How to Become Who You Want to Be

Learn new ways of thinking about yourself and looking at the world.

Posted Apr 06, 2019

Do you believe that you can reinvent yourself and change who you perceive yourself to be and your relationship to the world? Or do you believe that you are destined to carry on as the person you have always been? Half of you probably like who you are, but some of you might still feel stuck in a rut, locked in an unsatisfying relationship, or just plain ridden with guilt and self-hatred. I often hear the refrain, “I can’t help it. That’s just who I am,” or “He’ll never change.” And the truth is, he might not. But you can make a different choice for yourself, if that is what you want to do.

There are always key turning points in people’s lives that make a difference in relation to who we become. Some events are traumatic and painful and take us into dark places where we might wander for years. And I believe that some of us need to take that journey, so that we can chart a course back to the light of living freely and with joy. Some of us, after we heal our own lives, bring pieces of that map back with us to pass on to others.

I remember a moment when I was 27 years old. I was a restaurant manager. But I never chose to be a restaurant manager. I got there the same way I had gotten anywhere I ended up in life, by simply making a series of yes-or-no decisions: “Do you want some of this?” “Do you want to go out with her?” “Do you want this job?” “Do you want to go into management?” (I said yes to all of those, by the way.) And so there I was, a manager with my ordering book, down in the basement of the restaurant taking inventory and doing the week’s orders. I wasn’t that good a leader at that point in my life, but I was a very good manager. I could do the ordering, maintenance, scheduling, payroll, and accounting like an expert. As I stood there, feeling lonely and isolated, licking the wounds of my latest broken heart and feeling stuck in a job that did not make me feel like I was contributing much to the world, I had a thought: “If I am skilled enough to run a million-dollar restaurant by myself and take care of all of the organization of running the place, why can’t I fix the details of my miserable little life?” And, fortunately, another part of my brain answered, “There is absolutely no reason why you can’t.”

That small conversation led to a shift in me, away from pondering and trying to figure out why things happened the way they did, to taking concrete action. And, fortunately, I met (actually chose) friends to help me on my journey. One particularly wise friend pointed out that most of my body was replaced about every 10 years. (I’ve looked into this, and it appears to be true.)

In 10 years, most of the cells that make up your body today will have died and been replaced by new ones. So, your body will be totally new. Why can’t the you that you think you are change that way too?  

So, why do we string our days together, feeling like we are the same person from one day to the next? The answer is that you don’t have to. There is absolutely no reason why you have to feel the same way tomorrow.

Try these simple thought experiments:

1. Look up from your screen right now and observe your surroundings. Now ask yourself: Is there anything wrong with this moment? Suspend judgement and think about this independently of the feelings in your body (which could be depressed or full of stress hormones and adrenaline). Just in terms of what you see in the room where you are, or looking out the window, or sitting in the yard. In terms of what you see, is there anything wrong with this moment?

For many of you, the answer will be no. So, what is wrong, then? What usually happens is that you think something is wrong, because you are remembering other moments that already happened. You then tell yourself painful stories about the future based on those memories of the past. But at this moment, this one where you feel the air coming into your lungs, everything is OK.

2. Ask yourself: If I lost my memory tonight in my sleep and could not recall any of my painful past, would my day be different tomorrow? Might I go about my day feeling OK and enjoying the things I see, what I do, and the people I encounter? (Remember, this is a thought experiment. I realize that some of you will be waking up to what really are abusive or otherwise dangerous environments. But stay with me and, at least until you finish reading, suspend judgement.)

3. See if you can let yourself daydream, and imagine that you are in a different form or different world. You might imagine being a princess, or Joan of Arc, or a magician. See if you can envision yourself in this role. How might you carry yourself, see the world, and feel differently? See if you can allow the emotions and thoughts of that other form to come into your body.

4. Look into your eyes in the mirror and ask yourself, “What am I?” If you believe yourself to be a physical body or collection of cells, then you will have to concede that at least 98 percent of you will change in the next 10 years . . . so all things should be possible when it comes to change. If you are a soul, then you might need to concede that you are playing a role in this life, and you might simply have forgotten yourself. And if you are playing a role, you can choose to play a different one.

In one form or another, most of the people I work with will have had these conversations with me. And I have had all of them with myself. I have concluded that most of my moments are pretty OK. No matter how bad things get at work or in my relationships, when I am standing in the middle of a stream fishing, letting my memory of the day’s events go; the world out there could stop existing, but my moment in the running water, feeling the breeze and looking at the setting sun, that moment is pretty darn OK. (Curling up with my dog on the sofa runs a close second!)

In my sadder times in life, when I felt powerless and fearful, I would imagine myself to be a warrior clad in armor and charging into battle on horseback (this relates to exercise #3). I imagined the sense of focus and determination, pride and honor, and silent acceptance that I would feel in that circumstance. I got good enough at imagining this that I could (and still can) bring those feelings into my body at will. At those moments, I feel a surge of energy through my body, and the hair on my head stands on end! It is close to a spiritual experience. Ironically, I get that same sensation when I am in my car with the radio turned up to some rock with a powerful beat (the best one that works for me now is “Whisky in the Jar” by Metallica). It does not matter what my day was like, whether I argued with my wife, or whether things did not go my way at work. At that moment, I am the me that I want myself to be.

So, if you don’t like the way your life is going or don’t like the way you feel or who you think you have become, just remember that you have been playing a role. And you can choose to play a different one. You can give yourself new and more energizing memories. And for you doubters (except in the context of a PTSD presentation), you can choose them. I do remember what it feels like to be a knight charging into battle. I don’t care if I imagined it. It works for me, so I choose to keep it. And for you? Do you remember any dreams that you have had in the past? If the answer is yes, then you also have memories for things that never happened in the physical world. And now the trick is to do that on purpose.

Personally, I have seen many people give themselves the freedom to change using these types of narrative exercises. And anything is possible.

I went from being a scared, anxious, and lonely child, to a depressed adolescent, to a hopeless young man with no parents who thought he would live life hard and die young . . . to a day standing in the basement of a restaurant taking inventory and pondering the nature of change. And from there, I went from being an explorer and student of life, to a 34-year-old college freshman, to earning a doctorate in clinical psychology at 45, to being a licensed psychologist and professor at Widener University, where I continue to help people change and run the Oskin Leadership Institute.  

I hope these pieces of my story can be an inspiration. And so, if you are in a good place in life, see if you can pass some of these principles on to those around you who might be feeling stuck. And if you are the one feeling stuck, just remember to pay attention to your moments that feel good and work, and then string those moments together and remember them as often as you can, until one day you look around and realize that everything is all right.