I am not a smoker.
I have never been a smoker.
It’s just not something that ever made it into my list of “I am’s”.
I have tried smoking.
I am twelve years old, having pizza with my best friend in a small Dutch town in Apeldoorn, Netherlands. It is a “grown up” pizzeria - with white table cloths, long menus, and fancy Italian toppings. My friend is the same age as me, but she is undeniably cooler. She wears khaki coloured jeans, grey hoodie sweater, and white running shoes. White running shoes are all the rage, and you have to tie the shoelaces just so. There are at least three different ways of tying shoelaces that are acceptable, just long as you don’t leave them tied the way they come out of the box.
My friend pulls out a pack of cigarettes as we are waiting for our order. “You want to try?” She lights up. It’s Europe, and smoking inside the restaurants is still permitted. No one seems to bat an eyelash at a 12-year old puffing away.
I nod, and reach across the table.
Cigarette feels strange, yet exhilarating, between my index and middle finger - the tip glowing. My friend instructs me to pull some smoke into my mouth, and then to take a short sharp inhale with a surprised “Ahhh!”, pulling air further down my throat.
“Just pretend your mother saw you with a cigarette”, she grins.
“Ah…”, I gulp, and immediately double over in a fit of coughing, my eyes tearing up. My friend laughs and laughs, and our pizza arrives, and I shove hot slices in my mouth, trying to soothe my burning throat with melted cheese, still coughing.
I say yes to the offer of a cigarette a few times since then - in the school courtyard, at a bar patio, at a nightclub. I take a few puffs of a joint going around the circle at a university basement party, and learn how to roll my own on a rooftop in India - this time with aromatic hashish grown in the same mountains I can see outside my window.
But I have never been a smoker.
I always listen carefully for “I” statements when people speak. Those self-identifiers are important. You can facilitate this by asking people to complete the sentence “I am…” and “I am not…”. What comes up?
“I am a smoker.”
“I am a runner.”
“I am a mother.”
“I amnot a smoker."
“I amnot good with money.”
“I amnot much of an exerciser.”
Years later, as I rush into the academic building to teach a psychology class, I spot M., one of my students, shivering just outside the main set of doors, that familiar glowing red dot between her fingertips. I see her there every single week.
M. is a smoker.
So I am surprised (and skeptical), when I give out an assignment on behavioral change in her class, and M. announces that she is going to quit smoking. The assignment is to initiate a behavioral change (start something, or stop something) and carry it out for thirty days in a row. An audacious goal, indeed.
As we discuss possible strategies, I suggest a mantra of sorts:
“I don’t smoke”.
It’s what I say when someone asks for a lighter.
“I don’t smoke”.
A simple statement of fact that slips off the tongue easily.
“But I do smoke!”, M. protests at first. “I am trying to quit, but I do smoke!”
“So what?”, I shrug. “You are not smoking at that very moment. Try it.”
So, she does.
She makes it. Thirty days. Not a single cigarette.
It gets better. She actually continues NOT to smoke for the rest of that semester. Two months. Three months. Four months.
Does our identity determine our behavior? Or does our behavior determine our identity?
Which one comes first? The chicken or the egg?
Start with your behavior. And your identity would change.
Start with your identity. And your behavior would change.
“I am _________ .”
How do you finish that sentence? And what would happen if you finished that sentence differently?
I hear from M. again at the end of the school year. She tells me a story that both warms my heart and makes my skin tingle.
Earlier that week, as the bell rings in one of her classes, M. gathers up her binders, and pens, and hurries outside. Few of her friends call out to her. They are huddled around in a circle, rings of smoke floating above their heads. They offer her a cigarette, yet… she does not slow down.
“Thanks, I don’t smoke.”
The words escape her lips easily, before she realizes what she is saying, and… ring true. She does not smoke.
Identity shift - complete.