I’ve been thinking a lot about that article on identity-based habits that I posted a few weeks ago. The concept just makes so much sense to me – that you’ll have trouble making significant changes in your life unless you change your self-concept and start thinking of yourself as the kind of person who can accomplish those changes. The more I think about it, the more examples I can find in my own life.
My parents tell me that as a baby, I loved to eat. I started on solids relatively early, and once I started, I’d eat anything. I sucked down baby foods that completely grossed out my parents and then opened my mouth for more. But somewhere along the way something changed. I started refusing foods and only accepting certain approved foods, like hot dogs, chicken, french fries, and mac and cheese. I became a “picky eater”. Dinnertime was often a battleground as I fussed and complained. Throughout my childhood I was notoriously picky about food, and looking back now, the pickier I was, the more I internalized that identity: no matter what my actual tastes might have been, I knew myself to be a picky eater, and I acted like one!
Eventually little things began to change my eating habits. At my part-time restaurant job in high school, I noticed that the Caesar salad and the zucchini marinara on the menu looked pretty good. I tried them, liked them, and began to eat them regularly. In college the limits of the cafeteria forced me to try new things so I wouldn’t have to subsist on a tasty but boring diet of froot loops and cheese sandwiches. During my senior year, the dining hall began a “pasta kitchen” line that offered two interesting dishes per meal and introduced me to the idea that pine nuts and spinach could go in my pasta, not just red sauce and meatballs, and the meals I tried that year were a major inspiration to my later cooking experiments.
Most importantly, I listened to my friends, people I liked and trusted who were surprised at the range of things I wouldn’t eat. Especially when I got to grad school and had to cook for myself, I knew I had a lot to learn. Christina taught me about garlic, chicken, and biscuits, among other things; Danielle and Sarah each taught me about guacamole; Dylan taught me about mushrooms, onions, and garlic, and how good they were all cooked together in olive oil; and much later, Fritz taught me the wide variety of things that can go in a burrito. By the time Fritz and I got engaged, I was ordering the octopus at fancy restaurants and sighing over my delicious Brussel sprouts.
As I tried and learned to cook new things, my concept of myself slowly changed. I was no longer a picky eater. Somehow I’d become a “foodie”: I’d grown to love cooking and trying new foods. And then I became a vegetarian, something a younger me (who refused anything green) could never have envisioned. When I think back to the 12-year-old me, or even the 18-year-old me, she would have been appalled. And that’s all rooted in self-concept: if I still identified myself as a picky eater, I would have missed out on so much deliciousness, so many enjoyable food experiences, and so many good times cooking and eating with friends. My self-identity only changed gradually over time based on what I learned and how that knowledge caused me to grow.
This is one reason why I think it’s so important to keep an open mind and never stop learning and growing. There’s so much in the world to experience that I don’t want to miss. And it’s why the idea of purposely, purposefully, changing one’s own self-identity is so compelling to me. If gradual, unintentional identity changes can have such effect, then what more can we do if we thoughtfully set out to change how we view ourselves? What new things will we be capable of? What distant dreams can we make into reality by becoming the person who can achieve them?