It’s Who You Are On the Outside That Matters

“We are what we habitually do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.”

-Will Durant (Not Aristotle)

“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

-Aristotle, actually

We Are What We Habitually Do…

We’ve often heard, “It’s who you are on the inside that matters.” I once believed that. Who doesn’t want to believe such a nice sentiment? Maturity and experience have convinced me that simply isn’t true. It’s who you are on the outside that matters. That’s who you really are.

  • Do you ever think, “I’m a nice person,” yet consistently find yourself feeling guilty for how poorly you treat people when you’re tired, stressed, hungry, or just cranky? We are what we habitually do.
  • Do you ever think, “I’m a hard worker,” yet find yourself disappointed in your performance at work or school, and how you’ve been slipping lately? We are what we habitually do.
  • Do you ever think, “I’m self-disciplined,” but find yourself constantly frustrated by you failures to stick with your workout or diet plan? We are what we habitually do.
  • Do you ever think, “I’m a good friend/husband/father,” but when trying to justify that opinion you have to bring up evidence from months or years ago? We are what we habitually do.

In this modern era many have, consciously or unconsciously, come to think of the concept of “identity” as something inborn and inherent, made up of immutable traits. That worldview is comforting in that we can shrug off our faults and say we’re just “being ourselves.” However, that also traps us into a deterministic existence over which we have no power to change and grow. What if instead of just inevitably “being who we are,” our identities are defined by what we do? That’s frightening because it places upon us the heavy yoke of responsibility, but it’s also liberating because, in being defined by our actions, we are free to forge any identity we choose.

This is a topic fraught with emotion and controversy. Before I’m inundated by developmental psych majors explaining all the inborn, immutable traits, and well-intentioned people pointing out how this could be hurtful to those with low self-esteem, victims of physical and psychological abuse, clinically depressed people, etc., let me say: Duh. I feel it should be obvious that I’m not telling anyone constrained by a genetic condition, or suffering from mental illness or abuse they should just accept that they suck. This post is for the otherwise normal, mentally healthy person, including myself, who harmfully hide their flaws from themselves by rationalizing and divorcing their actions from their identity.

We often encounter people whose self-image is radically divorced from how we see them based on their actions, and we wonder how they could see themselves so differently from how they “really are.” This conflict between self-image (who we think we are “on the inside”) and the image we project to the world through our actions is a common and pernicious problem which keeps people from soberly assessing themselves and their lives. People refuting their failings in conduct or character with “That’s not me, I’m a really nice guy/gal on the inside,” is a cancer on our lives as a destructive as it is common. To be clear, I don’t sit upon some seat of judgment in an ivory tower. I’m as guilty of using this refuge from accountability and self-improvement as anyone else. I write this in part to better recognize and minimize the toxic comfort of this phenomenon in my own life.

Help Ourselves By Facing the Truth of Who We Are

We can’t begin to improve ourselves and become who we want to be until we soberly face who we really are. To be clear, this isn’t a sado-masochistic exercise in making sure we all feel terrible about ourselves. The point is to carefully examine our skewed self-images, and see ourselves for who we really are so that we can become the people we imagine ourselves to be. This isn’t a call to self-loathing. It’s a call to be honest with ourselves, and through that honesty become better human beings. Truth be told, I think the reason so many of us feel vaguely dissatisfied with ourselves and our lives is because subconsciously we know that our self-image is a lie. We’d probably be much better off going out and earning the self-esteem we only pretend we have by believing in a version of ourselves that isn’t borne out in reality.

We invariably see and judge every other person we know exclusively by who they are on the outside, no matter who they tell us they are “on the inside.” Yet without thinking twice about it, we bristle at people who might describe us as lazy, incompetent, self-absorbed, because…stammer…stammer…we. just. know. better! We know who we really are “deep down.” They don’t! Well, if they don’t know who you are deep down…why do you suppose that to be the case? Is your “deep down” identity not manifesting itself in your habitual action? Now to be clear, not every external criticism is valid, and this isn’t to say you should accept those criticisms. I’m saying that despite evaluating everyone else on earth by their action, we instinctually seem to expect others to evaluate us by our “inner self” which they can’t even see. All they can see is what we do.

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-Cypert the Younger, age 2, commandeering dad’s laptop

As you can see from my son’s contribution above he’s also quite passionate on this subject. He was very excited to climb in my lap and help, and typed his “insights” with maniacal glee. How could I deny him a chance to make his voice heard?

It feels elementary, but my observations indicate it bears repeating: If “on the inside” you’re kind, selfless, funny, wise, and dependable, but that identity doesn’t manifest itself in measurable, quantifiable ways in the real world, then it doesn’t matter and no one cares. To be a “nice guy” you have to actually be nice to people in demonstrable ways. To be funny you have to reach out to others and work to make them laugh. To be dependable you have to actually prove it by coming through for people when they need you. Do you do that? Great! Then I suppose this piece of writing isn’t for you. Unless of course, you instead habitually do hurtful things to yourself or others but rationalize, “That’s not really who I am.” I am what I do, and if I think I “am” something but I don’t demonstrate it through action, then I’m just wishfully thinking, and probably doing so as a defense mechanism to avoid having to put in the work of changing myself and making myself better.

Compromise Is Contagious, and Rationalization Gets Easier With Practice

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.”

-Robert Heinlein, Assignment in Eternity

Spending a career in the military, I experienced first-hand marital separation and the stress it causes on marriage. Some couples thrive in this environment and some crater. Marital infidelity is unfortunately quite common in the military, both on the part of the servicemember and their spouse back home. While I understand people make mistakes, I was frankly always a bit gobsmacked at the occasional brother-in-arms who turned marital infidelity into a high art form and way of life. I had one such colleague many years ago who was a serial philanderer and I asked him, point blank, “How can you do it free of any pangs of conscience?” His answer was so insightful into the nature of human beings that the concept serves me well in diverse areas of life to this day. I’ll place his paraphrased answer in quotes for clarity.

“Well, the first time I cheated on (my wife) it wasn’t a big deal. I just told myself, ‘Hey man, you had too much to drink, and you’ve been gone for months. No big deal. It won’t happen again. That’s not who you are.’ The second time was a bit bigger deal than the first, because I felt a little guilty. But again, I gave myself the old, ‘Same thing as last time. This isn’t you. You just gotta stop having so much to drink. No biggie.’ The third time was the hardest. That was when I felt terrible and had to face the fact that I’m a no good, low down, cheating SOB of a husband. That hurt to confront, but once I made peace with the fact that I was a bad husband, it became easy to go out and lay everything I could, without feeling a bit bad about it. It’s just who I am.” -Anonymous

As you can see, there’s so much rationalization early on that it boggles the mind, curiously mixed with an impressive display of self-awareness after the fact. He refused to accept that his actions defined him early on. If he had, would he have simply embraced the role of philandering husband sooner or, having soberly faced the severity of his transgression, repented from his behavior and not slipped up the second time? We’ll never know, but the one thing he taught me is this: Compromise is contagious, and rationalization gets easier the more you do it. Some people imagine that “on the inside” they have positive traits despite the fact they don’t manifest any of those positive traits in measurable ways that benefit themselves or others. Other people rationalize away their bad behavior and manifestations of poor character by simply declaring, “That’s not really who I am.” To which I reply, “Ok. Prove it.”

Who Are You? Ok. Prove It.

Another really smart teacher once said, “You will know them by their fruits,” (Matthew 7:16 NASB) by which he meant, “Oh you believe my teachings about love and grace and forgiveness and how to treat your fellow man? Prove it.” Now, that great teacher Jesus of Nazareth certainly emphasized purity of heart over legalism in his teachings, but he was emphatic that if the heart were truly changed that change would manifest itself in outward changes of behavior. Or, as another, more recent and less divine sage named Batman tells us in the film Batman Begins, “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” You wanna be a good person? Prove it. You wanna be a good husband? Prove it. You wanna be a good father, or friend, or coworker? Prove it by doing the work in ways that positively impact yourself and others, and can be observed and measured. If your only proof is the way you feel deep down inside, then you frankly must not feel that strongly, or have lied to yourself for too long.

Now, to be fair, people make mistakes: A nice person can be occasionally cruel, or a punctual person can be occasionally late. I’m not advocating some kind of obsessively austere and graceless existence where we self-flagellate at the slightest mistake. I’m just encouraging everyone, including myself, to practice more mindful self-accountability, and be on guard for the delusions of rationalization which can hobble our progress as humans. My sentiment, though it may not feel like it, is one of hope and optimism. If our identity were inherent and immutable we’d be stuck as screw-ups, ne’er-do-wells, and disappointments. However, if I’m defined by what I do, I can always do better tomorrow than I did today, and thus improve who I am. Knowing I have that kind of power over my identity certainly provides me comfort and hope.

Ultimately, if all our noble intent remains dormant “deep down” what good is it for anything other than making us feel better? Decide and commit to take all your decent and noble intentions and act on them. Take your desire to be a good person/spouse/parent/friend and act on it in a way you can describe simply in one sentence after you’ve laid you head down on your pillow tonight. Make your intentions reality, and show yourself and others who you really are. “You are what you habitually do…” I have an idea of who I am, and of who I want to be. I bet you do, too. Start proving it to yourself and others today.

9 thoughts on “It’s Who You Are On the Outside That Matters

    1. Of course. Durant wrote the above quote during an analysis of Aristotle’s work in 1926, and of course over the years people decided that Aristotle’s name had more pull so nowadays universally misattribute it to him instead. I’m pedantic, and I can prove it. Lol.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Your statement, “If ‘on the inside’ you’re kind, selfless, funny, wise, and dependable, but that identity doesn’t manifest itself in measurable, quantifiable ways in the real world, then it doesn’t matter and no one cares,” is profound. I often tell my students that the world doesn’t care how you feel. It cares what you do. I love your imperative to prove one’s intentions. Recognition and acceptance of a fact is the first step in finding a solution. Solid post and I look forward to reading more.


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