Today’s post is going to deal with how a seemingly innocent and innocuous way we think and talk about ourselves can negatively affect us in many arenas. It can have a profound impact on the thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that influence both our moment-to-moment experience of life and our ability to advance our longer-term personal development.
It’s a point I emphasize so frequently that many of the clients I work with on a regular basis have developed the habit of correcting themselves in our sessions when they utter the phrase “I’m someone who….” They have come to see how describing oneself in such absolute terms may be accurate on the one hand but self-limiting on the other. By the way, “I’m someone who” is just one of several ways that an inflexible self-description might be worded. Variations include “I never….”, and “I’m not the kind of person who”, or even “I’m a….( pessimist, or a risk-taker, or a procrastinator, or a slob, etc.).
When I say or think “I am someone who (fill in the blank – e.g. “hates working out”, “tends to get depressed”, “doesn’t like parties,” “enjoys arguing with people”, “am reluctant to try new things”), it carries a suggestion of permanence. I am describing a fundamental aspect of myself, an aspect that is fixed and rigid. In my desire to avoid cognitive dissonance (the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously), I will be much more likely to notice evidence supporting the basic concept I hold of myself, rather than evidence that contradicts it, thus reinforcing the concept.
It’s not easy to notice all the times and ways in which we tend to “box ourselves in” with these defining statements, but if you begin to pay attention you will notice that you think or say them more often than you might imagine.
If you would like to work on changing a pattern of behavior or way of thinking, begin by re-defining your self description. There are a number of ways to do this. Let’s imagine you consider yourself someone who procrastinates. Rather than thinking or saying “I’m a procrastinator,” you can begin altering the description in a way that still leaves it accurate, but allows for change; you could say “I have a tendency to procrastinate,” or “I’ve been a procrastinator,” or even “procrastination usually trip me up”. Each of these statements reflects a past reality without walling off the possibility of transformation, which “I’m a procrastinator” does.
In conjunction with working on your self-description, begin to pay greater attention to exceptions to your general pattern of behavior. Notice the times when you didn’t procrastinate, when you worked on a project adhering to a proscribed schedule. Or when you procrastinated less than usual. As you begin to notice these exceptions, it will be easier to characterize yourself in ways that encourage growth.
Finally, another technique is to use the absolute “I am a person who….” statement as a way of describing the change you’re in the process of making change: “I am someone who always used to procrastinate.”