Don’t Box Yourself In

“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” – W.C. Fields

It’s the special time of year again that naturally lends itself to reflecting upon where we’ve been in our past and contemplating where we’d like to go in our future. Sure, this opportunity is available to us any day – or in any moment really – but the transition from one year to the next has a symbolic power to awaken us out of our typical trance-like state, force us to confront reality, and prompt us to reevaluate the direction of our lives.

Many of us essentially ask ourselves at this time of year, “Who do I want to be?”

We set new goals, make new resolutions, and (unfortunately) for many of us, nothing significant actually changes in our lives. There are a lot of reasons why our intense initial ambitions fail to materialize; I hope to explore many of them in this blog. Perhaps the biggest one is that we’ve built our life – our personal environment and relationships – around the current version of ourselves (who we have been). If we are aspiring to change ourselves in any significant way (a new vision of who we want to become), those existing structures will naturally resist the deviation from the comfortable, predictable status quo. Many relationships in our lives will likely prefer a known bad situation to an unknown good situation – the fear of change is extremely powerful.

I happen to move around a decent amount – frequently placing myself in new environments and meeting new people. I’ve enjoyed the benefit of a clean slate upon which to improve upon myself without the constraints of others’ expectations. However, there has been one limiting relationship that has consistently followed me to every new location I move to… and that is the relationship I have with myself.

More powerful even than what a friend or spouse thinks about who we are, how we perceive ourselves defines what changes we will allow (consciously or subconsciously) to take hold in our lives. And it is surprising how often the beliefs we have about ourselves run counter to our stated goals and prevent us from realizing our aspirations.

Let’s take a look at a few types of examples to illustrate the point.

First off, everyone probably recognizes that our negative self-talk is detrimental to our success (and happiness in general). When we label ourselves as something bad or inferior, we set ourselves up for failure by depriving our ambitions of the mental energy we need to succeed. If we want to adopt healthier diet and exercise habits (a common New Year’s goal) but are telling ourselves that we are fat, weak, and lazy, then that is the script that we are going to act from in the moments of truth. A weak person caves into the sugary temptation – so if our story of self is that we are weak, of course that’s what we are going to do – we’ve defined ourselves into failing.

Next up are neutral (true) “facts” about ourselves. For example, I’ve noticed myself hiding behind “being an introvert”. Now it’s completely true that whatever personality assessment I take is going to categorize me as an introvert – and I’m not saying there is anything wrong with being an introvert (there are a lot of benefits to being one), but what I’m talking about goes beyond an honest assessment when it becomes an excuse for failure or limits what I believe is possible for me to achieve. I am free to be who I am without shame, but if my goal is to give a rocking public speech, it doesn’t serve me to frame it as something “people like me” are bad at.

Similar are neutral (false) “facts” about ourselves. Another common goal revolves around finances – typically things like saving more for retirement, investing in a college fund for the kids, or paying off credit card debt. At the same time we tell ourselves, “I need to have the latest iPhone when it comes out” or “I couldn’t be happy living in a home under 2000 sqft”. These may feel true at the moment, but they are mental perceptions, not literal truth. By boxing ourselves in with false beliefs, we limit our options and diminish our capacity to actually reach our goals. I’ve heard people voice the wish to increase their savings or have more free time and then list out every aspect of their current life as a non-negotiable… changing nothing about our life but expecting better outcomes isn’t a path of personal development – that’s magic!

Finally (and maybe surprisingly) are the “good” labels we attach to ourselves. The key here is to realize that any label is limiting, even the good ones. Suppose I define myself as “very smart” and have a goal of learning a new skill (maybe 3D animation). If I struggle with it initially, I’m likely to simply give up because continuing to struggle with something would go against the notion I have of myself. My inner voice would be saying “if you are actually very smart you wouldn’t be struggling” and in order to quiet that voice and maintain the positive image I have of myself, I’d abandon the attempt.

Our goal should be to become aware whenever we are labeling ourselves and then stepping back to determine if that label boxes us in by limiting the options we allow ourselves to consider. Odds are, it does, so we should work to let go of those fixed notions about who we are. Want to try uncovering some for yourself? Consider:

  • Who are you? (Answer with at least 5 statements)
  • What are you naturally good at?
  • What are you naturally bad at?
  • What do you need to be happy?
  • What do you wish you could do, but is impossible?
  • What do you wish were true, but is not the way the world works?

The long-term goal here is to eventually remove the notions of permanence that we apply to ourself and other people and things, all of which we carry around with us subconsciously. Most of us think and speak for our “self” as if it were a permanent, fixed entity. A friend recently shared one of his strategies for shining light on that lie by asking, “Who is the self I’m describing? Is it me when I was 10 years old? Is it me 5 years ago? Is it me 5 years from now?” It becomes clear that though we feel like “who we are” is stable, in reality it really only exists in the present moment – in the next moment, there will be a new “self”. The power comes when we realize that we are free, in this moment, to shape the “self” that we will become in the next moment. Revel in that freedom – don’t box yourself in.

What do you want to be true for you in 2015?

Happy New Years!

~EL

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