As a young woman, my mom saw herself as someone who excelled at communication and organization, but not in science. But years later, when her dad was in the hospital, she was impressed with the nurses who cared for him and thought about what a meaningful career nursing would be. She decided it would require too much science to pursue, though, and scratched the idea. It would also mean a complete career change. She’d been working in human resources at the same company for 20 years.
Then, in 2003, while visiting colleges with my sister, she met a nursing student in her 40s who inspired her to think that maybe it wasn’t too late to change. After taking a few night classes, she quit her job to attend nursing school — where she excelled in chemistry, anatomy and physiology. Now she’s a registered nurse at a hospital.
As we grow and change, it can be challenging to align our self-perception with our true identity. Think of some of the labels you might have attached to yourself, like “I’m shy,” “I’m bad with money,” or “I’m bored by serious relationships.” Could it be that you’ve changed but let that expired perception stick around?
If so, those outdated labels could affect the choices you make and keep you from reaching your potential. So rather than being constrained by perceptions of who you used to be, maybe it’s time to start claiming the “real” you.
Although there’s a lot to gain by shedding old ideas of who we are, it can be hard to leave the familiar behind. Many perceptions start early in childhood and are deeply ingrained, says Mic Hunter, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and marriage/family therapist in St. Paul, Minn. Once family members form ideas of who you are — say it’s clumsy — they’ll remember examples that reinforce it (spilling on the table) and ignore information to the contrary (spinning gracefully on the dance floor).
We do the same things to ourselves, developing subconscious “rules” or expectations about who we are and how we act. If it appears we’re about to break a rule, explains Hunter, it makes us uncomfortable and can cause us to sabotage our own success. He saw one client a few years ago who had made and lost five fortunes. Did having wealth break an internal rule, causing him to subconsciously derail his business ventures?
Even positive identities can be limiting if they’re outdated. Think of a high school football team’s star quarterback. If, at 40, he’s still proudly sporting his letterman jacket and reliving the glory days without doing much else, he may have become overly attached to that part of his identity — and in the process, stymied his personal growth.
“There ought not to be one moment in anyone’s life, positive or negative, that defines a person’s life,” Hunter says. “It is said that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, so too with an individual’s life; one’s identity is greater than the sum of one’s experiences.”
How we self-identify is important because it has a real effect on us, says cognitive psychologist Michael Hall, PhD, cofounder of the International Society for Neuro-Semantics (www.neurosemantics.com). “Any story or narrative that we tell ourselves and ‘believe’ operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he says. “The abstractions we make in our frontal lobes and higher brain centers send messages to our body for acting on. If you believe that you can’t remember names, that belief, as a command to the nervous system, will inhibit your efforts at remembering names.” (For more on Hall’s work, see “Your Body, Reframed” in the April 2006 archives.)
Taking a Closer Look
We are not always conscious of how we identify ourselves. “It helps to write your perceptions out because we’re talking about these being subconscious, a kind of whisper,” Hunter says. “We have to really stop and listen because it’s so automatic.” Start by recalling significant stories in your life that you tell or stories that others tell about you, and ask people what stories they remember about you. Then look for the common themes.
Hall suggests completing the following statements with eight to 12 responses:
I am . . .
What I’m really proud of myself for is . . .
Some of my weaknesses and character flaws are . . .
“This helps us download the thoughts, feelings and memories in the back of our minds that are affecting us,” he says.
Once you’ve recorded your thoughts, says Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life (Harmony Books, 2002), ask yourself four questions about each statement. (For more on Katie’s approach, see “Stop Seeking Love and Start Finding It” in the September 2007 archives.) Here’s an exercise for the statement “I’m a failure:”
- Is it true? Quietly let the answer come to you. Maybe your spouse and parents have told you that, but is it really true?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true? Go deeper, and look for examples proving you’re a failure. Do those really prove it or just reveal underlying beliefs? Are there examples showing you’re not a failure?
- How do you react when you think that thought? How do you feel physically and what do you do when you think you’re a failure? Slump your shoulders? Lose patience? Ask yourself, is there a reason to drop that thought? Is there any reason to keep it?
- Who would you be without the thought? Describe how you’d feel and act.
In his book Emotionally Free: Letting Go of the Past to Live in the Moment (Contemporary Books, 1992), David Viscott, MD, suggests identifying strengths and weaknesses because often they’re flip sides of the same coin. For example, a person whose weakness is being a doormat probably has the strength of being forgiving. Identify the strengths that correlate with a negative identity trait to help you bring out the positive side and balance the negative.
Moving on as the Real You
Once you’re more aware of your self-perceptions, it’ll be easier to drop old thoughts that don’t serve you. “Begin asking possibility questions,” says Hall. “‘Who do I want to become?’ ‘What kind of person and personality do I want to develop that would make life more enjoyable, successful, effective?’” Then visualize that happening.
As you reframe, expect some challenges. People around you might continue to interact with you in the context of your old self. You might also have to “act out” your new identity until you really believe it, says Hunter. Imagine yourself as a character in a movie, being confident of whatever the new identity is. How would that look? What would you do? Make eye contact? Hold your shoulders back? Speak up? Do those things until you’re no longer just acting.
Taking the time to examine what you think about yourself and how it affects your life can be incredibly rewarding. “You have more freedom,” Hunter says. “You can decide to do something or not do something because you are being true to yourself rather than playing to those obsolete roles.”
Sarah Moran is a health writer based in Minneapolis.