How Your Habits Shape Your Identity (and Vice Versa)
James Clear writes that “There is a set of beliefs and assumptions that shape who we are, an identity behind the habits.”
I bought the book Atomic Habits because I want to start a revolution inside myself. I no longer want to be held back in my growth as a person because of my beliefs about myself and the habits that inhabit me.
“When you have repeated a story to yourself for years, it is easy to slide into these mental grooves and accept them as fact. In time, you begin to resist certain actions because “that’s not who I am.” There is internal pressure to maintain your self-image and behave in a way that is consistent with your beliefs. You find whatever way you can to avoid contradicting yourself.”— James Clear, Atomic Habits.
As a young adult the beliefs I had about myself were the ones that others believed about me. This thinking shaped my habits and these habits continually reenforced my beliefs. I did not have my own sense of self or what I believed or stood for.
Thank you. I very much appreciate your readership. If this is your first time here click on the blog button on the right to read the previous post. It should take about ten minutes to read. It puts into perspective a lot of my back story and I wrote it because I needed something to help organize my past so I can move forward.
PART TWO of my story: Understanding my identity.
It felt like I was shot out of a cannon. I turned twenty-eight and suddenly my life took off. I met a woman, fell in love, and got married. She had two young children from a previous marriage. I had an instant family. I worked hard to be a good step-father and husband. I recalled movies whose characters had lives similar to the life I was trying to achieve. I took their best behaviors and made them my own. I spent much of my energy working to create the family I always wanted to have. In the beginning we were living off of my savings. I did not have a job and my wife did not work. It did not take long for there to be serious financial problems. As a solution I decided to sell some of my high-end possessions: furniture, stereo and camera equipment to keep my family afloat. Many of the items I sold were directly connected to me and defined who I thought I was as a person. Selling them made me a little depressed and I felt like I had lost something inside because I failed to keep what I loved.
Soon after, I got lucky and landed a job. It was my first “real job”, an office job and I was not exactly qualified for it. I was thrust into an environment which I had never experienced before. I had to participate with people in an office lit with fluorescent lights from nine to five, five days a week. I had to wear a suit and tie each day which was difficult for me. Shortly after accepting the position I started having challenges. The work was too much and it took me much longer than others to complete tasks. I was coming in early and staying late to finish my work. I was participating with lots of different personalities in a tough work environment. I was not able to rest at home and the job spun my relationship into a difficult place. My wife became increasingly jealous of people at my work. This was confusing to me and caused undue stress and marathon arguments that lasted late into the night. With mounting chaos, it did not take long before I was having serious issues at work and home.
The job only lasted twenty-seven months and during this time, I had two stomach ulcers and started to lose my hair. I felt like a zombie on most days. I was completely overwhelmed by all the moving pieces of my life but continued to push myself and tried to ignore the difficulty I was having. There were many nights I would lay awake staring at the ceiling wishing it would fall down and kill me. I had a good job. I was married. I was a good step father. But inside I still felt “less than” and confused. I felt like I was fucking up. I was exhausted. My self-esteem was very low and my health became frail.
I was in a rapidly declining state and then some amazing things happened. My wife got pregnant with our first child. I lost my job but the exit package allowed me to pay our bills and have enough left over to not have to work for the first two years of my daughter’s life. I took a break from thinking of myself as a “fuck up”, got some sleep and stopped worrying about my marriage and all the problems we had. The financial problems disappeared and the money became cover for the issues that were simmering in the relationship.
A positive change in identity…
The best thing that ever happened to me was having a child because it offered me a purpose and a strong sense that I was somebody. I was a dad. For the first time in my life, I felt that I had a clear direction. I was going to be a father to an amazing baby girl. I had finally found a definition, an identity for myself that I could be proud of. This moment was so significant because it was the first time I had a clear purpose and a sense of myself. I had an idea of who I wanted to become— a good dad.
With the birth of my daughter my relationship with my wife got worse. My wife was not happy about the relationship I was building with my young child. She felt, and let me know regularly, that she was the most important person in my life and should be treated that way. I got caught between caring for our daughter and my wife’s belief system. My wife would go on to spend years of our relationship trying to come between me and my daughter.
The story continued like this for another twenty years. It got a lot worse, more dramatic, excruciatingly difficult, and at times violent. However, this post is about me understanding my identity, not about the challenges of being in a relationship.
Although, I continued to struggle with my environment and the issues associated with being in a difficult marriage, I found that over the years I was able to stretch myself into doing things that I never had thought possible. There were some very good times. These successes started to change the way I thought about myself. I became more positive. I became more organized. I became very good at caring for and connecting with my daughter. I was developing into my role as a dad in spite of my wife’s jealous behavior. I had a second amazing daughter and shortly after her birth I started my own business. I was able to keep working for five years before I had a major physical meltdown that sent me to the hospital. Over the years, this positive energy added to my identity but what I did not realize was how fragile my belief in myself was. The good stuff sat on top of a sea of negative thinking.
Unfortunately, most of my successes felt anti-climactic because I usually fought with my wife throughout them. For my part I had two jobs one was fighting my wife and the other was doing the work that paid the bills and kept our family going. I tried to not let my wife’s negative words bother me but inside I was triggered. I still felt awkward and weird and I was still that eccentric guy who was prone to extreme fatigue and brain shut down.
In 2008 I was diagnosed with autism. The diagnosis changed me and for the second time in my life I felt like I had a place to belong and a label that I could identify with. I was now a dad with autism. Notice I did not write husband and dad with autism. The reason for that is I worked so hard for so long to try and reach my wife’s unrealistic expectations for what a husband was that in the end I actually hated being a husband. “Husband” is therefore not a strong part of my identity.
I learned that autism was the real reason why my behavior was so different. I was not lazy, stupid or antisocial. I was autistic, with anxiety, serious depression, bouts of suicidal ideation and dissociative behavior. It was painful but I started to unpack my past during therapy. I had a hard time with the idea that most of my life struggles came down to the fact that I was an autistic person trying to fit into a neuro typically designed world. The idea that I was not broken, just different was very foreign to me. I thought I had a life time of evidence that said I needed to be fixed.
Some context for the relationship with my wife…
I know now that when I met my wife I had very little self-esteem, almost no sense of self and no real understanding of boundaries. At that time, I hadn’t had a lot of varied relationship experience. I would eventually learn that my relationship had been built on lies, deceit, control and manipulation. My wife was not a good person. I learned during our relationship that she was an abusive and violent woman with deep emotional issues. Eventually, all the toxicity bubbled up and out. It would take twenty years to go through the process, lives would be ruined and a family would be broken.
Being a dad was something that I had to grow into. I had to make choices in my life and create habits that built the identity of what I thought being a good dad was. Autism was different, it was not something I needed to become it was what I already was. It had always been a strong part of my identity I just did not know it.
Throughout my marriage I had low self-esteem and I did not understand personal boundaries. I was plagued by crippling anxiety and depression. I did not have any friends or family to witness what I was dealing with. There was no one to ask for guidance. I was alone with my children dealing with my wife, a powerful dysfunctional force. Through my own disability and inability to understand intimate social interactions I invited a very controlling, manipulative woman into my life. I did get two amazing and wonderful daughters out of the relationship and eventually, with a lot of hard work, came a version of me that I really love. For me, my life really started with the birth of my first child. It was the birth of a solid part of my identity and I became even more whole as a dad with the birth of my second daughter.
I am the person I am today because of my experiences. I know that many of the things that shaped me as a child were distorted, abusive and wrong. I know that my young adult life was shaped by mental and emotional conditions that were distorted, abusive and wrong. I can see, and make the connection that my marriage was a dysfunctional grown-up version of my childhood. All this kept me from the things I needed most: connection, real love and support.
Many bad habits went into supporting and shaping my identity. They were created in reaction to my environment. Fighting with my wife all the time, not eating or sleeping well, constant stress and thinking I was a “loser” shaped how I saw the world and myself. My consistent negative way of thinking about myself was probably my worst habit. Living in a toxic relationship for years created habits and survival strategies that I am still working to change. I will talk about the things I want to change more as I go through Atomic Habits and work to create a system to change them.
James Clear writes, “Progress requires unlearning. Becoming the best version of yourself requires you to continuously edit your beliefs, and to upgrade and expand your identity.”
That is exactly what I am going to do.
If you are interested in learning how to change your habits, build positive new habits and have a good life then buy the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear.