When changing habits, it’s wise to align your identity story with the person you’re trying to become. For example, if you want to get in shape, identify yourself as a person who moves her body every day. If you want to stop smoking, tell yourself that you’re a non-smoker. If you want to be a great leader, identify as someone who is patient, and able to delegate for the sake of growing others. This identity—or “Horizon Point” as author Sharon Melnick calls it, will make it easier to choose the behavior that you are trying to embed as a habit. Then, when you inevitably fall of the wagon, the old habit will feel like an anomaly that’s out of sync with who you are. And you will likely do better next time.
I use this technique with all my executive clients. Early on I ask them how they want to be known. What legacy do they want to leave? What do they want people to say about them when they are out of earshot?
Then we encapsulate it in an easy to remember, catchy, inspiring phrase. Recent examples include:
My own aspirational identity story is a work in progress but it sounds something like:
Courageous illuminator, restoring mojo to leaders anywhere
Our identity story acts as a powerful guide. Problem is…we all have a second, and more powerful, unintentional identity story that will sabotage your good intentions if you don’t recognize and tame it.
This accidental identity story is one we began crafting at a young age. It was our coping response to an often painful world. Whatever identity we developed, it was built to protect us from emotional hurt, which neurologically speaking, is worse than physical pain.
Some examples of hidden/subconscious stories:
These identities (you may have several), reside in our subconscious and shape our actions. Someone who identifies as a slacker will take pride in avoiding the rat race and trappings of success. A perfectionist will spend inordinate time making sure the details are just right so no one—including herself—can find fault.
Unless you name it and tame it, your subconscious identity will fuel actions that will eventually damage your spirit, results, health, and relationships, until one day, you wake up feeling incomplete, finding painfully that you’ve led an unnecessarily small life.
I see this play out with my leadership clients. Let’s take Pam, recently promoted to Vice President in a technology group. Pam cares deeply about her people (she’s a people-person) and wants very much to improve her health and spend more quality time with her family. Yet Pam is fiercely, unconsciously committed to preserving the identity that has worked for her all these years and propelled her to success. So, her control-freak, perfectionist self stays late working on projects that she could have delegated, or that were good enough a week ago. She dwells on small details and feels a sense of pride for her work ethic. She feels guilty about not working out and not spending more time with family and friends, but she can’t seem to pull away.
Until Pam recognizes, names, and tames her accidental identity and consciously chooses another path, she, and the people who matter most to her, will suffer.
My subconscious identity was all about keeping the peace and following the rules. I eschewed conflict and rarely spoke up, unless it was in the classroom. There I excelled. I was the perfect student, never allowing myself to miss a deadline or score less than an A. This identity served me an several ways. I won a regent scholarship and eventually earned a Masters from Stanford. But it came with a high price and I was filled with anxiety and fear that I would make a misstep. My conflict avoidance kept me out of arguments, but it also filled me with resentment and anger about unresolved issues.
Growing up an only child who eventually became the prize in a vicious custody battle, this identity was my means of creating peace and order in what felt like a chaotic world where I had little control. To this day, I can still be lured by that need to be liked, to avoid conflict, and to crawl into my hermit shell with Netflix and or a good book. It has also led to me to avoid taking risks in business, or asking for support.
But look back at my desired identity story: Courageous illuminator, restoring mojo to leaders anywhere.
There’s very little illumination or courage in my accidentally crafted identity which was all about crawling into a ball. But after years of reminding myself of what I want to create in the world, I have my mojo back.
It’s ongoing work. The protective identity story won’t stop talking to you. But you can stop listening.
What to do
By intentionally choosing actions aligned with your aspirational identity, you will one day notice that you’ve become the person you want to be, the person you were meant to be, and whom the world needs you to be.
To learn more about what identity you’re protecting, check out Kegan And Lahey’s work on Competing commitments and Immunity to Change. Here’s a short post summarizing their work https://experiencelife.com/article/how-to-overcome-immunity-to-change/
Learn more about how to set a powerful ‘Horizon Point’ identity: Success Under Stress. This book is now at the top of my must-read list for all my clients.
I intentionally use the word ‘courage’ in my identity story. Find out why I would never use the word ‘fearless’.
What’s your subconscious identity story?
Your intentional, aspirational identity?
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