The Perils of Identity: Part 2

The Perils of Identity

Key Points:

1. Identities and fixed mindsets go hand in hand.

2. We often unintentionally create identities for others, or let them do the same to us.

3. “Sometimes” is the secret exit door from this trap.

Estimated reading time: 6-12 minutes

About six months ago, I wrote a piece on one of my favorite topics: identity. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, that I enjoy this topic won’t surprise you. You’ve seen me link to my article about it in nearly every other blog post. But, believe it or not, I actually have a decent bit more to say. Shocking, right?

For a quick refresher, here’s a brief summary of the previous identity article.

  • Whenever an identity is so strongly held that it’s viewed as inseparable from who someone is at their core, that’s a recipe for suffering.
  • No job, hobby, belief, relationship, affiliation, skill, or physical/mental trait is central to the essence of you. Basically, you’d still be you without any and all of them.
  • When a deeply-held identity is challenged, it often feels like being faced with death, and we may respond with a level of fear, hostility, or aggression more appropriate if our life actually was in danger.
  • Life is a lot happier and more fun when we realize we don’t need to defend our identities. This realization gives us the freedom to wholeheartedly participate in whatever we choose.

The main takeaway of the previous piece was to avoid constructing an identity around any fleeting and impermanent trait, state, or status. Easier said than done? Absolutely. But, it’s incredibly worthwhile to start to practice.

Today, we’re going to focus on the biggest area I didn’t cover in those musings on identity.

Not creating an identity for someone else, and not letting anyone else create an identity for you

We can see the subtly destructive nature of identity in the influential study that introduced many people to the concept of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. We’ll cover that study in more detail, shortly. First, in case you’re not familiar, these two terms essentially describe how much one believes certain traits and abilities are innate rather than moldable.

Those with a “fixed mindset” tend to believe that certain traits and abilities are inherent or natural. You’ve either “got it” or you don’t. You’re either good at an activity, or it’s “just not your thing.” By contrast, those with a “growth mindset” believe they can change, develop, and improve any ability, even if their initial attempts are woefully unsuccessful.

Interestingly, it’s entirely possible to hold a fixed mindset about certain topics and a growth mindset about others. For example, whether or not it was possible to develop a meaningful increase in sprinting speed just through strength training alone was debated for far too long. Luckily, we now know that it isn’t simply a matter of how many Type-II fast twitch muscle fibers you’re born with in your legs; anyone can become faster through training. Yes, of course not everyone can become Usain Bolt, but anyone capable of running can measurably and significantly increase their speed.

Anyway, back to the lab

Even though the study I referenced in the previous section was about fixed and growth mindsets, it unintentionally examined what happens when an authority figure imposes an identity on others. In this experiment, middle school students who performed well on a math exam were told one of two things:

“You did so well! You must be really smart.”


“You did so well! You must have worked really hard.”

Later, when faced with an optional exam branded as “challenging,” the children in the “smart” group performed worse and gave up more quickly. Children in the “hard work” group showed the exact opposite. Let that sink in a moment.

Here’s my interpretation of what happened. Children in the “smart” group were told they possessed a trait that is societally valued. Because we as humans tend to be loss-averse creatures, the “smart” children wanted to make sure they kept being perceived this way. This meant that failing at the bonus exam was too much of a threat to their newly-formed but highly valuable identity. None of this was likely happening at the conscious level, but as a result, the safer option became not to try, because messing up and potentially no longer being perceived as smart was too painful.

Despite the perils of doling out identities, we do this all the time

This is a mistake I realized I’ve made with my own clients many times. Quite often, if someone executed a new or challenging movement with good form, I’d say things like, “You’re such a quick learner,” or “You’re a natural!”

This can be quite demotivating when someone to whom I’ve said this is inevitably faced with a challenge that they can’t conquer on the first day. While no specific examples come to mind, I’m sure this has happened. So, my apologies!

“Identity creation” can also be much more casual.

We’ll say things like, “I’m a big fan of pineapple on pizza,” “No thanks, I’m not a coffee drinker,” or, “We’re a loud family.”

Take the first statement. Perhaps you have a clear preference or strong opinions on this vitally important topic. A newsletter I subscribe to recently closed with a tongue-in-cheek line, “If you like pineapple on pizza, you have bad taste in pizza.” The first thought that flashed through my mind was, “You’re an idiot, and you have bad taste in pizza! Unsubscribe.” Just kidding about the unsubscribe bit. And remember, we don’t have to believe those thoughts.

But the point is, we can inadvertently adopt anything as part of our identity and thus feel like it needs defending. Even something as silly and inconsequential as this. Although as a side note, if you haven’t tried the incredible duo of pepperoni and pineapple on pizza, you’re missing out. The spicy/sweet combination is pretty darn delightful. But enough pizza talk, let’s get back on track.

Here’s a less lighthearted example

Roughly one year ago, Jon Gruden, then the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, resigned after a series of offensive emails he sent over the past decade surfaced. I’m not going to delve into his actual remarks, but rather examine what he said afterwards.

“I’m ashamed about what has come about in these emails. And I’ll make no excuses for it. It’s shameful. But, I am a good person. I believe that.”

I added the bold for emphasis, because this is the part that intrigues me most. I think “good person” is an identity nearly all of us hold to some degree. Even those who have committed unspeakable atrocities like genocide and torture have often claimed they were doing so for justifiable or even noble reasons.

I feel relatively safe in saying that nobody wants to view themselves as a “bad” person, unless there’s some sort of pathology involved. It’s too painful, and the social consequences are too great. This is why we’ll sometimes see the curious scenario of someone using a racial slur or expressing clearly bigoted opinions and yet say, “I’m not a racist.” This is because today, we all implicitly understand that racism is unquestionably bad, which by extension means a racist must be bad person. So, people will twist themselves into all sorts of knots to avoid being labeled a racist.

Now, here’s a tricky question.

Are you actually a good person?

In order to answer this, we need to examine what it means to be a good person. But, this is a nearly impossible task. Netflix’s excellent show The Good Place makes an attempt in this clip.

In case you don’t feel like watching, here’s the main point. Nobody on Earth had been deemed worthy of entry to the show’s equivalent of heaven in decades, partially due to the unintended consequences of modern life. Even an act as seemingly innocuous as buying groceries meant you were inadvertently supporting the destruction of the environment and oppression of workers. No matter what you did, you couldn’t win. By the way, check this show out if you haven’t. It’s funny, heartwarming, and thought-provoking in a feel-good kind of way.

But for now, let’s get back to the morally gray area of doing…just about anything these days. For example, many of us (myself included) own an iPhone despite knowing about the truly horrific conditions faced by the factory workers who manufacture them.

Does this make me and all other iPhone owners “bad” people? Some people would say yes. Others would say that’s ridiculous. Who’s right?

Here’s a potentially uncomfortable answer. It doesn’t matter.

There is no perfect definition or set of criteria for classifying someone as a good person or a bad person. Nearly every “bad” act could theoretically be put into a context where someone may compellingly argue that it’s a “good” act in a particular situation, and vice versa.

So, where does that leave us?

This is just one person’s opinion, but I believe the following is a solid rule of thumb. Strive to be a good person, whatever that means to you, but avoid holding the rigid view that one bad act makes you a bad person.

When we hold views like this and then are faced with the inevitable reality that we hurt someone, did something highly selfish, or acted in a “bad” way, mental gymnastics abound.

These thought acrobatics usually fall into one of three categories:

Diminishing: “I’m not a bad person, so this thing I did couldn’t have been that bad.”

Justification: “I’m not a bad person, so they must have deserved what I did.”

Outright denial: “I’m not a bad person and I didn’t actually do this thing.”

Obviously, none of these are desirable, and they don’t serve any purpose other than to soothe our wounded egos and reinforce suffering-causing identities. But, when we face that we may have caused hurt or harm head on, we can actually learn from it and help heal ourselves and others.

So, how do we avoid creating identities for ourselves and others? Luckily, there’s a simple bit of truth that can set us free.

The beauty of “sometimes.”

Try saying this to yourself. “I’m sometimes a good person, sometimes not.” Or, I’m sometimes a selfish person, sometimes not.”

How did that sit with you? Maybe it felt off-putting, painful even. If so, you’ve found something from which you derive at least part of your identity. What if we soften it a bit?

“Sometimes I act selfishly and sometimes I act selflessly.” Or, “Sometimes I act like a good person; sometimes I act like a bad person.”

Now, imagine someone says to you, “You’re such a selfish person.” How would they respond if you replied, “Sometimes I act selfishly, sometimes I don’t.”

That seems pretty hard to argue with, doesn’t it?

That’s because none of these statements are identities, so they don’t need defending. This can also be applied to anyone else, in any situation, about any trait. Remember the simple examples we referenced earlier? What if we instead said things like, “I usually like pineapple on pizza,” “I typically don’t drink coffee,” or “My family often shouts when we’re having a good time.” Most of these sound so ludicrously simple that they’re not even worth saying aloud.

But that’s kind of the point.

They’re not anything to get fired up about. And that’s where we see the perils of identity. We label ourselves in so many different ways because deep down, whether we know it or not, we’re craving an understanding of who we truly are. Where we run into trouble is by building ego-driven pillars of identity based on concepts that can never endure, instead of asking the question directly.

Who am I, really?

Explore this. You just may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you! Which identity feels most “like you?” Who would you be without that? Can you think of a time you had to live up to an identity someone else created for you? Can you think of a time you created an identity for someone else? Reply to this email and let me know!


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Every Tuesday, learn about topics you might expect to see on a strength coach’s blog, like how to overcome injuries, train smarter, and become more athletic…and about topics you might be surprised to find, like mindfulness, philosophy, and leaving your ego behind.