When I was in high school at a party one night a girl asked me to dance. I thought I was an awkward dancer, so I declined saying, “I am not a dancer.” Soon, others tried to coax me into dancing, which only made me dig my heels in more, protesting, “I am not a dancer.” From that point forward I assumed an identity as one who is not a dancer. Over the years, so many opportunities have come along to have a great time dancing. In my mind though, I decided I was not a dancer. The identity defined me.

Think of all the statements we make which declare identities that limit us. “I am not an athlete.” “I am not a cook.” “I am stupid.” When we use the words, “I am not…” or “I am…” we are stating identity. When we state identity, we are claiming an unchangeable. 

Identities can go both ways. The wrong identity restricts us. We put ourselves in an iron box with the wrong identity. James Clear, in his excellent book, Atomic Habits, observes that the reason so many people have a difficult time changing habits is because the habit they are trying to change contradicts an identity they have assumed. For years I told myself, “I am not a reader,” as if that was wired in my DNA. I also told myself, “I am a night owl.” Neither was true as an identity. Today, I read voraciously and love getting up early, although I was stubborn learning the lesson. Identity is not as fixed as we assume.

The right identity frees us. “I am strong.” “I am capable.” “I am loved.” James Clear suggests that one of the great ways of building a new habit is to assert an identity with the initial efforts, such as, “I am a healthy eater.” While this may seem like a mental trick, and will likely feel unnatural, at first, sometimes it is necessary to counteract the negative identities we falsely assume.

One of the most damaging sources of identity are our parents. We build our whole life around either trying to be like our parents or trying to avoid becoming like our parents. We dedicate ourselves to proving our parents wrong. Instead of being a way out from the wounds of our parents, we become imprisoned to living our lives as a constant rebuttal to those wounds. We are not our parents, nor are we defined by who they say we are.

My bias is that we claim way too many traits as identities. Identities are usually just descriptions of the present reality. I am not an accomplished cook at the moment, but nothing precludes me from becoming one in the future if I so desire. Very few things are actually unchangeable. I can run a marathon, even though today I have a hard time running a mile or two. I can learn a new language. I can dance. If we let go of the life-restricting effect of mis-appropriated identities, then a world of opportunity opens up to us. Unshackled by chains of an inflexible identity, we are able to cast off harmful, limiting habits, and open up to new, life-giving possibilities. 

Try this. Fill in the blank. “I am …” “I am not …” Have you allowed a description of your present reality to become a self-limiting identity? Do you need to cast off a harmful identity and move into a new reality? We can become so much more than we think!