Changing Your Identity by Moving Your Center

The Lost Identity Land, Marcin Reznik

Summary: by visualizing identity as a location (your "center") on a map and using the place you want to be in (an "identity goal"), it becomes much easier to accomplish goals and build habits.

The Center

I believe that we all have a psychological center - an emotional default from which we live our lives. It is the version of our selves that we settle on most often, and who we generally conceptualize ourselves as. The opposite of being in your center is acting or feeling in a way that's unusual for you.

I imagine our center being like a place on a map of human possibility (an example of thinking about things in terms of surface area). The world is vast but we live somewhere in it, and where we live is what we consider to be our home. Just like how you might call a bad neighborhood or a war-torn country home, your center is not necessarily the best or most optimal "place" for you so much as it is the most comfortable one. Your center might involve drinking, watching Netflix, and ordering in more than you should, but it's familiar and you know exactly how to operate in this space.

Improving yourself means moving your center to a better place in the world of human expression. Maybe that's working out more, being more positive, or growing a side hobby. Whatever it is, the fundamental act is integrating a new (or perhaps old) behavior into yourself such that that your "center" self changes. If your fundamental self has changed, whether that's a habit or emotional state, you've succeeded in moving your center.

But stepping outside of your center is uncomfortable. It feels awkward and ungainly. Sometimes, it can almost feel wrong, like you're denying your current self, which you are. Much of the time, trying to be a different person means destroying the person you already are, and that sort of "self-destruction" can be frightening - even if you're destroying that Netflix-watching, binge-drinking, delivery-eating lazy person.

So how do we change ourselves and make it stick?

Identity goals

This is where I can't really generalize anymore, but I'll explore what's been working (and not working) for me.

The best thing I've found is what I call an identity goal. These goals involve envisioning the person that you want to become, and tend to elicit concrete, actionable goals quickly and easily. Here's an example: this year I've been trying to get fit. Some concrete goals for "getting fit" are:

  • Join a gym
  • Work out 4 times a week
  • Lose some number of pounds

These goals are fine, but they're also really easy to slide back on, especially since working out is hard, sitting around is easy, and hey, I might not be winning any awards but I look okay enough already. After all, do I really want to be one of those crazy fitness people? That seems so weird and alien.

me, looking average-ly good enough. bonus points for being a reader and having a cat (I hope)

On the flip side, identity goals looks like these:

  • I want to be someone who cares about their health
  • I want to be someone who is strong and capable
  • I want to be someone who is considered attractive and desirable

You'll notice that identity goals can be pretty broad. They're powerful that way. Some concrete goals and actionable ideas immediately spring to mind from these, like:

  • I want to be someone who cares about their health
    • Set up a regular yearly health check-up
    • Learn more about nutrition and what I should eat
  • I want to be someone who is strong and capable
    • Find out what I mean by this. Is that lifting heavy things? Running quickly? Emotionally hardy?
  • I want to be someone who is considered attractive and desirable
    • Learn more about fashion and how to dress myself
    • Become a little more skilled socially
    • To whom do I want to be attractive and desirable?

When you have an identity goal, you're working on assimilating new self-conceptions into your self -- effectively moving your center. This frequently leads you to discover questions and goals you hadn't considered before. If your goal is to become a certain type of person (as opposed to accomplish a thing), you'll find it much more difficult to let your concrete goals slip because to do so would be to violate the sense of identity that you're building for yourself.

But you'll probably still feel your ego protesting these new identity goals. Becoming a new person is hard and weird. That's where I've found the center concept useful.

How the "center" metaphor makes identity change easier

Identity is a crucial, heavy, terrifying prospect. What if you don't like who you're becoming? What if you screw it up? What if you "lose" yourself? While it's definitely possible to change yourself irreversibly, self-improvement is not generally the sort of irreversible change anyone regrets. Most of the time it's just your ego not wanting to give up all that Netflix. The idea of your center on a Map of Potential You is useful because having a "tactile" metaphor makes it easier to think about changing yourself.

If you think about integrating a new sense of self as simply moving from one place towards another place, it seems less daunting. You can always go back to where you were before (and I don't know about you, but I reverse my improvements all the time). Instead of being a daunting undertaking, you can turn your identity goals into a sort of play. Why not explore (metaphorically and literally) different parts of your potential? Why not see how you regard yourself when you have certain identity traits? In fact, using your imagination is an incredibly powerful tool for solidifying and integrating your identity goals. By visualizing how you would think, feel, and act if you truly were the type of person you want to become, you're actually in the sneaky process of becoming that person.

I've found that consistent visualization and self-confirmation of the person you want to become makes the concrete goals associated with that person feel increasingly inevitable, which is sort of what a strong habit feels like. When I spend enough time imagining and integrating an identity goal, I find that I begin working on those goals and don't stop. Of course, it takes further discipline to actually make sure I follow through with those goals consistently by setting a schedule or action points for a routine, but even just starting on those concrete goals gets much easier.

It's not foolproof, but I've found that this combination of ideas (your "center" - really, identity as a geography and identity goals) is one of the most effective ways to change myself for the better that I've found. I hope it's helpful to you, too, or provides some food for thought.