“Nothing great will ever be achieved without great men, and men are great only if they are determined to be so.” CHARLES DE GAULLE
There were no marks on his body. The Chinese Communists had held him captive in a tiny room for more than twenty hours, but they hadn’t beaten or tortured him. They had even offered him a cigarette or two . . . and as a result of their polite conversation, this GI now held a document in his own handwriting detailing the countless injustices and destructiveness of the American way of life—the capitalist society—and praising the superiority and ethical humanity of the Communist system. What’s more, the essay this officer of the U.S. Army had written was now being broadcast to his and other POW camps in North Korea, as well as to the American forces stationed in South Korea. He would later divulge military information, turn in his fellow prisoners, and fervently denounce his own country. What caused this man to completely reverse his world-view and dismantle the beliefs that had been instilled in him over a lifetime? What caused him to abandon the core values he’d previously held and become a collaborator with the enemy? What single change would make such a radical shift in the thoughts, emotions, and actions of an individual?
The answer lies in understanding that he was directed down a path that caused him to literally shift his identity. He was now simply acting in accordance with his new image of himself.
Throughout this book you’ve explored with me the impact of beliefs, one of the foundational elements in the Master System that directs all of our evaluations. Beliefs guide us to conclusions, and therefore they teach us how to feel and what to do. However, there are different levels of beliefs that have different levels of impact on the quality of our lives.
Some are very specific. For example, the beliefs you have about a particular friend will determine how you think and feel about his behavior, and the meaning that you’ll link to anything that he does. If you “know” that he is loving, then even if he appears to be angry at the moment, you will not question his ultimate intent. This belief will guide all of your interactions with this person. But this will not necessarily affect the way you deal with a stranger. These beliefs impact you in only one specific area of your life: your interactions with this friend.
Some beliefs, however, have an expanded influence on your life; I call these global beliefs. These are the beliefs which have much further-reaching consequences. For example, the beliefs you have about people in general will affect not just the way you deal with your friend, but with everyone you meet. These beliefs will powerfully impact your career, your level of trust, your marriage, and so forth. The global beliefs you have about the concepts of scarcity and abundance, for example, will determine your stress level and your generosity of time, money, energy, and spirit. If you believe we live in a world with scarce resources—where there’s only so much money, so much time, so much love—then you’ll constantly live in fear that you won’t have enough. This stress will affect the way you think of your neighbors, your co-workers, your financial capabilities, and opportunities in general. More powerful than any of these, though, is the core belief that is the ultimate filter to all of our perceptions. This belief directly controls the consistency of your life’s decisions. These are the beliefs you have about your identity.
What we can or cannot do, what we consider possible or impossible, is rarely a function of our true capability. It is more likely a function of our beliefs about who we are. In fact, if you’ve ever found yourself unable to even consider doing something, where your response to someone is, “I could never do that” or “I’m just not that kind of person,” then you’ve run up against the barriers of a limited identity. This isn’t always bad, of course. Not perceiving yourself as a murderer is a very important distinction! Not perceiving yourself as someone who would take advantage of others is probably very useful. It’s important to realize that we define ourselves not only by who we are, but by who we are not.
What exactly is identity? It is simply the beliefs that we use to define our own individuality, what makes us unique—good, bad, or indifferent—from other individuals. And our sense of certainty about who we are creates the boundaries and limits within which we live.
Your capability is constant, but how much of it you use depends upon the identity you have for yourself. For example, if you feel certain that you are an outgoing, outrageous person, you’ll tap the resources of behavior that match your identity. Whether you see yourself as a “wimp” or a “wild man,” a “winner” or a “wallflower,” will instantly shape which capabilities you access. You may have read the book Pygmalion in the Classroom, which details the dramatic change in students performance when they become convinced that they are gifted.
Time and again, researchers have shown that students’ capabilities are powerfully impacted by the identities they develop for themselves as the result of teachers’ belief in their level of intelligence. In one study, a group of teachers were told that certain students in their classes were truly gifted and to make sure that they challenged them to continue to expand. As can be expected, these children became the top achievers in their class. What makes this study significant is that these students had not actually demonstrated higher levels of intelligence—and, in fact, some had previously been labeled poor students. Yet it was their sense of certainty that they were superior (which had been instilled I by a teacher’s “false belief) that triggered their success.
The impact of this principle is not limited to students. The kind oft person other people perceive you to be controls their responses to you. Often this has nothing to do with your true character. For example, if a person sees you as a crook, even if you’re an honest person and do good things, this person will search for the sinister motive behind your acts. What’s worse is that, after making a positive change, we often allow others in our environment who have not changed their image of us to anchor our own emotions and beliefs back into our old behaviors and identities. We all need to remember that we have tremendous power to influence the identities of those we care about most.
This is the power that Marva Collins commands when she influences her students to believe that they are the masters of their destinies, that they are as talented as any human being who has walked on earth.
“The best effect of fine persons is felt after we have left their presence.” RALPH WALDO EMERSON
We all will act consistently with our views of who we truly are, whether that view is accurate or not. The reason is that one of the strongest forces in the human organism is the need for consistency. Throughout our lives, we’ve been socialized to link massive pain to inconsistency and pleasure to being consistent. Think about it. What labels do we attach to people who say one thing and then do another, who claim to be one way and then behave another? We call them hypocritical, fickle, unstable, unreliable, wishy-washy, scatterbrained, flaky, untrustworthy. Would you like to have these labels attached to you?
Would you even like to think of yourself in this way? The answer is obvious: a resounding no! As a result, whenever we take a stand— especially a public stand—and state what we believe, who we are, or what we’re about, we experience intense pressure to remain consistent with that stand, regardless of what that inflexibility may cost us in the future.
Conversely, there are tremendous rewards for remaining consistent with our stated identities. What do we call people who are consistent? We use words like trustworthy, loyal, steady, solid, intelligent, stable, rational, true-blue. How would you like to have people consistently use these labels to describe you? How would it feel to think of yourself in this way? Again, the answer is obvious: most people would love it. Thus, the need to remain consistent becomes irrevocably tied to your ability to avoid pain and gain pleasure.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” RALPH WALDO EMERSON
The Pygmalion effect also works in reverse. If you feel certain that you are “learning-disabled,” it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is quite different from believing that your current strategy for learning is ineffective. The ability to change one’s strategy is perceived by most of us to be a simple and achievable task, as long as we have the right teacher.
However, changing ourselves—changing the essence of who we are—is perceived by most to be next to impossible. The common response, “I’m just this way,” is a phrase that murders dreams. It carries with it the sentence of an unchangeable and permanent problem.
A person who believes they have developed a drug addiction can clearly change. It will be difficult, but a change can be made, and it can last. Conversely, a person who believes himself to be a drug addict will usually return to the use of drugs even after weeks or months of abstinence. Why? It’s because he believes that this is who he 15. He doesn’t have a drug addiction; he is a drug addict. Remember from Chapter 4 that once a person has a conviction about anything, he will ignore and even defend against any evidence that’s contrary to his belief. Unconsciously, this person will not believe that he can change long-term, and this will control his behavior.
In addition, there’s often a secondary gain involved in the process of maintaining this negative behavior. After all, this man can blame his addiction on something he can’t control—it’s simply “who he is”—instead of facing the reality that taking drugs is a conscious decision. This will be augmented by the need within the human nervous system for consistency, and he will return to this destructive pattern again and again. Surrendering his identity would be even more painful than the clearly destructive effects of the drugs themselves.
Why? Because we all have a need for a sense of certainty. Most people have tremendous fear of the unknown. Uncertainty implies the potential of having pain strike us, and we’d rather deal with the pain we already know about than deal with the pain of the unknown. Thus, living in an ever-changing world—one in which we are constantly surrounded by the flux of new relationships, redefined job roles, changing environments, and a steady stream of new information—the one thing that we all count on to be constant is our sense of identity. If we begin to question who we are, then there is no foundation for all of the understandings upon which we’ve built our lives.
If you don’t know who you are, then how can you decide what to do? How can you formulate values, adopt beliefs, or establish rules? How can you judge whether something is good, bad, or indifferent? The biggest challenge for someone who perceives his identity as a drug addict is: what does he change his identity to? To a “recovering drug addict”? This doesn’t change his identity; it merely describes the state he’s in currently.
“Drug-free” doesn’t do it either, because most see it as a temporary state—and it still focuses on drugs as one of the ways of defining oneself. When this person develops the conviction that he is absolutely clean, that he’s now a “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Jew,” or “Buddhist,” or now that he’s a “leader”—or anything else other than a “drug addict”—that’s when his behavior changes. As we develop new beliefs about who we are, our behavior will change to support the new identity.
The same thing happens with a person who has excess weight whose identity is, “I’m a fat person.” This individual may diet and lose weight in the short term, but he will always gain it back because his sense of certainty about who he is will guide all his behaviors until they are once again consistent with his identity. We all must maintain the integrity of our convictions of who we are, even when they are destructive and disempowering.
The only way to create lasting change for an individual who’s been using drugs is to change his conviction from “I am a drug addict” to “I’m a health nut” or “I’m a living example that no problem is permanent” or “Now I’m .” Whatever the new identity, it must be one that would never even consider the use of drugs. If drugs are offered again, his immediate response is not to evaluate whether he should use them or not, but to simply state with absolute certainty, “I’m not that kind of person. That’s who I used to be.”
Those with excess weight must transform their identity from a fat person to a vital, healthy, and athletic human being. This identity change will shift all their behaviors, from their diet to their exercise, and allow them to create the long-term physiological changes that are consistent with their new identity. This shift may sound like it’s merely a semantic manipulation, but in truth it is a much deeper and more profound transformation of personal reality.
In fact, one shift in identity can cause a shift of your entire Master System. Think about it. Doesn’t a drug addict have a completely different system of evaluation—the states he consistently experiences, the questions he asks, the values that guide his actions, and the references he organizes into beliefs— than does someone who considers himself to be a leader, a lover, an athlete, or a contributor? While it’s true that not all identity shifts are as complete as others, some are indeed so far reaching that one Master System is literally replaced in a moment by another.
If you’ve repeatedly attempted to make a particular change in your life, only to continually fall short, invariably the challenge is that you were trying to create a behavioral or emotional shift that was inconsistent with your belief about who you are. Shifting, changing, or expanding identity can produce the most profound and rapid improvements in the quality of your life.
HOW YOUR IDENTITY IS FORMED
Why is it that during the Korean War more American POWs informed on their fellow prisoners than in any other war in modem history? The answer is that the Chinese Communists, unlike their allies, the North Koreans, understood the power of identity to instantaneously change not only their long-held beliefs and values, but their actions, in an instant. Rather than brutalize the prisoners, they doggedly pursued their own ingenious form of psychological warfare designed not merely to extract information or create compliance, but rather to convert the American fighting man to their political philosophy. They knew that if they could lead him into a new set of beliefs and values, then he would see his country’s role in the war as futile and destructive, and therefore assist them in any way they requested. And they succeeded. Understanding what they did can help you understand how you’ve arrived at your current identity and how you can expand your identity, and therefore your entire life, in a matter of moments.
The task before the Chinese Communists was formidable indeed. How can you change someone’s entire identity without the threat of death or the promise of freedom? Especially knowing that the American soldier has been trained to give only his name, rank, and serial number?
Their plan was very simple: start small, and build. The Chinese understood that the way we identify anyone is by their actions. For example, how do you know who your friend really is? Isn’t it by the way he or she acts, the way he or she treats people?
The Communists’ real secret, though, was that they understood that we determine who we are—our own identities—by judging our own actions as well. In other words, we look at what we do to determine who we are. The Chinese realized that in order to achieve their broader objective of changing the prisoner’s beliefs about his identity, all they had to do was get the prisoner to do things that a collaborator or a Communist would do.
Again, this is not a simple task, but they realized it could be done if they simply could wear the American POW down through conversation that lasted twelve to twenty hours, and then make a minor request: get him to say something like “The United States is not perfect” or “It’s true in a Communist country that unemployment is not a problem.” Having established this footing, the Chinese would simply start small and build.
They understood our need for consistency. Once we make a statement that we say we believe, we have to be willing to back it up. They would merely ask the POW to write down some of the ways in which America is not perfect. In his exhausted state, the GI was then asked, “What other social benefits are there to communism?” Within a short period of time, the GI would have sitting in front of him a document not only attacking his own nation, but also promoting Communism with all the reasons written in his own handwriting. He now had to justify to himself why he’d done this. He’d not been beaten, nor had he been offered special rewards. He’d simply made small statements in his need to stay consistent with the ones he’d already written, and now he’d even signed the document. How could he explain his “willingness” to do this? Later he would be asked to read his list in a discussion group with other prisoners or even to write an entire essay about it.
When the Chinese broadcast these essays, along with the names of the prisoners who had written them, suddenly the prisoner would find himself publicly identified as an enemy “collaborator.” When fellow prisoners asked him why he did it, he couldn’t defend himself by saying he’d been tortured. He had to justify his acts to himself in order to maintain his own sense of integrity. In an instant, he would state that he wrote it because it was true! In that moment, his identity shifted. He now perceived himself as pro-Communist, and all those around him also labeled him as such. They would reinforce his new identity by treating him the same way they treated the Communist guards.
Soon his new identity would cause him to openly denounce his country and, in order to maintain consistency between his statements and his new label, he would often collaborate even more extensively with his captors. This was one of the most brilliant facets of the Chinese strategy: once a prisoner had written something down, he couldn’t later pretend to himself that it had never happened. There it was in black and white, in his own handwriting, for anyone to see—something which drove him “to make his beliefs and his self-image consistent with what he had undeniably done.”
Before we judge our POWs harshly, however, we should take a good look at ourselves. Did you consciously choose your identity, or is it the result of what other people have told you, significant events in your life, and other factors that occurred without your awareness or approval?
What consistent behaviors have you adopted that now help to form the basis of your identity? Would you be willing to undergo a painful bone-marrow extraction to help a stranger? Most people’s first response would be, “Absolutely not!” Yet in a study done in 1970, researchers found that if a person was led to believe that the consistency of their identity relied upon it, many would commit to just such a selfless act.
The study showed that when the subjects were asked to make small commitments first, and followed up with two simple acts which made not volunteering seem “out of character,” many began to develop a new identity. They began to see themselves as “donors,” as a person who unconditionally commits to help those in need through personal sacrifice. Once this occurred, when the request for the bone marrow was made, these people felt compelled by the force of their new identity to follow through regardless of the time, money, or physical pain involved.
Their view of themselves as donors became a reflection of who they were. There is no more potent leverage in shaping human behavior than identity.
You might ask, “Isn’t my identity limited by my experience?” No, it’s limited by your interpretation of your experience. Your identity is nothing but the decisions you’ve made about who you are, what you’ve decided to fuse yourself with. You become the labels you’ve given yourself. The way you define your identity defines your life.
THE ULTIMATE PAIN—SEEDS OF AN IDENTITY CRISIS
People who act inconsistently with who they believe they are set the stage for the societal cliche of an “identity crisis.” When the crisis hits, they are immediately disoriented, questioning their previous convictions. Their whole world is turned upside down, and they experience an intense fear of pain. This is what happens to so many people having a “midlife crisis.”
Often these people identify themselves as being young, and some environmental stimulant—turning a certain age, comments from friends, graying hair—causes them to dread their approaching years and the new, less desirable identity that they expect to experience with it. Thus, in a desperate effort to maintain their identity, they do things to prove they’re still young: buy fast cars, change their hairstyles, divorce their spouses, change jobs.
If these people had a solid grasp of their true identities, would they experience this crisis at all? I suspect not. Having an identity that is specifically linked to your age or how you look would definitely set you up for pain because these things will change. If we have a broader sense of who we are, our identity never becomes threatened.
Even businesses can have identity crises. Years ago, photocopying giant Xerox Corporation underwent an interesting shift in its image. When personal computing emerged as “the wave of the future,” Xerox wanted to use their technological power to enter this exciting new market. They put their research and development staff on it and, after spending approximately $2 billion, they came up with a number of innovative advances, including the precursor to what we now call a “mouse.”
Why, then, isn’t Xerox in the competitive computer race, running neck and neck with Apple and IBM? One reason surely is that in the beginning, its identity didn’t really allow for the company to head in this direction. Even its “graphic” identity, which used a roly-poly monk, confined its capacity to be identified as the epitome of cutting-edge computing technology. While the monk symbolized the exacting nature of manuscript copying, he was hardly appropriate for this new venture into high technology, where speed was one of the most highly valued criteria. On the consumer side, the identity Xerox had established as the world’s leading copier company did not instill a high confidence in the company’s efforts to market computers. Compound this with a graphic identity that had little to do with how to process information rapidly, and you begin to see where some of Xerox’s problems originated.
Marketing and graphic-design experts alike will tell you that corporate image is a huge filter through which consumers process buying information—they must know who you are, what you stand for, and when they’re investing large sums of money, they usually want to buy from a company that exemplifies their product. As Xerox grappled with incorporating this facet of computerization into its existing identity, other companies zoomed to the forefront, overtaking the marketplace. At this point, Xerox decided that, rather than try to change its identity, it would utilize it. It would computerize its photocopiers and concentrate its R & D dollars on improving what it already knew how to do best. Today, Xerox is beginning the process of transformation by producing new “Xerox images”—airing commercials featuring fast-paced imagery of plotters, hardware, software, communication networks— and completing the visual message with the words, “Xerox … the Document Company.” This expanded identity must be conditioned within the culture for Xerox to expand its market, and it is using every opportunity to do so.
“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters—one represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” JOHN F. KENNEDY
It doesn’t take a crisis for most of us to understand that we can change our behavior, but the prospect of changing our identity seems threatening or impossible to most. Breaking away from our core beliefs about who we are gives us the most intense pain, and some people would even go so far as to kill themselves to preserve those beliefs. This was dramatically illustrated in Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables. When the hero Jean Valjean is released from his prison work crew, he is frustrated and alone. Although in the many years he’s spent in the custody of the French police he has never accepted his label of “criminal” (he’d merely stolen a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and was sentenced to many years of hard labor), once released, he discovers that he can’t get an honest day’s work. He is scorned and rebuffed because of his status as an ex-convict.
Finally, in a state of helplessness, he begins to accept the identity that his societal label has imposed. He now is a criminal and begins to act as such. In fact, when a kind priest takes him in, feeds him, and gives him shelter for the night, he fulfills his criminal identity by stealing his benefactor’s humble silver setting. When the police stop Valjean on a routine check, they discover not only that he is an exconvict, but also that he is carrying the priest’s most valuable possessions—a crime punishable by a life of hard labor.
Valjean is brought back to face the priest, and upon presentation of the facts, the priest insists that the silver was a gift and reminds Valjean that he’s forgotten the two remaining silver candlesticks. To Valjean’s further surprise, the priest subsequently makes his generous falsehood a truth and sends him away with the silver to start a new life.
Valjean has to deal with the priest’s actions. Why would he believe in him? Why didn’t he send him away in chains? The priest told him that he was his brother, that Valjean no longer belonged to evil, that he was an honest man and a child of God. This massive pattern interrupt changes Valjean’s identity. He tears up his prison papers, moves to another city, and assumes a new identity. As he does, all of his behaviors change. He becomes a leader and helps those in his community.
However, a policemen, Monsieur Javert, makes it his life’s crusade to find Valjean and bring him to justice. He “knows” Valjean is evil and defines himself as one who brings evil to justice. When Javert finally catches up with him, Valjean has the opportunity to eliminate his nemesis—but he magnanimously spares his life. After a lifetime of pursuit, Javert discovers that Valjean is a good man—perhaps a better man than he—and he cannot deal with the potential of realizing that maybe he was the one who was cruel and evil. As a result, he throws himself into the rapids of the river Seine.
“His supreme agony was the disappearance of certainty, and he felt himself uprooted.. . Oh! what a frightful thing! The man projectile, no longer knowing his road, and recoiling!” VICTOR HUGO, LES MISERABLES
WHO ARE YOU, ANYWAY?
What does all of this really mean? This can all seem very esoteric unless we start to actually define ourselves. So take a moment to identify who you are. Who are you? There are so many ways in which we define ourselves. We may describe ourselves as our emotions (I’m a lover, I’m peaceful, I’m intense), our professions (I’m an attorney, I’m a doctor, I’m a priest), our tides (I’m Executive VicePresident), our incomes (I’m a millionaire), our roles (I’m a mother, I’m the eldest of five girls), our behaviors (I’m a gambler), our possessions (I’m a “Beemer” owner), our metaphors (I’m king of the hill, I’m low man on the totem pole), our feedback (I’m worthless, I’m special), our spiritual beliefs (I’m Jewish), our looks (I’m beautiful, I’m ugly, I’m old), our accomplishments (I’m the 1960 Spring Valley High Homecoming Queen), our past (I’m a failure), and even what we’re not (I’m not a quitter). The identity that our friends and peers have tends to affect us as well. Take a good look at your friends. Who you believe they are is often a reflection of who you believe you are. If your friends are very loving and sensitive, there’s a great chance that you see yourself in a similar vein. The time frame you use to define your identity is very powerful as well. Do you look to your past, your present, or the future to define who you truly are? Years ago my present and past weren’t terribly exciting, so I consciously fused my identity with the vision I had of who I knew I would become. I didn’t have to wait; I began to live as this man now.
It’s very important, when you are answering this question, to be in the right state. You need to feel relaxed, safe, and curious. If you’re just powering through this book, scanning and reading rapidly, or if you have many distractions, you’re not going to get the answers you need. Take a nice, deep breath in; relax the breath out. Let your mind be curious—not fearful, not concerned, not looking for perfection or for anything in particular. Just ask yourself, “Who am I?” Write down the answer, and then ask it again. Each time you ask it, write down whatever surfaces, and keep probing deeper and deeper. Continue to ask until you find the description of yourself that you have the strongest conviction about. How do you define yourself? What is the essence of who you are? What metaphors do you use to describe yourself? What roles do you play?
Often, if you don’t create this safe and curious state, all of the fears and hesitations about identity will keep giving you inadequate answers. In fact, often if you just ask this question up front of somebody, blurting out, “Who are you?” without putting them in the right state, you’ll get one of two responses:
1) A blank stare. This type of question throws many people into a tailspin because they have never been called upon to seriously ponder what their answer is.
2) A surface-level answer. This is a first-attempt evasion technique. This response can be defined as the “Popeye Principle,” where a person will simply insist, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” Often, what I find is that when you ask someone a question, especially an emotional one, they won’t answer you until they’ve answered two questions of their own.
First they ask themselves, “Can I answer this question?” If a person’s not sure who he is, often he’ll say, “I don’t know” or give you the first surface answer. Sometimes people are afraid to ask the question for fear of realizing that they lack clarity in this critical area of their lives. And the second question they ask themselves before answering is: “What’s in it for me? If I answer this question, how will this benefit me personally?”
Let me offer you the answer to these two questions. First, you do know who you are. Yes, you can come up with the answer if you take a moment to brainstorm a bit right now. But you’ve got to trust yourself to let whatever answers come out of you just flow, and write them down. Second, the benefit to knowing who you are is the ability to instantaneously shape all of your behaviors. If you take the time to get in the right state, you’ll come up with . . .
A thoughtful answer. I hope this is the kind of answer you’re searching for right now!
“I think, therefore I am.” RENE DESCARTES
So take a moment right now to answer a question pondered by philosophers through the ages, from Socrates to Sartre. Put yourself in that safe, curious state. Take a deep breath and release it. Ask, “Who am I?”
To assist you in defining yourself, remember that identity is simply what distinguishes you from everyone else. Here are a couple of exercises I think you will enjoy.
1) If you were to look in the dictionary under your name, what would it say? Would three words just about cover it, or would your epic narrative consume page after page, or demand a volume of its own? Right now, write down the definition you would find if you were to look up your name in a dictionary.
Take a moment, and let your answers sink in. When you’re ready, move to the next exercise.
2) If you were to create an ID card that would represent who you truly are, what would be on it—and what would you leave off? Would it include a picture or not? Would you list your vital statistics? Your physical description? Your accomplishments? Your emotions? Your beliefs? Your affiliations? Your aspirations? Your motto? Your abilities? Take a moment to describe what would be on this identity card and what would be left off in order to show someone who you really are.
Now, take a look at what you’ve written down, at the descriptions you have of your identity—in essence, the story of your life. How do you feel about it? I hope you’re taking a moment right now to really appreciate who you are, to feel the deep emotion that comes with recognition. If you’re noticing that your identity creates pain, know that whatever you call your identity is simply what you’ve decided to identify with, and that in a moment you could change it all. You have the power within you right now. In fact, after looking at how identities evolve, you’ll have an opportunity to expand your identity, and therefore your entire life.
EVOLUTION OF AN IDENTITY
One of my friends, a woman named Debra whom everyone knows as adventurous and vibrant, recently shared with me a story about the transformation she had undergone with her identity. “When I was growing up,” she said, “I was always a wimp. I wouldn’t do anything physical, or anything that had any potential of my getting hurt.” After attending some of my seminars and having new experiences (scuba diving, firewalking, and skydiving), she began to see that she could do these things—if she forced herself. But these references were not yet organized into a new belief about who she is. She now merely saw herself as “a wimp who’d skydived.” The transformation had not yet taken place, but unbeknownst to her, it had been set in motion. She reports that other people were envious of her accomplishments, saying things like, “I wish I had the guts to do what you did. You’re so adventurous!” She was genuinely taken by surprise by their comments, but the continuous view that others had of her began to cause her to question her view of herself.
“Finally,” Debra said, “I began to link pain to the idea of being a wimp. I knew my belief about being wimpy was limiting me, so I decided that was not who I wanted to be anymore.” Not only that, but all this time her psyche had been wrestling with the incongruity between how her friends viewed her and how she perceived her own identity. So when she had another chance to go skydiving, she seized upon it as an opportunity to make the leap from potentiality to actuality, from “what could be” to “what is.” It was time to boost her “adventurous” identity from opinion to conviction.
As the plane climbed to an altitude of 12,500 feet, Debra watched the less experienced members of her skydiving team struggle to contain their fear and look like they were having fun. She thought to herself, “That’s who I used to be, but I’m not that person anymore. Today, I’m going to have fun!” She used their apprehension as contrast with the new person she had decided to become. She thought to herself, “That’s how I used to respond”—and was startled to realize that she had just made a major shift. She was no longer a wimp, but an adventurous, powerful woman about to have the time of her life.
She was the first jumper to leave the plane, and all the way down she whooped with delight, joy, and exhilaration. She had never before felt such intense levels of pure physical energy and excitement. One key element that may have pushed her over the edge in instantly adopting her new identity was her deep level of commitment to setting an example for the other jumpers in her role as team leader. She told me, “It’s like what you do. Tony. If you did a whole seminar about breaking through fear and limitation, but refused to do the Firewalk, it just wouldn’t work. You have to walk your talk.”
Debra’s transformation was complete. She gained new references that started to chip away at her old identity, made a decision to identify with greater possibilities, and when the right moment came, contrasted her new identity with what she no longer wanted to be. This was the final leverage she needed to bring about the transformation. Her evolution was simple yet powerful. This complete identity change now impacts her kids, her business, and everything else she’s involved in. Today, she’s truly an adventurous leader.
Of course, you can always decide to redefine yourself. Think of the wondrous imagination that suffuses the heart and soul of every child. One day he’s Zorro, the masked avenger. The next he’s Hercules, the Olympian hero. And today, he’s Grandpa, his own real-life hero. Identity shifts can be among the most joyous, magical and liberating experiences of life. Why do adults look forward all year to Halloween or New Orleans’s Mardi Gras? One reason, I’m sure, is that these celebrations give us permission to step outside ourselves and assume an alter ego. We may do things in these new identities that we wouldn’t normally do; we may do things we want to do all the time but see as inconsistent with our identities.
The reality is that we could do this any day of the year! We could completely redefine ourselves, or we could simply decide to let our “real selves” shine through. Like mild-mannered Clark Kent shedding his spectacles and business suit to reveal the mighty Superman, we may uncover a giant identity that is more than our behaviors, more than our past, more than any label we’ve been giving ourselves.
THE POWER TO reinvent YOURSELF
Now, let’s expand!
If your identity isn’t everything you want it to be, then make it that way. Start by taking the following four steps to reinvent yourself.
1. Make a list right now of all the elements of your identity you want to have. As you make the list, revel in the power you have right now to change simply by deciding to. Who are some people who have these characteristics you aspire to having? Can they serve as role models? Imagine yourself fusing with this new identity.
Imagine how you’d breathe. How would you walk? How would you talk? How would you think? How would you feel?
2. If you’d truly like to expand your identity and your life, then, right now, consciously decide who you want to be. Get excited, be like a kid again, and describe in detail who you’ve decided you are today. Take a moment now to write down your expanded list.
3. Now develop a plan of action you could take that would cause you to know that you’re truly living consistently with your new identity. In developing this plan, pay special attention to the friends you’re choosing to spend time with. Will they reinforce or destroy the identity you’re creating?
There’s nothing quite as pleasurable as seeing someone expand their identity. One of the greatest joys I’ve experienced in recent years was watching the transformation of my eldest son, Tyier, as he went from a neophyte interested in flying helicopters with me, to a master jet pilot, to a commercial helicopter pilot. What a change in self-esteem as he began to realize that he’d become one of the few who do versus the many who talk—that he had mastered the skies and created for himself the unlimited freedom that few would ever hope to experience!
4. The final step is to commit to your new identity by broadcasting it to everyone around you. The most important broadcast, however, is to yourself. Use your new label to describe yourself every single day, and it will become conditioned within you.
THE FUTURE OF YOUR IDENTITY
Even after completing this exercise, you’ll want to continue to refine your identity, expand it, or create better rules for it. We live in a dynamic world where our identities must continually expand in order to enjoy a greater quality of life. You need to become aware of things that may influence your identity, notice whether they are empowering or disempowering you, and take control of the whole process. Otherwise you become a prisoner of your own past. I’m curious: Are you now the same person you were when you picked up this book?
I am continually redefining myself, and people often wonder at my level of confidence in pursuing new ventures. I’m often asked, “How have you accomplished so much in your life?” I think that a big part of it is that I look at things in a different way than most: while most people have to establish competence before they feel confident, I decide to feel confident, and that provides the sense of certainty to persist until I am competent. That’s why my identity is not limited by my past references. If you were to ask me who I am today (and I might decide to change tomorrow!), I would say that I am a creator of possibility, an instigator of joy, a catalyst for growth, a builder of people, and a producer of passion. I am not a motivator, a preacher, or a guru. I am one of the nation’s experts in the psychology of change. I am a coach, an entrepreneur, a husband, a father, a lover, a friend, an entertainer, a television personality, a nationally best-selling author, one of the most impactful speakers in the nation, a black belt, a jet helicopter pilot, an international businessman, a health expert, an advocate for the homeless, a philanthropist, a teacher, a person who makes a difference, a force for good, a healer, a challenger . . . and a fun, outrageous, and humble kind o’ guy!
I identity with the highest elements of my self, and I view those facets of me that are not yet perfect as an opportunity for growth rather than as character flaws. You and I need to expand our view of who we are. We need to make certain that the labels we put upon ourselves are not limits but enhancements, that we add to all that’s already good within us—for whatever you and I begin to identify with, we will become. This is the power of belief.
“If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves.” THOMAS A. EDISON
Because of my commitment to constantly expand my capacity to appreciate all aspects of life, I’m always pursuing unique references. Years ago, I decided to visit the Bellevue morgue, and I experienced a major life transformation. I went there because my friend. Dr. Fred Covan, who is Chief Psychologist of Bellevue Hospital in New York, convinced me that in order to understand life you’ve got to understand death. Becky and I arrived at his office with a great deal of apprehension. Fred sat us down and cautioned us not to say a word during the experience. “Just let it happen,” he said. “Notice what feelings come up, and then we’ll talk about it later.”
Not knowing what to expect, we nervously followed the doctor as he descended the stairs. He led us to the section for unclaimed bodies, where most of the remains were from the indigent street population. As he pulled out the first metal drawer and unzipped the body bag, I felt a shudder ripple through my body. Here was this “person” there with me, yet I was instantly struck by the feeling of emptiness. Becky was shaken when she thought she saw the body move. Fred later pointed out that Becky’s experience was common, that we all have a difficult time dealing with bodies that don’t move, that are devoid of the pulse of life.
As he opened each successive drawer, the emotion hit me again and again: there’s no one here. The body is here, but there is no person. Moments after death, these people weighed the same amount as they did when they were alive, but whatever they were—the essence of who they truly were—was no longer there. We are not our bodies. When we pass on, there’s no question that what’s missing is the intangible, weightless identity, that essence of life some call spirit. I believe that it’s equally important for us to remember that while we’re alive, we’re not our bodies.
Neither are we our past, nor our behaviors in the moment. This experience gave me an incredible sense of gratitude for the blessed gift of life. Suddenly I looked at people who had major physical challenges and thought, “Boy, do they look healthy.” There’s nothing like a little contrast to remind us of how fortunate we all are! Recently, my feelings were put into words when I had the opportunity to visit with author Wayne Dyer. He said something that day that typifies my feelings. He told me, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Our identity is the cornerstone of that experience. I believe that our true identity is something that’s indefinable and greater than anything that’s describable. We are soul; we are spirit. Remembering who we really are puts everything into perspective, doesn’t it? Once we act with the knowledge that we’re spiritual beings, we won’t get caught up in all the little games that separate us from one another. We’ll know with deep conviction that we are truly connected with all of creation.
“Each of us inevitable; Each of us limitless—each of us with his or her right upon the earth; Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth; Each of us here as divinely202 as any is here.” WALT WHITMAN
The next time you catch yourself saying, “I could never do that,” or “That’s just not me,” take a moment to consider the impact of what you’re saying. Have you limited your concept of self? If so, take advantage of every opportunity to expand your identity. Get yourself to do those things you don’t think you can do, and use your new actions as a reference that gives you a sense of certainty that you’re more than you thought.
Begin to ask yourself, “What more can I be? What more will I be? Who am I becoming now?” Think about your values and dream list, and commit to yourself that, regardless of the environment, “I will consistently act as a person who is already achieving these goals. I will breathe this way. I will move this way. I will respond to people this way. I will treat people with the kind of dignity, respect, compassion, and love that this person would.” If we decide to think, feel, and act as the kind of person we want to be, we will become that person. We won’t just be behaving “like” that person; we will be that person.
You are now at a crossroads. This is your opportunity to make the most important decision you will ever make. Forget your past. Who are you now? Who have you decided you really are now? Don’t think about who you have been. Who are you now? Who have you decided to become?
Make this decision consciously. Make it carefully. Make it powerfully. As we now leave our study of the Master System, just remember this: you don’t have to make all of the changes we’ve talked about here in order to transform the quality of your life. If you change any one of the five areas of the system, your whole life will change. A change in your habitual questions alone will change your focus and change your life. Making shifts in your values hierarchies will immediately change the direction of your life. Cultivating powerful, resourceful states in your physiology will change the way you think and the way you feel. This alone could change your identity. So could changing some of your global beliefs. Pursuing additional references will provide the raw materials for assembling a new experience of who you are. And certainly, deciding to expand your identity could transform virtually everything. I know that you’ll want to return to these pages again and again throughout your life as you begin to reinvent yourself and define who you truly want to be now versus who you’ve been in the past. Be playful! Have fun! Discover the adventure that comes with an ever-expanding sense that who you are is something more each and every day that you’re alive.
Now let’s have some fun by beginning a seven-day challenge where each day I’ll give you a brief exercise to use what you’ve been learning and give you an opportunity to start reaping the rewards of some of the strategies and tools to which you’ve been exposed. Let’s begin with . . .
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