Do people really quit smoking, or do they (we) just redefine who they (we) are? Change oneself and one changes the world.
In my classes with developing ELT teachers, we talk about reflecting on our teaching, and altering the things we do that don’t help us reach our desired outcomes. When we make those changes, we feel better about ourselves — we have a different identity.
Smoking & Darts: lifelong hobbies
Darts has been my primary social hobby since I was a kid in London, and a fixed point (bad pun unintended) in my identity through all my travels. I didn’t even move on to my second set of steel-tip darts until three or four years ago, when I realized that the grips and tips on my original set had been eroded by the
decades to the point (again, so to speak) that I couldn’t reliably make them hit their marks anymore. Here in Seoul I’ve served as President of the Seoul International Dart League, and enjoyed a lot of success and friendships through it, just as I had in leagues in Northern Virginia, London, upstate New York, and even at a beachside open-air bar on Lombok.
The problem is that smoking, far more than beer, has gone hand-in-hand with good darts since the very early days of my passion for it. I learned to throw well while I was a full-time smoker, and efforts to completely quit smoking have repeatedly failed because I did not know how to throw competitive darts without many cigarettes close at hand. The one time I did manage to stop coincided with a six year stretch in Poland and North Carolina without access to a dartboard, and ended, gradually, with the move to Northern Virginia and a dart league within walking distance of my home.
In brief, for most of thirty years a big chunk of my social identity (how I positioned myself in my communities) was wrapped up in being a quality dart thrower, and my entire being learned over decades that the meaningful repetitive practice i had experienced to get there necessitated cigarettes. In recent years I got by on the half-truth that I only smoked anymore when I threw darts, but, as the snake that smoking is, it was worse than that. Dart smoking allowed me to practice being weak-willed in other situations – bumming one when around smoking friends and colleagues, buying a pack in a moment of high-stress and then trying to save most of it for the next dart match, which I would often arrange sooner than I otherwise would have because I had the smokes.
Identity: The head and heart together
Smokers are often characterized as having esteem issues. I grew to hate myself for agreeing with myself to kill myself. I quit the dart league last year and limited myself to one short weekend session to minimize the smoking, but still I smoked. Now a good friend wants me to form a new team with him and several others in the Fall, but I knew I wouldn’t let myself do it if I was still smoking. Then, between October and the end of the 2012, three close friends in different parts of the world all had bypass surgery. Two had been heavy smokers, one is a former drinker. Two were the same age or younger than me. My brain and heart were screaming at me for a new identity, not to wait as long as they did.
New identities must be negotiated repeatedly (practiced) before they can be reliably worn, just as the best actors put in a lot of work before successfully inhabiting a new role. So — for one week a few weeks ago, every other day I put myself in dart bars and practiced not smoking for four or more hours. At the same time, I threw darts continuously. Consciously, I was working to develop an identity as a non-smoker who throws darts. I wasn’t worried about good darts — I knew they would come with practice. It was excruciating, even with tasty wooden toothpicks to chew on. I lost a lot of games on Monday and Wednesday, but by Friday I was throwing good darts and actually won a tournament. It was the first time in thirty years that had happened without having to shorten my life at the same time.
Yes, I feel stupid for not making the effort to do this many years ago, but my point is that social change only occurs through negotiation of the identities present at the point of that change; it cannot be forced. In this case, it was an intrapersonal negotiation with myself:
My heart: Tom, you can continue to be a dart thrower only if you are also a non-smoker.
My head: Please guide me. Please love me enough to let me do it.
I thought I couldn’t do it, and yet I preach to others (my students) not to say “I can’t”, but “I haven’t yet.” As trainers and instructors we scaffold tasks so that new challenges are met with success. This is how positive change happens. To begin my negotiation with my identity, I practiced in low-stakes contexts, and graduated on the 3rd evening to slightly higher-stakes in the form of a friendly, small-money tournament. Three smoke-free weeks later I have confidence that by August I’ll have completely renegotiated my identity to be a non-smoking quality darter.