How I escaped the trap of negative self-image – and how anyone can do it

I remember the Annual Sports Meet in my school when I was in my 3rd grade, as if it was yesterday. My classmates were having fun, participating in races and games. But I had no event to participate in – I did not qualify for anything. I was so skinny and devoid of any hand-eye coordination, that I wasn’t fit for any athletic activity.

Out of embarrassment, I just wanted to hide. So I sat at a hilly place, a little away from the school sports ground, where other kids sat. But even there, I got spotted by a senior student, who called me out – I remember looking at him, terrified and speechless.

Kids love sports but ironically, it haunted me throughout my school. Whenever we played cricket or football in school, each team captain would pick people for their team one by one. Every time, I prayed to not be the last one. And yet, almost always, I got picked up last.

In my mind, I was a guy who sucked at sports. That became my identity – who I believed I was. And therefore I never even tried to get better.

I neither played nor watched much sports. Even during my college days, when all my friends were busy playing ‘tennis ball cricket’, which was a rage in the IITK hostels, I never played even once.

My identity became my trap. It wouldn’t let me get out.

But then, something changed – I got selected to join the Indian Police Service (IPS).

IPS training is extremely intense and pushes you to your physical limits – nothing like I had ever done before. All kinds of thoughts terrorized me: “I have hardly run 400 meters – how will I run 16 km? Will I make a complete fool of myself?” And so on…

Anyway, once I landed at the National Police Academy, the training started. Early in the morning, the PT would always start a one-mile warmup run. To my surprise, I found that I did it quite effortlessly. In fact, I started enjoying all activities that required endurance – my stamina was quite good.

Then we had our first cross-country run (16 km). A year before, I wouldn’t even have imagined that I could ever run that distance. But now, I finished 5th in a class of 129 trainees. I started loving all other activities as well, such as shooting, rock climbing, etc.

But how could that be? Wasn’t I the guy who sucked at every physical activity? That self-image now started changing. In my mind, I gradually became the guy who was good at running. That became my new identity.

Decades later, even today, I love running. A few times a week, I run 10-12k in the morning.

And the one thing I learned from this is that our identity is not set in stone – it changes. And when we don’t realize it, we often become our own enemy – we self-sabotage by putting labels on ourselves: “I am not good at this” or “I am terrible at that.”

Even if these assertions are true, they are not unchangeable truths. Our identity can, and does change. Just as you can go from being terrible at physical activity to becoming a passionate runner, you can go from anything to anything.

And what changes our identity is action.

When we do something inconsistent with our identity, it changes our identity. But then why do we get trapped in our identity? Because it prevents you from taking those actions in the very first place.

When I believed that I sucked at outdoors, it prevented me from even trying. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In fact, what made me escape that trap was joining the IPS. And for that, I am grateful that I joined the IPS, even if I left the service later.

Often, we escape the trap of negative identity only when we are forced to, by circumstances (like I was). But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can choose to escape – we truly have that choice.

And that is why I am writing this newsletter – to convince you that you can change your identity – if you want and choose to.

In fact, even on its own, our identity changes. Today, I am not the same person I was 20 years ago – while my core values have remained the same, a lot else has changed – my beliefs, my fitness levels, the things that I enjoy doing, and so on.

So here is what I want to remind you: You are not a slave to your current identity. Ask yourself, what part of your identity or self-image is holding you back? What is coming in the way of living the kind of life you want to live?

Remind yourself that no matter how strongly you feel “I am an XYZ kind of person”, you are not destined to be that person always. You truly have a choice.

So, reflect on what kind of person you want to be, and then start acting as if you are that person already.

Each action will change you. Every time you run, you become more of a ‘runner.’ Every time you work out in the gym, you become a little more of a ‘fitness person.’ Every time you write one more line of code, you become more of a ‘tech person.’

Remember: You truly control your destiny. Don’t ever forget that. So take charge of your life – you are its captain. And go where you want this ship to go. I wish you great luck and wind in your sails, so that you sail farther than you ever thought possible.

We can indeed make ourselves into what we want to be.

Enough talk. Now it is time for action. Let us do it.

Rajan

HabitStrong Newsletter by Rajan Singh

In this fortnightly newsletter, Rajan shares inspiring lessons and stories from his career as an IPS officer, McKinsey consultant, investor, and now, as a startup founder. Join 25,000+ subscribers.

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