43% of our habits happen subconsciously. But— while it’s just an observer, it is the conscious mind that takes all the credit for our behaviour. This creates a lot of uncertainty about our identity and the way we perceive the world.
The most known and simple example to explain this comes from my Public Relations course: let’s say you always buy Lays chips paprika ‘because they are the most tasteful’ or ‘because your kid loves them so much’. But actually, you bought them in the first place because the store manager put that brand on a visible location at eye level. Product companies pay a lot of money for those shelves. Imagine Lays on the bottom and their sales drop. Maybe you are thinking now that you know that, and you don’t get that easily fooled, but how come your tedious neighbour has the same fancy Levi’s jeans? And why do we (almost) all wear Stan Smith sneakers? Why do we suddenly eat hummus and look at The Queens Gambit? And what the fuck was happening with those ballerina’s, crocs and Buffalos?!
I don’t want to discuss consumption culture (yet). Instead, I want to mention what psychologist Emily Pronin names the introspection illusion1. We assume that we act on our motives and desires, ‘I do this because I want it’, while the act occurs subconsciously. And at the same time, we assume that it is the other that easily gets fooled by manipulative marketers. Same in traffic: when I double-park in Porto centre, it is because I had no choice, but when someone else does it, it’s because he is mentally behind, selfish or lazy, right? Supermarkets and traffics jams; always big fun.
“That is why it is better to not just stick to one version of your identity. Progress can only be achieved when you unlearn things. Becoming the best version of yourself means constantly reviewing your convictions, improving and enlarging your identity” James Clear
So, introspection illusion: we leave our habits aside when we try to explain our behaviour and, simultaneously, think that we have more free will than the other person. This illusion could explain why a human being does what he does, with all its doubts,common misunderstandings, wrong expectations, unnecessary feuds and anxieties.
Nevertheless, our habits are closely related to our identity, hence the title of this mini-essay. More so, identity is not only about our self-image but as well about how we perceive and approach the world. We focus too much on expectations, results (the end goal) without concentrating on what it all starts with: our habits linked to our identity.
How well do you know yourself? What do you want in life? And how are you going to handle this? As long as you don’t know yourself, everything remains a challenging exercise (and you quickly get manipulated by media and industry, politics). When we bought the quinta I had to stop identifying myself as a city girl. City girls don’t farm in the country side. When I saw myself more as a ‘nature girl’ and a zero waster, it became easier to cultivate a farmyard, create habits and achieve goals that I could never have reached as a city girl.
For the same reason, my self-image as daughter of bar owners held me back for many years to finally write a book. I realize now that I can be the daughter of bar owners and a writer. It was only when I understood this, that I started to write more. And now I am a kind of veggie farmer with a sense of bar humour that writes and loves fancy shoes.
Too narrow minded
If you focus on one identity you can easily be influenced for polarisation. As long as you consider yourself only left or right (Facebook comments of some newspaper are often big fun too), change will be difficult; it’s too narrow, you’ve put yourself into a box. Why can’t we be both ( or none of them, my life became more manageable when I disconnected from this political construction)?
If you’ve heard all your life that women are the weaker sex or economy is vital for a prosperous society, that or you are too clumsy, dump, slow or ugly to succeed in life, that unvaccinated people are dangerous, then you will act accordingly. Even when this doesn’t fit with who we indeed are or what we want. The tricky thing is that even when the tension between this believe (act) and your true identity becomes too big, you will adapt your behaviour in order to preserve your self-image. That’s cognitive dissonance2. Adaption is easier than change: we can see this too after one year of Covid. We take a shot so we can continue to go to bars instead of changing the way we consume and vote.
“That is why it is better to not just stick to one version of your identity. Progress can only be achieved when you unlearn things. Becoming the best version of yourself means constantly reviewing your convictions, improving and enlarging your identity,” writes James Clear in Atomic Habits3.
So start with facing this question: what of your behavior is conditioned and what is real?
Because of that constantly evolving and expanding self-image, it became easier for me to create habits like gardening, shopping zero waste with glass jars, prepping my own hamburgers, keeping a journal, becoming (more) self-sufficient. habits that gave us more balance and created a context in which we needed less plastic instead of chastising ourselves by dividing our world into ‘this is okay’ and ‘this is not okay’. We created space to become ourselves. A veggie farmer on high heels with a rude sense of humour, finally!4
It sounds logical that you first need to find out who you are before becoming that person. Most of the time, we handle it utterly wrong by focusing on the goal:
Who we want to become instead of who we are.
The goal isn’t not recycling or using less plastic, but to become someone with a low ecological footprint.
The goal isn’t to get more votes but to become someone who serves society.
The goal isn’t to lose weight but to be a healthy person.
The goal isn’t to have good grades but to become someone who understands.
The goal isn’t to vaccinate everybody but to change our lifestyle (remember the first weeks of lockdown?) so it never happens again.
The ripple effect
After moving to Portugal, it took us four years (a whole life actually) to finally build healthy routines in our life. I never really thought about my habits based on (adapted to) a conditioned self-image; because of that, my lifestyle and goals were never in line. We live in a society where the tension between the two is maximised, it’s almost inhumane.
I believe that is why so many people suffer from imposter syndrome, the fear of being exposed, or have trouble loving themselves. Moving abroad was a radical way to deal with this, but not mandatory.
On a social level, sure, but first, personally, by loving who you are and taking baby steps that create a ripple effect in your personal life.
It seems like a small impact on the social level, but that’s what an ordinary person can do to make a change on a higher level with friends, family, colleagues and the community: Changing his behaviour rather than adapting the old ones, to a constructed self-image.
3. James Clear, Elementaire gewoontes, pg 46, 2019
4. Sorry for always using myself as an example, it’s just easier than conducting research myself ;-).