Friday Musings: Which Came First, Actions or Identity

Most of us believe that we are who we are and this guides our actions and thoughts. This is true, but only partially. 

The relationship between identity and our actions/thoughts/beliefs is a two-way street. Sure, who we are shapes how we act and present ourselves to the world. But, our behavior also can also have a transformative effect on who we are. 

Let me explain.

We can define identity as our personal understanding of who we are. Our actions originate from this core and express themselves outward. But, our identity (our inner self, ego, etc.) is also a keen observer of our surroundings. 

Evolution applies on the personal level to our own internal view of who we are and how we fit into our environment. Actions are a feedback mechanism for how your inner self examines how it is “performing” in its given environment. We are not fixed, rigid, or finished developing. We are constantly becoming.

Your actions, and the worlds response to them, are input ingredients that shape how (and who) you are becoming.

When we simply allow our actions to flow without intention, we provide feedback that who we are does not require change; we affirm what is already there. This is both beautiful (we should all cultivate and nourish the belief that we are wonderful as we are) and a curse (we all desire some improvements and this does nothing to bring them).

Bringing change to your life can be difficult. We dread the “work” required for change. Mostly though, we sabotage our progress by overestimating what it means to change.

We imagine growth and change as a broad, life-altering shift in who we are and how we act. This is the end result we looking many years hence. Focus on the huge gap between who we are and whoever we want to become only intimates us and stalls our beginning.

When “Fake It ’Til You Make It” Actually Works

In a commencement address to the University of the Arts, author Neil Gaiman recommends to anyone doing something difficult: “pretend you are someone who could do it.”

Do not pretend to do it, but pretend to be a person who is capable of such a feat, and just do it as they would.

This removes the intimidation. Rather than dwelling on the difficulty, we approach a challenge knowing that its has already been done and we simply need to do it again. 

I feel this effect every time I go bouldering (a form a rock climbing without ropes on “boulders” close to the ground). Bouldering focuses on a relatively small number of highly difficult moves. Often I fail to complete a given “crux” move dozens of times before finally nailing it. However, after sticking it once, I can easily repeat it over and over to then work the moves above it. 

I haven’t grown any stronger, in fact, I am more fatigued. Some of this success is due to simply figuring out the complexities of the given move. Most of the repeated success derives from confidence and history. I know I have done it and no longer feel intimidated. I simply need to do it again. 

Fortunately, many of the actions and habits we would like to develop are not complex. We do not need to figure out the method or understand the complexities as in bouldering. Numerous examples arounds us confirm that writing 1000 words a day or flossing ever night are not only possible but simple. 

We simply need to imagine ourselves as the type of person who takes a specific action or exhibits a certain habit. 

Writer and speaker James Clean aptly describes these as “identity-based habits.” Understanding that our actions both originate from and control the future of our identity helps us create identity-based habits.

We simply need to imagine that we are the type of person who eats a salad for lunch. After a few healthy meals these actions feed back and this piece of our identity is no longer entirely imaginary.

All of my dearest held patterns I feel as pieces of my identity. I had the confidence to not only write everyday, but actually share my work once I began to identify as a writer. I felt confident with authority and trust once I began to identify as a coach. It is easy to make healthy choices because I identify as someone who eats healthy. I don’t have to make the difficult choice to skip a sweet treat, its simply what I do (and part of who I am). 

You do not need to make a life-altering change overnight. Any course change feels small at first and only appears grand in retrospect. The small changes required can begin today. Examples all around you can demonstrate how simple the changes you want to make truly are. 

Let go of “big” and “right now.” Focus on simply a little bit better.