A Habit Is Who You Are, Not What You Do

Author Jen Sincero says ‘badass habits’ require an identity shift

Photo: Hans Neleman / Getty Images

At the end of a milestone event — like a year or, say, a global pandemic — we have a tendency to reflect on all the things we’d like to achieve, moving forward. With this impulse comes a renewed interest in changing our habits through a slew of tips, tricks, and behavior hacks.

Now, the bestselling author Jen Sincero is back with a new book that throws a wrench into our conventional, habit-building wisdom. In Badass Habits, she asserts that changing your habits is as much about shifting your perception of who you are as it is a byproduct of systems and strategies to make the change stick. Forge spoke with Sincero about overcoming fear of the unknown to build the habits we want.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

At Forge, we’re pretty obsessed with habits — how to form them, how to break them. Usually, we tend to focus on strategies for shifting behavior. But in your book, you write that the first step in changing habits is an identity shift: You have to see yourself as the type of person who does X thing. Then comes the strategizing.

When we identify as a certain person, it informs how we think and believe, and just generally behave. And I think that when it comes to so many things in life that we’re trying to accomplish, we focus mostly on the actions we [need to] take to get things done. Actions — what we’re doing — are certainly important, but we do ourselves such a disservice if we don’t go backwards and look at who we’re being. If we start approaching our behaviors from the standpoint of who we’re being, the actions we take are going to fall into line so much more easily.

So, for example, let’s say you are trying to start running every morning. That’s going to be your new habit. If you still identify as somebody who hates to run, or somebody who doesn’t run, the energetic slog of getting yourself to do it is so much heftier than if you start identifying as a runner. If you’re a runner, you run like it’s no big whoop-de-do. There isn’t all the drama there. It’s just who you are and it’s what you do.

Yet, as you write, it’s hard to embrace change. Not just hard, but scary. Why is that?

You know, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because change is the only constant thing in our lives. And man, can you imagine how great life would be if you could just get over that fear?

The fear of change goes very deep… People stay in relationships that are horrible or even abusive, partly because they’re familiar. We stay in jobs we hate because they’re familiar.

Taking a risk and changing something about who we are means entering the unknown and unfamiliar. And that really does stop us from taking action.

Right, the familiar is comfortable. We know what to expect. Even positive change introduces an element of the unknown.

One of the best ways to get rid of the fear of the unknown is to get very clear on the specifics of what you are scared of. We tend to generalize our feelings of fear and make the feeling bigger than the source. And that’s where we get into so much trouble.

Think of how often you’ve thought to yourself, I’m so overwhelmed. I have a million emails to answer. I can’t even lift up my arms to start answering even one. And then when you actually look at how many emails you have, maybe it’s 20. How long will it actually take you to answer them? Maybe it’ll take you 15 minutes.

Another example: “I’m scared to leave my job that I hate, even though it’s making me miserable.” The specific fear might be, “I’m going to lose my health insurance.” Okay. How much does your health insurance cost? How much would it cost you to get it on your own?

When you start to break it down and get into the specifics, you can get rid of overwhelm, you can get rid of fear. You fill in the blanks and gain a sense of control.

That leads us to another issue you write about in your book: the reaction of family and friends. When we change how we behave, it can throw off the people close to us. The end result may be a change for the better, in our own lives, but others around us may be threatened by our shift in habits. Why is that?

Because you’re basically killing off your old identity. People may be worried that they’re going to lose you, and everyone is terrified of being abandoned. A lot of this happens subconsciously.

Another part of it is that people love to be right. So, if you go and change who you’re being, I don’t get to be right about who you are. And I also don’t get to be right about the way things are, in general. If both of us are having a hard time making money and the economy is bad and everything sucks, and then you decide to change that story and find a job you love, it’s harder for me to stick with the story of why I am [having a tough time]. That can be very threatening to people’s sense of reality and their “comfort zones,” which are actually more like “familiar zones.” Because a lot of times, those familiar zones are not even that comfortable. Just familiar.

So basically, when we change aspects of who we are and what we do, we risk challenging other people’s sense of who they are, by association.

When you change, you open up the void of the unknown to other people, because you sort of expand their thinking, whether they like it or not. Some relationships, you will end up outgrowing. But it’s okay. You don’t want to be around people who aren’t supporting you, and you don’t want to be around people that are going to drag you down with their negative energy. It can definitely be hard because you can still really love them. But [those relationships are] not worth not growing for.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge

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