Those of us working to stop violent or abusive behavior often find changing our actions can be stubbornly difficult. It’s not until we focus on the link beween identity and behavior that we’re able to make much headway. It turns out that identity—how we see ourselves—is central to how we act, react, and interact in relationships.
A silly but powerful personal story
For most of my adult life, I was highly self-conscious about my dancing. So much so that I usually opted to sit and watch rather than dance when given the opportunity. Whenever I did force myself onto the dance floor, I’d get a knot in my stomach that felt like I’d been kicked by a horse.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I stopped to consider why dancing made me so anxious. Then I remembered the high school dance both my older sister and I attended. My sister was cool and popular, and I looked up to her a lot.
We discussed the event at breakfast the next morning. I said it was fun to finally get to go to a high school dance. She said I danced like a dork. It was a short discussion.
Her comment was not unusual for an older sibling who’s frequently annoyed by a younger one. For me, however, it defined something I believed about myself. That connection between identity and behavior stayed with me for over 40 years.
The origins of our identity
What do we believe about ourselves? We shape our beliefs by asking questions like:
- Am I good at this?
- Do people like me?
- Am I pretty or handsome?
- How popular, funny, or smart am I?
- Do others accept me?
- Am I worthwhile and lovable?
Our parents are the first, and often the most influential, people to help us answer our questions. We look at their reflection for evidence of who we are. Siblings, other authority figures like teachers and coaches, role models, and peers also serve as mirrors, indicating answers:
- When a parent quickly sets aside our handmade gift, we think we disappoint them and don’t measure up.
- If our classmates tease us about our clothes, we think we’re awkward and don’t fit in.
- Should a coach or teacher say we’re dumb or lazy, the label sticks and we believe it.
These experiences especially define us when they happen in our childhood because we lack the ability to know differently or challenge their truth. However, our self-beliefs are continually shaped, even as adults. Here are a few examples of identity-defining experiences from later in life:
- When our spouse is disappointed with our cooking or ability to fix the car, we think we don’t measure up.
- A poor work review, paltry pay raise, skipped promotion, or job loss says we’re a failure.
- Acquaintances who don’t invite us to their get-together send the message that we don’t fit in or are not likable.
- We’re exposed to racism, sexism, homophobia, or some other form of discrimination, which implies that we’re inferior or flawed.
- Judgmental church leaders or members who point out our moral failings (sins) without accompanying grace seem to be saying that we are a bad person.
- Images in the media that show perfect people illustrate that we don’t have the body, looks, money, or possessions to be acceptable.
Big, defining moments
All of us face situations like the examples above. While they might appear as ordinary occurrences, like my sister’s evaluation of my dancing, they can carry a big impact. Other experiences are truly big life events which nearly always leave their mark:
- Our parents divorce, which might mean we’re exposed to their conflicts, separated from one or both, or introduced to stepparents or siblings.
- A parent dies, setting in motion other consequences like changing family roles, a grieving and unavailable surviving parent, or moving away from a familiar home or community.
- One parent goes to prison, creating financial struggles, social stigma, and our own undeserved shame.
- A parent neglects or abandons us, even if they are still physically there, sending the message that we don’t matter.
- We’re emotionally, physically, or sexually abused, shaping the belief that we’re not safe or worthy of care and respect.
We determine our self-worth by looking at a combination of our performance, other’s opinions, and the favorable or unfavorable circumstances we live through. Sadly, many of us grossly under-estimate our value and see ourselves as “broken,” “messed up,” or “damaged goods”. This conclusion is not the truth of who we actually are.
Our deepest needs
Some parts of what we believe about ourselves are no big deal. My beliefs about my dancing had little effect on my life off the dancefloor. Other things, however, strike at issues that are essential to our well-being.
We all need to know we matter, are worthwhile, valuable, and lovable. These beliefs are at the core of our identity and healthy sense of self. Answering these questions with anything other than a resounding “yes” is false and distorted. A “no” or unsure answer leads us to all kinds of dysfunctional behaviors as we attempt to fill that void and change the “no” to a “yes.”
Where identity and behavior collide
How we feel about ourselves plays a huge role in how we respond to many life situations. When our identity has been shaped by flawed mirrors and painful experiences, it becomes distorted. Then, we behave in ways that hurt others, damage relationships, and don’t serve us well. Thus, the association between identity and behavior.
Often this goes one of two ways: we compulsively try to control people and situations around us, or we withdraw to avoid failure and rejection. Many of these dysfunctional behaviors may appear on the surface as us acting badly, selfishly, immorally, or hurtfully. The driving force behind them, however, is our attempt to meet deep psychological needs related to our identity. Here are several examples of how that might play out:
- Pushing too hard to prove that we’re right—and therefore valuable.
- Wanting too badly to win or have things go our way, again as an indicator of our value.
- Being overly sensitive to criticism because it feels like rejection.
- Frequently reacting with anger or attempting to control others so their actions don’t reflect negatively on us.
- Overspending on new things—like cars or clothes—because it shows people that we’re successful and helps us feel valuable, deserving, and worthy.
- Rebelling against parents, authorities, institutions, and rules, either to get attention or mask our fear that we don’t live up to their standards.
Work and career
- Working to over-achieve or becoming a perfectionist, perhaps to the point of exhaustion, to prove that we matter or are important.
- Being devastated by unemployment, a business failure, or a bad review because we associate our success at work with our self-worth.
- Avoiding risks such as applying for jobs or schools, or not fully using our talents, for fear of failure, which would “prove” we’re not worthy.
- Avoiding certain social situations or people for fear of rejection.
- Not opening up or being vulnerable, or sub-consciously sabotaging relationships, to prevent the potential sting of rejection.
- Trying to win acceptance and approval by bragging, showing off, or being funny—which often has the opposite effect and puts people off.
- Pressuring others to compliment, care for, or pay attention to us, so we feel safe and good about ourselves.
- Becoming a people pleaser to get others to like us. However, our efforts come at a great personal cost, such as exhaustion, not feeling like we can be ourselves, or not taking care of our own needs.
Family and intimate relationships
- Caring for others while simultaneously resenting them for not being grateful enough. This is co-dependency, and it’s an attempt to prove to ourselves that we are both valuable and appreciated.
- Getting married or having children, thinking that becoming a spouse or parent will provide the meaning and validation we’re looking for.
- Being sexually aggressive, unfaithful, or promiscuous in an effort to feel validated and desirable.
- Avoiding situations where strong feelings may arise, because we misinterpret those negative emotions to mean that there is something wrong with us.
- Feeling emotionally numb, depressed, anxious, or generally dissatisfied with life because we believe the identity lies and think there is nothing we can do to change them.
- Engaging in self-destructive behaviors like extreme risk-taking, eating disorders, cutting, addictions, and suicide attempts to numb our pain and punish ourselves for being broken.
Note how varied and far-reaching the effects of a distorted identity and behavior issues can be. While many of these mannerisms seem like opposites of each other, they are all responses to what we think others think about us. In almost all cases we’re trying to either fill a void or prove that something negative isn’t true.
All these reactions have a way of damaging and destroying our relationships. None of them make us feel better, at least not in the long-term. Until our distorted identity is corrected, however, stopping these dysfunctional behaviors will be exceedingly difficult.
Looking for our value
When our identity needs are unmet, we turn to external factors for validation. Popular culture says our value comes from:
- Success and career
- Personal characteristics like being funny, smart, etc.
- Relationships and family.
From which of these do you look for your significance? If you’re not sure, here’s a test that may help. Would losing any of these put you into a panic?
Nothing in the list is inherently bad. However, if any one of these forms the basis of our identity, they’ll sooner or later leave us feeling insignificant, disappointed, or unsatisfied. We miss our goals, our popularity wanes, our status fails to win us friends, our relationships end, or our loved ones upset us in some way. That’s a problem if we’re pinning our identity on one or more of these things.
Filling an insatiable need
One constant in life is that we always need to eat. However, if we’ve just finished a solid meal, we tend to not spend much time or energy on finding food. Our hunger has been satisfied.
The same can be said about meeting our identity needs. We’ll always need approval. But if our need is already filled, we don’t have to spend much effort trying to feed our soul. That requirement has already been met.
Imagine if we didn’t have to act a certain way to gain others’ approval because their approval genuinely didn’t matter much to us. What if we already felt confident and good about ourselves: our identity and behavior caused by it were solid? How freeing would that be?
Changing our identity and behavior
The alternative to a negative identity is a positive view of yourself. To fix identity issues, pinpoint the beliefs that are holding you back and replace them with more constructive ones.
While this process sounds simple enough, most people find it very difficult to accomplish. It takes time and effort. Some identity issues or “core hurts” remain with us a lifetime, although it’s quite possible to see changes within a few months as you heal and reducing the power these core hurts hold over us.
Don’t be afraid to get help. Counselors are trained to assist us in spotting those lies we believe about who we are and help us put healthier truths into place. They have developed a variety of techniques that work to recondition your emotional memories and thought patterns which have been proven to be effective in helping people heal.
Even if you don’t have access to a counselor, here are some techniques you can use to change how you see yourself:
Visualization involves imagining yourself thinking and acting differently, in a more positive way. What would a person who thinks of themselves as ____ (fill in the blank with the characteristic you are working to change) think and do? In your mind, see yourself with a new identity and behavior shifts follow.
For example, if you think you’re socially awkward, imagine yourself confidently going to a party or a business networking event. In your mind, see yourself interacting with several different people. Picture yourself asking and answering questions, and the other people responding with understanding and acceptance.
Affirmations replace dysfunctional self-talk with more constructive words. The power of changing what “the voice in your head” says to you cannot be understated.
One way to implement affirmations is to write your negative belief on one side of a note card, then a different, more positive, replacement statement on the other. Read the old belief aloud, then flip the card over and read the new one aloud. For example, the affirmation card might say:
- Old belief: I’m a failure.
- New belief: I have succeeded at many things in life (list them), and with my positive attitude about learning, growth, and change, I will continue to build my success.
Make a new card for each negative belief. Read your affirmations daily, or even several times a day. You’ll likely need to continue reciting these statements for several weeks, months, or even years for your mind to fully adopt your new identity and behavior.
Fake it ‘till you make it
The “fake it ‘till you make it” strategy puts actions first. Force yourself to do something that stretches you outside of your comfort zone. Then, when you see yourself behaving that way, it becomes easier to believe a different a narrative about yourself.
For example, if you think you could never do public speaking, then force yourself to do public speaking. Volunteer to give a presentation at work, teach a class for the Parks and Rec Department, or do stand-up comedy during amateur night at the comedy club. Once you commit, the social obligation of your promise can be the push that ensures you actually fulfill it.
Change your memories
Altering your memory of those defining events is yet another tactic. Reframing the meaning of an event can give you a positive rather than a negative take-away from the experience. Look for the aspects for which you can be grateful.
Yes, you were adopted. Rather that fixating on the negative part of that truth, you can celebrate your resilience, or remind yourself of the friends, good experiences, and opportunities you had because you grew up somewhere else. Reinterpreting the past changes both your identity and behavior.
As I worked to stop hurting my partner and damaging our relationship, I looked more deeply into what was driving my deeds. I discovered that I was carrying a big, unanswered question about my identity: “Am I lovable?” I struggled to answer this core question.
Was I lovable just because I said so? What made me right? I could “claim” I was the greatest basketball player that ever lived, but it didn’t make it so.
Visualization, self-affirmations, or faking it didn’t fully convince me of my value. Paying someone to puff me up or hanging out with “yes” people didn’t cut it either. Maybe those haven’t worked for you, either.
God’s appraisal qualifications
Now, consider God. He is uniquely qualified to answer questions about our identity. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, good, loving, eternally present, and the creator of all things, including you and me.
Let me give you an analogy. Recently my son and daughter-in-law bought some chairs from a consignment shop and asked me if I thought they’d gotten a good deal. I thought they just looked old (read: not very valuable!)
Then they took one of the chairs to a man who repairs furniture. His eyes lit up as he told them the chairs were made by a skilled Danish craftsman, known for his exquisite design and quality. They were highly sought after and valued by people who understood and appreciated his work. Apparently, neither the consignment store owner nor I were one of those people!
Like the furniture repair guy, God knows our value better than anyone else. He also knows our design, and the purpose for that design, because he was the designer. God has street cred when it comes to appraising you and me.
Clearly God is qualified to determine my value, and yours, better than anyone else. But what does God say about you? He says you are:
- He created you because he wanted to have a relationship with you. You’re not a mistake or accident. You were planned from the beginning. He calls you his beloved son or daughter.
- God sent his son Jesus to die so he can have a relationship with you. The price of this sacrifice is immense, and it indicates just how valuable you are to him.
- God made you uniquely, not like anyone else. That’s why it makes no sense to compare yourself to others. He also designed you wonderfully in his own image. He was involved in all the details, and he delights in you. God doesn’t make junk.
- God is our protector and provider. As a result, you can walk confidently, without fear. He does not take away all that troubles us, but he walks through our troubles with us and wins the ultimate battles in our life. With this perspective, everything else becomes a mere bump in the road.
- Everything is not up to you. God has a bigger plan and is in control. He wants you to be a part of it, but you’re not responsible for any more than just you. When you give your best, he does the rest.
- As an all-seeing, all-knowing God, he is well aware of your mistakes. Yet, as a loving God full of grace and mercy, he also has the power and desire to forgive your mistakes. No person on earth has that power.
- God can take your mistakes and weave them into something beautiful, meaningful, and fulfilling. The Ananias Foundation is one example. God took the worst and most shameful thing I’ve done and the story of how he rescued me to inspire others to trust him in their own mess. This is to his glory, not mine. I am, however, more blessed than I can describe just for being part of it.
- Called for a purpose. God wants you to be a part of what he’s doing in this world. He wants you to be a blessing to others, and in turn, to be blessed when you follow this calling. You’re needed, uniquely equipped, and given a valuable role to play. Finding and fulfilling that role is the greatest sense of purpose and accomplishment you’ll encounter.
Accepting our true identity
Hopefully you’ve identified the lies that you’re carrying about your identity and see how far it is from God’s truth. When we see ourselves as wanted, valued, and deeply loved by God, we no longer demand that those around us constantly reflect a positive identity back to us or meet all our needs. Still, it can even be difficult to fully believe what God says. We’ve internalized the lies for so long, they’re not easily replaced.
It takes time and intentional effort to change what we believe about ourselves. While significant progress can be made in a relatively short period of time, lingering doubts are common. Challenging and changing these deep, core beliefs is a lifetime journey for most of us.
Here are some techniques you can use to change how you see yourself by accepting how God sees you:
The affirmation technique described earlier works even better when we add a spiritual aspect to correct our false identity. Like before, write down on one side of a notecard the misbelief you’re struggling to release. Then, on the other side, write the truth of what God says about you. Now, it’s not just you trying to convince yourself of this new truth, but you are accepting what God, creator of the universe, says.
Here are some examples of distorted beliefs and truths that will challenge and replace them:
- Lie: No one likes or loves me.
- Truth: God loves me. In fact, he’s crazy about me. He suffered and sacrificed greatly just so he could have a relationship with me.
- Lie: I’m a bad person and I’ve hurt people.
- Truth: God has forgiven my past. I’m free to be the good person he created me to be from here forward.
- Lie: I’ve ruined my life and it will never be good again.
- Truth: God has good plans for me and has promised me a bright future.
- Lie: I’m not good enough.
- Truth: I don’t need to earn God’s favor. God calls me his friend right now.
Change your memories
Like with the change your memories technique shared earlier, altering our memory of defining events is made more powerful with an understanding of how God works in our lives. While God does not cause bad things to happen, he stays with us and works to make something good out of every hurt and hardship we experience. Reframe the meaning of past painful or unjust events by looking at how God might have been working in those circumstances:
- What bad things didn’t happen that could have happened?
- How did God create something positive out of your experience?
- What might God still be preparing you for as a result of what you went through or are currently going through?
Since God is eternal, his timeline is often longer than ours. We may wonder why something happened or is happening to us, but God’s plan is bigger than what we can see. Maintaining this vantage point helps us see any period of our lives with a better perspective.
If you’re looking for a powerful example of God working to create good from the evil, read the story of Joseph in the Bible. Joseph was despised and sold into slavery by his brothers, was released then falsely imprisoned, before finally being in a position to save his family and an entire nation.
More help understanding identity and behavior
Identity is a subject of massive importance to all of us—central to how we experience life. I hope this post has you thinking about your identity and how it affects you. If it has and you want to continue to explore and repair how you see yourself, I found a couple of books that are tremendously helpful. Both are Christian based, both written by pastors, so they help connect us to our God-given identity.
The first recommendation is Discover Your True Self – How to Silence the Lies of Your Past and Actually Experience Who God Says You Are by Chip Ingram. Pastor Ingram thoroughly and eloquently explains what identity is, where it comes from, how identity and behavior are connected, and how to correct lies about ourselves through a relationship with God.
My second endorsement is Winning the War in Your Mind by Craig Groeschel. Like Discover Your True Self, this book examines identity and behavior problems we encounter if we have a flawed self-picture. I’m particularly keen to the exercises the author includes at the end of each chapter.