If this is your first time here… I am working my way through James Clear’s book about creating good lifelong habits called Atomic Habits. Please click the blog button to your right to read past posts.
Chapter two is a short but important chapter. I wrote so much that I had to break it down into three parts.
PART ONE: Shaping Identity
PART TWO: Understanding my identity
PART THREE: Consciously building my identity
Chapter Two: Atomic Habits, How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)
In chapter two this week I learned about the three layers of behavior change. (1) Outcomes (2) Processes (3) Identity.
The first layer is changing outcomes. This is what you would get from setting a goal like, I want to lose weight or I want to win a championship. Most of the goals that you would set for yourself would be in this layer.
The second layer is changing your processes. This level is concerned with changing your habits and processes. Like implementing a routine for a new workout or organizing your office for better workflow. Most of the habits that you build are in this layer.
The third and most interesting layer to me is identity. At this level you are working with your belief systems. How you see the world. Your self-image and judgements about yourself and others. James says, most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases we hold are associated with this level.
To put it super simply— “Outcomes are about what you get. Processes are what you do. And Identity is about what you believe.”
Lots of people, myself included, start the process of changing a habit by focusing on what they want to achieve. This way of thinking leads to outcome-based habits. I know now after years of using the outcome-based way of thinking that it is not a good or sustainable way to create a good habit. James says, with an identity-based approach you have a better shot at developing and keeping a new habit because you are focusing on who you wish to become.
PART ONE of my story: Shaping Identity
I have typed out a hyper condensed version my younger years. I am trying to give you an idea of the narrative that shaped my life and my identity. Most of my life leading up to the birth of my first daughter was very difficult, hollow and full of struggle. To top it off, throughout my life I have had only one clear, consistent and persistent feeling and that was that I wanted to die. Wanting to die is one of my first memories I have as a child and it shapes my identity just as much as trying to live.
I very much like this quote from— Paule Marshall
“Sometimes a person has to go back, really back— to have a sense, an understanding of all that’s gone to make them— before they can go forward.”
Throughout my life; I have always been different.
I spent most of my life not knowing I was autistic. My childhood was difficult. I left home at an early age and by the time I was a young adult I had heard a list of words and phrases associated with my name. “Difficult, lazy, retarded, inflexible, terrible at school, stupid, strange, hard to understand, awkward, and weird with a bad attitude.” Apparently it was thought by those around me that, I would not amount to much in this life.
I did not realize until I was in my late thirties, early forties how much this narrative had influenced who I had become. Living with this narrative, I developed a strong negative internal identity and for the first thirty plus years of my life I worked hard to hide it, make excuses for it, fight it and be confused by it. Throughout my forties I made new connections and got a clearer understanding of myself. I made peace with the negativity, eventually replacing it with truer versions of who and what I am. To this day, I remain a work in progress.
I cannot deny that I have lived most of my life in a whirlwind of chaos, misunderstandings and disconnection but now, just starting my fifties, I realize that my identity is connected to beliefs that I have about myself. Consistent therapy has helped me to shovel through my past, rewire or dismantle some of the long-held beliefs I was holding onto. The environment I live in now is calmer and supportive. I feel I have a chance to start something new inside and build my life in a wholehearted conscious way. I am really thinking that the system James Clear has put together in Atomic Habits for building positive lifelong habits is my thing. We shall see I am only on chapter two, but I am feeling good about it.
My early twenties were identified by an over focus on work, an obsession with trying to make money and a desire to appear “normal”. I had many jobs and moved around a lot. The general situation was that things might start out well but then they would take a bad turn causing me to have to find a new job, move to a new place or run out of money. The trouble I had was that I could not maintain working for very long before I would physically and mentally diminish. Often, I would end up in my room for long periods of time or physically not being able to leave my house. As I would emerge from my slump, I could leave the house to buy food, but only at night after everybody else’s day was over. At a certain point I would start to feel better and I would conjure up more energy and intensely push myself back out into the world to go and make some more money. I never blamed my diminished physical and mental rigor as the problem. I always believed it was just the circumstance of a misunderstanding with colleagues or the boss or my falling out of interest with the job. I was a very confused young person and I had difficulty communicating what was happening to me and often there was no one to talk to. Many times, I would just quit a job with no explanation.
One night things changed…
Los Angeles was where I met my first real girlfriend or a truer accounting is that she met me. I barley spoke to her, but she asked for my number and so I gave it to her. She was a waitress in an Italian restaurant where I went to pick up my boss’s pizza. She and I were inseparable from that night on. I have her to thank for introducing me to important social cultural things. Good wine and beer, good movies, museums, fine china and crystal, nice restaurants, shopping, party planning and extroverted conversation. She was a master at talking as well as a master at stealing the table settings from high end restaurants in LA. When she moved in with me, she had boxes of silverware, plates, bowls, glasses and champagne flutes from around town. I was fascinated by her; I had never met a person who had so many friends before. I had never met someone who could talk so much. We had a relationship off and on for almost eight years.
She brought a consistency that I had never experienced before. I felt like I was normal but that only lasted for a short time. After introducing me to some of her friends a small group of them decided that I was an eccentric and odd guy but overall that I was good for her. What I heard was that I was still not normal.
Unfortunately over the next couple of years what transpired from both my work and my relationship was a catalogue of negative descriptive words that were used to describe me. I was rigid, brash, lazy, disconnected, intense, depressed, cold, unempathetic, antisocial, abrupt, I spoke with a monotone voice like a robot, I was unemotional, and emotionally unavailable. Eventually my girlfriend was told by a couple of her friends that I would never marry her. The last part was true but I did not know it at the time. What I had created over those years was a love-hate relationship with relationships. This was not her fault. Yes, she had issues that were tough for me to deal with but I can say clear headed today that me being in a relationship back then was a lot like being in a job. I tried very hard to act “not like myself” but rather what I thought I was supposed to be.
I lived in Los Angeles, California for most of my twenties. I created some important parts of my identity there. I focused a lot of energy on wanting to be successful. I was working in the film business and there were plenty of examples of successful people that I tried to emulate. Imitation and mimicking became my tools of choice. I thought that if I could imitate successful people or mimic the characters I saw in movies, I too would be successful. The truth is, it never worked out for me. I was not successful with the projects I worked on. However, the people I worked with would move on, get promoted into great positions, or get a good break or even a big break, but not me. I continued to struggle. On the outside I was positive, goal driven and full of reasons why the next thing I would try would work. Internally my identity was— “I am a fuck up”— an uneducated less than, and I was getting increasingly angry, confused and frustrated with myself.
In need of a change…
I got sick of myself. I got sick of trying really hard to be a person who was successful. I got sick of being fatigued. Sick of the many jobs and projects that went nowhere. I got sick of being unfulfilled by the outcomes of the choices I had made. I got tired of missed opportunities because I could not muster the energy to jump on them. I decided that the things I heard as a young person and the things I was hearing now must have some truth to them. I was a person who was not smart enough to go to school, I was weird, socially awkward and difficult. I did not have good marketable skills or a talent. I had strange habits like wearing the same style of clothing every day for years or eating the same food every day. I was overly sensitive to sounds, smells, light and being touched. I could not be in a crowd or ride public transportation. Very often I misunderstood what people were trying to tell me. I was told I had no sense of humor and that I took life too seriously. My body was hurting much of the time. In short, I decided that I would accept whole heartedly that I was a fuck up but I was not sure what to do about it.
My relationship with my girlfriend created even more confusion and chaos. We fought on a regular basis. I had a difficult time expressing myself. I had a hard time feeling my own feelings and even when I did feel emotions I wondered if they were actually real. After one lengthy argument with my girlfriend, I decided that I was a really angry person with a messed-up childhood and the best thing I could do was work on becoming a better person. I made “fixing me” my special interest. This was my first attempt at changing my identity. I made a timeline for a year, inserted my many goals and then focused on it.
I found Buddhism, healthy eating, yoga, photography, Tony Robbins and the occasional self-help audio book. I discovered Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park which were the first places I actually felt calm and not so intense. In the end I failed at hitting or maintaining all the original goals I set for myself but I did learn some things that were useful. I learned that I could manage my energy better if I had a strong routine. I understood that I had a rhythm where I could work for a few months and then I had to stop for a while. This led me to trying to make as much money as I could when I was working so I could make it through the down times. Another important discovery was that when I was not in Los Angeles, I felt better about myself. So at twenty-seven I moved with my girlfriend to a small beach community south of LA. However, my relationship with her ended there. After eight years, too many fights and the understanding that I did not want to be married it was time to disconnect from each other.
I will tell you more of my story in part two. For now, I want to leave you with a paragraph from chapter two of Atomic Habits that I found really interesting because it is a great insight. You want to understand your current identity so that it does not get in the way of the new habits you’re trying to create.
“Most people don’t even consider identity change when they set out to improve. They just think, I want to be skinny (outcome) and if I stick to this diet, then I will be skinny (process). They set goals and determine the actions they should take to achieve those goals without considering the beliefs that drive their actions. They never shift the way they look at themselves, and they don’t realize that their old identity can sabotage their new plans for change.”
If you are interested in changing your habits and creating a new you— buy the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear.