead to amazing changes in our lives. 2
I knew I had to do something different to get a different result. So I decided to experiment. I set my alarm for 6am. I made a promise to myself that I would not press snooze and I would get up right away. I also promised myself that if I was miserable after a week, I could stop next week.
The first morning came around and I was not particularly happy about getting up. I was tired, but I had committed to the experiment, so I got up. A funny thing happened though, by the time I finished a short yoga session, I was as awake as usual. And by the time I finished breakfast, I was ready to go up to my office to work on a project.
I proved to myself that I can get up at 6. And I proved to myself that it doesn’t matter that it takes me a few minutes to actually wake up after I get out of bed.
Two things made it possible for me to commit to the experiment and follow through.
- The experiment was short. Only 1 week. Long enough to have a taste, but not so much that it was overwhelming and triggered my inclination to procrastinate.
- I kept my mind open to possibilities. I did find that it was worth it to get up at 6. But I acknowledged that I might find that it was too tiring, or that it might not be useful to get up that early.
Having a sense of belonging is important for us, and we tie this to our identity, who we believe ourselves to be. But these beliefs can become a source of limitation.
If we pay attention to the thoughts that arise in our mind, we can notice how we identify ourselves with the phrase, “I am a __.” Self-limiting beliefs can show up as “I can’t because I am ” or “I can’t because I’m not __.”
You can confront self-limiting beliefs by setting up short experiments. Follow 3 principles to create your experiment.
- Know why you are running the experiment.
- Commit. Once you start, see it through.
a. Keep the experiment short. It should be long enough to get a feel for what it will be like, but short enough that it is not overwhelming. I recommend 1 week – but do what works for you.
b. Be open to the possibility that it will work. And also that it might not.
Let me know in the comments: What change are you thinking about making? What experiment do you want to try?
You are reading this because you are interested in improving your life. That means we have something in common. I’m still working on what the Foundations for the Good Life is all about, and I’d love for you to join me in this journey. I’d love to build a community with you. With people who are trying to figure out what “the good life” means, and how to set up their life to make it possible for them.
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- This relates directly to Carol Dweck’s TED talk on fixed versus growth mindsets.
- By the way, this is one way that working with a health professional can help. Mental health workers are, of course, trained in this,. And many other health professionals are also trained to help you work through this ambivalence.