Be true to who you are. Be yourself. These slogans are frequently used nowadays, and ask us to look within ourselves, to find our “self”, and to stick to it. What we generally think of as our self is essentially the product of our habits, constructed over time. Habitual modes of acting toward ourselves, others, and the world.
A growing body of research shows that habitual behaviours cultivate a confirmation bias in which we search information that supports our habits and we avoid information that might challenge them. Thus, being true to who you are, rooted in behavioural habits, essentially leaves you stuck with tunnel vision and prevents you from making changes that could improve your well-being.
Stuck In Behavioural Patterns
When a behaviour is performed many times, we begin to use a cognitive shortcut whereby we do not need to analyse all the consequences of that behaviour. As the behaviour is repeated in the same context, the control of the behaviour gradually shifts from being internally guided (e.g. beliefs, feelings, and intention) to being triggered by situational or contextual cues.
An obvious example of such behavioural habit is automatically looking both ways before crossing the street. However, it also applies to your usual sigh when your father starts his political tirade, or the communication pattern that follows when your partner is late. In each case, a shift from deliberate to automatic behaviour has taken place, in which the context is now the trigger for the behaviour. The context can be a location, objects, actions, people or various combinations.
Until our habits are challenged, we do not think about them. Habits are automatic in the sense that they are enacted without purposeful thinking. Therefore, in order to break free of routine behaviours, we need to actively recognize them.
Experiments indicate that people go to great lengths to protect the image they have of themselves. Therefore, in order to break a habit (which makes up the “self”), it helps to realize that there might not be a “one true self”. We have many possible selves, depending on the context. Besides, we do not tell the truth all the time either.
We construct new realities with white lies like: “You’re the best”, “No problem at all”, “Thank you so much”. With these “as-if” rituals we pretend “as if it was no problem at all” or “as if your colleague is the best”. Although usually not completely true, it does cultivate a better world.
The “as-if” approach is also useful to cultivate your own well-being, through improving future behaviour and experience. For example, at the core of a conflict with a family member, friend, colleague or partner is often communication that has fallen into a pattern. Neither of you like it, but there seems to be no way out.
The way out would be to first recognize that you are simply stuck in roles, and that this can change. Then remember that everyone is a complex, multifaceted person, capable of change. The next step would be to ask different questions and use different words, and behave “as-if” you are speaking to the good side of this person. By doing so, you are helping both of you to inhabit another role. For the better.
A Good Read
Carson, S. H. & Langer, E. J. Mindfulness and self-acceptance. J. Ration. Cogn. Ther. 24, 29–43 (2006). 1.
Charmaz, K. The Self as Habit: The Reconstruction of Self in Chronic Illness. OTJR Occup. Particip. Heal. 22, 31S–41S (2002).
Kivetz, Y. & Tyler, T. R. Tomorrow I’ll be me: The effect of time perspective on the activation of idealistic versus pragmatic selves. Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process. 102, 193–211 (2007).
Nilsen, P., Roback, K., Broström, A. & Ellström, P.-E. Creatures of habit: accounting for the role of habit in implementation research on clinical behaviour change. Implement. Sci. 7, 53 (2012).
Puett, M. J. & Gross-Loh, C. The path : a new way to think about everything.
The Cambridge handbook of personality psychology. Choice Rev. Online (2013). doi:10.5860/choice.48-0566
Wood, W. Habit in Personality and Social Psychology. Personal. Soc. Psychol. Rev. 21, 389–403 (2017).