Who Are You Becoming?
Are You Getting in Your Own Way?
My new clients often interpret a desire to be “true to themselves” or maintain their “integrity” in ways that prevent them from making the changes in their lives that they want to make. I help them with a few cognitive tricks to loosen that attachment and then things start to shift in ways that seemed impossible.
What is going on?
Why is it so hard to change until it isn’t?
Minds Are Evidence Collection Machines
Have you ever noticed that when you really want something, you start seeing evidence all around you that what you want is what you should have? That’s because the brain is a rationalization machine. When it wants evidence of something, it will find it.
We like to think that we take in evidence and then make up our minds, but most of us make a gut level decision and then rationalize it with our cognitive faculties. It takes training to learn to challenge the gut instinct. And even then, we can get it wrong.
For more detailed looks at this phenomenon, check out Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
How is this relevant to the desire to change?
When We Say, “That’s Just Who I Am”, Our Brain Proves it For Us
When we have a sense of identity that we cling to, our brain does its best to find the evidence to support that identity and shoves all counter-evidence aside. It’s just trying to help. That’s what the brain is programmed to.
When we have a sense of identity based on what we have done in the past, there is plenty of evidence in our memory banks to support it.
“I’m just the sort of person who overreacts to things.”
“I retreat when things get tough.”
“When I am lonely, I hang out by myself instead of inflicting myself on other people and then I get better.”
“There’s no point in trying a new system, I’m not good with systems.”
Those may not be the specific things you say to yourself. You may have other things you believe about yourself. But whatever you tell yourself you are, your brain is going to back you up with evidence. That’s what it is good at.
So, as soon as you think you ARE something, you make it harder to do things differently. Somehow, you need to create mental space for a possibility. You need to start looking at the truth of who you have been in a new way.
Try This to Create More Flexibility
I do not want you to pretend that who you have been is not who you are. People who suggest affirmations as a transformational tool often suggest that you simply say to yourself “I am….” and fill in the blank and say it over and over to yourself until you believe it. The problem is that if you don’t already actually believe the thing you are saying, a part of you knows you are lying and finds a way to dissociate from this dishonesty.
If you don’t want to lie to yourself and you don’t yet believe that you are what you want to be, you need a way to open a door to possibility.
Enter the magic words:
Until this moment…
Do you hear the possibility in that?
Until this moment, I was the kind of person who hid away by myself when I got anxious.
Until this moment, I used to shout at people who disrespected me.
Until this moment, I have been unable to return to a system quickly after I hadn’t used it for a week.
But what about now?
That was then. What now?
Until this moment… gives your brain something to go looking for that is grounded in curiosity about now. Who am I now? Am I the same as I was before this moment? If I am different now than I was then, might I be something yet again different in another moment? And what might a year’s worth of moments create?
What About Integrity and Authenticity?
I mentioned honesty. If you value honesty, then however you talk to yourself needs to honour the past as you remember it. (Note, though, that you may not remember it well and it might serve you to ask, “is it true that I have been that kind of person?”)
Integrity and authenticity are values that place a slightly different challenge to changing. Because they are more about maintaining a sense that “I” means something and that whatever I do is a reflection of that something.
If integrity and authenticity are getting in the way of becoming who you want to be, it is because you are afraid of being an actor or a fraud if you behave differently. You have an inner sense of who you are and your commitment to honesty means that not only must you not lie to others or yourself, you must act in accordance with your sense of who you are.
Compartmentalization is a Lack of Integrity
Some people maintain a sense of integrity in complex situations by compartmentalizing and only allowing certain parts of themselves to be relevant in different scenarios. There is a cultural assumption that this is a male thing, but it is a human thing. Boys use it as a strategy more than girls because they are forced to dissociate from so many aspects of themselves to fit into social norms about appropriate male behaviour. But most people do it to some extent.
The trouble with compartmentalization is that it requires breaking yourself into pieces and never letting yourself be an integrated whole person.
If you compartmentalize and want to change, the whole notion that you were being in integrity with yourself before is at risk. The new behaviours may threaten those clean separations of scenarios. Risking change takes a great deal of courage. Luckily, if you see this in yourself, you have already seen the door. You just have to decide to open it and walk through.
Fear of Losing Your Sense of Self
By the time you get to be old enough to be reading a blog post like this one, you have gone through some personal growth in your life. You have experience of the sense of being lost and not knowing who you are that happens when you are in transition.
How? You ask. By getting curious:
• Why am I afraid to bring all of myself into that situation?
• What might it be like to bring that hidden part of me into that situation?
• What is it costing me to keep those parts of me separate?
• How is my integrity served by acknowledging that I have chosen to hide?
• What one thing could I do that would prove to me that I wasn’t hiding?
• What is the difference between hiding a part of me and not expressing it in that moment?
It is destabilizing and disorienting for most people.
Some people go through enough changes over the course of the lifetime that they become aware of the process and self-aware enough that they sense that destabilization and recognize it as a sign that they are growing and they know that if they just hang on for the ride, they will know who they have become when things settle.
And really advanced people come to realize that the feeling of being in the process of transformation is actually what being consciously present to life feels like and it becomes a new definition of what they are aspire to be.
But for those of us who find the transitions uncomfortable and destabilizing, part of the problem is that we don’t know how to be true to who we are without a clear sense of who we are. And our clearest sense of who we are is actually old news – it is a sense of who we just were, who we can look back at and say “I am the kind of person who does that.”
And now we are back to the place where the Until this moment switch might be useful.
But first, we need to think about whether our sense of who we are is really tied to who we just were. Or is it more flexible that that? Were we always that way? What about a year before that? Or two years before that? Or two days before that? Do we have evidence that we have changed in the past? Was there ever a time that we didn’t feel like there was something that continued between the different versions of our past self? Is there some way in which that child learning to walk and the person reading this email are the same?
Is it possible that rather than being a fixed entity, we are works in progress, always changing?
Is it possible that to be authentic and in integrity with ourselves, we must be aware of how we have changed in the very recent past and who we are becoming?
Is it possible that integrity and authenticity require us to adopt “changing” as our identity?
What becomes possible if those questions are in play?
In my experience, working with my clients, when those questions are brought into the conversation, people get unstuck. Maybe not right away, but faster than they imagine. And the people who aren’t willing to entertain those questions stay stuck.
Now, part of what I do as a coach, is to be with people as they start to embrace the questions, to help them feel safe and connected. Shifts in identity can feel uncomfortable when they are new and unfamiliar. Some people try without support and the discomfort is so uncomfortable that they run back to who they were before with an even greater determination to cling to what they already know.
Part of my job as a coach is to keep reminding my clients that what they are going through is the normal process of learning something new. It feels awkward at first and eventually it feels familiar. It can be helpful to have someone who knows you can do it, who has walked that sort of path before on your journey beside you. So, if this scares you but you want to try, find someone who will try it with you or be your cheerleader as you do it for you.
You can do this. If you want to.