Choose Action over Identity

I have just returned from the Overlap retreat and am, as always, buzzing with ideas and energy as a result. So I’m going to start writing here once again to document and explore some of those ideas.

One powerful distinction that was discussed was the difference between identity (“I am”) and action (“I do”). This seems like a subtle point at first, as “we are we what we do”. But when we frame the world through the lens of identity, it becomes much harder for us to change. Identity is the story we tell ourselves and defines us. Changing one’s identity is a perilous and scary process, and not something that we generally want to undertake. And the very process of saying “I am this” also generally implies that “I am NOT that or that or that”, which closes off possibilities. We tend to choose actions and behaviors that reinforce our existing identity, even if we don’t necessarily like that identity.

Imagine the flip in mindset that occurs when we stop saying “I am” and replace it with “I do”. To take a personal example, I said “I am not a social person” and “I am an introvert” for most of my life. So when given the chance to go out to a party or join others in an activity, I generally demurred and chose solitude instead, which is why this blog had so much content from 2003 to 2009. And it was just the way things were because that was who I was, so why fight it? But a few years ago, I re-examined that identity assumption, and realized I was choosing to not do social things, and I could change that by just saying yes instead. And now I have a thriving social life that is far richer than what I had before.

This identity vs. action duality also reflects what Carol Dweck calls the fixed and growth mindsets. The fixed mindset assumes that we have a fixed amount of talent or ability, and it can’t change, so when we are unable to do something, it is because we don’t have the innate ability (aka identity). So when we fail at a math test, it’s because we aren’t good at math. This turns into a vicious circle, because if we aren’t good at math, then why bother trying, which leads to poorer performance, which reinforces the initial belief that we aren’t good at math.

The growth mindset instead assumes that we can always grow and improve. If we are bad at math, we can practice it and get better at it – Dweck uses the analogy of getting stronger by exercising. This article mentions a study where “a total of 50 minutes [was] spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.” It is a much more empowering mindset, as we can always get better by applying ourselves – effort and trying is what matters, not results.

Another angle comes from Brene Brown, who does powerful research on shame and vulnerability. In her books, she points out the difference between shame (“I am bad”) and guilt (“I did something bad”). In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, she notes “Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors. … Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but the effect is often positive while shame often is destructive.” The reason for that is that when we feel guilty about something, we apologize for it, make amends, and change our behavior so it doesn’t happen again. When we feel shame, we beat ourselves up and either hide (I don’t deserve to be seen) or attack (other people are just as bad)… but we don’t change our behavior because we think it is just who we are.

When we want to make a change in our lives, we have to get away from holding onto the behavior or attitude as being part of our identity. If it’s part of who we are, we can’t change. But if it’s just a behavior, then we can wake up one morning and choose to do something different. And by practicing a different behavior, we can slowly change our perception of ourselves, and by doing so, change our identity. It’s a powerful idea to me, and one I plan to explore more as I choose to spend more time writing.

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