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Methods For Changing Your Identity and Your Motivations

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

To talk about identity is to talk about the self and the self-concept; the knowledge, beliefs, memories, expectations, tendencies and understandings each person has that define them as unique individuals and also as members of families and other social groups. Identity defines people and deeply informs and gives meaning to every aspect of their lives. It is shaped by people's memories of past events, even as it shapes how people interpret, remember and regard events belonging to the past, present and future. It informs what people think they deserve and provides the measure of their worth, both to themselves and frequently to others. It shapes what people think they are capable of accomplishing (their perspective) and thus, helps to shape what they end up choosing to do and not do. It affects people's motivations very directly; when people don't believe something is possible to accomplish, they don't persevere at it, no matter how easy that thing might actually be to complete.

In this sense, a person's identity is a sort of lens through which they must look to appraise and judge themselves and their options, and the world. It is therefore very important that people regularly check their identity (their "lens") for distortions or problems (mistaken beliefs, faulty understandings and memories, unrealistic attitudes) that would otherwise keep them from being able to view themselves and their options and the world in an unbiased and reasonably objective manner. To the extent that there are serious problems, issues, distortions or disturbances present in your identity, you will very likely misjudge your options, make poor choices in life and end up adding to your misery, rather than keeping it to a minimum.

Because your identity is at base, in large part a set of beliefs, it can be examined and altered using cognitive techniques such as cognitive restructuring as described above. Indeed, the use of cognitive restructuring techniques to challenge beliefs about the necessity of depression or anxiety in your life can lead to an alteration of your identity. As you use the cognitive technique to successfully challenge and re-challenge your beliefs, those beliefs start to change. As your beliefs change, so too does your identity.

Before you can have any hope of making changes to your identity with cognitive or other techniques, however, you must first decide that that exploring your identity is a worthwhile thing to do. Some people resist identity exploration. They may (mistakenly) assume that they are already perfect; that their current perspective on things is the sole and only correct one to have and that any problems they might be experiencing are caused by other people (a mistake known as "externalization", described below). Alternatively, they may lack the necessary insight or intelligence required to realize that their experiences are filtered through the lens of their identity and perspective. Such people fundamentally don't get the idea of identity, naively assume that everyone else must see themselves and the world as they do, and never realize that it is important to pay attention to perspective. We hope that you will not make these (or similar) mistakes and will be willing to look at your own perspective so as to best figure out if and how it can be improved for the betterment of your life.