Each of us has a unique self-identity that both drives what we do and is influenced by what we do. If we were able to hack into our self-identity, to leverage this influence, it would help provide one of the emotional drivers of change that we require.
As I’ve stated before, for most people, purposeful change needs to have an emotional foundation for it to be sustainable (see here, here). The challenge we face is the fact that tapping into our emotions is very difficult and often a random process, thus making purposeful change harder.
Since our self-identity is innately tied to our emotional core, being able to use our self-identity to help motivate behavior change could be very powerful.
We often think of our self-identity as one cohesive overriding concept of who we are.
That’s a misconception.
Psychologists tend to think of people’s self-identity as being made up of a number of smaller self-schemas that are combined together. These different schemas dominate our personality at different times depending on the circumstance, social group or environment that we find yourself in. For instance, you might be the strong forceful decision maker when in family situations, but in social situations outside of the family, you might think of yourself as more of a follower.
One way to think about self-schemas is to imagine that they are miniature mind-maps that guide how we think of ourselves in a given situation. This map helps us envision how we should behave and think.
This map is the lens of how we see ourselves fitting into and responding to the world. It prescribes what we expect our actions and thoughts to be in that specific situation.
This identity lens also colors our world. It can have a strong influence on what we see, what we feel, and what we experience. It also impacts how we interpret and how we respond to what we see/feel/experience.
We have beliefs or self-schemas about whether we are fun or boring, outgoing or shy, combative or peaceful, brave or cowardly, and these schemas shape what we pay attention to, how we encode the information we receive, and what information we retrieve based on the situation (Wheeler, Petty, Bizer, 2005).
In this sense, schemas reflect our core values of who we are and how we fit in the world.
Horowitz (1998) describes it as follows: “Self-schemas include scripts, future intentions and expectations about self-realization, and core values. These self-schemas function as cognitive maps; simplifying details into attitudes…”
Schemas are also temporal in nature which means that we can think of ourselves as behaving and thinking differently based on the timeframe we imagine ourselves in – i.e., whether we are thinking of ourselves in the past, present or future tense.
Therefore, we can visualize our future self as being different than what we are today. Sometimes this future self is labelled our “possible self” or our “ideal self” which is appropriate. The temporal nature of our self-schemas play an important role in how we plan out our lives and make choices for the future.
Schemas and change
So how does this impact our self-change initiatives?
First, we can think about how well our behaviors match with the schemas we hold of ourselves. If our behaviors fit with that vision of who we are, those behaviors are “congruent”; if they do not align with that vision, they are “incongruent.”
For instance, if I think of myself as “a walker”, I will have a stronger motivational pull to choose to walk when I have an option between walking or driving (or other mode of transportation). Walking would be congruent with my vision of myself. However, if I find myself sitting on the couch, vegging out in front of the T.V., that would be an incongruent behavior that would exert a sense of cognitive angst at not living up to my self-schema and would push me to get up and go for a walk around the block. The more congruent the new change behavior is, the stronger the motivational pull to engage in that behavior. Conversely, the more incongruent the behavior, the stronger the pull is to stop that behavior in order to get back in alignment.
This is the self-regulation part of schemas and it works for however we envision ourselves.