New term, new you

By Susie Ballentyne

Over half of us make a new year’s resolution to change something about our behaviour, yet very few of us stick to our intentions. So why, with all the right sign-posting to a new decade, the fresh start, and a multitude of apps promising to help keep us on track, is it so unlikely to happen?

Over the past three years, as part of my doctoral research, I’ve been looking at the impact of social identity on change. Working with refugees for whom change is non-negotiable, it’s apparent just how much we overlook the importance of social identity when trying to get to grips with change. For those forced to migrate, much of their everyday wellbeing depends on how they manage their old identities and acquire new ones. Resilience during times of change isn’t just a matter of ‘strength of character’ but how, through the loss of old relationships and discovery of new ones, refugees can maintain a steady and familiar sense of self that enables them to cope with everyday life. 

Part of the reason why social identity has been somewhat overlooked is because, both as individuals and as a culture, we look almost exclusively at ourselves from within, either in terms of changing some overplayed personality trait (‘…this year I’m going to rein in my temper and be kinder to my colleagues’) or some character weakness we must discipline (‘…no more weekday drinking, and I’ll cut out sugar while I’m at it.’). The intention may be good, but the change is often only approached from the inside, out. But what if we start from the outside, and work in? What if we begin to look at what’s going on in the world around us, identify what influences us and then identify what we might begin to change. Here’s where social identity can help you make that change so it sticks.

Research shows us that social identity is where behaviour change happens. But what does that mean? If we start writing a list that begins: “who am I?” we quickly begin to see just how much of who we are relates to how we categorise ourselves with other people, such as gender, nationality, ethnicity, education, profession, skills, parenting roles, sporting preferences. We define ourselves in this way throughout the day, moving between different categories as we go about our daily life: parent, partner, commuter, team-member, café-customer, friend, volunteer. Each of these categories come with their own socially-constructed ‘guidebooks’, if you like, that give us some extremely important reference points: what makes us different from others; what to expect from ourselves and other people who are like us; what behaviours are and aren’t acceptable. Without these we wouldn’t have a clue about how to make sense of things around us or how to behave as we move through our day. Our social identities gives us the handholds that we grasp for direction and reassurance as we navigate everyday life.

So what happens when we want to change something? What do we do when we mentally commit to being a better environmentalist / more effective leader / new business owner / more capable parent? We tend to lose ground the moment we focus overly on “I”. We’d be much better to start by thinking about “us”. We should start by asking ourselves: “what are people like ‘us’, like?” The ‘us’ can be anything: ‘eco-minded citizen’; ‘politically engaged community member’; ‘calm parent’; ‘team leader’. As we list the characteristics of the groups we belong to, we begin to see the ‘guidebook’ that shapes our behaviour. Some maybe very positive (‘people like us [leaders] are visionary, good communicators, empathetic’), or less so (people like us [leaders] are dogmatic, ego-centric, brash).

So, when we want to think about changing how we work, or manage our relationships, these social identities ‘guidebooks’ are a good place to begin. Look through the list you’ve generated about ‘people like us’ and then you can draw a line from these to your own behaviours. Ask yourself: do I do these things? Does it help me achieve what I want when I’m in this role? Are there things here I can aspire towards? It’s also worth asking yourself whether membership of other groups, different identities, inhibits you from achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself elsewhere in your life.

By looking at change from this angle, the outside in, we can see just how much of what we think and do is directed by the identities that we conform to. When we stop looking for individual faults and differences and see how each and every day we live in an incredible web of social influence that directs our footsteps, we find we have a road map for making change happen. With this perspective we soon recognise a world full of social identities, each with their own guidebooks that we both help write and take direction from.  And as we act, so we either reinforce this guidance, or begin to shift it. So, this new term, if you’re not happy with something, start with social identity, for a change.

Susie Ballentyne is a doctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Sussex. As a social psychologist, she consults on identity for Making Change Happen and is a co-Director of Leading 4 Life. Through her research, Susie is also developing and practicing a new approach to psychological coaching based on social Identity change: Identity Based Coaching (IBC).

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