Everyone I know has something (and sometimes a whole list of somethings) about themselves that they want to change. Few people, however, are actually successful in making these changes they so badly want.
This may be why New Year resolutions are so popular and so seldom effective.
For most of us, the ability to create lasting changes in ourselves decreases the bigger the change we want to make.
This can make true transformation, which involves profound and fundamental change of the self, feel like a pipe dream that is completely out of reach.
I spent years trying to figure out how to create self-transformation without success until my world turned completely upside down upsetting everything I thought I knew. Even then, it took several years of wading through uncertainty and feeling completely lost in my own life before things before things began to shift.
In the wake of that experience, I've learned a lot about myself and even more about what it takes to truly transform.
Levels of change
The first thing I've learned is that there different levels of change. Imagine these as a pyramid with each level resting on the ones below it.
At the top of the pyramid is a change in our behavior. At this level, we seek only to change our outward behavior. For example, we may decide that we want to start exercising regularly. This is the work of creating a new habit, and there are many tried and true methods for doing that.
But this kind of change is only at the surface level, so it often remains a bit precarious. I have established regular exercise habits several times in my life, but as soon as circumstances changed—my workout partner left or my schedule changed—the habit quickly evaporated.
The next level down is change in our thinking. This can include the way we think about something or the things we choose to think about. It could also involve learning new information. Changing our thinking will often naturally give rise to changes in our behavior.
For example, if I learn new information about the health risks of consuming a certain kind of food, this will change how I think about that food, and that is likely to naturally lead to a change in frequency with which I consume it.
The third level is a change in our awareness. Changing our awareness is accessing greater consciousness about ourselves or the world around us. It involves greater understanding (beyond just greater knowledge of facts) and greater clarity about our thoughts and our actions, which will naturally lead to change in those levels also.
As my awareness of the constant barrage of self-critical harangue going on my head has grown, that change in awareness has led me to consciously shift my thinking as it happens, which is changing my behavior as I (slowly) grow in confidence to try new things and take more risks.
The foundational level of this pyramid is a change in our identity. This can include changes in our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us, fundamental changes in the ways that we define ourselves and our role(s) in the world, and changes in our understandings of ourselves and our potential.
Changes in our identity are the most effective way to create lasting change because that change impacts every level above it. This foundational level is where transformation actually takes place.
Unfortunately, we spent most of our time and effort attempting to make changes only at that top level of behavior instead, and we wonder why we struggle so much to create real change. The key to true transformation is focusing our changes at the level of self-identity.
Identity change and transformation
My experience over the last few years of intense transformation has led me to believe that identity change and transformation are irrevocably linked.
When our self-identity changes, we transform. When we transform, our self-identity changes. One cannot happen without the other.
And yet, changes in our self-identity are not as easy as that makes it sound. Our self-identity is our foundation in the world and the ground upon which we live and function, so we resist changes to that self-identity because those changes are inevitably earthquakes that rock our worlds in ways we cannot control.
Over my few years of life meltdown, my self-identity got hammered on many fronts. My professional identity took one blow after another over several years filled with career changes and job failures that dramatically redefined my roles, my dreams, and my confidence (and not in a good way).
A divorce drastically altered the landscape of personal relationship role and identity, and this was coupled with a move and financial changes that further impacted the way I saw myself and my life. Simultaneously, my understanding of my relationship orientation took a dramatic shift that sent my sense of self reeling in bewilderment.
At the same time all this was happening, all of my close relationships exploded in one way or another, leaving me feeling spectacularly alone and isolated. As if that wasn't enough (or perhaps because of it), my entire spiritual framework for understanding life also morphed into something completely new and unrecognizable.
And still, with all of that rocking my world and my self-identity, I clung to the shreds of my old self-identity for all I was worth because it felt like the only possible constant to hold onto in a world gone mad.
It was only when I finally let go of all that I was trying to hold onto and allowed my self-identity to dissolve and then gradually re-emerge in a new form that life finally began to stabilize and transform in positive ways.
In the process, I found old patterns of behavior and of thinking that I had fought for years shifting almost instantaneously in the wake of this newly emerging self-identity. The change in self-identity turned out to be the key that changed everything else all the way up the rest of the pyramid.
It was completely disorienting. It was (and is) also amazing.
My self-identity feels much more stable now as it has gradually come together in this new way, but I find I also hold it much more lightly now, willing to allow it to continue to shift and change as it needs to so that continued transformation doesn't have to include laying waste to my entire life the way the last round did!
What do you think?
All of us have experienced this process at least once as our self-identity gradually shifted from that of a child to that of an adult during adolescence. Some of us weathered that transformation more gracefully than others, but we all went through it.
As you remember that time in your life—or other times when your self-identity experienced major change—does this connection between transformation and changes to your self-identity ring true for you? I'd love to hear your stories and your thoughts!