I was quoted in a Well + Good article about the psychology of disagreeing with yourself, in which the author explores why it’s so difficult to change your mind. I wanted to spend some time elaborating on my views about why it’s so difficult to change your mind, especially when your identity seems to be at stake—for example, a vegan who chooses to eat animal products again or a Republican who chooses to denounce Trump. Many people have struggled with this conundrum in one way or another, oftentimes hiding their true beliefs because they fear potential backlash or disappointing others in their community.
So why do we gravitate towards certain identities or labels in the first place? Quite simply, we all do it because it offers us a sense of security and belonging in an otherwise overwhelming world. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to change your mind when the stakes are high, but it is possible. A first step in doing so is to acknowledge the way that this specific identity was serving you and to feel gratitude for it. As with any behavior that becomes harmful, at one point in time it served a function. The crucial next step is to get real with yourself when negative consequences outweigh the initial positives. It’s destructive to well-being and self-esteem when you wipe out your authentic needs or beliefs in order to gain acceptance from others. No matter how scary it is to be honest, it’s ultimately empowering when you no longer have to hide yourself and can be seen in your truth.
Although it’s possible to change your mind, it takes a willingness to look beyond the external aspects that you have aligned yourself with and get curious about your internal core values, such as acting with compassion or speaking with integrity. Identifying with something external is a flimsy foundation on which to build an identity because it comes from outside of yourself, and thus could always be taken away, which is why it’s crucial to start looking inward.
The harder and ultimately more lasting work is to build a strong sense of self-worth based on internal characteristics. For example, if you identify with a core value of compassion, you might come to realize that speaking out against one of Trump’s actions aligns more with your internal sense of self, even if it challenges a label (Republican) that you previously identified with. You affirm your new mindset by reminding yourself that you’re sticking to your values rather than a label or group.
To cope with potential backlash, it helps to look at the distorted thinking patterns that are causing so much distress about shifting your stance, especially catastrophic thinking and all or nothing thinking. You might irrationally fear total rejection if you were to be honest about changing your mind. Although there will likely be some degree of backlash, chances are that there is a core group of supporters who will stand by your side regardless of your decisions. This is the group that you gather close.
All or nothing thinking is another unhelpful thought pattern, which makes you believe that you’re either entirely in the group or out of it. That’s a narrow and limiting way of existing in the world. Although you might need to make some food changes for your health, you can still adhere to many of the values of the vegan community and participate in animal activism, reduce food waste, or choose ethically sourced food. Nonetheless, these thought patterns can be paralyzing and you might need the help of friends, family, or a therapist to challenge them and take the action you need.
I also think it’s important to work on how we use labels in general. We need to make an effort to see the person before the label. In the mental health community, I help shift people’s statements from “he’s bipolar” to “he has bipolar disorder,” or from “she’s autistic” to “she has autism.” You are not the diagnosis, nor the label. Those are simply small aspects of the whole of your person, which no label could ever adequately encompass.
Rosie Barton is a therapist at Cobb Psychotherapy LCSW. If you are looking for support in finding solutions to enhance your overall wellness, contact Cobb Psychotherapy by calling 718-260-6042 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, and see how therapy can help.