People will slap you with labels your whole life. You can choose to either accept these labels, reinterpret them as you see fit, or you can disregard them altogether. Now I don’t think labels are altogether bad. Labels are just how people organize and simplify the world around them which can be daunting in its complexity. I’m going to present to you a way I’ve used labels to my benefit.
Remember this always: No one knows you more than you know yourself. And from what we have learned from neuroscience about brain plasticity, we know that to a very large extent we have complete control over who we want to be and we can mold ourselves accordingly. We just have to take that necessary step of forming a set of strong positive beliefs about ourselves. From there, you fake it. Then you make it the new reality.
Some may want to resist this approach thinking that there is something noble about being 100% genuine 100% of the time, but what is genuine? If you have a growth-mindset, then you know our traits aren’t fixed and there is much that can be done to improve ourselves. Your whole life you have had people planting ideas into your subconscious regarding who you are. Why is it so wrong to do this yourself? If the idea of not being genuine upsets you, that is all the more incentive to make your renewed beliefs about yourself reflect the truth.
Fake it til you make it
A psychological phenomena you may be aware of known as cognitive dissonance plays a key role in the success of ‘fake it til you make it’. Cognitive dissonance is defined as the excessive mental stress and discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time. Since people strive for internal consistency, people will either change an inconsistent behavior, or reshape a belief to eliminate the dissonance. At the beginning, acting out your new, positive self-image may leave you feeling like a phony. But what this does is create that uncomfortable dissonance that can effectively help bring that past self up to speed.
As you begin to see success come your way, more successes will inevitably follow. These new memories will serve as the groundwork for solidifying whatever new identity you are trying to achieve. New neural pathways (think patterns of thoughts) will be established and strengthen over time as the old pathways wither away. Your self-doubt will gradually evaporate and there will come a point where you can’t even recognize or relate with that past self. With lots of practice, this metamorphosis gets easier and you will see quicker results.
Once I understood this fundamental idea my ability to reinvent myself increased ten-fold. I was a strong believer in self-improvement from a very young age, but I always saw change as having to be this long and arduous process that could span years. I once suffered from cynicism, cyclic bouts of depression, and most of all, near crippling social anxiety. I thought my anxiety could be overcome without the use of prescription drugs and therapy, but that it would require repeated exposure to social situations. This is a legitimate therapy known as exposure therapy, and is essentially what I did for 4 years in college. While this did aid me in developing social skills and overcome some of the anxiety, the progress I made was glacial. Reading neuroscience books on brain plasticity and motivational works, most influential being Terry Malts’ “Psycho-Cybernetics”, allowed me to take control of my identity and mold myself much more freely.
Understanding brain plasticity and reading about people’s success stories overcoming depression, OCD, addictions to substances, and excessive worrying further motivated me to tackle my anxiety full force. Many of these people believed their conditions were linked to irreparable damage to the brain or correctable chemical imbalances. The truth is there is no evidence to support these widely believed explanations (Lacasse & Leo, 2005; (Valenstein, 1998).
I personally always doubted the chemical imbalance hypothesis for I had success overcoming my cynicism early on in college. I was exposed to some happiness research in the happiness chapter of John Stossel’s “Myths, Lies, and Downright Stupidity”, after which I became obsessed with optimism. A positive psychology course furthered my knowledge of practical approaches to achieving happiness. It was during this time that I developed a huge interest in the concept of “framing”. I gradually became more aware of my thinking patterns and would consciously try to positively re-frame my interpretation of events. Positive framing can serve as a great exercise in creativity. Pushing yourself to find and emphasize the positive in a situation can take considerable effort, especially for those with a long history of pessimistic thinking. I later began to apply this positive framing to my judgments of people as well, always trying to assume and see the best in people.
The Power of Words
I later discovered the power of words, and how they too can shape thoughts about ourselves. For anxiety I deliberately made efforts to resist labeling myself as “shy”, “anxious”, “nervous”, or even “introverted”, for that term is often associated with anxiety and carries a negative connotation for many. In the past I would introduce myself with apologetic statements about my introverted nature and social awkwardness. Analyzing my past made me realize that these excuses were a way for me to protect a poor self-image, and served as one of my biggest barriers to overcoming social anxiety. I began telling my friends to stop introducing me to others as quiet or shy, or anything else for that matter. This gave me a chance to try out new identities I was shooting for and allow them to make their own judgments without influence.
Being mindful of words has proven to be one of my most effective methods for reshaping my identity. I’ve since used this method to successfully boost my confidence, reliability, optimism, among other things. It can even be used to overcome things such as poor math skills or bad memory! For instance, I used to always whine about having poor memory. I made a commitment to myself to stop saying this, and I did my best to remember the power of belief. Soon after I began to notice my memory improve! Eliminating the belief was like removing a barrier, giving me motivation to actually try to remember things, rather than just allow myself to quickly give up under the assumption that my memory was inherently poor.
The more I work with this idea, the more astonished I become of the power of one’s beliefs. Give it a go and let me know what you think! Feel free to leave a comment below. Have you had similar experiences? How have beliefs helped you reshape who you are?