I spend a lot of time in my head feeling anxious about having to do something that scares me. Usually my fantasy about how onerous the task or conversation will be is much worse—and much different—than the real thing. Sometimes I learn my lesson that what occurs in my head is simply me making things up, but I often I forget that. Instead, I give such credence to the calamities I’m capable of creating that I’m shaking in my boots days before the actual event occurs.
I think of this frequently when I read quotes urging, “Do What Scares You.” I’m realizing as I get older that my lesson is not “I can survive anything that scares me,” as much as it is trying not to give my fears such a big role in my life drama. This has been prominent in my thoughts this week because I’m reading Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I’m not finished with the book yet, but I’m totally struck by one of his main ideas: If we want to change our habits, we have to change our identities, or our self-concepts.
That new identity lets me shed a lot of habits that have definitely lost their luster.
In other words, let's say I'm scared about an upcoming meeting that I believe will be confrontational. In keeping with what Clear says, my habit has been to perseverate about it—to go over and over what I think Person A will say and then Person B and then how I’ll handle it. (Please note , I’m talking here about the kind of anger that might occur in a work meeting, not violence or abuse. That is an entirely different situation.)
In my work example, I become anxiety-ridden before the meeting because I identify myself as a person who doesn’t like conflict and doesn’t know what to do in the face to it. In reality, though I don’t love conflict, I'm actually pretty good at helping people to calm down and talk about what the real issues might be. It’s just that this isn’t my go-to self-image. Instead, I hold on to an old concept of myself that is overwhelmed by conflict because I can't control it. I’m not perfect at handling it now, but my true identity is different than it used to be. So, as Clear says, rather than just hammering myself about letting go of my anxiety habit, it’s more workable if I focus on who I really know myself to be at this moment. By doing that, I’m less likely to lapse into my old, unproductive habit.
This holding on to old versions of myself appears in many areas of my life and I can see how it affects my behavior. I grew up thinking we are who we are and this is what we’ve got to work with. And, of course, in our basic form, that’s true. There are many things about me that simply are. But there are also many things about me that I can clearly see have changed over the years—true differences in my identity. As an introvert, a person who relishes quiet time alone, I used to identify myself as shy. My habits related to that included not putting myself into situations that “sounded” uncomfortable—i.e., groups of people I didn’t know or circumstances that were unfamiliar. As it turns out, I know how to handle myself in social situations so that I can talk to people and feel ok. It just took me a long time to add that to my vision of myself. I might not love doing a particular thing, but I’m still capable.
It’s all part of this idea that our growth continues. We aren’t stuck being who we always thought we were—and certainly not being who someone else might have convinced us we were. Our experiences and relationships and observations all work together to add to, and even change, who we are. As I let myself take this in, it’s actually much more freeing than I imagined. I can be something I never imagined, and that new identity lets me shed a lot of habits that have definitely lost their luster.