Are You Still the “You” that You Thought You Were? How Old Identity Patterns Hold Creative People Back

The life we live has everything to do with our identity. Sometimes this is obvious—the person living with a wealthy, educated identity has a very different experience than the person living with a disadvantaged, resource-poor identity. But identity works in ways infinitely more subtle than this. We choose not to strike up a conversation with a stranger because we identify as an introvert. Or we choose the green dress over the blue one because we identify as someone who has green as a favorite color.

Identity is the way we orient ourselves in the world, and overall it’s a very good thing. The problems crop up when we assume that we have a “fixed” identity and we forget to examine our hearts and minds on an ongoing basis to see if that identity needs updating.

Every person is a fluid being who is constantly changing and learning new things. When we cling onto an old, outdated identity we do ourselves a disservice by resisting the flow of our natural growth and evolution. Creative people in particular can benefit from reexamining their current identity. We need constant rebirth and transformation to move forward in creating our art. Even if the metamorphosis is extremely delicate or happens in one tiny moment, the energy of the new and the now stimulates creative growth.

Many times I hear the same thing from new clients during my initial phone consultation with them. They tell me “I’ve always had trouble writing” or “I just can’t make myself start.” These statements are usually at war with the reason they called me in the first place—they’re sure there is a writer inside them dying to get out. The problem is that the person has taken on the identity of a blocked writer, or a failed artist. And much of the time they’re struggling so desperately with issues of having the right to be seen and be heard, that they’re terrified of even attempting to inhabit the identity of “writer” at all, blocked or otherwise.

What has usually happened in these cases is that somewhere along the way the person was imprinted through a traumatic experience with the assumption that they are just not good enough. Maybe they received hurtful criticism from a creative writing professor or critique group. Maybe they grew up with parents who couldn’t really see them or connect on a deep, meaningful level. Whatever the experience, they decided at that time to take on the identity of “not good enough” or “stupid for even trying.” Now, in their current life, they are still making decisions and taking action based on that identity. So they choose the things that fall in line with that role. They choose videogames over writing the first few clumsy paragraphs they need to start their story. They choose to hide their work in a drawer instead of bravely sending it out. They choose to think of themselves as a “wannabe” instead of a real writer.

The choices and decisions based on an outdated or false identity are largely unconscious. We don’t think about our usual order at Starbucks because it’s imprinted; we make the choice for so many mornings that the order becomes part of us. We could recite it in our sleep. It’s “our usual”. So what’s your usual order when it comes to writing? What are the unconscious rules you follow because they seem to fit with your writing identity?

If there’s something you don’t like about the way you relate to writing, or something that’s not working for you anymore, the most effective way to shift it is to start by looking at how that thing is tied in with your identity. Because identity is the way we orient ourselves in the world, we get very nervous and clingy about giving any part of it up, even if that part is hurting us more than it’s helping us. For instance, if you’re the-tortured-writer-who-no-one-understands then what happens when you discard that identity and open up to a new road, where people are intrigued by your work and want to know more about you? Suddenly you may be called upon to go deeper in relationships and experience emotional intimacy with others. This can be really scary stuff. The tortured-writer identity was a great excuse for keeping people at arm’s length. What now?

What now? Is the best question we can ask ourselves when we’re in the middle of this updating process. What now? Can be translated into: What am I capable of now? What do I need from my writing now? What would best serve me as a creative practice now? Questions like these clear the debris of old beliefs, old patterns, and old subconscious rules that were dictating, and possibly damaging, our present-day choices.

Much of the time we hold onto old identity patterns because on some level we think it will keep us safe. Just like the tortured writer above, I’ve also seen the blocked writer, the failed writer, the had-so-much-potential-but-never-lived-up-to-it writer. These personalities keep us from having to honestly engage with our work, or share it with other people. When we block our writing, what we’re really doing is blocking our light, our essence as a person in the world. At the bottom, we’re afraid that we won’t be loved for showing ourselves as we really are, or we won’t be able to handle the responsibility of fully stepping into our own power.

Our sense of possibility is always connected to our identity. If you’re serious about finishing your novel, getting an agent, or publishing your work on your own, then you have to update your identity so that you believe yourself to be the kind of person who finishes novels, gets agents, or is a self-publishing entrepreneur.

It starts with looking at your choices. Every time you make a choice around your writing, what are you really choosing? And why are you choosing that? Is this choice serving your best interests as a writer or is it holding you back? I also want to warn folks that this is not about continuing a pattern of self-criticism and abuse. If you’re flogging yourself for not writing every day even though you feel deep down in your gut that writing on a weekly basis is best for you, then you’re not thoughtfully examining your choices. You’re flogging yourself. And flogging is just another distraction that keeps you from clarity and self-awareness. As you examine your choices and think about what could be different, it’s going to be most effective if you can consciously move yourself into a neutral headspace about the whole thing. The point is to see what you’re choosing and why and then say, “Oh, okay. That’s certainly interesting.” The parts of your identity that need updating will naturally emerge. There’s no need to force anything.

Over the next few days, take time by yourself to think about what kind of writer you think you are. Notice places where you might be holding yourself back. Acknowledge the other spots where you’re doing a really phenomenal job. Accept all of it as what’s going on for you right now. Let yourself dream about where you would ultimately like to be. And then ask yourself, what kind of writer makes those dreams happen?

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