We are not born with an identity.
Think about it.
As babies, we had no concept of who we were. There was only what others knew about us – that we were an insatiable, crying mini-tyrant ever in need of a diaper change.
Today, we’re fully-fledged sentient beings with an extensive list of likes and dislikes, a firm set of beliefs about ourselves, the ability to communicate those beliefs, and a handful of individual quirks that spice up our personality.
It’s a remarkable change. This extent of unique identity-formation is specific to our species; we don’t see lions fretting over which flight seat to pick and iguanas scrolling through Netflix specials. Our sense of self is a product of genetics, years of experience, and all the social conditioning we’ve faced along the way – and we hold it to be sacred. How could we not, especially when advice like “Know who you are”, “Stay true to yourself” and “Just be yourself” is standard?
Houston, we have a problem
The fact that we have such distinct identities is great.
What happens when we have a dream or vision for ourselves, and some aspect of this identity that we’ve developed won’t let us achieve our dream?
Let me give you examples:
- What do we do when we’re careless and lack persistence at our goals, and yet harbour ambitions to be successful and make a lot of money? (Sidenote: outward success won’t keep you happy for long.)
- How do we achieve our desire to be healthy and energetic – to look good and feel good in our bodies – if our current routine involves us scarfing down pizza daily and being invisible at the gym?
- And what can we do if we want to be in a happy relationship, but we have anger management issues that we would take out on our partner?
If we do what most people do, we’ll continue to let our dreams just be dreams. Most of us hang on to our identities, no matter how limiting or even harmful they may be, rather than make the effort to change.
Why changing yourself is hard
Psychologists and behavioural scientists have long noted the Status Quo Bias. As the name implies, we’re usually tempted to let things remain the same rather than switch things up. Change, even if it is positive and needed, can be scary to most of us:
We do not perceive change in a rational way.
Our brains are fundamentally loss-averse: we feel the pain of a loss almost twice as much as we feel the happiness of a gain.
This means that when we’re debating making a change – let’s say developing new habits like eating more vegetables and exercising daily – the pain of giving up junk food and being a couch potato registers with us twice as much as the happiness of behaving like adults who’ve got their shit together.
Need for familiarity
Our brains are hard-wired to prefer certainty and familiarity. From an evolutionary point of view, if something is familiar, we have clearly survived exposure to it, and our brain, recognizing this, steers us towards it.
While we do need a certain level of novelty as well to keep things from getting boring, most of us need to experience that novelty on our terms – we need to feel some degree of safety and control around it. Something completely unknown or foreign to us that we feel we have no power over can get our brains flying into panic mode. This is why so many of us prefer to stick to old and unhealthy ways of being.
Obviously, loss aversion and the need for familiarity do not produce sensible decision-making by any means. Good decisions are based on maintaining a balanced view of the potential losses and gains involved, and a certain level of non-attachment to both the familiar and the new. Very few accurate decisions have made been by fearing loss, sticking to what is certain and avoiding immediate pain.
How we justify not changing ourselves
Loss aversion and the need for familiarity can keep us stuck in terrible patterns. Too often we develop unhealthy ways of dealing with things, and then develop justifications for those bad behaviours. We hold these justifications so tightly to our chests that they become an essential part of who we are. To let them go feels like chopping off an arm, or digging out own eyeballs. Who are we supposed to be without our toxic beliefs, behaviours and rationalizations?
- “I have to stop being careless and disorganized if I have to be successful in my career? But I’ve always been laid-back! Why should I change that? It’s good to not be stressed about things!”
- “It’s not my lifestyle that is making me sick. I just have bad genes. I don’t want to be one of those sad people eating salads three times a day. I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”
- “Yeah, I know I take out my anger on my partner and it’s unfair – but he can be so annoying! And he doesn’t treat me right either.”
Justifications can vary, and some may be more convincing than others. It can be hard to separate the truth from our ego-defences and justifications. As far as I can tell, the defining characteristic of a justification is that is self-serving in the short-term, and self-defeating in the longer term. You know you’re justifying what (most probably) shouldn’t be justified when you outsource the pain of changing yourself to the future.
What we must unknow
What deeper beliefs guide these sorts of ultimately destructive actions? We have a couple of things to unknow and re-learn:
The compulsive need to avoid pain
A lot of us believe that we can be happy by doing as little as we can and just enjoying ourselves on the way. We imagine that it is possible to avoid dealing with pain and still be fulfilled. Even worse, we think evading hardship is desirable.
This is, of course, utter bullshit.
Meaningful happiness and fulfilment do not come from avoiding pain. They do not come from avoiding our obligations to develop into our potential. They definitely do not come from doing what is easy and convenient. What happens in each of those cases is, at best, a temporary postponement of a difficult decision – and we mistake the relief of not doing the hard thing right then with happiness.
The true nature of enlightenment
We think that growth and self-development always mean addition – to increase and expand the facets of our identities. This belief serves us in the initial phase of our life, and then… it doesn’t:
Enlightenment is a destructive process. It is about stripping ourselves of beliefs, behaviours, relationships and lifestyles that no longer make sense to us. Too often we’re sold an idea in the media that meaning and fulfilment can be found if we just “Follow the light!” and “Chase after your bliss.” If this was all we needed to do to be enlightened, then everyone in the world would already be enlightened. No, there needs to be a dark descent into the underworld first, where we question and challenge our ideas of who we are.
There is a reason why the phoenix is the ultimate symbol of transformation: to be reborn, it must shed its feathers and burst into flame. And then it rises again from the ashes, better, stronger and more vibrant than ever. The parallel to human beings is clear: You have to be willing to let go of who you think you are in order to find out who you can be.
How we lose by not changing ourselves
By no means is this kind of transformation easy or pain-free. Telling people to voluntarily put themselves through it is a hard-sell, since running away from pain is a defining characteristic of our species. The downfall of humanity has always been that we are slaves to short-term hedonism.
It is why so few of us ever go on to fully develop into our potential and achieve all that it is we are capable of.
No, we resign ourselves to mediocrity instead. We pretend we don’t feel the itch of dissatisfaction – at ourselves and our lives – nipping at our feet. We try to drown out the voice whispering in our ear that we’re living on auto-pilot, as side-characters in our own lives. And so we doom ourselves to shallow lives that lack purpose, self-awareness, and contentment.
Mindset matters: from zero to hero
So how do we go from living on auto-pilot to being the authors of our own lives?
Let’s hear from the ever-wise Uncle Iroh from the Last Airbender. (PSA: for those who haven’t watched the Avatar: The Last Airbender – it’s currently streaming on Netflix. It may be a “children’s show”, but it is genuinely amazing for all age groups to watch. Just a fan; I am not being paid to write this.)
Anyway, back to Uncle Iroh:
Yes – We must go inwards, something that our societies don’t usually teach us to do. This means facing what we’re scared we might see the depths of our consciousness: pain, darkness, trauma, weakness, incompetence, unworthiness, deficiency, imperfection, loss, and insecurity.
Why does transformation have to occur from the inside out? Well, we can only shed thoughts, beliefs, emotions, habits and behaviours that do not serve us if we acknowledge the reasons why we developed them in the first place. We must then bring these reasons out into the light and examine them carefully. And then a magical thing happens – they cease to have their power over us. After all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
The Process of Inner Transformation
1. Learning how to self-reflect:
There are two forms of introspection: self-reflection (good for us) and rumination (bad for us). Unfortunately, we tend to be terrible at self-reflection and excellent at rumination. It’s time to undo that pattern by starting regular journaling and meditation practices:
- Here is an article on how to go about journaling.
- This is a video that I found useful when learning how to meditate. I can recommend the apps Insight Timer and Plum Village as well.
2.Learning how to be ok with discomfort:
A lot of us have been trained from childhood to “just be positive”. Unfortunately, that leads us to repress negative emotions, which can lead to a whole host of psychological, emotional and physical problems. It’s sad that our societies do not teach us how to process negative emotions healthily, and forces this culture of “toxic positivity” instead. What we need to learn how to do is to use our negative emotions to trigger a self-reflection process:
1.Observe your emotions:
When you feel a strong emotion, ask yourself, “What exactly am I feeling right now?” Then answer your question in purely descriptive terms (for eg: “I’m feeling guilty because I didn’t complete my work today.”) Do not judge yourself for whatever your answer is.
2.Examine your beliefs about your emotions:
The messages we received in childhood about emotions feed into our attitudes today. We may have been taught that being afraid is a weakness, that boys don’t cry, that it’s never ok to get angry, or conversely, that anger is the only emotion that is acceptable to display. These sorts of attitudes create judgements about our emotions and make us process them in an unhealthy way.
Exploring what is driving our emotions causes less self-judgement. Our increased understanding of ourselves means that we get better at recognizing that these messages are just opinions and beliefs, not fact. Examine what inner belief or rule you’ve broken that has triggered this negative emotion.
For example, if you feel guilty for not completing your work, your thought process might be: “Not completing my work means that I am a lazy person. I cannot let myself be lazy, because lazy people are selfish and worthless.”
3.Validate your emotions and question your beliefs:
Tell yourself it is acceptable that you feel this negative emotion. Give yourself full permission to feel whatever it is you’re feeling. And then consider whether your inner rule or belief is too harsh and should be modified.
For eg: “It’s normal to feel guilty about being lazy. But everyone is lazy sometimes. That doesn’t make them selfish and worthless. It makes them human. It makes me human.”
3.Understand how your mind has competing desires
When we start paying closer attention to our minds, we realize that it seems to have multiple interests that clash with each other. These “sub-personalities” consist of wounded parts (painful emotions such as anger and shame,) and parts that try to control and protect ourselves from the pain of these wounded parts. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is an excellent approach to get in touch with all these various parts and heal them. You can learn more about IFS and how to implement it in your life through this great book by Dr. Jay Earley.
If you’re like the rest of us, you’ve developed some faulty beliefs and behaviours that are keeping you limited. I know how hard it can be to change them. It is important to realize, however, that this difficulty is just a part of the process – anything that is worthwhile must take effort to achieve. We wouldn’t value it otherwise.
What could be more worthwhile than becoming more of who we are? We cannot be free to be just ourselves, unless we’ve shed ourselves of all the unnecessary baggage we’ve picked up along the way. I’ll leave you with another quote from Carl Jung: