Identity Change

I started diving into the field of behavioral change last year and found it fascinating – and so applicable to the field of Obesity Medicine. Consequently, we spent the whole month of March in my office focusing on this concept and how to apply it to achieve successful, long-lasting weight loss. I’m not going to go through all of it again – for those of you that slogged through my 10-page handout, I hope it was useful. For those of you that threw it on the floor of your car and didn’t need it- maybe someday, it will come in handy. Maybe for something other than weight loss. Who knows!

Regardless, there is one huge important concept that I want to visit again. This can’t be said enough. True behavior change is identity change. Unless you change your identity, any new behavior is unlikely to stick. We understand this when it comes to other behaviors. If you consider yourself a nonsmoker (and believe it) and someone offers you a cigarette, it’s pretty easy to decline. You simply tell them you don’t smoke. Contrast this with someone that likes being a smoker but wants to stop. Someone that is torn in their wants. They try to quit smoking on Monday and tell people they are “trying to quit”. However, by the time the weekend rolls around, they are more than likely back to smoking – because they don’t consider themselves a nonsmoker.

The same thing happens with food and eating behaviors. We want to lose weight. We know that to accomplish this, we have to stop going into the convenience store and getting a soda and a breakfast sandwich every morning on the way to work. Telling ourselves and everyone else that we are “on a diet” is a decent deterrent to that morning QT run at first, but we quickly fall into routines. Because being “on a diet” can mean so many things (usually that we are restricting our calories), we can justify the first behavioral lapse. We can rationalize that we will skip lunch to make up for it – and since the soda is half diet, it’s not that bad. Even if we fail to make it up at lunch, we can tell ourselves the same story the next time it happens – assuming that we will somehow acquire extra willpower throughout the morning. Sound familiar?

Contrast this with someone that changes their identity. Someone that no longer sees themselves as a person that drinks soda or eats premade, warmed up breakfast sandwiches. Someone that identifies themselves as a person that makes their own breakfast each morning or only drinks unsweetened coffee in the morning. If someone sees themselves in this way, the very idea of popping into QT in the morning and grabbing a soda and a sandwich is abnormal. It’s as weird as grabbing a pack of Marlborough lights at the checkout counter.

It makes sense, right? When we identify as an honest person deep down inside, we feel very uncomfortable when we lie. When we identify as a frugal person, we feel uncomfortable when we make a frivolous purchase. It’s not that we don’t do these things every once in a while, it’s that when we do them – they feel uncomfortable. The same way it would feel uncomfortable buying a pack of cigarettes when you identify as a nonsmoker.

The hard part is changing your identity. And this is where the work begins. How do you actually change the way you identify yourself – inside your own head? This is what we’ve been talking about and brainstorming about all month. First, you actually have to sit down and decide what identity you really want. If you want to keep the identity of someone that eats breakfast from a convenience store on work days, that’s fine. However, that may not align with the identity of being a healthy eater. You have to pick. Maybe you meet in the middle and create the identity of someone that only eats convenience store breakfasts on Mondays. Or every third Friday. It doesn’t have to be all-or-none.

Then, and this is the important part, you have to prove it to yourself. You have to fake it until you make it. You have to do it – over and over again – until you actually believe it. Writing it down can also be really beneficial. When you write it down (by hand, typing doesn’t seem to have the same power), your brain starts to assimilate the information. And you have to be specific. You can’t write down, “I’m trying to stop going to QT every day” – that’s not identity change – that’s wishing and hoping. You have to write down, “I don’t eat premade, processed breakfast sandwiches or drink soda in the morning”. Writing that over and over again (and saying the words in your head) changes the way you think.

Change your identity and you can change your life!

As always, if you need me, you know where to find me!

Courtney Younglove, M.D.