Is Your Identity Holding You Back?
By Russell Hunter
Can you change your identity in an instant?
Although much of our work at the Human Performance Institute began with coaching elite and professional athletes, most of our work now focuses on helping "corporate athletes" and public servants achieve positive change in their leadership behavior.
During times of rapid change and uncertainty, clarifying your identity is especially important.
If you want to see and respond to opportunities in a turbulent economy, a great place to start is by getting clear on who you are. Sustainable behavioral change is triggered when a fundamental shift in identity is made.
From Burnout to Top of Mount in Five Months
One of the best examples of this is illustrated in our work with Gabriela Sabatini during a critical point in her tennis career.
On September 9, 1990 Gabriela Sabatini defeated Steffi Graf in the U.S. Open Championships final. But five months before that day Gabriela could not have dreamed this would happen. She was ready to quit professional tennis for good - disheartened by a series of early-round losses. She was burned out, paralyzed by routines that no longer served her well, and detached from why she was playing tennis. In short she was no longer clear on her identity as an athlete.
Over the course of several weeks, Jim Loehr worked to untangle the stories Gabriela told herself about herself - and her sense of identity. In the weeks that followed, recovery goals such as reconnection with family, rebuilding friendships, playfulness, entertainment, and adaptation to change were given full attention and space in her training schedule. Strategic time off the court became as important as time on the court.
Gradually, positive feelings resurfaced, transforming Gabriela from a joyless routine-addict into a mentally tough player. She became confident, resilient, focused and daring in the face of adversity and competitive pressure. Some of the key shifts she made were triggered by clarifying her sense of who she was, and why tennis was merely the mechanism for her to live out that identity.
Beyond Affirmations to Key Identity Statements
Eventually she developed several performance statements about her identity that she could say to herself during moments of emotional tension. Rediscovering her identity gave her new focus when challenged ("I am a fighter"). Embracing her challenges and adding fun to her training increased her emotional energy ("I love a challenge"). And at a spiritual level, she cultivated a new sense or purpose behind why she was on the court. She would now focus on leaving a legacy that inspires all young women to take on big challenges - by how she chose to respond to adversity, regardless of the outcome ("I am a true champion").
In the months leading up to the US Open she did not let her old story about who she was at a critical point in her career limit her potential for whom she could become. Click here if you'd like to view the final few points of her epic US Open win.
Gabriela went on to capture 27 singles championships and 14 doubles championships. She was ranked in the World Top 10 for ten consecutive years (1986-1995) and inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July of 2006.
Avoid Self-Limiting Definitions
One of our greatest challenges in changing behavior is our self-limiting definitions of who we are. We often send messages to ourselves non consciously such as:
- "I'm not a world class athlete."
- "I'm not an effective speaker."
- "I'm a procrastinator."
- "I'm stupid."
We often think of our identity and stories as fixed. It doesn't have to be. If we define ourselves by saying "I am a terrible communicator," we will create the reality that we become a terrible communicator. And even worse - if someone says that we are a good communicator, we won't believe them. We will say to ourselves: "That's not the real me, I guess I must have fooled them."
When clients uncover self-limiting beliefs we often ask them if they want to change. When they say they do, we usually have to assure them that they do not have incurable genetic defects that are stopping them. Not only can they change their behavior they can change their definition of who they are.
So who are you?
Have you defined yourself in a way that limits your own potential?
In the same way that Gabriela Sabatini changed not just her behavior but her definition of who she was, you can change your definition of who you are, your beliefs, your role in the world, and how you behave day to day.
TAKING ACTION THIS MONTH:
Pay attention to your self talk, especially when you say "I am..." What do you tell yourself about your identity. What do you want to be defined as? What opportunities would open up if you shifted your identity?
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