The Gridlock of Identity
You can’t kill him because you’re a good person.
You can’t doubt him because you’re a person of faith.
You can’t let him pay for your dinner because you’re a feminist.
Even though you really want to.
What would it mean if you killed, doubted, let him pay? You wouldn’t be who you are.
It’s easy when you’re a good person who is not killing people. That’s not likely to cause conflict in your life. It’s hard when you’re a faithful person who is gay.
These are identity level beliefs, and they are likely the source of all your problems.
I met a woman recently who lost 175lbs, over half her body weight. The problem with diets is they assume that if you eat less, you’ll lose weight. That’s mathematically true, but as large as the diet industry is, very few people make a permanent transition from overweight to healthy.
The trick is that you will never lose the weight because you are “A Fat Person.” You love bread. And cheese, oh my god. You want to want to exercise more (not a typo), but honestly you hate it. You eat weight watchers and hired a trainer to force you to work out. But you’re still just “A Fat Person.” You want that cheese, you hate working out.
You have to shift—to change identities. You have to become “A Fit Person.”
You have to become the type of person who counts calories for fun. Who knows the macronutrient breakdown of everything you put in your mouth off the top your head because nutrition is your hobby. Superfoods and personal records excite you—give you a dopamine rush— and thinking of cake makes you feel queasy because it’s too sweet and heavy. Bring on the salad with lemon juice! You are “A Fit Person.”
There’s a world of difference between being a fat person on a diet and being a fit person who is overweight.
Let’s talk about why the shift is so fucking hard. But first an easy one.
I am a vegetarian. I didn’t grow up that way, but I’ve always felt a great deal of empathy for animals, and I don’t see myself as categorically different from them. I think they feel pain and fear, and I think many, maybe most, of them experience love and joy and connection just like we do.
So when I’d eat them, I would think about that.
I’m a good person.
I do helpful, loving things.
I am eating an innocent creature.
This creature didn’t deserve to die.
This creature probably had a terrible life and a harrowing death.
I’m eating this creature because I can. I’m stronger than it was, and no one will stop me.
All these thoughts aren’t compatible. I have an identity level belief—a story that I tell myself about who I fundamentally am—and the story isn’t matching my actions.
Either the story has to change, or my actions have to change.
So when my older son asked to become vegetarian when he was 11 or 12, I was already there. It wasn’t even a discussion. He brought it up, and I said “ok.” And I never ate meat again, and I didn’t miss it. My identity had already shifted to the point that eating meat caused cognitive dissonance, so all I had to do was make the choice. Easy!
But here’s the hard one.
I was lucky that I didn’t have previous cultural programming about “real men” having to be carnivores. Then I’d have to untangle that mess of identity and figure out how to see myself as a “real man” who didn’t eat meat.
But I do have a problem. See, I’m also “A Fit Person.” I used to do hundreds of pushups at a time in elementary school, just to see if I could. In the gap before college, I would work out 2 to 3 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week. That description of counting calories, and knowing the macronutrients in all my food was about me.
I’m eating a sandwich as I type.
It has Ezekiel bread which is 80 calories per slice, mostly carbs but more protein than most bread (12g total, roughly). It has mustard which has negligible macronutrients. It has 5 slides of Tofurky sandwich “meat,” which is about 120 calories of half carbs, half protein. It has 2 slices of pepper jack cheese, which are mostly fat and protein, and are 200 calories total. On the balance, it’s a little carb heavy, but it’s a decent snack. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I just wrote that out without looking and without planning ahead for what I was going to be eating at this moment.
My divorce was rough on me, and I was underweight by at least 25lbs because of the stress. Afterward I healed, got back to the gym, and put on 35lbs, mostly lean. But I almost killed myself doing it. I ate like it was my job, constantly stuffing myself until it hurt to eat, just to barely meet my nutritional goals.
It’s very difficult to put on lean weight as a vegetarian. And at some point I had to stop, I was hurting myself, and I was constantly uncomfortable (identities are powerful, you’ll put yourself through a lot of misery to maintain your identity). I lost 10 of the 35lbs.
So now I’m at a crossroads. I have these two important identities: “I am a Loving person, who doesn’t kill animals,” and “I am a Strong and Healthy person.” And they are coming into conflict like a Gay Catholic.
Do I settle for a body that’s not as strong and healthy as I know it can be? Or do I kill animals to build my body up? Could I possibly come up with a solution to satisfy both parts of me? Will I spin my wheels forever, hoping I’ll figure out a solution but never actually shifting anything, and never seeing the results I want?
I have been vegetarian so long that my body is literally made of plant material, on a molecular level. You can’t get much more “identity level” than that. I also want to live a long time, and be youthful, attractive, and strong. I know I can be that, but I feel like my diet is in the way of those goals.
So I’m at an impasse with myself. My various competing identities are in gridlock with one another.
Identity level beliefs can be great for getting you through the difficult times of fatherhood, for carrying you through war alive and mentally stable. They can be terrible when they anchor you to depression and worthlessness. And they can be burdensome when they come into conflict.
An identity level crisis is disorienting because you feel untethered from yourself and from your life. You don’t know who you are anymore, or what you’re capable of because you’re outside of the box you had created for yourself. It’s tempting to grasp onto the first stability that comes along. That’s how cults work, and why people are so very fanatical about them.
But here’s the real answer: question everything, assume nothing. Is it true?
Do animals understand and suffer?
Do loving people have to be non violent?
Can I get strong as a vegetarian?
Can I have a happy life without being strong?
Ask until you’re out of questions, and then ask more. You’ll figure out how to unravel the gridlock eventually, if you go deep enough into what you really believe and what’s really motivating you.
As for me, there’s no tidy conclusion. I don’t know what I’ll do. Identity shifts are hard work.
For what it’s worth, you should keep your footprint as light as possible. Try not to believe more than you have to, especially not about yourself.
Gremlins of Belief
**Tortoise**: This watch works because tiny, invisible gremlins are pushing the hands. **Hare**: No, the watch works because a battery is powering a motor, that drives some gears that are attached to the hands. **Tortoise**: Ah, I see the machinery, clearly. The gremlins must be using the machinery to drive the hands *for* them! We know that's not true though. The machinery obviates the need for gremlins—the machinery fundamentally subverts the premise of the gremlins. Tortoise would never have considered the gremlins if she had known about the machinery first. Tortoise is attached to the gremlin hypothesis, maybe because she...
Continued from [Gremlins of Belief] I knew a goth girl in college. She identified as Wiccan, which basically means she worshipped “The Goddess,” nature. She had grown up a Jehovah's Witness, and when she left her parents' house, she saw the error of their beliefs, and she became Wiccan. There is a mirror image version of the [Gremlin Fallacy]. Instead of continuing to believe something that's been fundamentally subverted by new information, you stop believing in something in favor of a different thing that does *not* fundamentally subvert the original belief. You thought you killed the gremlin, but you actually...