Mental Fitness – Lesson 4 – Identity, values and self-improvement


Greetings and welcome to Lesson 4 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ course. If you are new to the course, check out the introductory post first.

Lesson 4 – Identity, values and self-improvement

OK. I’ve spent the last couple of posts talking about ‘self-improvement’ as a concept. This has not been some kind of complex procrastination to avoid talking mental fitness. On the contrary, I am trying to set the scene before delving into the specifics of mental fitness.

You see, mental fitness is a framework for thinking about mental self-improvement, in the same way as physical fitness is a framework for thinking about physical self-improvement.

Underpinning both is a willingness and/or desire on a person’s part to improve themselves in some way. Understanding what might drive or motivate people to make self-improvements is an important first step before considering the specifics of how they would make those improvements.

In Lesson 2, I talked about why I thought self-improvement should be something that is done deliberately, rather than simply relying on naturally occurring processes of self-improvement.

In Lesson 3, I talked about some of the common motivators for self-improvement, using exercise as an example (because most of us at some point in time have been at least mildly motivated to improve our physical fitness). These included social acceptance, feeling good about ourselves, meeting the demands of everyday life, to participate more fully in life, proving to oneself that you can, staving off illness, competition, connecting with other people, alleviating suffering and just for general ‘feels’.

In this Lesson I want to continue talking about motivators for self-improvement but focus in on those very personal motivators, the ones that are intertwined in how you see yourself as a person.

Who you think you are (identity)

Identity (from a psychological perspective) is the sum total of your perceptions of what makes you YOU: your qualities, personality, appearance, preferences, quirks, expressions, behaviours, beliefs, thoughts, race, gender, the list is long! For something to be part of your identity, you have to really strongly hold it as being a part of who you are. For example, I consider a love of heavy music as part of my identity. I can’t imagine a future in which I am not listening to heavy music in some way.

Some people have baked into their identity ideas or characteristics that make them constant self-improvers – e.g. being an avid learner, a keen traveller, being competitive or entrepreneurial, or making a living from a field that requires ongoing improvement (e.g. professional sports-person). They are constantly pushing themselves to the limit of their abilities in order to open up new avenues or experience the thrill of advancing beyond where they have been previously.

Individuals who have self-improvement baked into their identity might find me talking about self-improvement as a deliberate activity to be a little strange. They have always strived in one or more aspects of their life to improve and get better. It isn’t really something they do deliberately, it just kinda happens naturally. If this is you, you will be happier when I finally make the move to talking more specifically about mental fitness and how it can be used as a framework to accelerate or focus your self-improvement activities, rather than talking about the motivation stuff.

For others though, the inbuilt motivation to improve is not as strong, and can hold them back during key periods when self-improvement is necessary for success (e.g. tertiary study).

Who you want to be (values)

The good news is there are ways to energise yourself for the purposes of self-improvement if you don’t think it is part of your identity already. The key is to focus on who you want to be, rather than necessarily who you are now. This involves understanding and clarifying your values.

Values are expressions of the person you want to be and how you want to behave. Values are different from goals in that they are more like directions than end-points. For example, I might have the goal of writing a comedy movie, but the underlying value driving that is that I want to be humorous and make people laugh. Hence we might talk about ‘achieving’ our goals, but ‘living according to’ our values. Values-based living involves checking regularly that you are living your life in a way that is consistent with your values. This can be more freeing than goals-based living, because there are often many ways to be consistent with a value, but only one way to achieve a specific goal.

There are a couple of ways to tune in to your personal values.

One is the card sorting task I’ve talked about previously. In this task you print out a set of cards that each contain a word that describes a potential characteristic of a person, for example, authentic, adventurous, bold, compassionate etc. You then sort and arrange those cards to help you identify which values resonate most with you. You can do these tasks by hand or there are online sort versions. The lists of values they use can be different, but the basic idea is the same. By the end of the task, you have a list of values that represent the person you want to be.

Another way to tune into your values is to do a simple but informative thought experiment. Fast forward to your retirement day. Imagine that you get to be a fly on the wall at the office, the day after you have left. How do you want your ex-workmates to describe you? Do you want them to remember you as helpful or industrious or creative or friendly or all of these? What would be the top 5 things they could say about you that would bring you the most happiness and satisfaction? Those 5 things form part of your values and the person you want to be.

Identifying your values is one thing. The next part is determining whether you are living those values.

If you find a discrepancy between who you consider you are now, and how you are living your life vs who you want to be as a person, this is ripe motivational territory for self-improvement.

Let me illustrate using an example from my own life:

I’ve always valued creativity and constantly having projects in which I am trying to bring something new into the world. It is what drove me to do art, write music and develop websites when I was in my 20’s. In my 30’a I stopped living that way, focusing primarily on doing what other people needed me to do (paid work). It had a significant negative impact on my health and wellbeing. It wasn’t until I started this job and consciously resumed my creative efforts (which include this course) that my health started to improve again.  Making specific lifestyle changes (i.e. job) helped me move back towards my values.

The point is, you can derive some energy to drive change by assessing where you are now in relation to who you would like to be in the future.

Takeaway message

The motivation for self-improvement can come from looking inside to better understand who you are and/or who you want to be.

You might find you are naturally wired to embrace and enjoy the process of self-improvement, possibly because of aspects of your identity. As I said before, you’ll probably be happier when I finish these lessons on self-improvement and start those on the actual mental fitness framework (i.e. how to build mental fitness).

But you might also find that you’ve never really considered this stuff before, or don’t feel a natural drive to push yourself. Don’t feel bad. That is perfectly normal. I didn’t really start explicitly considering trying to make myself better until my mid 30’s. For you, these lessons on self-improvement are important as they explore common motivators that drive people to improve. These lessons will help you decide if you want to progress further with the mental fitness stuff.

Of course, it is perfectly feasible that you are happy with who you are right now, are living consistent with your values and feel you are moving in the right direction. If that is the case, I doff my hat to thee 🙂 and hope that you remain a reader, and maybe share the wisdom that has got you to that stage.

Coming up in the next lesson………

In the next Lesson I look at psychological needs and how our attempts to get these needs met can be a powerful driver to make changes in our life.

Reflection Questions

Identify someone in your life who always seems to be striving to get better. Perhaps they spend a lot of time practising a sport or a hobby. Or perhaps they read a lot to expand their mind. What do you notice about how they talk about the area(s) in which they are trying to improve? Do they seem to make it part of how they describe themselves? Do you think it is built into their identity or are they perhaps pursuing one of the goals described in Lesson 2?

Suggested tasks

In the last Suggested Task, I recommended starting a notebook or Word document and calling it ‘Mental Fitness Plan‘. The first entry I recommended was a sub-heading called ‘Motivations‘. Under that heading I want you, in 200 words or less, describe the person you want to be. Trust me, this will be quite difficult to do but it will put at the forefront of your mind the person you are working towards. Identify 3 things that you would need to get better at, in order to become that version of you.

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