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 Living Coach Certification 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).