Change the story
Shed the identity that’s holding you back
This article was originally posted in my newsletter - the Tiff Weekly.
In my twenties, I was not a morning person. I worked at a startup and we could come in when we wanted, so I was never officially late, but I was always one of the last ones into the office. People would make snide jokes about my arrival time, implying I lacked dedication. Whenever I did come in earlier, I’d be appalled by how the time was spent making small talk over sad cereal bowls. It was all part of that typical face-time bullshit that is so dominant in office life and I had no time for it.
Once I went freelance and lived on my own, I thought it’d be fun to try and wake up without an alarm and see what happened. Unexpectedly, I started naturally waking up very early every day and so I stuck with it. I’ve woken up without an alarm for more than two years and I’m waking up earlier than ever.
Going freelance and working from home made a difference. It’s much easier to wake up when you know you don’t have to go anywhere. I’m not surprised that I wanted to stay in bed while faced with the task of getting properly dressed and leaving the house to ride a sweltering tube carriage. Now I wake up, get a coffee, return to bed and I read.
My shift from a non-morning person to a morning person has been bugging me for a while. I read constantly about the circadian rhythms of morning people vs. night owls and I don’t understand how mine has changed. Perhaps when I threw out the alarm clock, I threw out the narrative that I wasn’t a morning person. When I told myself I could wake up whenever my body was ready, my body thanked me by being ready to wake up earlier than it had before. Except, this isn’t always the case. If I go to bed later than usual or have a bad night’s sleep, then I wake up later. I am therefore neither a morning person nor not a morning person. I’m simply someone who wakes up when I’ve had enough rest.
My prior non-morning person identity was an act of rebellion against face-time (and possibly a resistance against early-morning office small talk). The celebration of the early-riser has always seemed sanctimonious and puritanical to me. The illogical thinking that whatever your office job, you should start it at 9am offends me, too. Since working for myself, I don’t feel the need to rebel against traditional working structures because I can do what I like. This means I’m often typing away at my desk by 7.30am.
I’m not telling you to become a morning person. If you’re happy with your work schedule, then great. This is just the example that got me thinking about how narratives may be holding us back. If you feel like your life may be improved if you wake up earlier, I’m arguing that it won’t work unless you challenge the existing narrative you have about yourself.
I put this theory to our latest podcast guest, mindset coach and NLP practitioner Africa Brooke. Africa said that YES, how it works is these identity statements we have about ourselves automate our thinking, which means they shape how we act. Africa, like me, used to identify as not a morning person, so even when she put all the best strategies in place to wake up early, it didn’t feel good because the strategies were misaligned with her identity. Africa said these narratives hold us back from being patient with ourselves when we’re trying to enact change.
Patience is my word of 2020. In July, I wrote:
And it’s patience that has allowed me to become better at cooking. I used to say to myself that I AM a bad cook, so why bother? On an identity level, cooking just seemed a bit domestic for the spontaneous single working gal I identified as. But since I slowed down, I started cooking with patience. Cooking is actually very easy: there are countless books with step by step instructions which are simple to follow if you move slowly through them. It didn’t take long for me to build up my cooking confidence, although I still don’t consider cooking as part of my identity.
The more of this work I do and the more people I coach, my belief that confidence is the key to getting what we want in life is further validated. In one of the earliest editions of The Tiff Weekly, I wrote:
I’ve always believed that the key difference between the successful and the less so, isn’t talent or hard work —it’s that the ‘successful’ had the confidence to reach fully for their successes.
Africa said that instead of saying identity statements that start with ‘I am’, we should say ‘I experience’. In my piece on confidence, I wrote about how people often say I’m confident because I’m comfortable talking to an audience, but there are plenty of scenarios where I don’t feel confident. Sometimes I experience confidence and sometimes I don’t and that’s just the reality of life. Similarly, I sometimes bounce out of bed early full of beans, and other times I don’t want to get out of bed for ages. These aren’t identities but different experiences I have that are true to who I really am.
Our narratives can encroach into victimhood. The working world is designed for morning people and so if I’m not one, then I’m at a disadvantage. I’m lazy, I’m not ambitious, I’m bad with technology, I’m a procrastinator, I’m not someone who enjoys exercise, I’m a bad cook. All these identity statements place us in a disadvantaged position and so the story goes —I’m just not that type of person and so I’m not going to do anything about it. We resign ourselves to who we think we are and then we continue to act in ways that fulfil those identity statements.
Speak to a successful person and they probably will have high-achieving identity statements. They’ll say: I’m ambitious, I’m driven, I’m confident, I’m organised, I’m good at talking to new people etc. They may only be better at these things than you because they believe they are and so they practice doing them and become confident at them.
We live in an era where the internet encourages personality tests and self-awareness and I’m so here for all of it. I love them. However, it’s dangerous when we use these frameworks to confirm the identity narratives we have about ourselves and use them as an excuse for inaction.
This ‘self-awareness’ can lead us to cling onto elements of our identities that don’t serve us. Let’s take introversion and extroversion. Of course, it’s not binary and there’s a sliding scale, but to all intents and purposes, I’m defined as an extrovert. As with the ‘am I a morning person?’ conundrum, I’ve spent a huge amount of time wondering whether I’m actually an extrovert because I spend so much time alone. In fact, writing to you now, I haven’t seen anyone for five days.
However, in my early twenties, I was never alone, not for a minute and so I presumed that as an extrovert, I’d be incapable of such a thing. But then my life took me into a direction where I had lots and lots of alone time and so I learned to be by myself. I also learnt that I experience extreme introversion if the party is bad. Similarly, I’ve spotted my friend who identifies as an introvert be at good social occasions and not want to go home.
We crave to be seen and understood and we want narratives that give us permission to just be, but that can play into our fears. New people are scary. The prospect of time alone if you’re not used to it is frightening. Are we holding ourselves back from new people and experiences when we retreat into an introvert identity or are identifying extroverts missing out on the joy of time for themselves?
A lot of these narratives we tell ourselves are how we resign ourselves to give into our fears. Think about the narratives you tell yourself. If you’re telling yourself you’re not ambitious because ‘it’s just who I am’, is it actually because you’re scared to try? How could you re-write that narrative?
As we welcome autumn and watch the leaves fall from the trees, think about what you may want to shed as you enter this new season of your life. What do you want and how can you re-write your narrative to make sure that you get it?