“I can only exercise consistently when everything is very stressful,” he told me. On its face, this statement made a lot of sense. Life starts to feel out of control and so we dig in somewhere like fitness where we can see a quick return on investment, to help restore a sense of control and balance.
The last time he had been in amazing shape, he was commuting hours every day to a difficult job at a start-up and watching his wife slowly succumb to a brain tumor. No doubt it was among the most stressful situations one could experience. He says he was in the best shape of his life.
But as near as I could tell, things weren’t exactly easy for him at the current moment either. Nobody was dying, for sure. That said, both he and his partner were in the middle of career transitions, in one of the more tragic coincidences she had recently undergone brain surgery and was still recovering, and then COVID hit, derailing both their careers temporarily. Still he wasn’t easily able to commit to working out. How horrifically stressful would things have to get, I wondered, for him to recommit to his physical health? Still, every time the subject of fitness came up, he told me essentially the same thing – I’m someone who has to be pushed by my circumstances to make this change. Not having the internal resources to work out all the time was part of his identity.
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with seeing yourself as someone who needs a push to work out! There’s no inherent virtue to being a self-starter. But it was clear that my friend’s identity was getting in the way of his desired actions. The challenge comes when your sense of self is in conflict with your goals.
We define ourselves in all kinds of ways for a simple reason – we are evolved to group and sort by definitive characteristics, the more black and white the better as far as our brains are concerned. This grouping is a shortcut our brains take to help us quickly make sense of the world around us and identify our tribe. Introvert or extrovert, driven or lazy, aloof or gregarious – each day we assign people to thousands of different identities, ourselves included.
Look at any identity closely, however, and it’s quickly apparent how slippery they can be. For example, I am absolutely an introvert – that is unless I happen to be out at a bar in Vegas where I am excited to have a conversation with anyone who happens to be nearby. I am driven AF – right up until I’m about 80% done with a project and then I tend to turn into a lazy person who struggles to finish anything. How old I was when we met determines whether you primarily think of me as aloof or gregarious. All of us contain multitudes.
How you see yourself – how you interpret your past actions and form them into an identity – should be held loosely. We are all changing, nearly constantly. There’s no reason why our past experiences should have any bearings on what we are able to do today.
For any goal to be successful, it needs to line up with our identity. That is to say, we need to believe that we are actually capable of achieving each goal.
So what do you do if your story of yourself is interfering with your current ambitions?
1) Identify a time when you were successful with a similar sort of goal. Yes, my friend was in the best shape of his life when most stressed. But he’s actually never struggled to get himself to do other hard things, especially in his career. Understanding himself not as needing stress, but as someone with a tremendous amount of willpower and ambition who needed to turn those skills toward health now could be part of his way forward.
2) Understand that we are changing constantly. His narrative could be – yes, I was in the best shape of my life when stressed, that’s what I used to need. I learned from that experience how I like to work out and now I don’t need stress to make the same commitment.
3) Create a short daily practice where you focus on being the kind of person who can do the thing you want to do. Ultimately, identity is a construct. We have the power to change it at will, we just have to actually believe in that change. A daily meditation on identity could be how you reinforce the change you want to believe in.
Identity is a powerful driver. By reflecting on our identities – and how they serve or hinder our ambitions – we create space for growth in any direction we choose.