“If I know better, why is it so hard to…do better?”

For a life coach, personal growth geek like me, this is one of my favorite questions–we’re talking, when a client asks this question, a smile comes over my face because I’m thinking, “YES. Now we’re going to get down to the bones of the matter.”

Figuring out why it is that “knowing better” and “doing better” are not always synonymous is definitely a “revolution from within” moment.

So why is it it that if you “know better,” you don’t “do better”? Because the part that you still don’t “know” yet is not obvious to you.

Knowing & True Knowing

Here’s an example: I can “know better” than to raise my voice when I’m feeling angry with someone. And yet, over and over, I might still do it in moments of anger.

Why? I used to ask myself, fretting and feeling guilty, later. I know better than this!

There’s what I “knew” and then the other things that I had yet to “know.”

I “knew” that raising my voice during a disagreement did nothing good. That it stressed me out. That it amplified conflict. That it created scar tissue in any relationship where that happened. That it only ever made me feel guilty and sad, later.

What I didn’t yet “know”? How to stop myself. How to not react. How to stop believing the voice in my head that said, “Let them have it!” How to stop thinking that when I disagreed with someone, yelling (an attempt to gain control) was what I needed to do, so that I wouldn’t feel like a chump.

There is a vast difference between knowing the behavior changes you want to make, and seeing/knowing/understanding all of the impulses and belief systems that underlie why those behaviors exist, at all.

This is where identity systems come in.

Identity Systems: What are they, how do they work, and what are yours?

We all have what I call “identity systems”–many, operating at once, and they may recede or come forward depending on time, context, person, or circumstance.

The “identity” part refers to the fact that in the moment when it’s being played out, it’s who we think we are.

The “system” part refers to the fact that there is a whole system at work. One level, we can get really reductive and say, “It’s all about my belief systems.” At the same time, the reality is that you are always walking through the matrix of past experiences that replay in your head and inform your decision making process, current experiences and circumstances, projections into the future, how you’re treated by society based on race/class/gender/ethnicity, long-standing dynamics and patterns in relationships with others.

All of this comes together to form an “identity system.” This is one of the first concepts that I talked about with the Courageous Coaching Training Program trainees during our 2014 retreat weekend–that simply coaching from a perspective of, “Change your beliefs, and you change your life” is often not enough for our clients.

This is also what I’m trying to help people to understand with the Courageous Living Program: that an investigation of your patterns and beliefs will reveal to you all the places where you keep yourself stuck. That’s what prompts true change. Not the officious self-help magazine articles that promise that if you only adopt a “clean” diet, go to yoga every day, and meditate.

(Those are all great things to do, but there’s a sense of white-knuckling your way through all of that, until you really look at what you fear, and what we truly fear is a loss of identity any time we opt to change an identity system).

How do identity systems work?

First, understand that they are largely unconscious. Again, this is why you’ve got to find something–a program, a person to work with, a tool, a consciousness practice, something–to see where you’re operating on default, without awareness.

In my experience, whatever the “something” is that you choose to work with, it’s got to be a daily practice. I have not seen it be effective for people to only work on an identity system when the shit really hits the fan. Much like a recovery program for a chemical addiction, we’ve got to assume that the identity system (“addiction” to a certain behavior) is always there, and that we don’t only need to work on it when we “use.” We work on it when we’re not actively using, too.

Identity systems stay entrenched because:

  • We don’t see them clearly or understand that they are operating.
  • We don’t work on them consistently.
  • When we get afraid, we justify keeping them in place.

Example: You know that yelling at someone when you’re angry isn’t what you want to do. If you don’t see the identity system that’s in place (perhaps it’s an identity system we’ll call “Gotta Be In Control,” and the internal Story is: “I’ll feel like a chump if this person insults me, and I don’t respond by yelling”), and if you aren’t working consistently on noticing all of the little ways where “Gotta Be In Control” is at work in your life, and if when you get upset with someone, you justify the old pattern by saying, “Well, I was angry–people yell when they’re angry!” then the entire system doesn’t move.

Example: If you’ve got the identity system at work of “People Pleaser,” and you’re not conscious about the habits and belief systems that underlie that identity system, you’ll just keep on people-pleasing. Without seeing clearly that the system is operating, you won’t work on it and bring consciousness to the people, places, habits, circumstances, etc., that keep the system in place. And, if you do get conscious that the system operates for you, but then you have a moment of fear (“If I don’t do this favor for her, she won’t like me”) and you respond from the place of that fear…the identity system just keeps on, keeping on.

The entire system depends on you not seeing, you not taking action, and you getting afraid so that nothing needs to change. Also, the system is not malicious. It’s wounded. It’s hurting. It’s trying to protect itself from a whole host of uncomfortable or painful experiences that it fears.

It needs compassion, patience, and love.

How Do I Recognize Mine?

Here are a few ideas:

  • Make a list of all the places in your life where you feel resentment. There’s probably some kind of identity system at work.
  • Make a list of all the places where you keep doing something that you’ve sworn you would stop doing. Ask yourself: What’s the underlying “need” that, while dysfunctional, wants to justify my making this choice, over and over?
  • Work with a program of some kind–a meditation program, an inquiry program, the Courageous Living Program, a life coach, a therapist, a group coaching circle–something that’s ongoing and intended to be used daily and consistently.
  • Ask people you trust this question: “Would you kindly but honestly share with me: What’s a pattern of thinking or behavior at work in my life, that I might not be seeing clearly?”
  • Spend one week emphasizing a desire for change in a very specific area. If an identity system is at work, you’re going to want to ditch it, have resistance towards doing it, start and stop, justify only working it halfway, etc., pretty quickly.

I’ll be writing another piece in the coming weeks on different names for these identity systems. So far, I’ve shared before about the “Smart Person identity system” and the “victim identity system” (though you can really make up whatever name you like for any chronic identity systems that you notice; the names aren’t “set” by me or anyone else).

I’d love to start a conversation about this over at the Your Courageous Life Facebook page. Share with us: What identity systems have you uncovered?

Why it’s so terrifying to go after what you want (and what to do about it)

Since January, it has been the hugest of honors to lead the first Courageous Coaching Training Program, supporting a group of women who are training to become life coaches.

The honor of it all comes from being part of helping people to do what they want with their lives, on their terms, which is part of the path of using your life for not just one’s own purposes but to create something bigger (living on one’s own terms in a vacuum? Painfully empty).

The honor of it all comes from watching as people choose to actually utilize the power that they have access to, to create better lives.

The honor of it all comes from watching people take tentative steps into saying, “In every facet of my life, even in the domain of money/career where I’ve been told over and over that I can’t expect much, I’m doing what I desire, on my own terms.” I know how it feels to have walked this path, and now there’s a giddy excitement in watching others as they start to step forward, as well.

There’s giddy excitement any time we go after what we want, and at the same time, there’s fear.

Why you’re so afraid (you’re not just crazy)

There’s the fear that if you tell people what you really want, they’ll downplay it, criticize it, laugh at it, or ask “Who do you think you are?” (which, aside from not feeling great, would bring up all of one’s own personal Stories and internal narratives that they are rejected or unloved or unsupported).

There’s the fear that, well–the person who did all of those things might be right (embarrassing at best, shame-inducing at worst).

There’s the fear that if failure happens, it will feel like there’s no way to pick oneself up and create something new (a hopeless and weak feeling).

There’s the fear that you’ll be called selfish for going after what you desire, and perhaps someone will even consciously try to induce guilt in you by reminding you of all the people who suffer in the world, and who do you think you are to do what you want, when so many people are suffering?

Then there’s the fear of success, which would bring with it a complete confrontation and refutation of one’s own inner Victim story, and most of us have held onto stories that we are incapable, doomed to fail, unable, limited, unworthy or undeserving for so long, that we don’t even realize that we operate from that place. The inner Victim is just one of many possible identity systems to adopt. We confuse that identity system with who we actually “are.”

(P.S. That’s the truth behind why success feels so uncomfortable, why we have trouble receiving praise or recognition. The identity system of Victim is so practiced that people’s assertions that we did a seriously kick-ass job on something push up against our own, internalized conception who who we “are.”)

What to Do About it

You step into the “shaky tenderness” that is part of the early stages of courage.

You take a deep breath.

You acknowledge the truth: that you might fail, that people might criticize or belittle, that there are people who are suffering in the world and that you are privileged by comparison, and that you won’t have that old identity to cling to if you’re successful, and that this would be temporarily disorienting.

You breathe. All true. All possible.

Then, you step forward, anyway. You declare it. You say it. When people ask you, “So, what do you do?” you say, “I’m a ____________ who is building ______________.”

You do that because it’s a bigger “failure” to not step into the truest expression of who you actually are, and because you know that not stepping into that would be the bigger regret.

You do that because people who criticize or belittle do it from their own limited, fearful worldview. Maybe seeing you create life on your own terms will inspire them to stop spreading negativity, and start looking to expand their own options, and by extension the options of others.

You do that because the world has never been changed solely on the backs of those who had less privilege. The world’s revolutions have always involved those who had access to privilege and who wanted to use that privilege to create something better in the world–more equality, more access, more for everyone. In other words: a great way to see the world change is to do your personal work, and use the expanded capacity for courage, compassion, and tolerance that comes from that, to create world change.

The world’s revolutions have always started, in fact, with the backbone of courage: what I call a “revolution from within.” The revolution from within is always one that has a ripple effect, outward.

You step forward and declare what you want, and then you create it on your own terms, because your success at being your fullest expression of yourself is actually a gift to the world. It becomes the vehicle for someone else’s life to change, too.

Courage is an evolutionary imperative. It’s risking the fear within yourself, and working with it and through it, that brings the benefit to you and to everyone else who has the honor of witnessing it. You never know when, just by being yourself, you’ll be someone else’s gift.

Bearing Witness

Waking up every day feeling like you’re settling is a crime, when you consider how many people truly don’t have any other option. Chances are very good that for anyone with access to an internet connection, you do have options.

The questions are: What are you doing with the options? Are you using them? Or telling yourself the lie that you don’t have them?

What do you truly want to do with your life? When you look back, what do you want to say your life stood for? Compromise and complacency, because taking advantage of the truth of your power was too scary? Or something bigger?

There’s something really special to me, a woman who thought for years that whatever she wanted to do with her life, she’d have to “be realistic” about her options and fit them into some pre-tread mold, to not only find ways to do what she desires, but to also help other people do the same.

A decade ago, I wasn’t serving anyone when I was mired in depression and anxiety, telling myself the same stories about what I “had to” do or what I “couldn’t” create for myself.

We do good when we live our lives on our own terms. It’s hard, and it requires courage, but this is how we create a more expansive world. It starts with one person, willing to take a courageous risk. It expands, from there.

An interview with Marianne Elliott

The Courageous Living Program? Totally updated.

Updating the Courageous Living Program has been a labor of love project for the past six months, as I’ve gone through everything in the program from content to chapter arrangement, and examined all of the places where I wanted to make updates. I’ve re-written chapters, added chapters, and changed around exercise questions (including re-ordering some of the concepts in a way that closely models the process I take one-on-one coaching clients through).

Even better news? Everyone who has purchased the program gets access to the update, free (check your inbox associated with your PayPal/financial transactions; the download link might be waiting for you). I’ve already announced that I’ve added interviews with Superhero Andrea Scher, Paul Jarvis, and Andrea Owen.



Meet Marianne Elliott
As two women who want you to stop seeing courage as something you either have, or don’t have, this interview is all about re-framing one’s experience of fear. The fact that fear exists? That’s actually okay–and Marianne is going to share some of her personal story of how that has emerged.

If you’ve been doing the, “I’ll start a new workshop / book / practice / coach / therapist / plan to change my life” dance for far too long, it’s time to settle into something deeper–really taking an honest inquiry into the self.

When you choose to meet your fear with love, you start the truest revolution from within.