How to Separate Your Identity From Your Behaviour (and Why You Should)

How to Separate Your Identity From Your Behaviour (and Why You Should)
Illustration: pimchawee, Shutterstock

In a perfect world, it’d be easy to untangle our mistakes from our personal identities, but in reality, it’s rarely a simple task. Everyone’s life is riddled with errors of judgement, but it’s crucial that you don’t let mistakes define your life or erode your self-confidence. Every misstep can become a teachable moment if you approach it with the right intentions: namely, forgiving yourself and looking for ways to understand those whom you may have offended or disappointed.

Don’t let your mistakes define you

It’s important to understand the difference between behaviour and identity. Though they are, in many ways, inherently linked, one is not always a symptom of the other. The relationship between behaviour and identity is something of its own field of study, with religious sects debating whether it’s even possible to separate the sin from the sinner, and scholars who’ve studied the relationship between one’s articulated sense of self and behavioural quirks since the 1930s.

However, just as people can find success within their failures, it’s also true that learning from one’s mistakes — or at least realising it when you’re at fault — helps endear you to others.

Admitting fault “sets a model for what you would like your partner or coworkers to do,” Dr. Paulette Sherman, psychologist and author of Sacred Baths and host of The Love Psychologist podcast tells Lifehacker. “It makes you accountable and trustworthy … if you create a safe space to be honest about your mistakes, then hopefully others feel comfortable doing so too.”

Obviously, this is easier said than done. Admitting fault, for many people, especially those who are typically hard on themselves, is an affront to their personal identity. In clinical circles, it’s a concept known as “cognitive dissonance.” The social psychologist Carol Tavris explained how it works to the New York Times in 2017, saying:

Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I’m smart, I’m kind, I’m convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn’t smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn’t true.

When your idea of self is seemingly torn apart by someone close to you, it can feel devastating. But that’s rarely, if ever, the intention of the person affected by your mistake.

Separating identity from behaviour is a learning process

An exercise that’s easy enough to employ: Think about it in terms of speaking to a child. As Sherman notes, you never want to explain to a child that they’re inherently bad (or shy, picky, stubborn, bossy, or a crybaby), only that their behaviour may have been wrong.

Sometimes, resistance to criticism is rooted in some sort of childhood trauma, which can fester and become internalized in adults. “Underlying [the resistance to criticism] may be a fear [that a person] will be fired or their partner won’t love them if they aren’t perfect,” Sherman says. “So guilt and lies of omission eat away at them, and things cannot thrive when there is no foundation of trust.”

The truth is, we need to learn to self-soothe. “The higher self in us knows we are loveable and here to learn and grow. If we adopt a gentler voice it will create more expansion and will move us in a better direction,” Sherman says.

What’s the difference between guilt and shame?

Another crucial distinction that can help you untangle criticism from your ego is understanding the difference between guilt and shame. Of course, no one should seek to make you feel guilty, but feeling bad about your specific actions is a great motivating force. As the Licensed Clinical Social Worker Justin Lioi tells Lifehacker:

Guilt can be very motivating for us to see what we did that was harmful and to help us not to do it again. Shame takes us down a long rabbit hole that makes us think we cause harm because we are innately bad people. That doesn’t give us any energy to change, but to be defensive and hide this part of us.

Your actions are only indicative of your true nature if you express a strong unwillingness to change course or have zero remorse for any damage you may repeatedly cause. Luckily, that’s not who the vast majority of people are.

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