Are you helping or hurting the people around you? Are they helping or hurting you? While it is well known that the people you surround yourself with is extremely important to forming who you are as a person, too infrequently do we stop and ask ourselves how are we helping and hurting those in our lives.
What negative identities do you own and what negative identities are you giving to those you love the most?
It is sadly too common for people to have negative identities that dictate what they do and don’t do with their lives. A negative identity is often given to us as a small child or it is something we are currently giving to our children, spouses, coworkers, and family members without even realizing it - something I see more and more with the rise of sharing personal information on social media.
So what is a negative identity? Negative identities, a concept put forth by therapists like Cloe Madanes, are a “general value judgment that limits your options.” Common ones are “I’m too impatient to ever be a mother,” or “I couldn’t do that because I have ADHD,” or “I’m not smart enough to do that,” or “I’m too ugly to be an actor.”
These identities are often formed when we are small children and often aren’t the truth. Parents, teachers, coaches, therapists, and others, despite their best efforts, will often accidentally instill these identities in children.
Take for example the most controversial example I gave of a person with ADHD - a disorder that is real but studies show is overdiagnosed. Think of a small child who has received their diagnosis and a proactive parent looking to help the child navigate our challenging world. The parent tells the child a number of well-intentioned things - you’re different than most of the kids in your class, you’re going to have a harder time paying attention in class, school is going to be hard for you, you have special needs, and so on. The well-intended parent then goes out and communicates the frustration of having a special needs child, and solicits help in accommodating their child, and advice from everyone on how to live with a special needs child, thus defining the child to the world as a child with special needs. Whether the disorder is properly diagnosed or not isn’t really the important part of this equation. After all, having a condition, disease, or disorder doesn’t have to, and shouldn't, define you. As Madanes points out, someone dealing with depression doesn’t have to build their identity as a “depressed person.” A person with phobias doesn’t have to build their identity on being a “phobic person.” Madanes contends, and I agree, that building your identity on these things will greatly reduce the happiness you experience with your life.
Even seemingly more innocuous things like trying to excuse your two year old’s tentative greeting to a strange adult at a playground or a Starbucks by saying “oh sorry about that, she’s a little shy.” How many times does your two year old daughter need to hear that seemingly innocuous comment before she truly believes she is shy and limits her life to things that are appropriate only to a shy person? How much of life will she miss out on because she was told that she was shy before she even came close to forming who she was as a person? After all, just because someone feels shy in a moment doesn't mean that they are a shy person all the time.
When you tell someone things like this, you’re using what hypnotists call “suggestion.” Almost everyone is familiar with the stereotypical hypnotist dangling a pocket watch, telling his client “your eyes are getting heavy, your arms are feeling heavy, you’re getting sleepy,” and as the hypnotist goes on telling the client what they are, the client becomes what they are being told. The same is true in our day to day lives with the people around us despite it not being a “formal” process of hypnotic induction.
Or perhaps you are familiar with the sensation of carrying a heavy plate of food and someone says “don’t drop that!” and suddenly you either drop it or get very close to dropping it. It's amazing how putting someone's attention on something can transform them so easily.
While hypnosis is an extreme example of suggestion, suggestion is a very real thing. The things we are told we are, we often become.
It is not hard for someone to form a negative or a positive belief about themselves with a small amount of evidence and a suggestion.
Tony Robbins often describes a belief about yourself as a table. The belief is the tabletop and the 4 legs are each individual pieces of evidence supporting that belief. The evidence could be someone told you something, you witnessed something personally, or anything else that justifies the belief (negative or positive) in your mind. Recent studies show that 4 pieces of evidence aren’t even required and that a human will accept a belief with just one or two pieces of evidence. So if someone tells you you’re “too ugly” for something when you are in second grade, a person will carry that belief with them forever if that belief goes unchallenged. One, or a couple, of comments can shape someone's identity forever.
The good news is, when you start investigating, it’s not hard to start kicking the legs out of those tables when necessary. Conversely, it’s not that hard to build new beliefs about yourself - especially with some help.
Think to yourself - what are some of your negative identities? What do you think you can’t do and why? Where did these negative identities come from? What negative identities are you accidentally giving to your children, friends, family, and coworkers? In what box are you putting the people in your life?
The things you tell yourself and your family members are influencing who you and the people around you become. Choose your words wisely. They matter more than you think.
Your life coach.