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How Your Identity Crisis Can Trigger a Habit Change

Would you be willing to change if your identity were at stake?

Image by JohnHain, pixabay/CC0
Source: Image by JohnHain, pixabay/CC0

What makes you willing to think about changing something and then to actually do it?

Karen was a student, a smoker, and a worker in a dead-end job. One day she went out to take a smoking break as usual. She looked around at her co-workers, all puffing away. Some had settled for this low-wage, low-interest job and were already in their 30's or 40's. She noticed for the first time that one woman had yellow teeth, stained from years of cigarettes, and another a hacking cough.

Karen quit smoking that afternoon and had stayed quit for 6 months when I met her.

This is the most fascinating moment in the habit change process to me. When a person who hasn't been willing to change suddenly opens up to change, what causes the shift? This is the first of a series of occasional blogs about willingness, some based on science, some based on experience, some based on true stories, and still others on...well, sheer speculation. (I'll let you know when I'm using what.)

Willingness begins at that moment when you first find your motivators for change, whether "health," "vitality," or "becoming a writer." In this blog, I'll focus on a powerful motivator for change--"identity."

A major factor in opening the mind to change is the realization that you are no longer the person you wish to be. In this sense, willingness is the result of an identity crisis--am I a person who drinks too much at holiday dinners...or not? In Karen's case, her awareness of her co-workers' troubles triggered an identity crisis. "I didn't want to end up becoming one of those people," she told me. Not only did she quit smoking, she was able to find a more enjoyable job, related to her future career.

Research by James March indicates that we can think about decision-making as falling into either a consequences model or an identity model. If you make decisions according to a consequences model, you might weigh your decision by making a "pros and cons" list. If the "pros" to changing are more compelling, you would change.

Could you become willing by thinking about the consequences of an unhealthy habit? Maybe. If so, you are among the logical "Dr. Spocks" of this world. Of course, when it comes to a beloved bad habit, you might use your logical skills to rationalize why you are still involved with your false friend. Most of us need something more to pull us out of the small orbit of habit and into a bigger universe.

That "something" could be the realization that your very identity is at stake, not just negative consequences. You begin to see that your harmful habit is stealing away your true identity. It has become an alien invader of your real personality! This is a self-shaking insight that can propel you into action. For starters, you might tell yourself: "I do not want to be the kind of father who sets a bad example by smoking." "I want to be a person my husband can depend on, not a procrastinator." "I want to be fit, not flabby, because I like feeling good about my body."

Probably the decision to be open and willing to change involves both types of decision-making. While the "thinking you" knows you "should" do something because of the negative consequences if you don't, the desire to protect your identity--your chosen sense of self--gives you the motivation to overcome inertia and take action. The identity issue may provide the tipping point on the scale.

In my book Changepower, I suggest you ask yourself three questions that can help you become willing: What is really important to me? What kind of person do I want to become? What kind of life do I want to lead? At the time, I wasn't acquainted with March's research. Coincidentally, he also offers 3 questions to consider: Who am I? What sort of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation?

Yes, who are you? Identity decisions can open up your mind and heart and help you become willing to change.

Next in this series: Does it take a tragedy to trigger a habit change?

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), reviewed here. For insights, humor, and quotes on habit change, healthy living, willpower, and motivation, please like me on Facebook and/or follow me on Twitter.


1) Research by James March. Heath, Chip and Dan, Switch (2010). NY: Broadway Books.
2) Changepower. Selig, M. Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (2009). NY: Routledge.

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