If you would get your hands on a magic wand, and you could use its awesome powers to transform yourself into any type of person, what would you be like? Would you be braver and jump right in, or would you take more time when making a decision? Would you be a real extrovert or rather more observing and quiet? What would the ultimate imaginary version of yourself look like?
Now let's take this imaginary version, and turn it into reality.
It's all about the Mindset
I can imagine that this sounds just as crazy as magic wands, but the truth is that by changing the mindset about our identity, we can give ourselves the freedom to become who we truly want to be. So here is my version of this new mindset: our identity is a story, made out of many different stories. Stories that other people have told us, stories that we tell others, but mostly stories that we tell ourselves. And we have the freedom and capability to decide if this story is helping us, or if it is time for a change.
An example: my story
Personally I came to experience this when starting my first days in University. I remember that before going to uni, being in primary and high school, I was a shy, introverted girl. I remember wanting to get to know new people, but feeling afraid to make a first move and replying clumsy when someone else would try to make contact with me. Nevertheless I liked people, I liked helping people and I liked feeling connected to people. I just couldn't get over these fears that I had, even though I longed for some more social interaction. So I decided to change and going to my first day in university I told myself that if I wanted more friends I had to make a move. I had to step up, be brave and trust that I actually had the social skills to be hanging out in groups and approach new people. After changing my behavior you could say that over the course of a few weeks, my identity turned from being an introvert into and extrovert and I loved it.
The mindset about my identity and whether or not it was helping me, allowed me to change and be the person I wanted to be. But before talking more about the act of changing our identity, let's take a closer look into what we are actually talking about when using the word identity. When we describe 'who we are' as a person, we usually talk about the beliefs we have about ourselves that we have learned through social experiences, and observations about our current state of being. It’s this web of beliefs that create the mental concept of an identity. Let me explain this by some examples of common beliefs: you work as a chef in a restaurant, and therefore you are a cook. Your parents have always described you to others as a shy kid, and therefore you are shy. You get very nervous when you try out new things, and therefore you consider yourself to be an anxious person.
So what is an Identity?
But what happens if the situation changes? For example when you stop working as a chef, does it mean that you stop being you? Or when you start making bold decisions, does is mean that you stop being you? Or when I became an extrovert, does it mean that I wasn't myself anymore? I guess it's quite intuitive to say no, we are still who we are, but we might consider ourselves a changed person.
What these examples show us is the ever changing nature of our identity. It shows us that even though we often consider our personalities and identities to be set for life, they are actually fluid constructions and subjected to our own decisions and experiences. And this is good news! It means that you actually have the freedom to choose your own identity. Imagine all the possibilities we have, once we consider our identities to be in our own hands.
"Our identity is a story, made out of many different stories ... And we have the freedom to decide if this story is helping us, or if it is time for a change."
Does science think so too?
I can understand that some of us think: "wait, but aren't some personality traits actually written in our DNA, or hardwired in our brain?" It is true that some of our behavioral tendencies can be explained through genetics. But even so, the study of epigenetics shows us that certain genes can be turned 'on' and 'off' by external events. Moreover, studies on neuroplasticity tell us that the neurons in our brain can detach and rewire, depending on our experiences and our behavior. By changing our behavioral patterns (e.g. speaking up in a group instead of staying quiet) our brain will literally start to create new connections and lose the old ones.
Strategies For Change
So with science on our side, how do we decide who and how we want to be? I like to look at it from two different perspectives: the perspective of the 'ideal self' and the perspective of personal growth. For example, ideally I am a happy, grateful, and compassionate person, so how would such a person behave? Researching such traits through books, lectures or other sources can give practical insides (e.g. gratitude mediation, new daily routines, healthy diet) on how to experience and get more familiar with these traits. Another perspective could be when looking at our personal growth, which of our actions give us the opportunity to grow as a person and which behaviors are holding us back? Being introverted meant that I wasn't able to connect with people the way I wanted to connect with them and thus not experiencing a sense of community. For some people, trying to keep everything under control will hold them back from experiencing true joy in the moment that something beautiful is happening.
Writing down our story
Taking a step back, observing our behavior and then taking things in our own hands allows for great freedom and the possibility to become who we truly want to be. Usually it is quite hard to observe our own thoughts and behaviors when we are in the middle of a situation. So in order to actually take these steps it might be helpful to write down how you see yourself, how you think other people see you and how these two interact. This is an exercise that I often ask my coaching clients to do as well. Because it will show you what the story is that you are telling yourself and how this story is working for you.
Important is that we make our decisions for change from a place of aspiration and not from a place of dissatisfaction. The willingness to change without being discontent about a current situation might sound contradictory, but rather we should give ourselves this opportunity and freedom from the love we have for ourselves, allowing ourselves to go beyond our own expectations.
Looking back on my own experience as an introvert gone extroverted, I realized something valuable: being that extroverted doesn't serve me anymore. I had a great time and I got over many insecurities, but now is the time for me to pick more carefully who I want to connect with. So again, it was time for a change. And so we can continue to write the ever changing stories of our lives, letting go of old beliefs and nurturing our growth with love and an open mind to new possibilities