What We Can Learn From Vegans: Identity-based Motivation

Raw Vegan by Jovan J, licensed through Creative Commons
Raw Vegan by Jovan J, licensed through Creative Commons

“I only eat meat on special occasions.”

“I ate well all day, so I thought I could treat myself with a burger.”

“They were serving pork tacos at the staff party, so I HAD to eat it.”

Would you hear a vegan say any of those things? Now contrast those statements with what you might hear a client say:

“I only eat cake on special occasions.”

“I ate well all day, so I thought I could treat myself with some ice cream.”

“They were serving cookies at the staff party, so I HAD to eat it.”

Why is it so easy for one group of people to remain so steadfast in their choices, but so difficult for everyone else? It is common to hear of people who choose to become vegan or vegetarian and have no issues with making the change the very next day. On the other hand, it seems to be a constant battle for most clients to stay on track with their eating habits.

How to make a change stick

The biggest difference between the two is the adoption of a firm identity. Research by Daphna Oyserman shows that identity-based motivation plays a large role in implementing healthy behavioiurs. Once a new identity is established, decisions become easy because the identity provides you with a built-in framework from which to follow. An identity comes with a set of values and beliefs. All decisions are guided by whether they align with the values and beliefs that you identify with.

When someone chooses to become a vegan, the most important rule to follow is not to consume animal products. This makes it easy to say, “No,” when the opportunity to eat animal products presents itself. As a vegan, you simply don’t eat meat because you believe that it is wrong. There are no exceptions, no excuses, and no grey areas.

You can see the same philosophy unfold in those who are successful with weight loss. They make the commitment and adopt the new identity of someone who is taking charge of their overall health. It is not a struggle to exercise more. It is easy to resist an extra portion of dinner.

When you choose a new identity, you no longer have to make a choice for certain behaviours. You do it because that is what someone you identify as does.

As a vegan, you do not have eggs for breakfast. As a health-conscious individual, you do not eat desert after dinner every night.

How to change a client’s identity

When trying something as drastic as changing someone’s identity, values, and beliefs, you have to make it fun. Make a game of it. Tell your clients to think about their ideal self; the person they aspire to be. Then tell them to pretend to be that person for an entire week. All of their decisions are made based on what their ideal person would do.

A funny thing happens when you force yourself to act differently. You realize that the change is not so bad after all. It becomes more natural the more you act as the new you. Soon enough, it doesn’t become acting anymore. It is just you.

This is essentially what instilling new habits is. A conscious choice to behave differently. However, because some people have struggled for so long, making a different choice becomes more and more difficult. It’s much easier to throw yourself a pity party and dwell on the negative. A sense of helplessness sets in and the thought that change will never happen becomes impossible to escape.

This is why thinking of yourself as already changed and starting from the end is helpful. Pretending to be someone else is temporary. And temporary isn’t as scary. Pretending can also be fun. They can let go of their insecurities and try something new without judgement.

Starting from the end also removes the barriers that people believe come with a long journey. They don’t think they have the time to change. They think things are so bad now all of the changes that need to happen is just too much. Imagining themselves as their ideal self gets rid of the work in the middle. Starting is always the hardest part. Thinking of themselves as already changed is just a way to motivate them to make that first step.

When people continually fail to succeed on a goal, they lose the confidence in their ability to change. They don’t feel as though they can make the right choices. Giving your clients an option to think with a new point of view can inspire them to look at their problems differently. It acts as a built-in role model.

Many Christians carry the phrase, “What would Jesus do?” as a reminder of how to make the right choices. Telling your clients to adopt a new identity essentially gets them to ask themselves, “What would the new me do?” before any decisions. This simple question could be all it takes to get clients to consistently behave in a manner that supports their goals.

So, tell clients to act like a vegan. Tell them to be firm in their identity to live a healthier life. Don’t choose to change. Just choose change.

Sign up for our free 5 day mini course