Who are you?
How do we define ourselves? When we think about who we are, we don’t think about our habits. Instead, we may list our likes and dislikes, activities, and relationships with others. We are a daughter, son, wife, husband, or parent. We have this job at that company.
When we go deeper, we may consider our behaviors. We may say, “I’m a person who stands up for herself.” Or “I prefer to be quiet and stay in the background.” Or maybe, “I am someone who struggles with money.” These qualities may be fundamental and unchanging.
I invite you to consider a new possibility: not only are these qualities not unchanging, but they also aren’t who you really are. You were not born this way.
Who you think of as yourself and your capabilities are habits you’ve developed throughout your life. And they are NOT your identity.
Habits are not who we are
We may see behaviors such as procrastinating, avoiding difficult conversations and self-sabotage as inborn traits and personal failings. “I procrastinate,” or “I cannot confront anyone on anything.” And we may feel stuck because we see how we think and behave as a permanent part of our lives. And we know, consciously or not, that these behaviors limit us.
Here’s the excellent news: behaviors and beliefs can be based entirely on habits and conditioning.
Habits can change
We develop habits throughout our lives and often without our conscious awareness.
I’ll use myself as an example. In college, I regularly gave presentations in class–and I learned to hate it. The writing process sent me into anxiety, and so I procrastinated. During the actual speeches, I stumbled in my too-quiet voice. It felt like my brain shut down and I missed the main points. I struggled to answer follow-up questions.
These experiences taught me to define myself as a procrastinator who couldn’t organize her thoughts. Someone terrible at public speaking. In general, a poor presenter.
These “defining qualities” affected my life in big and small ways. I had a hard time speaking up for myself with friends and family. I tended to default to the beliefs of others, assuming they were more “right” than me. No matter how hard I worked, I never thought what I produced was good enough.
I believed this was who I was, how I was made.
But procrastinating, assuming I would do a poor job, believing I had nothing worthwhile to say, and that it was best to stay quiet were learned behaviors.
Basic human needs trump everything
We are born as individuals with different preferences and sensitivities. But part of our fundamental biology is safety, belonging and respect. When we are young and vulnerable, safety is critical. And our environment and the people in it play an enormous role in teaching us What Is Safe.
Ideally, when we are young, adults protect us and teach us how to stay safe in the larger world. We pay close attention to adult behavior toward others and toward ourselves. They explicitly and through their own behaviors and emotions teach us what we must do to ensure our safety. Through their reactions, we define dangerous situations and how best to respond.
What is “dangerous”?
When humans were less modern, dangerous situations included the threat of attack, wild animals or severe weather events. In modern times, many circumstances feel just as risky because they threaten our emotional safety or sense of belonging. A caregiver gets extremely angry over something we did and shouts harshly. Our friend group refuses to play with us. Someone upsets our parents and we see them afraid and vulnerable. If we feel rejected, that we don’t belong, or don’t feel respected, then we feel unsafe.
When in an unsafe situation, the human body responds instinctively and enters survival mode. Our body takes over and we either fight, run or freeze. The brain goes partially or entirely offline, making it difficult or impossible to think. The body decides what will best keep us safe and we run away, turn to fight or freeze in place. Afterward, the body remembers the incident and subconsciously decides to fight, run or freeze the next time something similar happens. And so we become conditioned into habits.
- Your boss wants to “have a word with you,” and you immediately tense up and feel overwhelmed with anxiety.
- Someone asks you to give a presentation at work, and the thought makes you feel sick.
- During an intense discussion with a loved one, it feels impossible to think clearly or express yourself if they act angry.
- A friend encourages you to take time off for yourself, but you brush it off, believing you don’t deserve to take the time when so many depend on you.
- You want to try something new but wait to do anything about it, believing you’ll never succeed.
- You want to change careers, locations, or relationships, but whenever you try thinking about it, you feel blocked and stuck.
These examples reflect habits of thought that keep us stuck.
One experience can create a lifetime of belief
Our family moved when I was seven, and I had to attend a new school the following school year. I knew no one, the kids had established friend groups, and I did not feel like I fit in. I reacted by staying quiet.
Our teacher liked us to do mini-presentations once a week. Sometimes we would show off projects we were working on, read news articles we found, or share funny cartoons.
I clearly remember bringing in one cartoon. A student finished reading his and the entire class laughed. Now it was my turn to go up front and present. I was nervous to read aloud but marched up to begin.
I picked a more adult cartoon, but I had found it amusing the night before. At the front of the room, a crowd of unknown eyes on me, I found I couldn’t focus on the words. My survival response kicked in and I froze up. I couldn’t remember how to pronounce some of the words, and to my great embarrassment, I had to ask the teacher for help.
The joke went over like a lead balloon and no one laughed. I blindly returned to my seat, the entire class staring at me in confusion. I felt utterly mortified.
Experiences establish habits
From then on, any new experience that remotely reminded me of this experience triggered the freeze response. Talking around people, I don’t know? Freeze, don’t talk. Thinking about a joke to share? Frozen. Speaking in front of a room of people? Complete freeze.
This relatively simple example demonstrates where one incident had a profound effect. Unfortunately, daily exposure to stressors can shape us in ways we don’t realize, leading to habitual beliefs and behaviors.
Two caregivers regularly shout at each other and the angry shouting frightens their child. She runs away and hides. Or she freezes in place, unable to move. Or she jumps into the fray. Later, she chooses the same behavior to deal with the situation whenever she hears them shouting. Once she becomes an adult, hearing an angry voice provokes her habit once again.
A boy’s parents fight about money regularly. He can tell money is essential to them and that not having money is deeply scary and unsafe. Years later, he has anxiety about money and may overspend his income, hoard money, or work long hours to make as much of it as possible.
What it all means
Our early experiences teach us what to do and say to feel like we belong. We want to be loved, respected and safe. But difficult experiences that provoke the fight, flight or freeze response leave a long-lasting impression on us. When at a later time, we have a similar experience, we have the same survival response. Our brains switch off and we react in whatever way we did to survive the first challenging experience.
We can’t argue these responses away. The body doesn’t care what our brains have to say about it. I could tell myself repeatedly that telling a joke would not cause me harm, but my body didn’t believe me. Instead, my body remembered the experience that compromised my sense of safety and belonging when I was eight years old. That was all the body cared about.
Some good news
These conditioned behaviors do not have to keep us feeling trapped. It is possible to change our body’s habitual responses to the trigger. We can rewrite our conditioning. We can eliminate the fight, flight or freeze reaction when a challenging experience feels all too familiar. Healing that reactivity brings us the freedom to choose how to respond to our environment. We are no longer captive to what happens around us.
For more information about how we tick, check out my articles “Why Coaching?” and “Finding Joy.”
Would you like to learn more? I invite you to schedule a Discovery Call to see how you can transform your habits and behaviors into self-compassion, awareness, and choice.