The Importance of Identity: Define Yourself Right

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Awaken the Giant Within" by Tony Robbins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is an identity? What is the importance of identity? How does the way you define yourself influence your behavior? 

The identity you choose for yourself dictates your thoughts, decisions, and behavior. Understanding the importance of identity can help you let go of negative beliefs about yourself and to make positive changes in your life. 

Find out more about the importance of identity below. 

The Importance of Identity 

Understanding the importance of identity is key to changing your life for the better. Although your identity is not fixed or innate, it dictates your behavior, as people subconsciously strive to act in ways that reinforce their identity. For example, if you identify as a low-achieving person, you’re less likely to push yourself to excel—regardless of natural ability—than someone who identifies as a high-achieving person. As such, your identity determines your decisions, actions, and fate; so, it’s important that it pushes you in a positive direction. Ensuring that this is the case may involve needing to remake your identity, if it’s not currently pushing you to be who you want to be.

Define Yourself Right

Before we talk about the importance of identity, let’s discuss how you adopt your identity and what it encompasses. Your identity has developed through your life experiences and the influence of other people and things. Like your beliefs, and values, you probably adopted your identity without consciously thinking about it. 

Your identity can encompass myriad traits, including: 

  • Behavior (for example, I’m a procrastinator)
  • Emotions (for example, I’m an anxious person)
  • Faith (for example, I’m Muslim)
  • Income (for example, I’m a minimum-wage earner)
  • Physical appearance (for example, I’m overweight)
  • Possessions (for example, I’m a homeowner)
  • Profession (for example, I’m a writer)
  • Role (for example, I’m the breadwinner)
  • Title (for example, I’m a senior producer)
  • What you’re not (for example, I’m not a gambler)

Additionally, your identity depends on the time frame you focus on: Do you define yourself based on your past, your present, or your future? For example, many people define themselves based on past traumas or achievements, such as being an abuse survivor or a former beauty queen. Some people define themselves by the present (for instance, a new parent) or by their future (such as an aspiring chef). 

The way you identify is also a reflection of the way you perceive your friends’ identities. For example, if you consider your friends to be fun and adventurous, you probably identify that way too. This perception of your identity can extend to people outside of your friend group, too, who also assume you’re fun and adventurous because you associate with people like that. For this reason, it’s important to be selective about who you surround yourself with, since their identities impact how you and others perceive your identity. 

The Importance of Identity

People tend to think of their identities as an immutable part of them—after all, your identity is who you are, isn’t it? In reality, you can change your identity. However, you’ve been conditioned to resist such radical change: Your identity amounts to a set of beliefs about yourself, and our society says that changing your beliefs makes you flaky, wishy-washy, and unreliable. 

As a result of this societal pressure, people strive to be consistent with their beliefs, so they act in ways that reinforce their existing identities, creating self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if you believe yourself to be strong, smart, and hard-working, then you’ll behave in a way that means live up to those traits. By the same token, if your identity involves self-destructive behaviors, you’ll continue to engage in those actions despite the harmful effects. (Shortform note: Read our summary of Mindset to find out more about how your identity determines your performance.)

In fact, if you attribute a certain behavior to being part of your identity, you’ll struggle to stop doing that behavior because you think that it’s part of who you are. With this view, changing that behavior becomes tantamount to changing—or losing—your identity, and that prospect seems more painful than the pain of continuing the behavior. Instead, view your behavior as something transient and changeable.

For example, if you’ve been overweight for a long time, being an overweight person has probably become part of your identity (whether you like it or not). As long as that’s how you define yourself, you’ll struggle to maintain weight loss and exercise habits because they conflict with your core sense of self—plus, you can conveniently make the excuse that this is just who you are, shirking your responsibility along with any hope of change. By contrast, if you think of yourself as someone who has merely adopted unhealthy habits, then you’re more likely to successfully change those habits because you haven’t internalized them as part of who you are.

The above advice will help you understand the importance of identity and improve your life.  

The Importance of Identity: Define Yourself Right

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  • How to make transformational changes to your life through small adjustments
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Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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