Your sense of self runs your life.
It ties together everything that has ever happened in your life—whether or not you rise to the challenge, whether you succeed or fail on a certain project, how you respond to others, and how your life turns out in the long run.
Think of all the ways you assume your life is supposed to be because of your sense of self. If you see yourself as a loser, you don’t expect to win—so it’s no surprise to you when you don’t.
Most people let this default view of themselves keep them from success because success is reserved for successful people. This is how you let yourself off the hook.
Sure, you could be a millionaire. But you’re bad with money and lack the skills to make it. So, of course, you aren’t rich.
There lies the sad truth.
You actually could be a millionaire if you wanted to, but you don’t, so you aren’t. You could have a better life, but you won’t because you don’t see yourself as someone who deserves it.
The roots run deep. If you want to change your life, you need to change your story. This comes from changing your self perception.
But how do you see yourself as someone else when you’ve been you your whole life?
Tough nut to crack, but let’s try.
You must have this understanding if you ever hope to change
Change is the hardest thing to do. Your chances of changing are better if you understand what I’m about to tell you next.
You don’t want to change.
You want to stay the same.
You’ll do everything in your power to maintain the status quo even if you don’t like your life. The reasons you want to stay the same are both simple and profound.
Your deepest desire
You’re used to being you. Even if you’re unhappy with your current situation, you can make sense of it and know what to expect. Even though you miss out on the potential rewards that come with changing your behavior, at least you get to avoid any negative outcomes.
The craving for familiarity and the fear of uncertainty are the two main reasons why you don’t want to change:
We crave familiarity, even if it’s bad for us.
—Jennifer Melfi, Tony’s psychiatrist in The Sopranos
Ask any couple who doesn’t want to be together anymore but stays for years longer than necessary because it was familiar.
Or someone who worked at a job they hated for ten years.
Or the average person in society who passes up amazing opportunities because they have to face uncertainty.
Part of breaking that cycle involves leaning into your other core desires. Self-help expert Tony Robbins says there are 6 core human desires:
- Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
- Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, and new stimuli
- Significance: feeling unique, important, special, or needed
- Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
- Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability, or understanding
- Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to, and supporting others
A part of you wants change, significance, connection, growth, and contribution. However, certainty seems to trump all the others.
Flipping that equation starts with understanding how you’re wired and preparing for the uphill battle.
Why we prefer to stay the same (even if it’s bad for us)
Although it might feel bad to be you, it still feels better than the alternative.
This passage explains it well:
<Doing awesome> is better than <feeling terrible about yourself> is better than <the mental work of change> You should memorize this, it is running your life.
—The Last Psychiatrist
You’d think you’d want to avoid feeling like garbage, but the opposite is true. You crave feeling like garbage. This is a subtle difference from wanting to be the same, but it’s important.
Again from TLP:
Self-loathing is the defense against change, self-loathing is preferable to <mental work.> You choose misery so that nothing changes, and the Ambien and the drinking and the therapy placate the misery so that you can go on not changing. [….]You don’t even try, you only plan to try. The appearance of mental work, aka masturbation.
When you get down on yourself and mope. It sucks, but there’s an odd comfort to it, isn’t there? At least when you’re stuck on self-loathing, you can hide from the world of change that’s ten times scarier.
Confront your addiction to self-loathing if you want to stand a chance of changing.
Don’t let other people dictate your sense of self
At the expense of your own happiness, you might avoid changing so you don’t break the expectations of those around you.
Look no further than people who can never shake their parents’ expectations. Your friends and other family members play a role, too. When you try to change your life, you might get accused of changing with a negative tone.
At a time when I wanted to focus on bettering myself, I stopped doing certain activities like drinking and partying. Some friends accused me of thinking I was better than them for choosing to do so.
Growing up, I was prone to never finishing projects, being absent-minded, and always up to some crazy scheme that never worked out. To this day, even though I’ve published three books and run a multi-six-figure business, my mom still sees me as that reckless kid.
No one’s a prophet at home.
The people you grew up with might not be receptive to the new version of you. Most people refuse to change because of this social pressure. It’ll be up to you to fight against it.
The roots are dug in deep. Yanking them out will be the biggest challenge of your life.
If you’re up to it, keep reading.
Watch how you describe yourself
Start changing your self perception by observing the labels you give yourself. People are quick to label themselves using these words. Once they do, everything else becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The words are “I am.”
The minute you explain behaviors as traits, you make it much more difficult to change.
- I’m not good with numbers
- I’m an introvert
- I’m a perfectionist
You have tendencies, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for someone who lacks that tendency to be organized to teach themselves how to be more organized.
Most traits can be learned. Your natural tendencies might make the learning curve gentle or steep. However, you can still learn how to do almost anything (with the obvious exceptions of things like learning how to dunk if you’re 5 foot 2).
In my second book, I told readers to change the phrase “I am” to “I am working on _____.”
- I’m working on getting better with numbers
- I’m working on my social skills
- I’m working on sharing my work with the world, even if it’s not perfect
Step one is believing it’s possible and deciding to start working on yourself.
The process of changing your self perception
To see yourself as a new person, your brain needs proof that you are a new person. Without it, you’ll revert back to your old self. You get this proof by taking small actions toward becoming a better version of yourself.
The more you stack these small wins together, the easier it will be to get bigger wins, further reinforcing your new sense of self.
You need an aiming point, though, so think about who you want to become. You more or less know already—it’s you minus the fear, self-doubt, and craving of familiarity. Ask yourself questions like:
- What kind of career do you want to have?
- Who do you want to associate with?
- What kind of money do you want to make?
- What values do you want to stand for?
Taking an inventory of all the ways your life would be different if you weren’t afraid will give you an idea of the person you want to become.
You don’t need to have a meticulous plan. Just having an idea of “the type of person you want to be” helps.
Use this process as a lens for behavior change
The phrase “What would Jesus do?” gives Christians a clear guide for their behavior. In every situation, they know whether or not to do what they’re thinking about doing.
You can use this same principle when it comes to behavior change and ask yourself:
What would the ideal version of you do?
Every decision can be made through the lens of the person you want to become. If they’d do it, do it. If they wouldn’t, don’t.
You’re not going to get this right every time, but the intention behind it can carry you long-term—as long as you stick to the script.
You create that script based on your character. Changing your behavior, which changes your identity, is method acting.
Method actors don’t pretend to be the character; they are the character. Some actors go to extreme lengths, like gaining or losing a bunch of weight, living in squalor, or abandoning hygiene—anything to get in character.
From the moment they wake up until they lay down at night, they’re the character. Some actors literally won’t break character while on set, even in between scenes.
Create your character, write your story to the end, and play your role until you and the character are one. The more you focus on being that person constantly, the less you’ll need to turn it on when you need to most.
Begin your practice
A confident person stands up with their shoulders straight 24/7, not just when trying to assert themselves in a conversation.
If you’re a hard worker who’s building an empire, you do the hard work behind the scenes, too—not just when your work will be shown to others.
Stay in character as often as possible.
You’ll slip from time to time. Snap yourself out of it repeatedly until you no longer have to.
Your process will start out clunky and awkward. You’ll have to force yourself to act a certain way, but at some point, you won’t be acting anymore.
It starts with baby steps.
You won’t go from crippling shyness to conversation savant overnight, but you can start by asking a stranger for the time.
You won’t become the model of health and fitness in an instant, but you can work on one habit at a time, like cutting out soda.
You won’t be able to take control of your entire life all at once, but you can work on cleaning your room and making your bed each day—one tiny area of your life you can control.
Gradually level up your exposure to difficult situations. This is the process behind cognitive behavioral therapy.
Become the “type of person” who succeeds
Become the type of person who [insert positive outcome].
And if you want to break bad habits, you must work on becoming the type of person who doesn’t [insert negative behavior].
People who try to quit a bad habit like smoking tend to count the days they haven’t smoked. Even if they’re not smoking, they still identify as a smoker, just one who’s trying to quit.
A non-smoker doesn’t add up all the years in their life and say, “I haven’t smoked in 12,045 days.” Instead, they are a 33-year-old person who doesn’t smoke because they’re not a smoker.
Make the things you’ve been working on a part of you. If you’re going to create those “I am” statements mentioned earlier, do it in a positive and open-minded way.
If you adopt an identity that makes you say, “I’m a healthy person,” you don’t engage in unhealthy habits by default. If you develop an identity that makes you say, “I’m diligent, hard-working, and wise,” you make good decisions by default and avoid bad ones.
Become the real you
Identity change doesn’t happen because you decide to become someone else.
Yes, you start by playing a character. But that character is just you minus all of the BS layers of your personality. The unhealthy tendencies you use to seek approval and avoid the mental work it takes to change.
You should’ve been the character the whole time but refused to do it because it was uncomfortable. You already know who you are. You know what you want to do with your life.
If you’re free of fear, you know exactly how to act.
Changing your self perception is the process of doubling down on who you already are. The potential is there. You just haven’t fulfilled it yet.
It’s a never-ending daily battle, but it’s one worth fighting for.